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The US Left and the Ballot Box


 

mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>In March 2011, the Vermont legislature created a  background-position-x:0%;background-position-y:0%”>five-member state board to design its new Green Mountain Care. While the rest of the country waits with to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out, Vermont is moving full steam ahead to enact a state-wide, single payer system – the first of it’s kind in the US. By 2017 Vermonters will exclusively access a ‘Medicare for all’ publicly funded insurance system, unhinging access to health care from any particular criteria beyond being human. This is a truly significant victory for poor and working class people. 0%;background-position-y:0%”>But how did this come to be? Through the early 1960s, Vermont was a thoroughly Republican state, electing only conservative governors and presumably resistant to terrifying ideas like “socialized medicine”. Fifty years later, the conditions in the state are quite different – most notable are the emerging single payer system, and of course Bernie Sanders, the only self-identified socialist elected at the national level in the US. According to a  0%;background-position-y:0%”>reviewof Eric Davin’s new book  0%;background-position-y:0%”>, New Left activists decided to do what they could to shift the political terrain of the state through electoral politics, at first forming the Citizens Party and Liberty Union, and finally the Vermont Progressive Party. If the latest developments are any indication, they have been quite successful: The consciousness and conditions of Vermont are vastly more progressive than they were before the 1960s. 0%;background-position-y:0%”>Most of the US left is filled with defeatism about what is electorally possible. This has resulted in a frustrating vacillation between ignoring elections altogether and waging ‘symbolic’ campaigns that have virtually no hope of success – and often a reactionary effect. The Vermont example offers a significant, if limited alternate vision of what a thoughtful, strategic US left is capable of, electorally speaking. Though the conditions of the state are specific and unique, the fact remains that a group of organizers analyzed the political terrain, made a strong series of political moves over the decades, and radically enhanced conditions for and with half a million people. 0%;background-position-y:0%”>Three quarters of a century ago in a very different context, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci invited the left to reconsider some fundamental assumptions about social change through his effort to make sense of the left’s failures and the corresponding rise of fascism in Europe. Imprisoned by Mussolini after years of Communist agitation and organizing, Gramsci enhanced and introduced a number of important theoretical tools across 3,000 notebook pages scribbled in secret. Half a century after Gramsci’s death, writing in the midst of a Thatcherism that still grips Britain today (Thatcher’s recent passing notwithstanding) Stuart Hall offered this useful summary of Gramsci’s thinking: “[He]… came face to face with the revolutionary character of history itself. When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’.” 0%;background-position-y:0%”>The US left has a long history of ignoring such fundamental advice, to the extent that there was someone present to provide it; after all Gramsci was only translated into English in the 1970s for Hall and others to grapple with. In the decades preceding Gramsci’s arrival on the scene, the US left was gripped by revolutionary expectations fomented in very different political, economic and social contexts than the one they faced. And indeed much of this confusion between persistent theoretical expectations and actual, conjunctural realities continues to haunt today’s efforts to build real power for poor and working class people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations. The United States in 2013 is a unique place, and the left must develop theories, strategies and practices to match it – not by a return to Gramsci per se, but by heeding his advice and  color:black”>

0%;background-position-y:0%”>With the lessons of the Vermont Progressive Party in mind, as well as the theoretical contributions of Gramsci and Hall, the comparative historical analysis of Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset in  color:black”>

mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>1.    mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>They are but one way social need and desire can be expressed at the political level. Electoral work should always be subordinated to and connected with: margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-.25in;line-height:150%;mso-list:l8 level2 lfo1;
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mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>2.    mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>To start, focus on: margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-.25in;line-height:150%;mso-list:l6 level2 lfo2;
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mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>3.    mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>This analysis follows from point one. A significant portion of the resources and human power of elected leftists should go toward support for the ‘on the ground’ work of the organizations and people to whom they are accountable. See Hilary Wainwright’s excellent article for some details on how Syriza has done this meaningfully in contemporary Greece. color:black”>

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color:black”>. When running in general elections will empower the right wing, run a left-wing candidate in the Democratic primary.
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mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>5.    font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>. Between the US plurality system, the Electoral College, and the ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, running for president is a waste of resources. margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-.25in;line-height:150%;mso-list:l3 level2 lfo5;
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mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>6.    mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>Given the resources, historical traction and ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, it will likely be around for years to come. The left-wing candidates who are elected within the party should look for opportunities to control local and state structures. Carl Davidson’s recent  explores potential allies within the Democratic Party at the national level. margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-.25in;line-height:150%;mso-list:l2 level1 lfo7;
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mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>As per the first point on this list, any electorally engaged formation should be constituted by mass-based organizations doing progressive and radical organizing and campaign work. Beyond this: margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:-.25in;line-height:150%;mso-list:l2 level2 lfo7;
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mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>8.    mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>. In framing, messaging and branding, settle for nothing less than a radical re-orientation of the underlying memes, binaries and narratives that drive the American psyche, including especially individualism. color:black”>

mso-fareast-font-family:Verdana;mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana;color:black”>9.    "Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black”>. Pay attention to the feel of the organization. It should be fun, relaxed, joyfully angry, open-minded, attentive to race, gender and class dynamics and supportive of intellectual and theoretical reflection, among probably many other characteristics. color:black”>

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 took over the New Haven City Counsel. And of course the US social movement left is waging and winning many inspiring victories outside of the electoral arena. But at the end of the US left’s long day, we are still looking for a horse or two that can pull our cart down the road toward a vast and deep transformation of our economy and society.  how do we sew together the many left, progressive and potentially progressive organizations, individuals and constituencies to build a hegemonic bloc that can contend for power economically, culturally and politically at the local and national levels? A provisional answer to this question, and the organizing work such an answer implies are the real foundation for any meaningful, scaled left-wing work, electoral and otherwise. 

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