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Notes Toward a Social Justice Electoral Strategy


Political polarization between liberal/progressives and conservative/rightwing populists has deepened since the controversial 2000 election and especially since President Bush’s declaration of the “War on Terrorism at home and abroad” after September 11. This intensified struggle over war and economics has overlapped with and shaped the political parties and elections.

I cannot think of a time in U.S. history where the far rightwing, steeped in racism as usual, held such sway over a major political party and influenced such a large portion of the general electorate. Since 1980 the far right has sought to eliminate the critical gains of the 1930s such as union rights, Social Security and unemployment insurance as well as the civil rights/voting rights, reproductive rights, Medicare and war on poverty gains of the 1960s.

Having taken down ACORN, the rightwing now has its gun sights on public worker unions, non-profits, Planned Parenthood and trial lawyers. Today it is closer than ever to achieving these disastrous goals.

After decades of uneven participation, a significant number of social justice community organizations and organizers began to join the electoral fray in the last decade or more. Increasingly, community organizers have recognized that we cannot leave our communities to the gentle mercies of mainstream politicians and that we must enter this arena of struggle in order to win victories, build organizing scale, politicize our bases and contend for power. Although tentative and uneven, social justice organizers increasingly recognize that the electoral arena is a central battleground against the rightwing and for social justice and a key site for organizing.

However, today’s social justice forces need to overcome a long history of left/progressive strategic confusion and division about elections. This is not surprising. In my opinion, the undemocratic and elitist character of the U.S. electoral (and governmental) system is one of the main pillars of corporate rule (along with settler colonialism/imperialism, racism/white supremacy and patriarchy) and one of the main obstacles to progressive work.

Many on the left have also inappropriately applied the theory and practice of Lenin and/or European or Latin American socialists whose political terrains are qualitatively different than in the U.S. Most either confront extremely weak states that can be toppled by force from the outside, or work within proportional representation systems that provide space for ideologically based third parties.

A recent positive trend is that some organizers have begun to blaze a new and very promising trail forward for social justice electoral work. Seeking to combat the alarming gains of the right as well as seeing the opportunity to forge a new majority arising from changing racial demographics, groups like California Calls (formerly the California Alliance), Virginia New Majority, Oakland Rising, Florida New Majority, the Southwest Organizing Project and others are developing new electoral strategies and practices. Simultaneously labor, civil rights groups, feminists and advocacy/voter groups are also re-thinking their electoral approach and scouring for new allies. This paper is meant to contribute to that process.

First it will discuss the left’s strategic confusion and division regarding electoral strategy. Second it outlines the main elements of the electoral strategy of the rightwing, and argues that the left should pursue a very similar one. Third, it argues that a sound strategy needs to be based on familiarity with the historical/structural dynamics of national U.S. electoral system. It then makes an initial analysis of the system’s main elements that both exposes the class and racial biases of the system and also provides the basis of a viable left electoral strategy. Finally it proposes some of the main points of a left/progressive electoral strategy. The paper will only touch upon some of the biggest structural and strategic questions and will not venture much into the realm of the politics of 2012 or the numerous tactical or practical/operational questions of electoral work. While it argues for an integrated inside/outside strategy, the paper focuses on the electoral component of such a strategy.

I. Strategic Confusion and Division on the Left

In my opinion there were two periods in which the U.S. left deployed a basically sound and sophisticated inside/outside orientation to the Democratic Party and electoral politics: the 1930s (Communist Party/CIO/New Deal) and the 1980s (Rainbow Coalition/Jesse Jackson campaigns). Both of these were ultimately defeated due to a complex set of external and internal factors and are rich with lessons. Yet the sophisticated strategies they pursued were the exception rather than the rule. [Footnote 1]

First, there is a long history of progressive and left forces participating in the Democratic Party but failing to gain a significant or lasting degree of political strength or independence. Once entering Democratic politics, many deprioritize their efforts to build a powerful progressive force outside of the electoral arena. Consequently even those progressives (like the Democratic Socialists of America) who won substantial support from electeds and labor leaders did not gain enough mass power to successfully resist the pro-corporate moderate leadership of the party. This tendency is particularly pronounced among those who fail to recognize or act upon the fact that the main social base of progressive politics in the U.S. is the Black community. There is a lot of experience here that deserves close study, especially since many of these groups and individuals will be important allies as our work proceeds.

Second, the Democratic Party’s betrayals of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the1960s ushered in a long period of uneven participation, even total boycott, of electoral work by people and organizations who consider themselves radical or revolutionary. The corporate elite’s control of both parties has led many such people and organizations to consider electoral work to be counterproductive or at best an episodic, purely tactical venture. After a brief breakthrough under the leadership of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s (and partly in reaction to Jackson’s own political shortcomings), many leftists again opted out or again tried to build third parties. This position has been strengthened by the fact that so many social justice forces are now located in non-profit organizations that are legally barred from partisan political work.

Some leftists seem to believe that social justice transformation can be achieved strictly from outside the electoral system. In my opinion this is a terrible mistake. The advanced capitalist countries have long constructed extremely stable regimes based on electoral systems deemed legitimate by most of their peoples. This is now true in a large number of developing countries as well, which has led many revolutionary groups such as the FMLN in El Salvador to switch to electoral rather than armed strategies. In countries with highly legitimized and powerful electoral systems, the road to system change is through, not around, the electoral system.

Electoral abstinence ignores the fact that, despite its unfair rules, elections are the principal path to governmental power in the U.S. and are accepted by the great majority of people in the U.S. as legitimate. Vastly more people participate in elections than any other form of political activity. Thus, participation in elections is a crucial arena for social justice forces to contend for political power and to politically interact with the broad masses of people.

Third, there is also a long history of determined but mostly small and short-lived attempts to build progressive third parties. The biggest such attempt was the Progressive Party in the late 1940s whose presidential candidate was Henry Wallace, the Vice President of the United States under Franklin Roosevelt. Recently, the main progressive third party energy has gone into building the Green Party. The most sophisticated recent effort was the New Party (1992-1998) which was derailed when the Supreme Court upheld a ban on cross-endorsing candidacies (sometimes called “fusion”), the heart of the legal/strategic basis of the party. Some of these experiences are also rich but in my opinion the main lesson is that the structure of the U.S. electoral system dooms such efforts to marginal status.

Of course, the problem facing left and progressive forces has not been purely strategic. It is, perhaps above all, practical. The elitist and racist biases, complexity, scale and cost of electoral work are immense, far outstripping any other forms of organizing. This is precisely because this arena requires true mass scale and power is directly at stake. In many ways, the left/progressive strategic confusion stems from the incredible difficulty of reaching the scale and sophistication to implement any strategy at all, or fears of losing, dealing with forces that are much more powerful, having to make complex compromises that might even lead to charges of selling out. However that confusion and division has made it impossible to systematically build our capacity to significant scale.

In recent years the determined efforts mounted by left and progressive forces such as Move On, Daily Kos, Progressive Democrats of America, Wellstone Action, Rebuild the Dream as well as social justice community organizing groups like California Calls, Virginia New Majority and Florida New Majority indicate that there is renewed determination to make a breakthrough. In addition labor, which is absolutely core to any progressive front, is becoming more political independent and looking for allies, and the NAACP and other civil rights groups are reviving under new leadership. These are all building blocks of a stronger and more politically independent progressive alliance. But whether that potential is realized will depend in part on what strategies social justice activists and groups pursue.

II. United Strategy on the Right

Meanwhile, the vast majority of far rightwing forces united on a longterm electoral strategy as early as 1968 and since then have skillfully applied that strategy to achieve tremendous power. After decades of being the lunatic fringe of Klansmen, Nazis, survivalists, John Birchers and academic fringe, the far right went mainstream with a united, systematic and ultimately widely successful strategy starting with the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater for president and consolidated following the George Wallace third party campaign of 1968. Ironically, it was exactly in those years that the left was turning away from electoral work. And the right landed on a strategy that in many respects I suggest for the left as well.

Although the mix of racists, militarists and white Christian fundamentalists with ultra free marketeers, anti-government libertarians, ultra tax cutters, and others is in constant motion, the main elements of the far rightwing strategy have been remarkably stable:

First, it is a comprehensive and coordinated inside/outside strategy. The right builds large-scale issue and values based organizations and campaigns outside of the electoral process, but systematically connects them to their strategy to fight for influence inside the Republican Party and the government.

Second, it is a strategy that is simultaneously politically and ideologically connected to its core social base and yet whose purpose is to fight for control (not just influence) of the Republican Party as against the corporate moderates who have traditionally been the dominant forces. This strategy is politically consistent but tactically flexible, making alliances with corporate moderates and centrists where they deem it appropriate and fighting them tooth and nail when they assessed that the better tactical choice to advance their aims. Surely they have made many mistakes, but they have not shied from making these difficult choices.

Third, the whole premise of the strategy is to control the U.S. government as a whole. It is not a strategy just of “influence” or “impacting public policy and debate” but instead is a strategy for power and governance. This was a crucial break from the defensive, fringe (whether of the openly white supremacist type or the elitist National Review type), regionalist and often violent strategies of previous far right groups. Progressives and especially leftists, meanwhile, tend to project a holier than thou, fringe mentality and are usually holed up in the bluest communities in the bluest cities.

Fourth, the rightwing strategy is simultaneously a national-to-local strategy and a local-to-national strategy. The rightwing developed a massive cadre of candidates and electeds that started at the system’s most open space– local elections—and then lifted the most successful of those into candidates for higher office—all the way to the presidency. They built from the rightwing political base–especially conservative rural, affluent middle class suburbs (the tax revolt) and Southern/Rocky Mountain Christian racist traditionalists–and built outwards.

However, all this was done as a part of a unified national strategy, not disconnected local strategies. In addition, they simultaneously put up candidates for national and statewide office, from the presidency to congressional leadership to internal Republican Party posts, and organized major national issue and media campaigns and institutions, building from the top down and connecting the two.

Fifth, the strategy has alertly taken advantage of “movement moments” to qualitatively expand the rightwing rather than just building institutionally and incrementally. The Tea Party is the latest example. So was Sept. 11.

Sixth, the rightwing has built wide and even rotating leadership and tactical flexibility. They have managed to strengthen and broaden their coalition despite the many different racial, religious, economic, foreign policy and social agendas within it. It is impressive how the leaders, tactics and program have changed so many times since 1968 yet the right still maintained continuity in building power.

Seventh, the whole inside/outside strategy has a massive communications apparatus ranging from public relations and earned media to Internet, newspapers, radio and television programming, to think tanks/journals/academic institutions and all the way to ownership of hundreds of radio stations and several television networks such as Fox News. They clearly understand that the main struggle is for the hearts and minds of the public, without which organizing is extremely limited and politics quite futile.

I believe the rightwing strategy is based on an accurate analysis of the U.S. electoral and governmental systems, and should be largely emulated by the left.

Of course, they have a formidable asset that we lack: Since the mid-1970s the majority of the corporate elite have moved steadily to the right in order to combat increased international capitalist competition and leverage new technology to increase profits. In so doing they have largely switched from supporting the Democratic Party (1932-1964) to backing the Republican Party, and to change political opinion and build electoral strength they have proffered tremendous ideological/communications, monetary and organizational support to the far right. The right has masterfully utilized that support to build its political independence and power, to the point that they now overshadow the corporate moderates of the party. A left/progressive effort will never receive that level of support from big corporations. And even if some decide to fight the right we will surely be in for some epic battles with them.

Also, the class and racial biases of the electoral system mostly work in the rightwing’s (and especially the corporate elite’s) favor. They have skillfully accentuated those biases with their version of “electoral reform,” further limiting voting rights and tailoring the playing field to their advantage.

The right also took advantage of a highly unusual historical opportunity: The civil rights revolution led to a mass exodus of conservative/racist white people from their historic home in the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. The far right was able to set up much of the inside and outside infrastructure that mobilized and harnessed that new motion.

Perhaps our historic opportunity lies in the tremendous increase in people of color voters and the so-called rising American electorate of people of color, single women and youth. This is the heart of our strategic task. If we can mobilize these progressive voters and stabilize their infrastructure, this can be the stable social base of our electoral power and governance strategy.

III. Initial Analysis of the Structure of U.S. Electoral System and its Strategic Implications

Now it is time to take a big step back to examine the structural underpinnings of a viable electoral strategy. Strategy must be based on an accurate historical, structural/systemic and current day analysis if it is to be a viable, useful guide to action over the long run. Just as we must understand the systemic dynamics and structure of capitalism, racism or patriarchy to develop a strategy to fight them, so we must base an electoral strategy on a historical and structural analysis of the electoral system.

This paper is a limited, first shot out of the box, attempt at such an analysis. It will focus only on the main elements of the national system/structure of U.S. elections.

To begin, let’s remember that any system or structure is above all the result of political struggle. It is not passed down by God, historically inevitable or the result of disinterested theoretical discussion of “indelible principles” or “natural rights” by the “Founding Fathers.” Rather, the U.S. electoral system has been shaped and reshaped by the struggle of conflicting political forces on the ground in real historical time.

In understanding the U.S. electoral system, it is crucial to recall that the most powerful political force that shaped its constitutional basis were large slaveholders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These slaveholders were allied with Northern merchants who were tethered to the South since their business consisted largely of trade in Southern tobacco, rice and cotton. Slaves were nearly a quarter of the population but had almost no political power and workers/artisans had little power (Thomas Paine, however, was there champion).

The victorious Founding slaveholders

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