Towards a Transformative Electoral Strategy

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Here is the series on Electoral Strategy presented as a single essay.

This is the first post in a seven part series on Elections. 

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.[1]

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.

Non-voters

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.

Protest Voters

Voting for alternative or “third” parties is practiced by a small percentage of US radicals, 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.


The second of seven posts on Electoral Strategy

Triangulation


One of the most powerful achievements of the two-party system has been to effectively limit political competition in a nation still widely regarded as a democracy. These limits are enforced by law and procedure but are also the results of the strategy of Triangulation.

Triangulation proclaims: “there is no alternative,” and works to enforce that claim. This strategy has demobilized a near majority of US voters into non-voters and induced a significant minority to knowingly vote for parties that do not represent their views or interests.

Triangulation took its most coherent form under the Clintons but it really describes the relationships between the Democrats and social movements since the 1970s at least.  The Republicans play the same game.

Triangulation is a war of position.

The Democrats position themselves to the right of the labor and social movements, and it could well be argued, of the majority of Democratic voters.  Democratic strategy targets  ‘swing voters” or “swing states” standing between Democrats and Republicans. Mainstream Democrats don’t bother with a direct appeal to the social movements or non-voters because that would risk unleashing forces of social change — and because they don’t have to.

The first Obama campaign was a partial and momentary departure from this and proved the potential for mobilizing occasional voters and new voters by what seemed a visionary call for change. Even conservative unions switched their Clinton teeshirts for Obama ones.

But most of the time the movement votes are signed, sealed and delivered without real pressure or public criticism. Some political critics and activists even take a holiday during the election cycle for fear of damaging Democratic prospects.  They surrender the rights to open debate or make demands in the name of some clever tactic to defeat the right-wing. In 2000 the call for “Anyone but Bush” failed and such tactics fail to improve public debate and actually risk losing elections.

We should never leave the Democrats free to tailor their appeal to the small percentage of voters undecided between them and the Republicans because it draws them, and us, toward the so-called “center,” and narrows the terms of political debate. Take the 2012 presidential election for example, when the war in Afghanistan and the environmental crisis were effectively non-issues.

Mid-term elections, in particular, are revealing as to how triangulation strengthens the right-wing. Once incumbency relieves national Democratic leaders of the any need to lean toward their “base,” triangulation comes in full swing. In 2014 for example, triangulation led to electoral disaster for Democrats and the lowest voter turnout in 70 years despite the record $4 billion spent on the election.

With few exceptions, 2014 offered the choice between pseudo-Republicans on the Democratic ticket and real Republicans. Voters choose the real deal and/or the demoralized voters stay home.

Triangulation sharply curtailed Obama possibilities. This is not a new pattern.  Triangulation did its share to contribute to the right-wing resurgence and entrenchment in 1994, 1996, 2010 and 2014.[2]

Michael Lerner’s analysis of 2010 points to the long-term effect of triangulation.

We know, of course, that the Democrats did not have a solid majority in Congress, given Rahm Emanuel’s 2006 decision to back the most conservative candidates in the Democratic primaries in order to win in swing districts and take Democratic control of the House of Representatives (a decision he made while serving as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). Democrats in the Senate followed a similar path. As a result, they won formal control and hence could be blamed for what ensued, but they did not have the votes to fulfill their promise to the electorate to cut off funding for the war in Iraq.

When machine Democrats steal the thunder from Republicans, as the Clintons were infamous for, the Republicans are pushed further rightward to redefine their appeal, mark their territory, and secure their voting base. By becoming another party of Wall Street, the Democrats have relieved the Republicans of much of their historic mission.

What’s a Republican to do? Move to the right!

It was after all the Clinton administration whose “tough on crime” stance outmaneuvered the Republicans and produced the largest increases in the state and federal prison population of any president in history.[1] Clinton militarized the police with as much zeal as his right-wing predecessor. Triangulation created the American gulag. NAFTA, too.  “Ending welfare as we know it” was a signature accomplishment of the Clinton White House as well as a priority for Republicans.  Both parties lead their attack on the poor with moralistic calls for “personal responsibility.”

When Democrats protect big banks, Republicans are free to attack unions. When Democrats coddle big oil, coal, and gas, the Republicans resort to climate denial and gag rules. TPP is a bipartisan project of the center.

“New Democrats” or “Third Way” Democrats have dominated the party since the first Clinton administration. Their support for austerity measures and Wall Street deregulation has led to economic disaster and suppressed the vote. As Michael Corcoran aptly argues, Clinton continues to embrace the destructive legacy of pushing the Democratic Party to the right.

There is no center.

Here is how the Guardian describes the ideas of George Lakoff,  the cognitive linguist:

“[T]he left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves.”

Just how badly can public debate be twisted? If Obama can be attacked as an anti-war president then reality is no measure.

If there is a bottom to the depths we have not marked it yet.

So every four years we are served up a full course menu of Republican horribles. Stampeded by revulsion and fear, we are left with the choice of voting for mainstream and right-wing Democrats whose strategy then enables the further rightward drift of both parties. Or, so it has been for a half a century.  Triangulation has contributed its share to the dramatic rightward shift in the Republican Party.

But, for many mainstream politicians in high places, finishing second in the richest, most powerful country in the world is not so bad. Two-party triangulation limits risk because the “loser” is guaranteed a comfortable place at the table.

The major parties leaders really have no skin in the game.

As long as triangulation works to reproduce power unchanged, then the social movements largely miss out on the political opportunities that elections should present.


[1] Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 56-57

[2] To see the similarities between 2014 and 2010 see Roger Hickey http://ourfuture.org/20141120/as-in-2010-dems-lost-without-an-economic-message-worth-fighting-for 2010 election was notable for low democratic turnout and the Democrats retreat from stimulus, job creation, caving to the Republicans on budgets, and unwillingness to tout health care reform. It was long term triangulation at work to support right wing Democrats.

It was the right-wing “Blue Dog” Democrats that lost big. See Amanda Terkel http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/03/blue-dog-coalition-gop-wave-elections_n_778087.html See also: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/4/as_right_leaning_blue_dogs_lose

Almost as extreme was the 1994 mid-term elections with the Democrats adhering to triangulation under Bill Clinton. In 1994 and 1996 Congress was elected by less than 25% of the eligible electorate. See Kay Lawson, “ The Case for a Multiparty System,” p. 34 in Multiparty politics in America second Edition, Eds. Paul s. Herrson and John C. Green


 

The third in a series of seven posts on Electoral Strategy for 2016 

The Ties that Binds Us


Each of the three components of the movement’s existing strategy accommodates triangulation in crucial ways.

Lesser of Two Evils

While the leading segments of the labor and social movements often employ all sorts of creative and inspiring tactics and campaigns and can master hard-knuckle negotiations with the boss, their electoral programs lack innovation or forceful negotiations. We act as if the New Deal coalition or the mid-century social contract is still with us, while both have been history since 1975 or so. [1]

The “lesser of two evil” voters in movement organizations are told by their lobbyists  to “get in early.” Early support for Democrats is supposed to enhance the power of the movement organizations. Has this worked? While this might produce valuable results in local or state election, it has produced little on the national level.

Obamacare was the only important reform, but one a better use of our resources should have won many decades ago. President Truman called for national health care in 1945.  After many millions of dollars spent and regular and extensive GOTV efforts we are over half a century without meaningful labor law or electoral reform.

The “get-in early” approach of the lesser of two evils votes assures the Democrats that they do not have to work for our votes and deprives us of any real opportunity for hard bargaining. It turns our leaders into beggars. We are weak and humble before the strong when what we need, with so much at stake, is to be daring and bold.

From the perspective of the inside/outside strategy, the lesser of two evils voters who desire real social change undermine their own power when they lash out at third parties or dissenters.  Every pole of power — all the opposition — is necessary for us to make credible threats of exit. Threat of exit says, “Meet my expectations or I take my business elsewhere.”  Triangulation insists there is no alternative for a reason:  threat of exit amplifies our voice and power.  If we have the courage to negotiate, then dissent and “voting with our feet” are indispensable resources. Unlock the exits.

Of all the many reasons that Gore lost the 2000 election, why were Nader and the Green Party singled out for all the shame and blame?  And why has this bit of mythology passed so easily into “common sense” as we head into 2016?  Triangulation compels surrender  when there is no alternative.

And, it’s always easier to kick the dog than kick the master.

If our candidates do not offer compelling visions or persuasive programs, or invest in massive voter registration efforts, or defend themselves when elections are stolen, then the failure is ours. Blaming third party candidates for Republican victories — while distancing ourself from the non-voters — is a flimsy cover for our failure to organize and plays directly into triangulation.

With 70-90 million non-voters there is no spoiler — just our failure to contest power.

If we are interested in change we take risks — we unlock the exits and we organize. Setbacks and losses will occur in any event and already have. I think the history of the last 50 years is clear that the lesser of two evil voting has contributed more than its fair share to loss.

Fear of the right should not be an excuse for the simple-minded support of mainstream Democrats, since those Democrats have contributed in significant ways to the rise of the right.

We are stuck in a terrible dilemma but a vote for corporate, pro-war and drug war Democrats, to ward off the short-term attack from the extreme right, may well be winning the battle to lose the war. The human cost will be high in any event.

Think of the current trend lines of climate change, mass extinction, income inequality, racism, 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 shift 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.

If I overstate my case it is because the lesser of two evils vote has, after all, been the most popular and well-funded approach and we should recognize its contribution both in terms of local and partial victories but also in its failure to produce significant social change. The lesser of two evils can occasionally win important concessions but never touch the core structures of power: the corporations, the war machine, mass communications and mass incarceration. And, we have to entertain the idea that the lesser of two evils shares responsibility for the rightward drift of American electoral politics.

Non-voters

Non-voters comply with one of the basic tenants of triangulation consistent with old style machine politics. Machines want only predictable and ”politically reliable” voters and prefer small voter turnouts. Triangulation prefers the 5% undecided centrists and writes off the non-voters as not worth the efforts or expense.

When progressives simply stay home the two-party system cheers because the non-entity of 40% of the American people have followed the game plan of the two-party machine. Keeping 40% of the voters away from the polls has been an amazing accomplishment for the master class —an accomplishment we should not be complicit in. The mobilization of non-voters is one of the most powerful latent threats against the existing electoral order. The radical non-voters lose the game by failing to use elections as a political opportunity to do education or to articulate why they think elections are a fraud.

The Third Party

The third party voters have also accommodated triangulation by failing to come up with a compelling strategy that can convince people that their vote for the Green Party or other party is not simply a protest but a path to power. Third parties need to debunk the spoiler argument, in discourse and practice, not internalized it.

The Green Party for example has clearly articulated the issues that appeal to many lesser of two evils and many non-voters but have failed to tell us how to convert the protest vote into a power vote. Without a pathway to power the protest voter experiences only the pale imitation of resistance. A provisional strategy will win more new voters and new members to the alternative parties than fine principles alone. At least that is what the last 20 years suggests since many lesser of two evil voters usually prefer the Green Party platform but cannot bring themselves to “throw their vote away.”

The challenge to power is too weak to motivate the non-voters. So despite visionary and articulate leaders on the issues, third parties fail because they do not address the strategic challenges.

As far as I can figure the public strategy of the Green party is that they are independent, principled and have the best ideas and politics. It’s a commendable start but that is not, strictly speaking, a strategy.

Even triangulation cannot live forever. As the people of the US grow ever more diverse and discontented, the more narrow, protected and uniform has the system become. Triangulation is already unstable and will allow, even in the short run, motion in the direction of the people: first Obama, then the potential good of Warren or Sanders.

Heed the persistent calls for independence and opposition.


[1]Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority,” p77-84. in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. Ed. Keith Hoeller. See also “Autoworkers at Lordstown” Workplace Democracy and American Citizenship.” p289-292, in The World the Sixties Made, ends, Van Gosse and Richard Moser


 

The fourth in a series of seven posts on Electoral Strategy.

Towards A Transformative Electoral Strategy


Now here is the hard part: What strategy might enhance the existing one but that also, of necessity, starts from the conditions at hand? Those familiar with this blog will not be surprised to hear that the grand inside/outside strategy —one focused on social transformation— seems a coherent approach that aims to improve political competition but also engages the lesser of two evils voters, the non-voters and the protest voters. Starting from where we stand is the beginning of  strategy.

The inside/outside strategy, first and foremost, requires a shift in outlook and consciousness. The lesser of two evils, non-voters and protest voters need to start acting like we are all part of a movement. I realize this requires a lot of acting but the rightwing already sees us that way. And, we need to know that at no time in US history have significant oppositional movements been composed of people with a high level of ideological agreement.

Here we are: a movement with extremely diverse trends that is nonetheless capable of coordinated action — if not agreement on causes, ideas or ultimate solutions. We are capable of unity without uniformity. Act “as if” and maybe someday it will be so.

That elusive agreement is made all the more difficult by the fact that American social movements tend to be stridently moralistic, polemical and prone to sectarian division. In part, this is an inheritance from certain elements of our old but enduring religious culture. Now, we need an inclusive ecumenical approach.

Or to borrow language from recent struggles over sexual and gender identity:  The IOS is a transpartisan and polyamorous way to express love of politics.

There is no one road to revolution and no one revolution. We will have to agree to disagree. Polemic, ideological correctness, or class analysis will not build the ground on which unity will occur —at least ideological struggle has failed to do so for the last half-century or more. Unity is most likely to be found on the practical, strategic, truly political level of action. While ideas range widely without regard to real-world correlates, action reduces our options. In any one historical moment there is a limited range of action we can imagine as possible or experience as sustainable.

The vast majority of people in the social movements do agree on the need to create a more democratic system. But can we accept that to create such a system will require activism and action, courage and risk, all along the lines of the inside/outside continuum? Can people from as diverse positions as the labor lobbyist, the third party radical, out-and-out abstainer or local grassroots organizer find the hidden synergies between them?

Or more precisely can leaders sketch out a strategy to move us in this direction? Social movements have championed “diversity” but are we able to accept the tactical diversity within our own ranks? Can we turn our minds toward devising a strategy rather than simply supporting an issue, candidate or party?

Well its a long-shot but that is what social change is. If we continue to act in the same way what reasonable expectation do we have of a change in outcome?

In particular, the lesser of two evil activists and third party partisans can strengthen their hand by appreciating the latent power in all positions along the inside/outside spectrum. We need to convert that latent power into political leverage for our own position. Instead of static opposition between contending ideological positions we need the political skill to find practical political value in those positions we disagree with. Easier said than done but it starts by breaking the log-jam.

Mobilize Non-Voters and Independents

Almost every successful popular movement in US history has won victories by bringing new constituencies to bear on the political process —to educate and mobilize people previously passive.

The non-voters hold the greatest potential power. Will chastising and blaming non-voters move them to act? The record suggests that the paternalistic approach: “I don’t want to hear you complain, if you don’t vote, ” is a failure. It is much more useful to see non-voting as a product of the system itself.  To see non-voting as a strictly personal shortcoming is to let candidates off the hook for developing programs for the poor and political parties off the hook for organizing.

The tendency to blame the non-voter does not take into account how hard voting has become. Voter suppression laws raise the barrier particularly for poor and people of color. The states have a wide variety of prohibitions on voting for former convicts. Many are afraid to assert their rights even in states where registering to vote is allowed. Voter registration is now as important as it was during the civil rights movement.

Massive voter registration counters the zero-sum assumption inherent in triangulation by acting on the obvious: with at least 40% of potential voters staying home the pie can be grown. 70 to 90 million votes are at stake. There are plenty of potential voters for progressive Democrats and Third parties alike.

There is no spoiler, just our failure to contest power.

Voter registration efforts are widely supported, at least in the abstract, but are often focused on the white and affluent people most likely to vote in predictable ways. Voter registration seem to pale in comparison with efforts to turn out the trusted vote. As a matter of redistributing power voter registration is a more important first step because it threatens the logic of triangulation by shifting the appeal to the poor, young, black, latin, asian and working class people that are the majority of non-voters and precisely the people that are the most oppressed and exploited by the existing system.

Many electoral activists treat the non-voters as pariah instead as sleeping giant. Yet research suggests that most non-voters are simply discouraged, too busy, working too hard or sidelined by the cumbersome and anti-democratic election procedures.

Voter registration is one of the first meaningful bargain chips we can develop given our current resources and practices. It’s just more of what we already do. Mainstream Democrats and Republicans will not like it. But, by investing serious resources in voter registration we can begin to become players not just supplicants.

Bringing millions of new voters to the ballot box is a powerful way of bargaining for candidates with better politics. Millions of new voters can only strengthen the progressive Democratic candidates and alternative parties.

We have plenty of demands to make if we have the courage to make them — but if those challenges do not have serious backing — then there is no compelling threat to mainstream or right-wing Democrats to move toward the people.  And we are stuck with whining instead of winning.


 

The fifth in a series of seven posts on Electoral Strategy.

Push, Pull, Pivot

The inside/outside strategy depends on our own capacity to view other wings of the movement — positions we may not initially agree with — as leverage.

The mainstream machine Democrats need to know we are considering supporting the dissident Democrats, unless.… The dissident Democrats need to know we are considering the third party, unless.… The third party needs to know that we are considering giving our time to social movement organizing, unless….

There is no threat of exit without somewhere to exit to.

It is, after all, what we do that matters, not what the politicians or candidates do.  Consider adopting the strategic sense of Martin Luther King.

In addition to the development of genuinely independent and representative political leaders, we shall have to master the art of political alliances. Negroes should be natural allies of many white reform and independent political groups, yet they are commonly organized by old-line machine politicians. We will have to learn to refuse crumbs from the big-city machines and steadfastly demand a fair share of the loaf. When the machine politicians demur, we must be prepared to act in unity and throw our support to such independent parties or reform wings of the major parties as are prepared to take our demands seriously and fight for them vigorously. This is political freedom; this is political maturity expressing our aroused and determined new spirit to be treated as equals in all aspects of life.[1]

Take King’s stance toward powerful political leaders. Lyndon Johnson passed more social legislation than any other president since FDR, including historic civil rights and voting laws, yet King remained critical of LBJ. Johnson’s pursuit of the Vietnam War and his failure to enforce civil rights laws was cause enough for King to withdrawal his support for Johnson’s reelection. Before Johnson decided not to run, King was assisting Robert Kennedy and giving Eugene McCarthy serious consideration in his independent bid for president. His willingness to negotiate hard with the Democrats is unmatched by current labor and social movement leaders.

Now, concessions are too often viewed as reason for uncritical support. Horse trading has too often replaced political struggle.  That, we are told, is the “give and take” of normal political life.  The crisis demands that we turn toward a “new normal:” making demands, eliciting promises and proposing programs based on threat of exit. There is no threat of exit without somewhere to exit to.

Activists are already busy supporting the candidacies of Bernie Sanders. Why would the Clinton machine move without a threat to its power?

Pushing Sanders and Warren

Sanders and Warren are the best potential candidates the two-party system has produced and if we work well and hard perhaps one can win the presidency. Every candidate that positions themselves toward the people and the social movements rather than the center weakens triangulation. While Warren seems to have stood down, Sanders is surging with a counter-strategy — moving toward the social movements and taking voters with him.

By standing up to the worst abuses of the corporate power Sanders have pushed the focus toward the concerns of everyday people and his popularity is a threat Clinton must try to contain.  Whatever the limits of Sander’s politics — there is a real educational value to his positions — adding content to the content-free elections triangulation tends to produce.

Even beyond reasoned debate, vigorous dissent can convert weakness to strength. Since triangulation has accustomed the somewhat de-politicized center to select candidates based on style, image and the appearance of integrity, some will move left by virtue of strong, courageous and ethical leadership, regardless of the issues.  Sanders is winning some of those voters already.

If pressed with enough skill and resources Sanders will force even a master triangulator like Clinton to lose support or make a gesture toward the people. In fact, Warren and Sanders have already forced incumbents, Obama, Clinton, Democrats and Republicans, to pay lip service to income inequality and political reform.

Its going to be really hard for labor unions to reject the routine advise of its political consultants to “always back a winner.” Yes, your organization may benefit from small concessions but we need to consider the long-term trade-off.  We get small short-term concessions as the status quo becomes ever more entrenched.

After all, triangulation is a modern version of the classic ruling class strategy: divide and conquer. They rule not simply through force but by selective concessions that demobilize the opposition by giving us just enough to keep us in line.

Activists engaged in the good work of promoting Warren and Sanders must confront the claim of that dissident candidates are “unelectable” in the general election. Again, we have Obama to thank for putting that one to rest. If a black man with an islamic sounding name, proposing what seemed like real change, can be elected President of the US then all bets are off.

The American people are ready for serious change.

Obama’s 2008 campaign is suggestive. He worked with regular Democrats when possible and built a parallel and independent organization when he was rejected by the machine. In 2008 Clinton was also the presumed candidate. Obama retained enough organizing wisdom from his youth and successfully tapped the longing for change.

Once elected, Obama returned to the fold and to triangulation, but we need to learn from every opportunity and be forewarned.

It’s what we do that matters.

Sanders supporters should look to the third parties, social movements and welcome — yes welcome — the debate. Since turnout is essential in overcoming triangulation and reversing the rightward trend, Warren and Sanders would become better able to motivate the disaffected, non voter, and independent by engaging with, learning from, and leaning toward Greens, Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy, the peace movement and the progressive labor unions.

And if you think such a move is completely out of the question in American politics take a close look at the rhetoric,  policies and history of Franklin D. Roosevelt.[2] He moved in the direction of popular resistance. While FDR’s politics were far from ideal and the corporate state had not achieved its current supremacy, the strategic moves FDR made are still instructive. Mainstream political actors can realigned voter behavior and allegiances if faced with crisis and/or significant outside political pressure.

Whatever the fate of the Sanders’ candidacy, his choices are actually not our primary concern. Many voters, new or occasional voters especially, will be drawn into the contest and will learn important things from Sanders. What are we going to do with them and their new level of awareness? That is our concern.

If Sanders wins the nomination, then simultaneous support for Sanders and the Green Party makes the most sense given the IOS. Support two candidates simultaneously? Outrageous! Hardly. The corporations have been doing this for a century because it makes good strategic sense to do so.

Support means more than votes, in fact votes are the least of it. There is nothing to stop us from giving our money and time to both. We need the Green Party to pose a healthy challenge, raise the level of discourse and point out the weaknesses of the two-party system that will become evident after Sanders is President.

Unless scores of new like-minded congress members are elected, as occurred during the 1930s, Sanders will be facing the same deeply entrenched corporate power that Obama made peace with. Changing that is the job of the social movements.

If Sanders does not win the nomination then activists should encourage Sanders supporters to pursue the change that they want.  If Clinton wins the nomination and moves toward the extreme center, a likely outcome given her history, then movement activists have two productive choices: encourage former Sanders supporters to rush to the Green Party or stay with Clinton trying to move her toward the social movements.

Those who maintain a critical embrace of Clinton are doing valuable work but they should also accept that the dissenters and the Green Party are their best allies in that effort. We need every pole of opposition and every threat of exit. That’s the politics of the IOS.

Without the Greens and dissident social movements, Clinton activists will be left to play the weak hands of moral or ideological argument against a machine long attuned to seeing only power.

Warren and Sanders have succeeded so far through passionate and well-reasoned criticism and by offering bold solutions to important issues. Rising expectations fuel social change.  Let’s learn that well no matter where we stand.


[1]MLK Where do we Go from Here 607, The essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, ed. James M. Washington. See also Black Power Defined, 309 [2] See an under-appreciated anthology, New Deal Thought ed. Howard Zinn. The authors show the breadth of alternatives floated during this period of popular upsurge, organizing, and alternative parties.


 

The sixth in a series of seven post on Electoral Strategy.

 The Alternative


We need the Greens.

An electoral strategy aiming toward social transformation requires a dramatic shift from the routine ways that we see and contest elections.

We need to reconsider the western theological model that, like it or not, is the deep structure behind so much of contemporary US radicalism. Instead of studying and engaging power, the polemical, moral and ideological life of radical politics mimics an ancient theological model. We feel we must have one god and one god only, and that there is but one way to salvation. To defend our beliefs we joust with other radicals through endless polemics that only serve to divide us and substitute opinions for strategy.

Our system of representation is so compromised that we must look beyond the candidates and their stand on the issues to focus on the power relationships we want to contest. We have to ask: What is going to weaken triangulation: the strategy of the two party system? What is going to strengthen participatory democracy and the social movements?

We know that people become active in many different ways. Let’s keep all the doors open. We need to conduct a vast experiment in democracy and for the best results we need to put as many possibility to work as we can. “Both/And” approaches allow us to evaluate and discover the strategic value of the actual forces on the ground, while “Either/Or” choices narrow our vision and divides the movement.

If we welcome everyone, honor the path they took to activism, and keep experimenting, perhaps  grassroots movements can renew representative democracy. Perhaps we can beat the big money, the corporate media and the masters of war and prison.

This is why we need Jill Stein and the Green Party.

The lack of political competition has all too often made two-party system little more than a power sharing system.  Sanders is so important precisely for introducing dramatic alternatives to routine politics. Sanders’ surge in the polls shows the widespread desire for clear alternatives. He is opening a door the Greens can also walk through.

Political alternatives and opposition parties are essential to an effective strategy and those exist most clearly in the platforms and principles of the Green Party and other third parties.  But that is not enough.

Alternative parties need to help us imagine a compelling pathway to power. It’s difficult to commit to a course of action that cannot be imagined. Rhetorical strategy, political strategy and action plans are crucial because visions, plans and projects allow us to imagine alternative futures. People need to see that another world is possible. 

For the sake of argument, lets say the national goals of the Green Party in 2016 are achieving the 5% threshold for public funding and shifting the public discourse.

As a starting point it is vitally important that alternative parties exploit their positions as outsiders — outsiders cast out of public debate. We should struggle to be included in debates and forums sponsored by the labor and social movements and eventually by the media. Exclusion from debate is inexcusable and an organizing issue for third parties: an opportunity for protest, education and civil disobedience.

When Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested at the Hofstra debate in 2012 they were on the right track. Can we find hundreds of people willing to be arrested with candidates locked out of debate? The right to debate may have the potential for popular support. This could become a 1st Amendment campaign, itself something of educational and political value.  It is a struggle we can wage and even win.

There is no spoiler.

For an inside/outside strategy to show results it will be necessary for alternative parties to address “spoiler” arguments.

Spoiler arguments are the political analogue to the “austerity” claims enforced so ruthlessly by corporate elites. Under austerity “we are broke.” But, we must add: except for the trillions of dollars in cash that the big corporations and billionaires are sitting on — at the peak of their wealth — in the richest country in the history of the world. This artificial scarcity is then imposed on the people who will have to sacrifice their jobs, incomes, pensions, social services, and security.

In spoiler arguments, the elites insist — and far too many “progressives”  concede — there is a scarcity of votes. But, we must add: except for the 70-90 million non-voters that the dismal performance of government, triangulation, and our failure to organize have left disempowered and driven to the sidelines. This artificial scarcity of voters is then imposed on the people who will have to sacrifice their freedom, democracy, and political judgments by yielding to the major parties they no longer believe in.

Since the election of 2000 is the most powerful reference for spoiler argument let’s unpack it.

The horse-race or sports framing for elections and the pro-corporate mission of major media has been incredibly effective in shaping the political outlooks of people who consider themselves progressive or radical. Bush beats Gore “by a nose” in 2000 and we are supposed to act as if it is the nose not that horse that won or lost.

We are told that the 2000 election came down to 560 Florida voters that cast ballots for the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. “A vote for the Green party was a vote for the Republican party.”

It was not that Gore lost the votes of tens of thousands of white women who voted Republican by a huge margin of 53 % Bush to 44% Gore. Oh no, it was the 600 or so Nader voters.

It wasn’t that 13% of registered Democrats voted for Bush. It wasn’t that the base deserted the party and gave approximately 300,000 votes to Bush in Florida. No, no it was the 600 Nader voters that elected Bush.

It wasn’t the 30-35%  of Union members that vote Republican year after year. Nope.

It wasn’t that a near majority of eligible voters stayed home nationwide. Forget the 70 to 90 million voters that decide voting isn’t worth the trouble. Forget, forget.

It was not the failure of the Democrats to commit resources to inspire, register and mobilize non voters and occasional voters. Not that.

It wasn’t the Gore could not win Tennessee, his home state where he served as a Congress-member and Senator for 16 years and where his father Al Gore Sr. had a long and distinguished record. Nah.

It wasn’t that we use an antiquated and undemocratic electoral college system that Democrats and Republicans refuse to reform. It was the Green 600 for sure.

Or, that the Republicans stole the election.  And did again in 2004.

Or that  Florida has the most draconian laws in the nation permanently disenfranchising people once convicted of a felony. Not our concern, no.

And, the list goes on. Spoiler is scapegoating. So when someone raises the spoiler argument here is what I hear them really saying.

“Given our failure to organize the unorganized and motivate non-voters,  we blame the opposition party to cover our shame.”

“Given my failure to contest power, I will blame whoever I have been told to blame so  I blame the opposition.”

Pathetic.  The liberals doth protest too much, methinks.

Still I expect to continue to hear spoiler arguments even as it passes into absurdity. When Green Party candidate James Lane ran for congress in 2015 in NYC he was attacked as a spoiler.  The voter turnout was only 11%.  11%.  89% of the eligible voters stay home and still we are told that a vote for an opposition party is a vote for the reactionary party.

Obviously, the main function of spoiler arguments is to keep people from voting for opposition candidates. But, a real opposition party is essential to changing the system.  And, while there are important differences between the Democrats and Republicans, under no conditions can either party be considered an opposition party. That honor belongs to the Green Party.

The current two-party system will be guaranteed a monopoly until the logic and power of that system is fundamentally altered or abolished. I have heard the collapse of the Republican party predicted over and over but always they return. We will never rid ourselves of this power sharing arrangement until the balance is upset and for that we need real opposition parties and real opposition candidates.

Kudos to both Sanders and the Greens for giving the opposition a voice. And, for raising expectations.

There is no spoiler no matter how many times the corporate media trumpets these claims. There is nothing but our failure to contest power.

Bring on the Competition. 

In the pursuit of the 5% necessary to gain major party status, the economic strategy articulated by Gar Alperovitz is a helpful tool.  Alperovitz argues that the barriers to appropriating the wealth of the ruling elite are currently so formidable that producing new wealth and is a more winning strategy.  The same holds true with votes to some degree.  And creating new voters weakens triangulation even more forcefully than competing for lesser of two evils voters.

The exception to the rule is the fate of the huge number of real opposition voters supporting Sander’s.  If Clinton wins the nomination, the Green Party stands to win millions of voters.  Let’s start the welcome now by honoring Sanders supporters, not insulting their intelligence, softening polemical attacks, avoiding self-righteousness and pointing out the many, many common concerns and political positions between the Green Party and the Sanders’ surge.  Sanders means that something big is changing and that change is opportunity for a principled and skillful opposition.

But in the long run, beyond 2016, the creation of new constituencies out of discouraged voters or independents would be the proof positive that there is no zero-sum game, no spoiler, no wasted vote. Even partial success will draw significant numbers of lesser of two evil voters. New voters are an “outside” force tailor made to pull the “inside” toward the people.

Can the Green Party become a center for registering new voters? Can third parties become a force for reversing voter suppression? Maximizing vote totals might require focus on some states and not others without regard for how this helps or hurts the Democrats. Similarly it may be productive to focus energy on states that are easier targets for electoral reforms.

The criteria is: how do actions strengthen the standing of the Green Party or third party as an outside actor able to weaken the governing strategy of power. And, since we do not currently have the resources or people to confront power everywhere — the goal is to raise an army of activists and voters — well trained and equipped.

Until that day dawns our first and most important audience is the people, not the government; the social movements, not the two-party system; except inasmuch as demands on power are a means of organizing.

This is so simple to say and so hard to do.

But, If we think that logic, reason, facts, a good argument alone — that principled politics and high moral values alone will lead to power — we are wrong. In any event, the Green Party already has all those resources and while principles are absolutely required they are far, far from sufficient. Strategy and organizing are key to building a vigorous opposition and a credible threat of exit for others.

We need the promise of power.  And we need the  movement.


This is the last of seven posts on Electoral Strategy.

The Movement and Elections


It’s what we do that matters.

The rank and file of the social and labor movements hold the most important position and bear the heaviest burden of all.  Participatory democracy is the key to reconstructing representative democracy. The labor and social movements have the power to change America.

I am not suggesting that activists shift their work to electoral politics unless they want to.  It may well be that the best thing people can do is to build their movement and community. Make their organizations and neighborhoods more sustainable, more effective, more democratic and more disruptive to the normal course of corporate power.

We are in desperate need of grassroots rebellion and empowerment on many fronts and for many reasons. And, the social moments remain the best source of people with the capacity to undertake electoral work as transformative project.

The Greens have distilled popular oppositional politics into a compelling platform, but they did not invent it — decades of struggle from many social moments did.

In our time, the struggle of low wage and contingent workers is mustering new people and new ideas in the pursuit of economic democracy. Occupy reshaped popular discourse and mass perceptions regarding class realities in America and rediscovered the promise of participatory democracy. Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter brought racism roaring back into national consciousness and trained our eyes on the penal system and mass incarceration. The environmental movement, from Idle No More, to Food and Water Watch to 350 have found a diverse mass activist base that is trying to wake us up and tell us what time it is.

It is too late for horse trading.  Too late for more of the same.

The power of the social movements to alter elections is largely based on our ability to disturb the peace. Beneath the often reported signs of contest and competition, the major parties enjoy a kind of power-sharing arrangement. Gerrymandering, regional strongholds, machine politics and the many legal limits on political competition have created something akin to a dual one-party system.  Each party is master of its own domain.

Our power originates in our ability to disrupt and threaten triangulation, upsetting the harmony that allows the corporate power, empire, mass media and the penal system to remain untouched. Ramping up our ability to organize and conduct massive non-violent civil disobedience and protest is essential. Without a vigorous outside movement all the inside efforts will weaken or collapse because no there is no alternative, no credible threat of exit, no standard to refer to.

This is not necessarily an endorsement of loosely defined tactics that simply disrupts random motorists, although that seems a popular choice. Aim at a constituency with movement building in mind — not just some vague public. Do not surrender your communications to be carried — one way only— by the corporate media. We need to upset the system in ways that brings us into direct contact with the people we want to organize and mobilize. How else can we learn from them?

If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

We do need to stare straight at the most glaring contradiction of the social and labor movements. While the movement has the potential to provide the spark, most established organizations representing workers, women, GLTBQ, students, people of color and the peace and environmental movement are often the most wedded to the Democrats and conventional political wisdom of “get in early” or lesser of two evils. And, much of the urgency and innovation of recent unrest has fallen on deaf ears of those in command of social and labor organizations.

The AFT’s premature endorsement of Clinton is a case in point. Sixteen long months before the election, a small group of union officials repeated the old standard strategy of “get in early.” What did we get in return?  Does getting in early increase leverage or surrender to triangulation?

Thirty years of the corporatization of education should have taught us a few things.  First, that the assault has come from mainstream Democrats as well as from Republicans.  Both parties have slashed education budgets and undermined the status and compensation for teachers.

This   bi-partisan consensus hides the deep structural consequences of corporate domination while shifting blame to teachers and students.

“Running it like a business” demands lower wages and contingent work, unprecedented student debt levels for higher education,  high stakes and standardized testing, greater centralization and routinization of curriculum, and the punitive discipline of entire school systems just to name just a few corporate reforms.  Meanwhile the real culprits of soaring childhood poverty, institutionalized racism, the school to prison pipeline, the disruption to family life caused by falling labor standards, chronic unemployment and low wages are invisible to corporate “reformers.”

In other words, the problems of education are the same problems we all face when our economy and government serve the corporate power and not the people.

Can this be reversed by the early and uncritical endorsement of one of the architects of the system?  The AFT’s endorsement signals either that the union is an “easy mark” and/or consider itself to be part of the system.

An effective inside/outside strategy would have at very least included a national discussion and voting by the members of the AFT. But union managers too often fear disruptive politics even though it’s the only real leverage unions have ever had or ever will have.  At its very best, getting in early is a receipt for limited concessions at the price of the ongoing corporatization of education.

The Fight for 15 has had more influence on electoral politics than any deal made at the top.

 

The real leaders.

There is a real saving grace here: we the people and the many thousands of solid union members of the AFT will have their say.  Many will vote for Sanders or the Greens or offer critical support to Clinton contingent on some real agreements.  Remember that in October 2007 the AFT endorsed Clinton early too. After the people and members had their say the national officers relented but apparently learned little from the experience.

How can this unresponsiveness to “we the people” be seen outside of the long slow decline of labor or the defensive posture of the official social and student movement organizations? And, what is the remedy outside of the challenging work of grassroots activism, participation, organizing and dissent?

What better example than the case of “Mayor 1%” himself, Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel is a longstanding leader of the Democratic party with deep connections with both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He is an unswerving servant of Wall Street and former financier; a major proponent of expanding the drug war and an architect of mass incarceration under Clinton; he also led the charge to cut welfare for the poor using austerity arguments later aimed at public employees, teachers, students and well, everyone.

Emanuel is one of the strongest proponent of triangulation consistently pushing national politics to the right by supporting pro-war democrats and cheerleading for the war in Iraq. He tips his hat to abortion rights, gay marriage, and gun control giving just enough to win support for his core mission of corporate power. No wonder the corporate media loves this guy praising him, amazingly, as a liberal courageously “not pandering” to special interests.

Even in defeat, the challenge from Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia showed how unstable triangulation is becoming.  Garcia was a relative unknown and a working-class immigrant from Mexico. Even without money Garcia was a threat because the campaign stood on years of movement building and organizing.  Amisha Patel captures it perfectly:

What Chicago’s various social movements have built did not materialize over the course of one election cycle and cannot be understood as just a set of electoral strategies, clever tactics or shrewd messaging. For years, Chicago has been an epicenter of militant, grassroots organizing that has come to deeply resonate with working class families.  A long-term transformative vision lies at the heart of this organizing, taking aim at oppressive systems and corporate interests that exploit and divide people along lines of class and race.

Well, there it is. Can we take the Chicago model national?


In sum.

The political system is a human artifact that will respond toward the direction of power. A stronger, larger movement will increase our capacity to pull, push and pivot all along the line — from you local union or community group to the insider working to wean the Clinton machine away from Wall Street.

The point of the proposed strategy is not to find the perfect candidate or political purity but to create a strategic framework to assess and guide our activism.   Instead of endless debate, we should express our “truth” through the political work of building “truth-power.”[1]

Speak truth, yes, but in the language of power. Without movement building, without an inside/outside strategy we can not expect the inside work to yield results any different from the past.

It is hard to know how long triangulation and minor concessions will maintain order. It is very likely that the crisis will deepen on every front making the risk of conventional behavior greater than the risk of independent, creative action.

This much we can be assured of: history has not come to an end.

Yes, it is unlikely that electoral work alone will lead to social transformation but it is an important arena —an opportunity we cannot afford to abandon. Transformative politics move us toward “both/and” options not “either/or” choices.

Long ago in a time of sweeping change, social movements and third parties upset and transformed the American electoral system. Then came the Civil War. Given the choice of revolution or disaster, the Party of Lincoln embraced the rebellion of runaway slaves and followed the leadership of freedom fighters, black and white, to destroy slavery. Lincoln’s actions were first and foremost strategic and political but helped make a revolution. With all the failures of emancipation and Reconstruction, there was no going back.

We could do far worse.  And maybe far better.


[1] Gandhi’s innovative use of non-violence was to fuse politics to love or moral truth. He called the concept of satyagraha. Satyagraha is love-force or truth-force which the American civil rights movement revised into soul-force. The civil rights movement spoke truth to power but in the language of non-violent force: sit-ins, occupations, marches, strikes, picket-lines, boycotts.

2 Responses to Towards a Transformative Electoral Strategy

  1. John Rachel says:

    Everything said here lays a foundation for massive and necessary reform. However, when all is said and done, objectively speaking, there is no path for achieving this laudable transformation. ‘Path’ refers to detailed step-by-step plan for engaging, motivating, galvanizing, mobilizing the massive number of potential adherents there are to transformative change. People power! They’re out there waiting to hear a PLAN worth listening to. If you are interested, I have such a detailed plan. It certainly needs improvements but as is, it represents a solid foundation for communicating to the bottom half of America’s citizens, the 160 million people who are hurting and hungry for a message that talks to them in terms of their priorities and needs, and most importantly makes sense. Whoever is responsible for this brilliant piece of writing is on the right track. Only by underwriting these ideas and noble goals with a boots-on-the-ground strategy for serious citizen activism will any of this be realized. Please contact me via my website … http://jdrachel.com

    Like

    • Richard Moser says:

      John,

      Thanks for your comments. I am very interested in you plan and will check out your website soon. Thanks and keep thinking.

      Like

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