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Doing Elections


Some recent controversy in connection with the statement on the US Presidential elections by Jamala Rogers posted on the FRSO website, along with a odd exchange that accompanied a piece that I wrote at The Black Commentator on the now-halted John Edwards campaign, caused me to reflect some more on the radical Left and elections. Is there a point for the radical Left to be thinking in terms of participating in elections, be they national or local? If so, in what capacity?

Contrary to those, such as the Greens, who suggest an immediate third-party run for national (and local) office, I believe that the actual conditions plus the nature of the electoral system do not justify it. To borrow from the remarks offered by long-time writer and activist Frances Fox Piven at the recent Left Forum in New York City, there are those who wish to engage in an electoral politics that does not exist in the USA and wish to avoid the electoral politics that does.

Central to a radical left practice must be a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Among other things this means understanding the nature of the state in a particular social formation, including how it operates, its history and the class forces operating within it. The US state is extremely undemocratic, particularly when it comes to electoral politics, making it difficult for minor or third parties to operate and be considered relevant. This reality has often led many left activists to turn entirely away from electoral politics and focus on non-electoral social movement activity. While this work may at times be exemplary, it is often disconnected from the fight for political power and can be condemned to the realm of resistance-only activity. This is not a criticism of the work, but a criticism of the decision to turn away from electoral politics.

Another view is to engage in symbolic politics, such as the current Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney campaigns for President of the USA. Neither campaign has a chance of winning but both are posed by their supporters as ways of suggesting an alternative to the two-party system. While this is noble, it is not about serious political strategy. It is rooted in justifiable anger, but does very little to build the sort of social-political bloc that we need to combat the empire and introduce significant structural reforms (not to mention, to open discussions on the possibility of an alternative system).

Yet another view suggests that local electoral work may make sense, but that it is unlikely for the radical Left to have any real impact at the national level; therefore, in this case, the presidential elections are of little importance. This view is grounded in a more accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the radical Left and turns away from symbolic political activity. Yet it makes the mistake of missing the opportunity for significant action even within the context of candidacies that may not be left, and in some cases, may not be particularly progressive.

The radical Left can engage in electoral work to raise issues. This can take place at the level of local or statewide initiatives or referenda, or it can take place in the context of battling over the platform of a particular candidate. Initiatives and referenda are very straight to the point. With candidates such as that of Democratic nominee for Congress Donna Edwards (from Maryland), their candidacy can become a means to push a very progressive agenda–in her case, around the war.

At the national level it is certainly trickier, particularly given who is generally running. Yet here is where an assessment of the moment becomes very important. In our situation, for instance, a victory of John McCain would be most dangerous. He makes noises about (and actually sings about) bombing Iran; keeping the USA in Iraq for 100 years; and privatizing Social Security. His social base shares nothing in common with the progressive movement and he owes progressives nothing. He would continue the offensive, albeit with a softer voice, against the bottom 80 percent of this country.

So, one issue, as far as I am concerned, is that McCain needs to be defeated in the election. This is more than about educating people on the issues, though it is not enough, particularly when resource-strapped organizations need to make decisions about the level of involvement in a particular campaign–if any. The question is whether the radical Left and progressives can influence an anti-McCain candidate. My sense is that it is definitely possible but not on all or often most issues. Thus, a Clinton or Obama win might open up the chances of pushing genuine national healthcare, but only if there is a social base that is organized and can demonstrate its organization. If there is anything that can and should be learned from the practice of the Christian Right, it is this point.

An additional factor, which is particularly relevant to the Obama campaign, is the level of energy that it has produced and inspired and the deep desire for change that appears to be inspiring record numbers of voters. This energy, however, is very unfocused and will more than likely dissipate following the election season unless there are vehicles to channel it. It is with this in mind that it is worth considering two initiatives that I proposed in a column at www.blackcommentator.com. One, a "progressives for Obama" initiative that could either be a very loose network or a platform that unites those that wish to find a means to support the Obama candidacy, but do so without reserving their principled criticisms of his policies, e.g., on the Middle East. A second approach, which is more long-term, is the development of locally based mass electoral organizations along the lines of the original conception of Mel King’s, and later Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Specifically, independent political organizations that are not political parties but can engage in locally based legislative and electoral work (inside or outside of the Democratic Party). Work to build such organizations can start now, but with a set of objectives that go way beyond the November 2008 election.

Much can be said about the idea of locally based organizations, but by way of conclusion let me suggest that locally based organizations do not aim to replace non-electoral social movement activity. They are not being suggested as something into which every activist should jump. Rather, this form of organization is suggested as a means of linking together social struggles and giving voice to them in the electoral arena. The aim is to think in terms of building local social-political blocs that can move to win local political power, ultimately aiming to affect a national political realignment. Such formations can be one means to channel those who get motivated by the excitement of a national political campaign, e.g., Obama’s, but are unsure how they will continue to operate at the end of the election cycle.

We on the radical Left must be thinking in terms of decades. While urgency is critical, the development of a viable social-political bloc that can win power is a process that is deeply connected to both electoral and non-electoral activism. There is no straight line of stages in moving to electoral politics. We must be building the links from the very beginning because a well-considered and grounded strategy for power is the real source of the hope that millions so desperately desire.




Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of The Black Commentator and the co-founder of both the Black Radical Congress and the Center for Labor Renewal.

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