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The Limitations of Electoral Activism – 2018 Edition


Right now, it’s unclear how Democratic Party candidates will fair in the Trump era. So far, there have been several special elections, and some have went well for the Dems, but it’s a long time until November, and even longer until 2020.

Recent history, however, should inform how progressive organizations move forward. In other words, we’ve been here before: namely, the 2006 midterms.

By 2005, it was beyond clear to a majority of Americans that the war in Iraq was a complete disaster. The Bush Administration was seen as totally incompetent, and for good reasons. As a result, virtually every Democratic Party candidate ran on an anti-Bush/anti-Iraq War platform during the 2006 midterm elections. At the time, that was good enough for the Dems to win both the U.S. House and Senate. 

However, most of the Dems who were elected in 2006 were not ‘progressives’ — they were nominally better than Clinton and the Blue Dogs, but they were hardly in the mold of a Bernie Sanders. When pushed to actually defund the war in Iraq, which was the only way of stopping the conflict via official congressional processes, the overwhelming majority of Dems either balked or refused. Consequently, over 7,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq as of 2018, with no end in sight.

In 2008, Obama was able to win the White House by riding that same tide of anti-Bush/Iraq War sentiment. He too did very little to stop the war or roll back Bush and Co.’s destructive and insane foreign policy agenda. In fact, Obama doubled-down on the war in Afghanistan (the longest in U.S. history), and expanded Bush’s drone program and NSA surveillance operations. Furthermore, Obama coddled the banks that destroyed the economy in 2008/09, and lined his administration with the very individuals who formerly held powerful positions at those same banks.

As a result, by 2010, the Tea Party took back the House. In 2014, the GOP won the Senate, giving them control of both branches, including the SCOTUS. By 2016, the inevitable happened: a charismatic, authoritarian monster took the White House after 40+ years of Neoliberalism. Obama, Clinton, and the Democratic Party’s inability to embody or enact genuine progressive values and reforms paved the path for the Tea Party and Trump. The Neoliberal Democrats share equal responsibility with AM radio, FoxNews, and Alex Jones for Trump’s victory in 2016.

So, here we are again, debating elections and determining how, why, and in what ways progressives should engage with the electoral process. For me, one of the primary lessons to learn from the past 10+ years is that progressive organizations have focused too much of their energy on electoral politics (with terrible results), and not enough time building social movements that are capable of stopping the GOP’s madness while holding elected Democrats accountable.

The second lesson is that simply electing Dems on an anti-whatever (war, Trump, Bush) platform is an extremely short-sighted and failed strategy (if one could call it a strategy at all). If the Dems win back the House and Senate in 2018 (still a long-shot) on an anti-Trump platform, and without a serious set of progressive policies, they will lose again in 2020, 2022, and/or 2024, and the next crop of GOP candidates will be even more reactionary and dangerous than the current lot.

Trump Era activists have to learn that it’s not good enough to simply win elections and kick Republicans out of office — we have to show people that progressive social movements and politicians can govern effectively and seriously address the issues that matter the most to the American people: systemic racism, poverty, healthcare, climate change/environmental devastation, militarism, and so on.

Even that, however, is inadequate. Ideally, progressives would seek to create new political mechanisms. The goal should be to build more responsive and democratic political institutions and a culture of resistance. Meaningful reforms are important, but they’re a means to an end, not an end. For some, that may not be the case, but for those of us who believe that humanity and the planet require a radical transformation to ensure a decent survival, simply recreating a 20th Century European Welfare State isn’t good enough, though, as mentioned above, it’s a start.

I don’t think it’s at all radical to examine recent electoral history and come to the conclusion that we can, should, and must do better. There’s plenty of lessons to learn. But I’ll be damned if the one we’re going to take away from Trump’s victory is: ‘Let’s not ask for too much!’

It’s true that progressives are never going to find the ‘perfect’ candidate or politician, but we’re not seeking perfection. Principled progressives are simply demanding that we don’t take a step backwards.

Bernie Sanders set the bar for the Democratic Party and Democratic Party activists. At this point, progressive activists and organizers should refuse to openly support or endorse any candidate who doesn’t live up to that standard. Progressives need to move forward, and Bernie provided a model, albeit an inadequate one (something I’ll return to). Sanders, not Clinton, won the state of Indiana, where I live. Hence, progressive Hoosiers should move forward with a program of Democratic Socialism, not Neoliberalism or Goodin (the Indiana Democratic Party’s State House leader) and Donnely’s (Democratic U.S. Senator) ‘Blue Dog Centrism.’

It shouldn’t matter if the candidate in question is running for state rep, state senator, the House, city council, or the U.S. Senate, if their platform is to the Right of Bernie’s, they shouldn’t receive material support from progressive organizations. In fact, they should enjoy the opposite: never-ending criticism and constant pressure to do enact progressive reforms. Progressives should call them out on social media, show up to their events, and disrupt any of their plans to pass reactionary/Neoliberal legislation.

If progressive organizations and movements decide to show up and vote for the Dems on election day, that’s one thing, but that’s much different than openly supporting, campaigning, and/or endorsing candidates. We can make tactical and strategic decisions without deviating from our values.

I would break down how progressive groups should interact with campaigns in three ways:

  1. Simply voting for a candidate. This is a tactical and strategic decision. If it makes more sense to have a Democrat in office that agrees with 50% of our values as opposed to having a Republican in office who agrees with 10% of our values, then show up on election day and take five minutes to cast a vote. Voting for Dems isn’t a litmus test, it’s simply a tactical decision, and should be treated as such.
  2. Endorsing a candidate. This is a step-up from simply voting for a candidate. Endorsing a candidate requires the group that’s endorsing to hold the candidate accountable once elected to office, but doesn’t require the organization to put in time, materials, and effort to get the candidate elected. Again, this should be a strategic and tactical decision, not an emotional or reactionary one. Let’s say a candidate agrees with 75% of our values, but doesn’t organically arise from social movements, we can endorse them (knowing their limitations) while pushing them in a more progressive direction.
  3. Actively working for a candidate (campaign manger, volunteer, etc.). This is the highest level of participation in the electoral process and should be saved for candidates who’ve shown the willingness to not only work with social movements, but who have shown a commitment to progressive causes and who organically arise from progressive movements. In other words, progressive organizations should be molding their members to become elected officials, but those potential candidates must also be organic leaders. Organic leaders are the sort of people whose opinions are widely respected in the community. They are trusted members of the community who’ve shown a commitment to social justice. Here, progressive organizations and social movements could work in tandem with electoral efforts. Instead of viewing election cycles as constant distractions, it makes more sense for progressive organizations and movements to craft short and long-term strategies that take into account the inevitable. Ideally, we would have movements that are capable of doing all of the above: pushing for radical changes, while enacting meaningful reforms, and fielding progressive candidates.

In my experience, too many electoral activists behave like a bunch of obedient lapdogs: they follow the lead of whatever candidate they’re working for instead of pressuring the candidates they support to take progressive positions. This was true during Bernie’s campaign. I remember attending events and talking to people about his platform and its many holes, primarily when it came to People of Color (POC) and systemic racism (though it must be said that Bernie enjoyed far greater support from 18-35 year old black people than his rival Clinton). Bernie represents a constituency in Vermont that’s 96% white, so it wasn’t too surprising that his racial justice platform was lacking.  

Moreover, his foreign policy positions have been, at times, quite bad. Most importantly, his overall view of U.S. Empire remains suspect. Sanders seems to embody the notion that the U.S. should maintain global hegemonic supremacy. We know that Bernie wanted to enact progressive reforms by taxing the rich, corporations, and banks. But how does Sanders jive his progressive values with the fact that the U.S. spends over 50% of its discretionary budget on war and militarism? On these issues, Bernie should be pressed by his supporters. 

During the primaries, however, it was clear that many of Bernie’s supporters, much like Obama’s, weren’t willing to pressure him to expand on his existing platform and/or take on different issues. Whether or not Sanders’ supporters would’ve remained engaged after he won the White House, we’ll never know.

It is clear that many of his supporters weren’t experienced enough (or properly mentored) to understand their role after the primaries ended. The majority of Bernie’s supporters went home, which is a real shame. One of the primary challenges progressive organizations face is to reengage Sanders’ constituency of largely young, white progressives.

Unfortunately, the current crop of Democratic Party candidates at the national level are wholly inadequate and represent a step back from Sanders’ campaign. The same could be said in my neck of the woods: the overwhelming majority of Democratic candidates at both the local and state level represent a step backward, which is a real shame. This is largely due to the lack of social movements and progressive political infrastructure in our region and state.

In the end, the most important lesson progressives should’ve learned during the Obama Era is that without vibrant, consistent, and principled social movements, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House (or Congress). To paraphrase the late historian Howard Zinn, what matters most is who’s ‘sitting-in’ the public parks, streets, universities, and workplaces across the U.S.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer and community organizer. He is the co-founder of P.A.R.C. (Politics Art Roots Culture), a political-cultural center in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of the Michigan City Social Justice Group, Veterans For Peace, and the National Writers Union – UAW Local 1981. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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