Make the 2008 Election All About the War:
A Nonpartisan, Non-Endorsing Approach to Gressroots Intervention
By Carl Davidson
Keep On Keepin’ On
I think it’s good that United for Peace & Justice is stressing engagement in the 2008 electoral process and working with resistance to the military and recruitment, as well as an ongoing support for mass and direct action.
Many people, however, are perplexed and even discouraged. Some say the Democratic leadership has wimped out, so lobbying or working the electoral arena is ‘useless’ and ‘doesn’t work.’ Others say we’ve had one mass mobilization after another, the war goes on, and thus demonstrations ‘don’t work’ either.
But it’s just one-sided and wrong to start off saying none of our tactics are working much, and the conditions are too difficult to accomplish much anyway.
No single tactic or protest ‘works.’ We fight, we fail, we fight again, fail again, fight again, over and over, until we win–and we will. We have a just cause, and if we do our work steadfastly and well, it will prevail.
That’s because what does work is the accumulative effect of all our activities, over time and in combination. We are waging a ‘war of position’ where, step-by-step, we capture institutions and gather strength. In doing so, we are laying the groundwork for a ‘war of manuever’, a time when people in their millions erupt decisively and bring the war to a halt.
And don’t kid yourself for a moment that we’re not listened too or taken note of by the powers that be. They may strike a pose that they don’t, but take my word for it: they probably pay more attention to our activities, and take us more seriously, than we do ourselves.
Here’s how I’d frame it:
This war ends when three things happen.
The streets are filled and ungovernable, the soldiers and officers won’t fight and youth targeted for recruitment won’t join up, and when a Democratic Congress cuts off the money.
Now think backwards in time, and then lay the foundations in strategy and tactics on how to get from here to there.
Here’s another point I’d stress: How do you measure success in any given battle?
Certainly not by whether the war ends because of it, for the simple reason that no single battle is going to end the war.
You measure success by whether or not you are better organized and have more fighting capacity after the battle than you did before you engaged your adversary. Conversely, is your adversary more isolated, divided and thus weaker than before?
So when we do any of these things–filling the streets, counter-recruitment and GI support, and electing people who will cut off the money and/or defeating those who won’t–the main focus is best put on how we build OUR organizational strength. Not only whether we can reach out more broadly and pull more new forces into our camp, but also whether we considate our gains and deepen our abilities with new skills and resources.
We are fairly skilled at filling the streets. We are catching up on our work with soldiers and military families. But we are relatively weak on our electoral skills.
So that’s what I’m going to focus on here now–not because it’s the most important thing for this year–it may or may not be–but because it’s where we’re weakest, relatively speaking.
It’s also important to note that large numbers of the antiwar majority in the country, millions of them, are not activists and are not yet ready to take to the streets. But that doesn’t mean they won’t do anything. They often will take up other forms of protest. For instance, in Chicago in 2006, 800,000 cast a ballot for ‘Out Now’, but no more than 25,000 all told have taken part in street actions that were primarily against the war in Iraq.
We can’t just lead antiwar activists; we have to develop forms of engagement for non-activist antiwar people as well, especially if we want the ranks of the activists to grow.
To start, we have a major obstacle to overcome. We have been corrupted by decades of ultraleftism toward the electoral process. Because we have a dollarocracy with rotten choices, some people think they have the luxury of avoiding this arena, except, perhaps, at the last moment when on Election Day, when they’ll tail after the most liberal option and cast a ballot.
That’s EXACTLY what the Democratic Party bigwigs want us to do, and it’s exactly wrong.
We have the electoral system history has placed in front of us, not one we’d like to have. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be structurally reformed. Even if it isn’t reformed soon enough, this is still where one of the major battles is, and if you want to wage struggle on that front, you better do it there, and you better build something of your own to do struggle WITH. Otherwise, you might as well go fishing or let the Democratic Leadership Council types eat you for lunch.
How do we do it?
Step One. Start where you are, with our actually existing neighborhood-based, school-based or workplace-based peace and justice groups. If you’re not rooted in this way, then step zero-to-one is to form such a group, because without one, your electoral activity is so much cafe chatter.
Step Two. Take stock of the electoral capacity of your group. How many of you have worked an election before? How many of you are deputy registrars or certified poll watchers and election judges? How many of you know where YOUR PRECINCT stands on the war–for, against, and undecided–AND THE VOTERS NAMES AND WHERE THEY LIVE? Most of you probably score low here, which is the point I’m trying to make. Step Two’s task is to bring almost everyone in your group up to speed on these skills; mainly by having those who know how to do it train the rest while you’re doing the work.
Step Three. Build your lists. You need a list of every registered voter, you then need to survey and "ID" them of where they stand on the war. You need to know where the unregistered voters most favorable to us are, then register them, in the thousands, expanding the electorate in our direction. You need lists of supporters, lists of donors, lists of election activists, or who might become active. These lists and skills then belong to YOU, not the Democrats or any other party or candidate. In my book, the true Leninists, in non-revolutionary times or otherwise, are those who get and grow the lists.
Step Four. At this point, you have something to begin intervening in election campaigns WITH. You have a means to put referendums and initiatives on the ballot, and the means to bring your own voters, especially new ones, out to the polls to vote on these measures. It also means political candidates now have a reason the pay attention to you in a more significant way. Having an important popular and moral message is not enough. Politicians, for the most part, pay more attention to messages that have money or organized voters behind them. Since our money is not that significant, we make it up with voters. When you do so, you begin to amass what’s called ‘clout,’ and the means to deploy it.
Step Five. Who are your friend and allies? We don’t win on our issues by ourselves. As Jesse Jackson puts it, we are only one patch in quilt, one stripe in the rainbow. We have to find others, who may have other priorities, but still agree with us on the war, to form a wide nonpartisan alliance, rooted with similar forces at the base, that can focus even more ‘clout’ into the election season and beyond.
Step Six. With these previous steps in motion, we have much more ability to bring the war into all the campaigns of the two major parties. I would certainly make the presidential campaigns a priority, if for no other reason than that’s where the public attention is. We can compel candidates or their spokespeople to address our issue, and to a degree, establish an antiwar pole–candidates’ night debates, candidates’ score cards, and nonpartisan public forums of various sorts–a pole that has some clout behind it, that can’t be easily dismissed. Its nonpartisan nature means ALL candidates claiming to be critical of the war have to pay attention to it, precisely because they don’t have it in their hip pocket. In fact, the day you declare yourself for this or that candidate is the day your clout gets severely reduced.
We need to pay attention to Congressional and other races as well, demanding of all candidates that if they won’t serve the antiwar majority, then who will? Because if they don’t, we’ll find someone else to do the job, if not in this round, then the next.
Some of the Democratic strategists like to think we can be ignored because we have nowhere else to go. They couldn’t be more wrong, since we can go Green or we can go fishing, and, if we’re well organized, we have a measure of how many votes they can lose in the process. As a nonpartisan alliance with our own organizations, our own lists and resources, we can’t be put in anyone’s back pocket or be taken for granted. They do so at their peril.
Finally, there’s very little I’ve mentioned above that a 501C3 can’t do. If you don’t agree, then set up a C4 or just an ordinary nonprofit with no tax exemption, to get the job done. In Chicago in 2004, we called our group ‘Peace and Justice Voters 2004’, and it served us very well, then and for years afterwards, including our ability to put the war itself on the ballot in Illinois, and many other matters.
At the end of this 2008 cycle, whatever happens directly around the war, we will come out of it much stronger, much more politically astute, and with much more enhanced grassroots popular power. Apart from ending the war itself, that’s how I would measure success, and to achieve it, we need to set aside all the old ultraleft, semi-anarchist caveats about elections in this country–if you think they’re bad now, wait until you get in the thick of them. I won’t prettify them, but let’s get on with it. It’s a challenge, but it’s a critical dimension of politics in non-revolutionary times, and it doesn’t matter whether you like the task or not. It simply has to be done; there’s no getting around it.