The US Left and the Ballot Box


In March 2011, the Vermont legislature created a five-member state board to design its new Green Mountain Care. While the rest of the country waits with trepidation 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.

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 review of Eric Davin’s new book Radicals in Power, 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.

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.

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’.”

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 clinging tenaciously to the conditions we face, here and now, in order to develop fresh theoretical and strategic analysis.

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 It Didn’t Happen Here and my own limited experience with US electoral work, the following are nine signposts for left electoral engagement in the contemporary US. They are not principles for all time but ideas for the present, and they should be pulled apart and enhanced by any left organizations that are tackling electoral politics meaningfully.

1.    Elections are secondary. 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:

a.    The day-to-day work of mass-based progressive organizations (community, labor, issue and identity-based formations etc.).

b.    The broader theoretical and strategic analysis of what is necessary to empower directly those who suffer under capitalism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.

c.    The ontologically open moment from which new organizational forms and left projects emerge, and from which newly identified oppressions can be articulated into an ever-broadening historic bloc.

With this as a foundation, the idea is to win electoral power. Hence:

2.    Pick winnable fights. To start, focus on:

a.    Cities, especially progressive cities

b.    Small, progressive state legislatures

c.    Within those two (cities, states), engage in districts that are ideologically and organizationally composed in such a way that a left-wing candidate could feasibly win

3.    Reciprocal empowerment. 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.

The following three points fall broadly into the inside/outside strategy suggested by Bill Fletcher Jr. and others for how the left should relate to the Democratic Party:

4.    Coordinate strategically with Democrats. When running in general elections will empower the right wing, run a left-wing candidate in the Democratic primary.

a.    If the left candidate loses, ally with and push the Democrat

b.    If the left candidate wins move forward, but maintain a left-wing ‘brand’ even as a contending Democrat

5.    Forget the presidency. Between the US plurality system, the Electoral College, and the ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, running for president is a waste of resources.

a.    Ally with the more progressive candidate

b.    Re-evaluate if the terrain changes (e.g. extreme crisis, one major party implodes etc.)

6.    Controlling the Democratic Party. 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 article explores potential allies within the Democratic Party at the national level.

7.    Active recruitment. 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:

a.    Debate and attempt to bring in any potential organizational ally who does good work, but has an ideological bias against electoral politics or works with the Democratic Party exclusively

b.    Also following from the first p0int, ‘proper’ political parties should initiate organizing projects independent from electoral fights. Elections should be an integral but secondary aspect of those new initiatives.

c.    Use the Internet: Everything from the truly grassroots use of social media during the Arab Spring to the national power that MoveOn has consolidated in the past decade points toward the need to develop a savvy and snazzy recruiting presence online.

8.    Hegemony. 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.

Although a significant portion of the party’s ideological/marketing work must be pragmatic (i.e. it must leverage current beliefs and patterns to get candidates elected), the fundamental intent must be to transform people’s sense of the desirable and possible in order to create a new and more progressive ideological terrain for future struggles.

9.    Internal Culture. 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.

It is not enough to have the right ‘line’; the organization has to be authentically fun and open-minded in order to bring in a diversity of people to participate actively.

The first of these nine points is certainly foundational. While the US left has vacillated between ignoring electoral politics and ‘symbolic’ campaigns, there are countless others who have slipped away from the left as they engage ever-more deeply in electoral work. And this brings up a much more fundamental issue: where are the formations that can use, alter and enhance these nine signposts? Where are the organizations that can engage electoral politics without being overwhelmed by the privileges and bureaucracy of state power? Where are the parties with the power to hold individual elected officials – even those with the best of radical intentions – accountable to the organizations and constituencies that elected them?

These nine points do not just put the cart before the horse. To extend the metaphor, they are a cart without a horse. Or more accurately, there are a lot of foals, but it is unclear if they will become full-grown. Though Occupy has faded, its presence is still felt by many in the local work it has both enhanced and initiated. There is the Vermont Progressive Party, and the compelling though constrained efforts of the Working Families Party. In a recent, fascinating case, the union UNITE HERE essentially 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.

For now, these nine points may be useful for small formations engaging in local politics, and perhaps someone from the Green Party will read them with an open mind. But there is a deeper question for the US left than how to engage electoral politics. More importantly: 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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