In the 2012 national elections, despite an increase of over 8 million eligible voters from 2008, voter turnout declined from 131 million to 126 million, with 93 million not voting. These figures alone demonstrate a growing disbelief that people have any voice in the two-party political game. In addition, those who voted were more motivated by voting against what they didn’t want than voting for what they wanted, while most remained pessimistic about the direction of the country.
This disillusionment is a result of neither political party having credible positive answers or policies to offer because both parties are pursuing an agenda that is opposed to working people’s interests. For example, both major political parties expect us, the electorate, to accept a declining standard of living that includes high unemployment and underemployment along with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, education, food stamps and other public programs, all of which degrade our communities’ well-being.
Both the Democratic and the Republican parties are remaking the social landscape according to corporate interests at workers’ expense. Calling on citizens to “vote for the lesser evil” means submitting to increased bleeding, not defending the public good.
We can reverse this attrition and forge a political movement of working people, but it will not come out of the electoral system alone. It will require the 99% to unify around our own needs and demands, independent of corporate politicians, and organize into a powerful social movement for the vast majority.
By taking mass action like marches and strikes in our streets and workplaces, combined with organizational structures that unify and coordinate our efforts, the great ignored majority may see that it quickly develops its own power far more effectively than what is possible within the electoral system. Nevertheless, in order for a social movement to become powerful enough to transform an unjust system, history teaches us that a tactical use of electoral politics is also necessary.
Elections offer an opportunity for the 99% to present a vocal alternative to the austerity policies driven by the 1%. As long as millions continue to go through the ritual of voting, a clear choice of majority and minority interests needs to be made available to them. Successful election campaigns can provide an educational platform for popular solutions that would ordinarily be ruled out by corporate politicians, as well as to push for reforms that benefit workers at the expense of the economic elite.
When building popular power, mass actions such as large demonstrations and strikes are always more significant than parliamentary twists and turns conducted by politicians. Unlike debates held in the halls of Congress, protests in the streets command a different sort of national attention. And under the right conditions, election campaigns themselves can facilitate the development of such actions.
What are these conditions? The election campaign has to represent a social force that grows out of a significant grassroots struggle. To assure this connection, candidates must run independently of the Republicans and Democrats. Not a dime can be accepted from corporate interests. And if the campaign is to promote the strengthening of the social movement, it must focus on demands that resonate with the greatest majority, which will help unite them in the face of big business opposition.
Beating a four-time Democrat incumbent, the recent election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s City Council is a good example of what is possible when these conditions exist. Though she ran as a candidate and member of a small left group called Socialist Alternative, her campaign was able to connect in a broad way, earning her over 93,000 votes.
Sawant had earned a reputation as an Occupy activist and was able to get endorsements from numerous community groups and unions such as a local of the American Postal Workers Union, American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1488, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46, Transit Riders Union and many others.
She gathered this support by focusing on workers’ immediate demands — like winning a $15 minimum wage, a millionaire’s tax to pay for city services, and affordable housing and rent control. Consequently, her campaign and victory strengthened these grassroots efforts.
Running as an open “socialist,” Sawant’s campaign proved that voters aren’t as interested in labels as they are in knowing where the candidates stand on the issues that immediately affect them. If the corporate politicians have no answers, it is natural that voters will look elsewhere.
Sawant’s victory shows that grassroots efforts are creating an opening for independent political action by working people, even in the tightly controlled world of electoral politics and the two-party system. Attempts to repeat this success will likely be initiated by other small groups. And it would be best if these efforts focus on building the greatest unity possible; small competing campaigns will not do this.
Instead, candidates should run representing a united effort of unions and community organizations, which could be the precursor to a real political party representing the vast majority of working people in this country. This campaign unity will not only establish a large base with a wide reach to begin with. It will also create a discussion within those groups that have traditionally endorsed Democratic candidates about what real independent politics looks like — and why this strategy is necessary to make a difference.
Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and a writer for Workers Action and Occupy.com. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.