This is chapter twenty three of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.
Mayor Bill Hampton, Celia Curie, Lydia Luxemburg,
Bertrand Dellinger, and Malcolm King discuss electoral participation.
Bill, what have your various electoral campaigns and holding office as a Mayor in New York taught you about the pitfalls and benefits of elections and even electoral office?
Personal desires aside, someone seeking to renovate society runs for office for one or more of three reasons:
1. To win and use the power of the office for change.
2. To educate in order to improve prospects for winning change.
3. To pressure other candidates and officials in positive ways.
Running for office can provide massive public access for communications and also open many paths for instituting changes. Malcolm’s Senate campaigns in Ohio, for example, Celia’s Governor Campaigns in California, and also my Mayoral campaigns in New York, among many others, did quite a lot to help RPS gain visibility and to help its ideas gain acceptance.
In the case of a Senator, unlike an executive position, Malcolm couldn’t enact changes himself, but he could sponsor bills and use his visibility to support and aid movements. Celia and I could do similar work but also implement programs.
What about the debits?
These are more subtle, but very important. And there are many.
For example, it is easy to get caught up in the tallying aspect of elections and to lose track of larger organizing issues and possibilities. This can even happen to excellent left candidates who start with an overarching agenda they see the election as but a part of, if, later, under the pressure of campaigning, they start to have eyes only for winning votes. It can happen to people even while they are decrying the same tendency as it has affected other people.
A second deadly dynamic is for a candidate to become too self-enamored and, again, lose track of larger forces at play. This can cause a candidate to feel everyone should bow to his or her will and advisors and campaign workers must bend their words to suit what the candidate wants to hear rather than to convey accurate assessments. As the candidate starts to feel more self important, aides start to feel a junior version of the same thing. They then function more to further their own brand, or the candidate’s, than to pursue broader agendas. Sometimes this dynamic can have more benign causes, as when people around a candidate try to maintain access only to be in position to have a good effect – yet the sought good effects are sacrificed, in practice, to maintaining the access.
Suppose you are in a group of ten who have the ear of a candidate who is personally reeling a bit, morally and politically, under all the pressures and getting very pushy in the group of ten, chairing every session, scowling at unwanted news, praising preferred news, and finally kicking someone out of the inner circle for bearing bad news or being critical.
You are in the circle. You feel you should try to reverse the trend, but you know you will lose your inner circle access if you go too far so you curb your inclinations out of a perfectly sensible desire to be in position to have a positive effect at all. Your motivations are sincere, yet the result is the same as if they were self serving. The candidate drifts toward elitism and the inner circle slides into abetting the candidate’s dissolution.
The fixation causing such trends need not be about vote tallying or expanding the candidate’s authority, it could be about money. Elections in the U.S. are expensive and an incredible percentage of the effort expended in any election turns out to be pursuing donations. You can imagine what that can lead to when those delivering the bigger dollars have their own agendas. Candidates or officials wind up bought off. Indeed, even when the fundraising is from a base of supporters making small donations, the perpetual need to write letters and make effective appeals for money is overwhelming and can lead to devolution of the benefits of running.
All in all I think RPS has approached elections wisely. We have celebrated excellent candidates running, educating, winning, and using office. Our members have assisted, but as an organization we have avoided taking any formal part in the electoral process. We have organizationally focused on grassroots organizing, movement building, and pressuring elites, including elected politicians, including from RPS, to make desired changes.
Often many RPS members worked hard on a campaign, including mine, but the organization never collectively and officially engaged and thus never got caught up in the dynamics. Soon, I think we will be in position to have an RPS member as President, where everyone knows just exactly what they are getting. But even in that case, while I would imagine virtually every RPS member will substantially aid the campaign with incredible outlays of time and effort, I think the organization as a collective entity will steer clear.
But what about the problem of focusing on electing one person, and missing that a single person is effectively powerless?
I think we should recognize that an electoral approach, like any other approach, requires numbers to be most effective, but that doesn’t imply that a lone victory is worthless. Rather, it says that the more folks we have in office and the more those folks have grass roots connections, the better.
Suppose we go back to the time of Sanders’ attempt to become President. What if he had gotten the Democratic Party nomination and beaten Trump? Some suggested that it would make no difference because Sanders was dishonest and insincere. Some said his agenda wasn’t maximal and nothing short of maximal matters. But many had more sensible and subtle concerns that echoed what Sanders himself warned.
If Sanders had won, he would have been President, yes, but nearly all the governors, Senators, Congresspeople, police chiefs and officers, and military command would still have been wedded to existing social relations. So, said these analysts, Sanders could have done nothing fundamental. Now, if, like Sanders, they had said that to accomplish much he would need massive popular support, that would have been true. With such support, even if he built lots of it while in office, of course he could have improved the life conditions of diverse constituencies in the present while also warding off continuing slides toward hell by combatting global warming. He could have worked to create more grassroots support, awareness, and commitment and to galvanize that into campaigns for critical reforms immediately helping people and paving the way for further gains. He could have sped up RPS.
Consider Hugo Chavez years earlier winning the Presidency in Venezuela. It is not an exact analogy, but not too far off for the point we are discussing. He had Miraflores, Venezuela’s White House, but he had no governors, a few mayors out of hundreds, and few legislators and nearly no local police. And yet he did a ton, which could have gone much further but for various mistakes, I believe, not least failing to organize among opposition constituencies, as well as due to outside factors.
The point is, a sensible approach to electoral work should focus on a wide array of offices: many local, fewer statewide, and fewer still national – just as we have been doing for the past twenty years. But if you manage to win the more encompassing positions and you don’t succumb to the various pitfalls of the process, then holding office can be very helpful indeed.
Bill, can I ask, please, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?
Of course we will win. And I would say our revolution will be over when there is no meaning to the phrase poor country or even poor person. What will be next? I look forward to seeing.
One personal lesson? Here’s one I often emphasized when running for Mayor. My home is my home. Your home is your home. But my castle is your castle is our society.
Celia, tell us a bit about running for and becoming Governor of California. What did you take from the electoral experience?
We traversed the state repeatedly talking directly to many people through public gatherings, speeches, and TV addresses. The debates reached millions more. Throughout, we extolled RPS program and urged RPS involvement. We constantly indicated not only the programs and policies we would try to rapidly institute, but also where we hoped these changes would lead.
When we started, we didn’t anticipate winning. We ran to organize widely, to pressure whoever would win, and to develop organization for future campaigns and especially for grassroots organizing. We thought we could broaden understanding and support for RPS ideas and build new organization and membership to advance movements at every step. We swore to one another that we wouldn’t compromise any of that to win more votes.
Our definition of winning the election was to do all that we intended without compromise, and then, if by some chance we actually got most votes, terrific. Yet even with that commitment, the pressure to compromise came not just from the media, potential donors, and endorsers, but from inside the campaign as well. The prospect of victory was like a drug. It often diverted us from seeking broader real success. You are about to give a speech to some large crowd, constituency, or organization. What do you do?
Approach one: You describe your intentions, beliefs, values, and agenda, making your strongest case for them.
Approach two: You examine polling results to determine what your audience is thinking and then you tailor your words to try to win them over.
I think what kept us on the first approach was good people delivering criticism without fearing I would dismiss them, plus our shared mindset that an electoral victory would be counter productive if we took an elitist path.
We maintained our priorities after winning, too. I was in office only a week when we began implementing our full program. We didn’t at any point think, okay, let’s get that important gain, short of our full aim, by way of this or that compromise of our other aims. No. We said let’s get everything we laid out, and more, let’s do it by way of popular power, not by back room compromises.
This wasn’t as hard as it might have been due to the scale and commitment of public support we had for the full program. Without so much support and its tendency to steadily increase, we would have always been afraid that not compromising would win nothing, rather than always feeling that not compromising was the way to win everything.
Celia, to close, I would like to ask, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?
The arc of history says we will win and so do I. I guess the RPS project will be over when we no longer need to ask, when is it over? And as a lesson I have learned, realizing that I owe to you and vice versa, or our dream is deferred.
Lydia, you were RPS Shadow Government President. Did it give you an understanding of the benefits of holding office?
Even in shadow office you quickly learn that the main determinants of policies and directions are institutional features. The structure of the governing bodies is critical, but so are the concentrations of power in various other places – mainly corporations. So you learn that short of transforming all those institutions – which is the ultimate goal – you have to have sources of power, pressure, and creative innovation beyond your office, or what you win will be nothing remotely like what you desired to win.
So right off we sought institutional changes in our own version of the government, partly as a model for things to seek in the world and partly so we could do more good in our own work.
Do you look forward to RPS actually fielding a President in the near future?
Left activists understand that existing institutions structurally serve the rich and powerful. They often take from that insight one correct conclusion and one incorrect conclusion, at least in my view.
The correct conclusion is that we need new institutions. The incorrect conclusion, is that we should have nothing to do with flawed institutions.
The error is saying we want a new society for the whole population, but we don’t want to relate to the population. We want a new society spanning all defining institutions, but we don’t want to battle within those institutions. We want to criticize institutions and rail at them from without or replace them by building from scratch, but we don’t want to engage them from within.
My reply has always been, railing at institutions from without is certainly essential and so is creating alternatives from scratch that can serve as models to raise consciousness. But, in addition, suppose someone said to radical working people, “We want a new economy, so stop operating in this one.” It would be absurd. First, it would mean ceding that terrain to those who are not radical. Second, it would entail giving up one’s job. Third, it would jettison access to all the lessons we can learn from operating within existing institutions, not only what’s wrong with them, but what’s needed in their place. Finally, it would forego victories inside those institutions that would make people’s lives better now.
It may be hard to see, I would add, but the government is similar to the economy in all those regards, with added aspects. Corporations are entirely profit-seeking. In government too, the deck is heavily stacked, and the structural pressures to compromise and become what you don’t want to be are enormous. But it is also true that there is some room to maneuver. We can win policy gains by winning elections and using levers of power to influence outcomes.
At any rate, my feeling is that elections certainly involve serious pitfalls, but refusing to operate inside the government would forego large gains we could win. So, yes, I think we have gotten to the point where our support is so broad, and even more important, so deep, that we can and should now win at the highest level.
Lydia, to close, I would like to ask, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?
Winning requires truth, justice, and momentum. We have had the first two as long as I can remember, which is all the way back to the 1960s. We now have momentum as well, and I believe that makes victory certain.
On when we will have won, I will quote my favorite poet. We will have won when the sun respects every face on the deck.
Finally, as one lesson, I guess I would pick that informed reason needs true sympathy and true sympathy needs informed reason.
Bertrand, you too were an RPS shadow President, after serving as Vice President with Lydia. Do you see the situation similarly?
Yes, very much so but if I had to suggest a difference I think I may be somewhat more sympathetic to those who are so caught up in rejecting reformism that they go overboard and avoid all reforms and mainstream institutions. I get the sentiment. Hell, in my bones, I even share it as a kind of feeling, but only a feeling.
The levels of hypocrisy rooted in conforming to injustice are so intrinsic to mainstream structures that it is hard – though not impossible – to avoid getting sucked in and corrupted. A trick, however, can help. We don’t think it is inevitable that if you get a job on an assembly line you will become an advocate of wage slavery. Why not? Aspects of such a job certainly push people toward bad views and habits, namely, becoming subservient and misinformed. But since your role in the corporation is that of a victim, you may retain integrity and operate in its bounds without becoming its advocate.
Suppose, in contrast, you win an elected office in national or local government. Or, for that matter, suppose you take a job as a manager in a workplace. This is different. You are, or at least you can be, recipient of the benefits and purveyor of the ills.
So the trick is even as you take office, you must define yourself to be an opponent of your position and your role. You have to literally see yourself as a fifth column operating inside to pursue interests defined outside.
In the years I served in Lydia’s administration, we made great headway but it was quite hard. Instead of mainly working on change, much and sometimes even most of our energy had to go to developing our shadow methods and procedures and filling our posts. By the time I became Shadow Potus, our structures and procedures were stable and effective, so we could give more time to birthing and battling for new policies.
Building campaigns to transform from the elitist electoral college approach to direct voting with multi party preferential balloting was a massive victory we celebrated. And yes, I think that advances in popular awareness and desire have gotten us to a place where an RPS-identified candidate can not just become president, but can take office with a huge mandate and with fellow RPS advocates occupying positions all over the country.
Malcolm, do you anticipate an RPS candidate, perhaps yourself, winning the 2044 election?
It is still nearly four years off so we are on thin ground predicting anything, but, yes, I think this time we will win outright with at least 60% support. We have had a number of progressive administrations that negotiated with us in good faith and sided with many of our efforts and had to give in on much of the rest of what we sought. The population is now ready for a transformation.
When New York, California, Ohio, and surprisingly Texas and then others too elected not only progressive but RPS governors by large margins, and when those governors proceeded to aid RPS efforts at the state and local level, the result was incredibly positive for nearly everyone. The die was cast. The momentum became undeniable.
I think the biggest consciousness shift was back in 2024 when working class support for right wing reaction finally collapsed. Fear of immigrants and minorities polarizing millions into casting conservative votes, collapsed. People understood that the real source of pain and suffering for working people was profit seeking and people were enjoying steadily growing racial solidarity.
By 2028, and then especially 2032, the class antagonism toward coordinator elitism and their material advantages had also largely transformed. It didn’t disappear, but it became highly informed and switched from opposing liberalism or progressivism to opposing coordinator obscurantism and elitism aimed at maintaining coordinator dominance. It had grown to understand the division of labor and the need for excellent education for all.
In 2036 and 2040, those trends continued, and the old style two party habits overwhelmingly died, but I think the final tipping point was the growing popular belief in a viable alternative system.
We moved from people siding with RPS views and values in their hearts but not believing that RPS could actually deliver, and therefore not actively supporting RPS program for the country, to people having faith that a new society is possible and worth winning, and that supporting a candidate offering RPS program would be a real step forward.
I think in 2044 there will be one pivotal issue. If I vote for revolution, am I voting for an idea I like but which will mean unlimited chaos and civil strife because opposition to a new society will be too strong to overcome – or am I voting for a careful, unrelenting struggle that will culminate in implementing a new society at every level? And I think the answer will now finally come down as the latter for an overwhelming majority of our population.
Winning the presidency, even if we don’t also win Congress and the Senate – though I think we will, by considerable margins – will greatly speed up our long march through the institutions, both changing them from within and replacing them with complete alternatives. It will be far easier and quicker to finish workers and consumers collectively taking over workplaces and services with the government overwhelmingly abetting every step.
Just think of a new president using executive orders to support workers taking over companies, even beyond the massive takeovers we have already witnessed. Or of a new President transitioning military production and bases to social uses as a matter of positive desire and principle across the world. Or of a new president helping create the infrastructure of a new society, not simply from above, but responding to pressure from movements even while welcoming that pressure and aiding its development. Envision the new president legitimating, empowering, and welcoming police defense of the public seeking to self manage their lives and expropriate their workplaces.
Malcolm, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, in just a few last words, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you as particularly critical?
A few decades ago, to believe we would win took a huge leap of faith. Now the path is evident. So yes, I believe we will win. But I think winning comes well before our related tasks are over. There is, after all, a whole new world to construct. It will all be over, I guess, when children don’t know what war is. And what will come after that – I have no idea. Finally, what has been a lesson special for me? Perhaps this simple and well known one. Ends inform means. Means win ends.