Electoral Wagers

by Loren Anderson on July 9, 2015

Electoral Wagers

The vast majority of elected officials in the United States are at best obstacles to progress who do nothing but participate in an ideological see-saw from center-right to far-right and at worst reactionary demagogues who passionately engage in eviscerating various threads of the social safety net. These elected officials have official power that flows from their office. Many of them have no mandate to lead and merely benefit from the understandable apathy of their constituents. In order to unseat a candidate a campaign needs volunteers, a solid strategy that is actually executed, and, of course, money. Independent campaigns can and do raise money and the amount of money needed is not as much as one might think in local and state-level elections. On top of this many elections are actually run very inefficiently, incorrectly, and mechanically. The barriers to running an effective and successful far left electoral campaign are actually not as high as they seem at first glance.

Real-world Socialists Are Doing it
Kshama Sawant ran for Seattle city council position number 2 against Richard Conlin, a big-d Democrat in a Democrat-dominated city, and won. She won by 93,682 votes to 90,531, a difference of 3,151 people. Green Party candidate (and socialist) Howie Hawkins ran for Governor of New York against Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo. He garnered 5% of the vote, making the Green Party of New York the 3rd party in that state behind the Republican party and the Democratic party, leapfrogging the other two minor parties on the ballot. In some counties the campaign got 11% of the vote. The day of the elections Hawkins posted on his official campaign blog: “Hawkins noted that the Democrats rule New York cities with little competition from Republicans and the Republicans rule rural areas with little competition from Democrats….Hawkins said the Greens will run in local elections across the state in 2015 and in state legislative elections in 2016, where one-third of state legislators ran unopposed this year.”

9 days later the Hawkins campaign posted this: “Albany – Howie Hawkins, the recent Green Party candidate for Governor, said today that the Green Party will build upon its 5 percent vote by organizing and advocating with the mostly working-class majority that is not voting….70 percent of eligible voters did not vote in the November 4 election….We will continue beating the drums for justice. Our policy demands speak to the needs and values of the working-class majority that is not voting. Grassroots organizing in working-class communities and speaking up for a Green New Deal for New York will be our focus going forward,’ Hawkins said, speaking at a new conference in Albany on Thursday.”

33% of State-level Candidates Run Unopposed
There are many candidates who run unopposed. In fact, at the level of state legislature, as in state house and state senate, as many as 33% of elections have only one person running for the seat. Just guessing for the sake of argument that two opponents with equal funding had a 50/50 chance of winning an election, then a socialist party could possibly win 16% of the state level seats nationwide, all other things being equal.

The 2016 election will be an epic meltdown of a presidential race. During the 2012 debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Romney was sometimes stating political positions on foreign policy that were slightly to the left of what President Obama had been stating and enacting for the previous 4 years and aimed to enact in the next 4. Which is easy to do because Obama and Romney’s politics, in the grand scheme of things, were so close to each other that if either of them leaned or wobbled just a bit, like Romney did, they could switch sides with each other quite easily.

Electoral Wagers grid

An Antidote to Political Theater
With hollowed-out political theater as an illusory backdrop, authentic, volunteer-run, local electoral campaigns could be a breath of fresh air that communities coalesce around. These campaigns should put all of the fiercest demands of the most marginalized local communities on their campaign program. Cracking down hard on police brutality, raising the minimum wage, fully funding public schools and closing down charter schools, raising tax rates for corporations.The democrats and republicans are increasingly the emperor’s with no clothes. They are in power partly because of the legal and organizational hurdles of a third party or independent having success in the two-party system, but also partly because no one thinks they can challenge that two-party system successfully without compromising until they are as hollow as their opponents.

Many people will say that a campaign can’t be won without money. And they’re right. But the Sawant campaign raised $100,000 overall. At the level of state legislature the median amount of money raised was $43,000. That’s less than half of what Sawant raised for a city council election. Of course Sawant was running in a major US city, so that explains most of the need for that money. But on top of this, as stated earlier, fully ⅓ of state legislators, in both the house and senate, usually run completely unopposed. Which means in theory they could raise no money at all except for the cost of getting on the ballot, and win their seat. Which usually includes a large salary that could be diverted to a fund for community activist causes, like Sawant does. She took $40,000 (the average seattle worker’s income) of her salary for her living costs, and put the remaining $77,000 per year into a self-administered political fund for social justice.

Mainstream Campaigns Throw Money Away
The money that political campaigns are spending isn’t even that affective because of how that money is spent. “The good news is, the necessary financial resources for waging real ground games are already available — campaigns just have to spend their money right. Consider what would happen if campaigns diverted just some of the money they currently spend on TV towards field. Nearly $1.2 billion was spent on TV ads during the 2014 election cycle, capturing about a third of campaign spending. Imagine if campaigns diverted just 30% of that amount to field, for a $350 million ground game — many times more than the amount campaigns actually spent on field this year. Field operatives can often be hired for about $20 an hour (including overhead) and could have two high-quality 20 minute long conversations with voters every hour, for about $10 per conversation. That all adds up to a staggering reality: campaigns could have had a 20 minute conversation with every single registered voter in a state with a close Senate race — and still afford to blanket the airwaves with ads.”

Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was lower than at any point since 1942. 36% of people who were legally allowed to vote did so. Some state-level races that were close had higher turnout than House races at the national level.

Turn it On its Head

Having a representative of the people in the capitalist bureaucratic government might not seem like the best thing to put effort into. But a seat at the table is not just a place from which to wield some small amount of power or have a voice heard that represents the best interests of the people. It is also a way to remove someone who would otherwise be an obstacle to progress. This is partially how Chokwe Lumumba, who was mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, viewed his mayorship. Without a reactionary mayor, the people were more free to implement initiatives of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. A position of electoral power is a bully pulpit that can be used to ram through unpopular legislation like anti-abortion legislation in Texas summer of 2013. This is a power that is useful to take away. Most elected officials don’t have much popular power. They have power proportional to the electorate’s understandable apathy. We need to take this power, the power of apathy, away from them, by turning it into popular power and self-confidence in the electorate for the electorate, and by doing so and running electoral campaigns alongside this take the formal power of the rulers and that obstacle away as well. Remove the bullies from their pulpits and fill those pulpits with socialists.

One difference between traditional activism and electoral campaigns is that an electoral campaign needs an official face. If we had the option of electing the community to lead itself we’d absolutely do that. But that isn’t how elections are officially structured at this point. A socialist campaign should be a campaign that is owned by the community it represents but it needs one person who actually fulfills the role of candidate and engages in all of the legally binding processes that make one a candidate and hopefully an elected official. We need people to fulfill those roles or we can’t have electoral campaigns. We need activists to run for office. Kshama Sawant and Howie Hawkins, along with Hawkins’ running mate for lieutenant governor Brian Jones, stepped forward to serve this purpose. They are all avowed socialists affiliated to a socialist group like Socialist Alternative, Socialist Party USA, or the International Socialist Organization. Being under scrutiny is not something that appeals to many people. But somebody has to do it. The time has come for real protest candidates. Not just candidates who people will vote for in protest, but candidates who will get votes because these candidates came out of actual protests.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The famous Black Panther Party started off with three people. One of those people was Elbert “Big Man” Howard who had this to say about it:
“Organize. Put heads together, talk about and analyze issues. You might start with one or two or three people. It doesn’t have to be a large group. You can take five people, and once you get a good solid idea, those five people can talk to five more people. Take some action—action speaks louder than words. It is very easy to join an organization, and it’s tough to create an organization. But not impossible.”

This same strategy applies to doing anything really. The longest journey begins with the first step. Identify a target election, and if possible, a target elected official. Kshama Sawant ran against a Democratic party member in a Democrat-only town. This is one strategy that may work in city council elections or other elections of that city-wide-or-less level. But perhaps that is putting the cart before the horse. If you don’t want to run yourself, put out feelers in the community and just be a facilitator. Do some fliering for an interest meeting around socialist electoral politics. Brainstorm an election and/or a target elected official. Pick someone unpopular. Pick someone who is running unopposed. Pick someone embroiled in a scandal. In the case of city councils, they come in many varieties, but many of them have at-large councilmembers who are not tied to any specific section of the city, so the potential candidate can live anywhere in the city.

With any undertaking, there are always obstacles. But in the United States, dominated by a two-party system basically since the inception of the country, it appears that breaking from the Democrats and establishing a new far left pole of attraction would be impossible. And while it has been made more difficult legally, and much more difficult ideologically, socially, and psychologically, there are many very open opportunities for far left candidates to win offices at the local and state level that are not explored. Not every battle is as uphill as it looks from far away, we just have to start actually choosing our battles.

loren anderson considers themselves an anti-sectarian marxist humanist and sells their labor as a software developer in the greater Washington, D.C. area

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