Every Four Years
It’s not what they do that matters, it’s what we do that’s so important. The people are the single most important part of the electoral system, not the party elites. But, if we continue to do what we have always done, we will just get more of what we have always gotten.
Think of the current trend lines of climate change, racism, mass extinction, wealth inequality, and war, just for starters. What are the risks involved in maintaining conventional political wisdom, given the likelihood that if we continue to act the same, the same situation will be reproduced?
Where in the historical record is a single example of great changes occurring without great risks? As the crisis deepens we will likely approach a tipping point in the equation of risk. The dangers we face to make the big changes will become less threatening than the dangers we face in continuing on the current course.
Perhaps we are already there.
What is the existing strategy of labor and social movement activists for national electoral politics? How do progressive individuals and organizations that have their “eyes on the prize” relate to the electoral system? What do those that want to pursue particular issues, or aim higher for a more democratic system, do to further their political agendas?
Local and state situations vary so greatly that this preliminary discussion will look almost exclusively how we have engaged national electoral politics over the last half-century or so. History affords us a much-needed vantage point. Its time to summarize and imagine alternatives. This series of posts will look at contending approaches and propose a few ideas to move us in the direction of a transformative electoral strategy. The argument is toward a strategy, not just a candidate or a party.
A defacto electoral strategy has emerged over the last half-century and it includes three major related approaches: The lesser of two evils, non-voters, and protest voters.
Lesser of Two Evils
The first is those voters, activists and organizations that support voting for the Democrats to strengthen that party’s progressive policies — not because the Democrats represent a model champion of the people — but as the lesser of two evils.
Social movement activists pursue legislation and support candidates as a way of achieving specific goals. Many, perhaps most progressives, vote Democratic largely out of fear of the Republicans. They see no reasonable expectation that to do anything but vote for the Democrats can have a positive outcome or even reduce harm. Given the current situation and absent a clear alternative, this strategic option is quite compelling.
The leadership of the labor and social movements are almost entirely committed to voting Democratic and to dedicating major resources to GOTV efforts. The vast majority of grassroots and rank and file activists are equally committed to the lesser of two evils. In truth there is almost no Democratic Party organization without them.
In the absence of a coherent strategy and/or massive reform movements then voting for the Democrats seems the only choice if you want your vote to defend past gains or to have immediate consequences.
The other large group are those that do not vote. We have no clear idea how may people cannot overcome the barriers erected by voter suppression practices and laws or how many simply abstain. Reason and research suggest that many of these non-voters would vote Democratic, but their observation and assessment is that electoral politics do not matter enough to bother or that the Democrats offer little.
We lack real engaged knowledge of this large unorganized group since the Democrats tend to tailor their appeal to the middle ground. The failure of the Democrats to launch voter campaigns, registering and mobilizing the 40% or so of voters that stand aside suggests they like things as they are.
Obama’s first campaign was a success in part because it made modest but effective outreach to this large bloc of non-voters. The non voters tend to be younger, working-class and people of color and have the greatest latent power of any voting demographic.
An unknown number of the non-voters are radicals that think electoral politics do not matter, or are totally hopeless, or a distraction from other pursuits. The lack of a workable alternative strategy and the continual disappointments on issues of war, the environment, the penal system and corporate power makes abstention a sensible option for some radicals.
A small percentage of US radicals vote for alternative or “third” parties, but this possibility is influential and very tempting among rank and file activists and ordinary citizens alike. The Green Party, particularly the candidacy of Ralph Nader, caused considerable excitement. The Green Party raised, not just issues, but the political question of the two-party system itself.
Over the years dissidents have voted for alternative parties, including the Citizens Party, Green Party, Working Families Party, New Party, and an array of socialist or communist parties. Third parties have been most successful on a local level. But in the national arena, these might be considered “protest votes” because the voters have no expectation of victory. The candidates draw attention largely because of their stand on the issues.
A significant minority of US voters agree with them in principle. But these parties do not draw votes in keeping with the popularity of their political platforms, in part, because no clear pathway to power exists. How can the vote for a third party be seen as a long-term strategy to change the existing system? How would a larger independent party be able to gain a foothold given the existing rules governing elections? What are the gains short of victory?
Has Our Strategy Failed?
These three practices — lesser of two evils, abstention, and protest vote — have been the default strategy of social movement activists and radicals for the past half century at least. I think it is fair to say that this approach has been a near total failure in redistributing power back to the people.
While, important local gains have been won, they have only been concessions, never fundamental political reform. After all, these three practices have been the main approach during the same half-century that labor and the social movements have been on the defensive and the Democrats and Republicans have drifted to the right.
While the Democrats are by no means the same as the Republicans — and the differences can be compelling — they do agree on the key issues shaping American life: commitment to war and empire; and service to the corporate power as the dominant force in the political, economic and social life of the country. While the Democrats have moved on minor environmental issues neither party has shown the slightest inclination to take on the fossil fuel regime and the giant corporations at the heart of climate change. Other central issues of social control — such as maintaining a vast militarized penal system and corporate controlled media — are also bipartisan favorites.
Only in the highly regulated and restricted world of US electoral discourse could such policies be considered “moderate”. Instead these policies which drive us faster and faster toward unprecedented crisis are an expression of the extremism of the center.
How do the Democrats maintain their claim on the resources and votes of the labor and social movements under such conditions? The Democrats have a strategy: Triangulation.
1. This long-standing political practice was forcefully summarized by Steve Bronner in his essay, ”The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012.” http://logosjournal.com/2012/fall_bronner-2/ We owe Steve thanks for laying out the position so clearly and comprehensively. I take Steve’s essay as an important starting point because such positions carry the most strategic logic and largest following. I also see Bronner’s argument as compelling in the absence of another worthwhile strategy or transformative mass movement. Other important sources for this post were, Lisa Jane Disch, Tyranny of the Two Party System. Stu Eimer, “The CIO and Third Party Politics in New York: The Rise and Fall of the CIO-ALP”. Multi-Party Politics in America, Eds. Paul Herrnson John C. Green. Independent Politics: the Green Party Strategy Debate ed. Howie Hawkings; David Reynolds, Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two Party Systems.