Left Third-Party Organizing: Challenges and Opportunities
This is a transcript and recording of a panel organized by the North Star that took place in June 2013 at Left Forum in New York City.
In an age of two-party domination and neoliberal hegemony, what opportunities exist for left electoral politics through third party campaigns? Why and when should leftists focus on third party campaigns, as opposed to Democratic Party primaries? Where should the left focus its electoral resources, and how might it overcome division? Should third-party politics be thought of in terms of consciousness-raising, or is the left in a position to affect public policy by taking power?
Seamus Whelan (registered nurse, active union member, and an activist in Socialist Alternative who ran for Boston City Council)
I’m a working registered nurse. I’ve been a nurse for a long time, fifteen to sixteen years. I’m active in my union, which is the Massachusetts Nurses Association, affiliated to the National Nurses United (NNU), which is a 185,000-strong union, one of the most progressive and active unions in the country, a union that takes up social activism rather than just economic demands.
Last December, I was an elected delegate to the NNU conference and posed a motion at that conference which called for the union to break from the parties of Wall Street, the Democrats and the Republicans, and support independent candidates. Particularly as the establishment parties have began to attack social programs, the public sector, public-sector jobs and services. As well as to combine an electoral strategy with a strategy of connecting with movements, as movements begin to develop. That motion was passed.
I’m a candidate, a Socialist Alternative candidate. We decided to run a candidate in Boston because we believe an opportunity exists at the moment. We’re in the second term of the Obama administration, and more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the Democrats, because they’re carrying out the agenda of Wall Street and big business and continuing the policies of the previous administration. We believe that there’s an opening, that a vacuum exists, that the Left and progressives should look at.
In fact, last year in 2012, Socialist Alternative ran a candidate in Seattle — rather in Washington State, it was a state representative area — called Kshama Sawant. She ran as an open socialist. She ran against the state’s most powerful Democrat, the speaker of the house or the senate, his name was Frank Chopp, who had a reputation for budget cuts; he literally did what his name said. Washington State is a one-party state, the Democrats control everything. And in that election we had an incredible result: against the state’s most powerful Democrat, with the candidate being a first-time candidate running as an open socialist on a shoestring budget, she won over 20,000 votes, 29% of the vote. This really shook things up. To us that showed that there really was an opportunity for independent left candidates to run and to make a big impact.
Also, when Kshama ran, she took on the agenda of the Democrats and the establishment parties and put forward a clear alternative, an alternative to budget cuts and austerity. She called for the nationalization of large corporations, of Microsoft, of Boeing. When you put forward the idea of taxing corporations, they say “We’re going to move.” From that we put forward a demand for public control, for the democratic control of these corporations by workers, for a control of management.
This year we’re running in Boston. We’ve also running 200 candidates. Kshama is running again in Seattle, this time for City Council. We’ve got a candidate in Minneapolis called Ty Moore, who is one of the leaders of the anti-foreclosure movement, who was able to establish an anti-eviction zone in one district of Minneapolis, and recently got arrested for standing up to some of the major banks there. That campaign has really taken off. It seems to be going quite well. We’re expecting really good results from there.
In Boston we ran a candidate in 2007, and that was quite a successful campaign. We took on tax and budget cuts against the primarily Democrat incumbents. And we won 3,000 votes at the time, which had a real impact on the political debate. After that the establishment politicians, the Democrats, make it more difficult to get on the ballot. They raised the number of signatures of registered votes required for ballot access from 500 to 1,500, which in reality means you have to collect about 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot. And they halved the time for collection from six weeks to three weeks. So that was a big challenge for us this time when running. First week we went out to collect signatures we got over 2,000 signatures. They’re still counting signatures, but we were among the first three to meet the mark and be certified to run for elections. So for us that’s a big success. Also we were able to mobilize a campaign, a team of members, of volunteers, of supporters. We hope to continue that success. But we also realize that it is quite difficult for a small independent campaign, a small independent socialist group, to actually take on the establishment parties, who have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars in their campaign coffers.
What’s happening at the moment in Boston is that the long-term mayor, Thomas Menino, has resigned, and that has opened up the floodgates for every career politicians to get in the race, and to take over the throne. So there’s a number of city councillors who have jumped into the race there; there are about 24 declared candidates, I’m not sure how many have been certified. But that has also created a domino effect in the City Council race. I’m running as an at-large candidate for the city of Boston, and there’s four at-large seats, and 27 candidates declared for that, from yesterday or the day before 18 of these were certified. On the one hand, that makes it more difficult to get your message out when there’s so many other candidates, to get attention, but also it creates an opportunity, pretty much all those candidates are the same, they’re all maintaining the same position and aren’t really taking on the issues affecting working people. So for a socialist candidate who calls for a change from politics as usual — that the working class shouldn’t have to pay for the crisis caused by the corporations and the rich, and putting forward clear alternative policies — this creates an opportunity for us to stand out.
We’re not running these campaigns because we want to develop political careers. We’re running as activists because we want to change society. We also don’t see the individual positions as positions that will in themselves change much. We’re using this campaign to set an example to the movement. I would encourage people to check out our campaign, and to get involved if you can; come visit us in Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis. Also, we’re advocating a different type of politics. What we’re saying is that if elected, we will not take the full wage that the City Council gets paid, we will just take an average worker’s wage, the rest of the money we will donate to help build campaigns and social movements which will actually bring real change. We’re representing a vision. In 2012 we produced a video called “What If You Had 200 Volunteers” or 200 Occupy candidates, and that’s the kind of vision we’re putting forward: to bring real change there’s an opportunity to run, and instead of having the same choice, the choice of lesser evil, between the candidates that we’re presented in the election cycle, we need to put forward alternative candidates, candidates that are not funded by corporate donations, that are taking up community campaigns and community issues.
We see this as a step towards what is really needed: the building of a mass workers labour party that will be able to incorporate the struggles of working people and the issues that are facing them, but also struggles of the environment, community struggles, and all these struggles can be combined into one political entity that will represent our interests rather than the interests of Wall Street and the banks. That would have a historic effect on the consciousness of US workers. US working people will see that their interests are separate from the interests of corporations, and will break from corporate politics into a new form of politics which would be able to consolidate and develop the struggles that develop, to give them a political voice, and to develop the consciousness of the American working class. And to do that, I think, a successful campaign in the cities we’re running in is very important, it is something that everyone who’s concerned with working class politics, with environmental politics, should take note of and get involved in. I would encourage people to donate to the campaign. In order to have a viable campaign, we need to have people done so we can compete against the large sums of corporate money that flow into politics.
Ursula Rozum (Green Party candidate for Congress in New York’s 24th District in 2012, she won 8% of the vote. She works at the Syracuse Peace Council.)
I’ve been involved with the Greens since about 2010. I had previously, before that, worked with the Working Families Party in upstate New York as well as an organization called Citizen Action. For anyone unfamiliar with New York State politics, Citizen Action and the Working Families Party basically serve as “get out the vote” front groups for the Democratic Party and allow the Democrats to posture as progressives when really they don’t implement any of the policies these organizations claim to stand for.
I entered the race for Congress—it was actually at Left Forum last year that I said I was going to do it. I was thinking a lot about many of the issues people had gotten really fired up about during the Occupy movement. All of a sudden I knew all these people who were thinking about the issues that I cared about, whether it was the wars, the climate crisis, austerity. And I was looking at the choices that we had for our congressional representative, which were basically a conservative Democrat who had previously held office and an incumbent Tea Party Republican. The choices were pretty discouraging. We knew that this was going to be the race that had prime media attention in our region and that people were going to be spoon-fed these lies, that the Democrats are the solution to the fascist Republicans, when really the Democrat I ran against had promoted tax breaks for repatriation of foreign profits, supported the bank bailout right around election time 2008, hadn’t said anything about health care, basically went along with Obamacare, requested millions of dollars for the development of drones in central New York—and the list goes on of different ways in which they posture as progressive but really act very conservatively. But on the other side was a climate-change-denying Tea Party Republican. The liberal establishment was freaking out during our campaign because they initially thought “Oh, this collective-living, nose-ring-wearing person, she’s not going to get any attention. Who’s going to pay attention to this newcomer?” But it proved to be a hot media story of the election cycle: “Wow, there’s this wildcard candidate in the race.”
In central New York, the Greens have a good reputation, because Howie Hawkins ran for New York governor two years ago and developed a good reputation for the party, developed very good relationships with the media. So my campaign was able to use that reputation we’ve developed. And it turns out that when you’re a candidate and you’re talking about things like jobs for all and a climate action plan, people like that, people pay attention. And I went from no one knowing about me to about 8% in the polls until a couple of weeks before election day. Typically, this is what Howie says anyway—he’s my election manager—on election day people change their minds and you don’t do as well as expected, but actually I got exactly what the polls predicted: 8%, 22,000 votes. The really interesting thing we saw after the election was that my best showing was in the much more economically distressed areas and what are considered the working-class sections of our city, of our district. For example, there’s a very economically distressed county, Oswego County, where everyone works at the nuclear power plant or they don’t have a job. And it was the typical liberal education sections of our district where I did very poorly. So we thought that was interesting, that people really respond to our progressive program.
One of the opportunities of running a third-party campaign is that you get this megaphone, people pay attention to you, and you can talk about things like taxing the rich, implementing progressive taxes, etc. You have to work really hard to distinguish yourself from the Democrats;. I got a lot of hate mail, like “You’re just Democrat lite,” but the Democrats were talking about very minimal progressive taxes, and we were talking about things like Eisenhower-era graduated income tax rates. In the climate action plan we talked about things like democratic control of the energy sector—this is a fairly popular idea in upstate New York because we do have public power utilities, and we’ve seen public power utilities developing in sections that are much more conservative. So when you start explaining to folks that we can actually have cheaper power, and the revenues aren’t going to go to some profit-seeking corporation. While the leaders of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party come up with all these reasons why these things aren’t desirable, actual voters, regular people, regardless of their registration, they respond to these things. And so I think one of the greatest opportunities of running a third-party campaign, unlike being a street activist, people think that you’re credible, they think that your opinions matter, if you present them in an articulate way. We’re able to talk about things like how solutions to the climate crisis are able to address the jobs crisis. I ran on the platform that Jill Stein ran on, the Green New Deal, and people responded really well to it.
It was a pretty tough race. They called it one of the “red-to-blue Democratic pickups.” I work in a peace organization, and it was a trying time, because there’s definitely factions in the peace movement and the local peace organization, to the point where we had an intervention, with a lot of activists circling me saying, “You’ve already won! They’ve paid attention to you.” Part of what I thought toward the end of the campaign was that so many people locally had either volunteered or donated some money or were putting up lawn signs, it didn’t feel like the campaign was about just me the candidate. All these people were like, “Yes, we want a new kind of politics. We don’t trust the corporate parties.” So at some point it really did feel like a small local movement that was separate from the corporate parties.
Opposition came out from the liberal groups that basically work to do “get out to vote” for the Democrats. Basically they pretend you don’t exist. Then the debates happen, and people see you, and you start getting e-mails like “I’m so upset at my union” or “I can’t believe you weren’t on the Planned Parenthood voter guide,” all these things start coming in, and people start getting really upset like they’ve been lied to. It’s like these other organizations are creating this really favorable environment for us. People realize that they have a choice, that there is an alternative.
I really appreciated the way that the panel description was written, there were a lot of questions that you presented that I think really helped, that I want to just reflect on in the last few minutes.
People are ready for an alternative. The economy sucks. The climate crisis. We’ve been talking about all these different movements that exist. But when people go to vote, they rarely have a decent choice. A significant percentage of the US voting public doesn’t vote. And I kind of don’t blame them. One of the things I’d say during my campaign, and people thought it was irresponsible, was that if I wasn’t running, I probably wouldn’t vote for either of my opponents. And so I think that people are ready for options. In New York State anyway, a lot of local races are unopposed. It’s either just Democrats or just Republicans, and there is an opportunity here. In New York State at least, the opportunity that the Left has right now is that the Greens are very open to working with people that want to run as independent candidates. Sure, we’re the Green Party, but one of our key values is decentralization, grassroots democracy, and if you want to work with the party and you agree with our platform, then we’re happy to have people that are strong candidates that can articulate our policies run. And I think we’re seeing this with Socialist Alternative, across the country there are a couple of candidates that are working with the Green Party as well.
One of the questions I heard from a lot of people was “Would you ever run as a Democrat?” And I replied, “No, I’m not a Democrat.” I worked on Howie Hawkins’ 2010 campaign for governor. That year he ran against Andrew Cuomo, and Cuomo received twice as much money from the Koch brothers as the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. So for me running in the Democratic Party primary would be legitimizing this alliance with the capitalists, with corporations, and also giving credence to this lie that they stand for the interests of working people, the environment, of social movements.
What we’re seeing right now in New York State is this horrible economic policy, this austerity, and giveaways to big business. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Tax Free New York that Andrew Cuomo’s promoting. The sad thing is that it is really hard to counter it because he also supports gay marriage and has a women’s rights agenda that guarantees access to abortion, that has already been guaranteed in New York anyway. The women’s equality agenda is in itself a good thing for women’s rights, but by promoting these liberal things that are social issues, it allows for the promotion of a really conservative economic agenda. So it’s pretty scary looking at what the Democratic Party is doing in New York State. So while when people ask me if I would ever run in the Democratic primaries I say no, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in working with Democrats. We have local alliances on issues. When there’s progressive Democrats running, we try not to run against them. You don’t have to run in the Democratic primary to work with the Democrats.
Carl Davidson (veteran peace and justice organizer, was a leader in the 1960s New Left, national co-chair for the Committee for Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and a national board member of Solidarity Economy Network. He lives in western Pennsylvania and is a member of Pittsburgh Fightback and is in Local 3657 of the United Steelworkers.)
I’ve been involved in electoral politics for fifty years, and over that time I’ve been on all sides of it. I’ve voted Communist Party, I’ve voted Socialist Workers Party, I’ve voted Socialist Labour Party, I worked to build the Labour Party, such as it was, I was a member of the Green Party, I was a member of the New Party, worked with Obama as a New Party member, worked for Jesse Jackson, helped launch Progressives for Obama, was part of the Citizens Party. I know where all the bodies are buried on all sides of this debate.
To me the most important thing is to try and find some fresh thinking, some new ideas about how to approach this, because some of the argument, frankly, is boring. I’ve heard it for fifty years, and I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve worked in all these different fronts; I’ve worked with independent parties, and I’ve worked with the Democrats, and so on. I learned politics in Chicago, hardball. One challenge that I often throw out to the Left is, what the Left needs to do for electoral politics is raise its consciousness so it’s at least as high as the level of the average Chicago precinct captain. What does the average Chicago precinct captain know? He has a list of everybody in the precinct. He knows their birthdays, he knows who’s registered to vote and who’s not registered to vote, he knows when they’re going to become registered to vote, he knows what their issues are, he has them marked plus, minus, zero—“plus” means he’s with them; “minus” means he’s working with the independents, with the outside; “zero” means in between. He knows them all, he has a personal relationship with them. When they have a problem, they come to the precinct captain, he helps them solve it. How many leftists can say that about their neighborhood? Very few.
So when you really want to do politics, number one, you have to have at least the kind of understanding of and relationships with the masses that the average Chicago precinct captain does. That’s number one.
I’ve worked with the Green Party in Chicago, and my big argument with them was, I said, “Great, let’s run some candidates.” Pick Chicago’s three biggest problems, write the Green solution to those problems, and give me a list of them that I can take door-to-door, because that’s what I need to go door-to-door against the other guy. They said “no,” they wanted to run on their ten principles. I tried to get them to do that twice, I went to the meetings. They were interested in running in the most liberal district to take down Dan Checkosky, rather than the district next door, which was Rahm Emmanuel. Why did they want to take down Dan Checkosky? Because that’s where they thought they could get the most votes, they couldn’t get as many votes if they ran against Rahm Emmanuel. So thanks but no thanks, I have better things to do with my time than that kind of tactics.
My view is that all of these things are matters of tactics. Strategically, my view is that I’m united with everybody on this panel strategically. Strategically we have the same aim, which is to break up the Democratic Party, and to give the working class a political instrument that can bring it to rule, bring it to rule society. Those are the easy parts. The hard part is how you get from here to there. How you go about breaking up the Democratic Party?
And here’s where you get into two kinds of politics. The two kinds of politics that we face in this country, and have faced at least since 1968, you can put into two big baskets: politics as self-expression and politics as strategy. I don’t mean to put either of them down, both are important. Politics as self-expression serves to unite a militant minority, and to express its views, and to build and expand the militant minority. As a result it runs a revolutionary educational campaign. With politics as strategy the aim is to unite a progressive majority, and to win, to win the election. It demands a broader alliance than just a militant minority, it is left-of-center, it is a boarder front. Chokwe Lumumba is a good example of the latter, politics as strategy. He was a militant minority, a revolutionary one, but through judicious work, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is his instrument, taking advantage of the conditions in Missisippi, the open primaries, the fact that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party can run in the Democratic primaries, win, and then blow away the division among the advesary camp, and unite 85% of the vote behind him. And so now we have a radical, even revolutionary, guy elected on the Democratic line as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
Lenin often liked to quote Goethe: “Theory is grey, life is green.” In Chicago we ran Herold Washington. We split the Democratic Party in three, Dailey and the real estate interests and the hard core of the Democratic Party ran on the Unity ticket. He gathered the gangsters that were in the Democratic Party and ran on a Solidarity ticket, and what was left was the black community, the Latino community, few of the labour leaders, and the ’60s New Leftists, and the Rainbow Coalition, and we had the Democratic Party ticket. So if you wanted to vote against the Democrats in that election, who did you vote for? The only way to really vote against the Democratic Party in that election was to vote for the Democratic ticket, because the real Democracy Party was on the Solidarity ticket and the Unity ticket. That’s what Goethe meant when he said “Theory is grey, but life is green.” These things can get very dicey when you get down to the details.
Today I’d like to see the Democraitc Party go the way that the Whigs did prior to the Civil War. I’d like to see it implode and I’d like to see new forces arise out of it. I don’t think that’s only going to happen from the outside. A fortress is also conquered from the inside by exacerbating the differences within it. So I follow a party-within-a-party strategy. I work with PDA (Progressive Democrats of America), which, besides its name, is an independent PAC. It doesn’t belong to the Democratic Party. This independent PAC runs candidates in Democraitc Party elections. It works within the working class and African-American side of the fault lines within the Democratic Party. That’s where we build our base. We have an organization of 200 people or so in Beaver County, where I work. Almost all blue-collar workers to a fault, we don’t enough intellectuals. We have a platform: out now from the wars, Medicare for all, green jobs, debt relief. Those are our key platform planks. And we are tighlty connected with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. That’s the relationship that we do have with the Democratic Party.
To really understand politics in the US today, you have to realize that we do not have a two-party system, we do not have a one-party system. If you want to have a hypothesis that will give you explanitory power about politics in the US today: we have a six-party system. We have the Tea Party, we have the multinational Republicans, we have the Blue Dog Democrats, we have the New Democrat Clintonistas representing finance capital, we have old New Dealers (which are a lot of the AFL-CIO labour base), and we have the Congressional Progressive Caucus/PDA (which is the expression we have of our popular front against finance capital). I’m for working with that last one.
That’s where I work. And I want to exacerbate the contraditions with the right wing and to see that party eventually implode, along with the Republican Party, so we can create something new out of the wreckage. That’s what I’m about. That’s what we’re doing. You don’t have to convince me that the Democratic Party is an instrument of finance capital. There’s no argument, that’s as plain as the nose on your face. You don’t have to convince me that we’re not going to get to socialism through the Democratic Party. I don’t even think we’re going to get to socialism through elections. We’re not going to elect our way to socialism. But I guarantee you in this country that we get to socialism through elections. We have to exhaust them, not in your mind or my mind but in the eyes of the masses, because they’re the ones who make history.
In my county half of the workers vote Republican, the other half vote Democrat, maybe 2% would consider a third party. Even among unionized workers a third vote Republican. So we have to find ways, forms of struggle, to move these people to the Left, encourage them to build their own organizations—and in our case PDA is an organization owned and controlled by the working class in western Pennsylvania—and to begin to shift their consicousness by engaging in struggles that not only we are willing to wage, but, more importantly, what they are willing to do.
Tim Horras (chair of Philly Socialists, an independent Philadelphia-based grassroots political organization founded in 2011)
Obviously the two-party system is a key issue in the United States. The characteristics of the fact that we have this old parliamentary system, comparable to other countries, is a pretty big deal, but it hasn’t actually prevented the rise of new parties. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what Carl Davidson was talking about with the Whigs, they actually predated the Republican Party, for those who aren’t familiar with US history, and they split over the slavery issue. It was such a huge deal at the time, society was so in conflict with itself, that the party itself just split apart. One of the interesting things about that period is that there were many attempts to create a third party. There was the Liberty Party, and that failed. Then there was the Free Soilers, and that didn’t work out so well either. Finally they came up with a new party, the Republican Party, which caught on and became the national party that we know today. One of the things that I want to put out there is that failure is not a bad thing. Sometimes different iterations need to be tried, and the contributions can all be learned from.
I was going to touch on—and we can talk about this later in the Q&A—that there is a difference between a mass party and more of a vanguard organization. Those sorts of organizational structures can do different things. One of the reasons that the bourgeoisie has had such hegemony in the United States is that they have these big-tent parties which contain wildly divergent positions yet retain unity under the leadership of the ruling class.
Local elections are also very interesting. There’s a history of third parties that have won a lot of local elections, and have build this third-party culture. One of the examples of this is the Farmer Labour Party, which won a lot of local elections, and eventually got so big that it merged with the Democratic Party; one of the states doesn’t actually have a Democratic Party, they have a Farmer Labour Democratic Party, a very progressive state.
The next point I want to touch on is: are we nearing an inflection point? Carl rightly pointed out that a lot of this debate has been happening for years and years. Are we living in a period that’s different from when they had this debate ten or fifteen or twenty years ago? That’s a good question. My thesis would be that we’re in a slightly different period.
A number of reasons for that: first, the demographics are changing. I don’t think that we’re going to overnight have the opportunity for a third party, but we do have to look at the changing demographics, and I’m a believer in “demographics is destiny.” So you have the rise of the Latino voting bloc, and to pull out a really interesting thing, for me, I was reading Fox News Latino, and they were talking about how, and I’m going to quote here, “While the number of Latino voters rose between 2008 and 2012 by 1.4 million, turnout was lower in 2012 than in 2008. Latino turnout dropped 2%, and the number of Latino nonvoters grew by 2.3 million. As Paul Taylor, executive president of PEW Research Center put it, ‘Given what we know about the youth bulge in the population, millennials and Hispanics will become ever more important blocs in upcoming elections, but in 2012 both groups left a lot of votes on the table.’ ”
While that’s not saying that there’s an opportunity for a third-party candidate like Ralph Nader to come in and wipe the floor with people, there are openings, and we’re in a period of contestation, which is why I think it is great to be running candidates, and so on. The other demographic talked about, the millennials, the demographic I’m most comfortable with, it’s the demographic that the organization that I’m the chair of recruits mostly, and it was one of the key cadre demographics represented in Occupy Wall Street, young people. And not just OWS, but also in what’s going on now in Turkey, and all over the world. The “youth bulge” is what the demographers are calling it. To my mind this is a revolutionary class, maybe not the revolutionary class that’s going to overthrow everything or really change the situation, and not a class in a Marxist sense, but a demographic that’s oriented toward a more revolutionary politics.
The real key question to me about this inflection point is the economy. I think liberals are very optimistic that there’s been a recovery. I’ve been hearing that we’ve been in a recovery for years and years. I don’t have time to go into this in detail, but I think we have to look at the economy and ask whether we’re going to get jobs back, are we going to go back to a Keynesian period of the 1960s, where everybody has jobs and we have these strong unions. I don’t think so, and I think we have to build a strategy based on that for the foreseeable future. I think this is positive in some ways because it can have the potential to radicalize people.
When we look at the local level, it is really a case-by-case basis as to when third-party candidates should be run. I really don’t like this propagandistic, educational style of campaign, because, there’s a great book by Eric Davin, the scholar, in which he wrote that “socialists have been running educational candidates for so long, why doesn’t anybody know anything about socialism?” Which I think is a good point. Another thing, working-class people are going to trust folks who are going to fight, who they feel are committed to victory. Maybe not victory immediately, but victory in the long term—that’s what they’re going to be behind, not behind those who just want to make a statement. As Carl put it, the juxtaposition between politics as personal expression and politics as strategy.
On the local level we’ve got to look at where the [political] machines are weak. Where I’m at, in Philadelphia, they just had an election, and there were places where they only got five people out to vote. The papers have been complaining about how the youth don’t vote, they’re not interested in local politics. We need to study historically where there have been party realignments, and in Philadelphia the last one was in the 1920s roughly, there was a period of struggle, there used to be a Republican machine, and then the Democratic machine took over. We need to seriously see how that change happened and try to draw as many lessons as we can.
Lastly, to sum up with some ideas for action, I think what Seamus was saying about avoiding electoralism, I think there’s a general consensus among the people on the panel that elections will not get us the changes that we want to see, so we can’t just be using tactics as a strategy, we can’t just be running elections and hoping that will bring everything. We have to be pursuing elections as part of a boarder strategy, and I think everybody is on board with that. I wrote a brief essay about the history of the Vermont Progressive Party, a third party that Bernie Sanders was a part of, but he was never directly linked with it. Whatever you think of their politics, they’ve actually built, over a period of ten to fifteen years, a party that actually has people in power, has negotiating ability on the local level, and I think that’s a really important model that we should look to when the context is correct. Maybe in Beaver County it’s not the best thing to do, but there may be others areas in which a party-building strategy like that might be useful for linking up and converging nationally down the road.
I agree with Carl too that there’s really no reason for criticizing people for working within the Democratic Party than outside the Democratic Party. I definitely fall on the outside. I’m not a Democrat myself, but I think the idea of heightening the contradictions from within is also a useful activity. There’s no reason we need to throw stones at each other; we can just be encouraging folks to do their thing. The thing that we have to be aware of is the danger of co-option. And I think the most egregious example in US history of bourgeois co-option was the Bryant campaign; there was this massive new party, the Populists, and they gained a lot of support, with a very radical agrarian socialistic programme. They went through all the same fights that we’ve talked about. Finally what happened was that they got a Democrat who had almost the exact same platform, and when he lost the party dissolved, and people went different routes, some went to the Democrats, some went off to do their own thing. So that is a serious potential blunder in the road, and I think that one of the positive things about Occupy was that there was always the idea that Occupy was going to remain independent, that it was going to be an independent entity, and that added to something that we need to take as an independent working-class strategy.
A few quick final points. We need to look at how the bourgeoisie wins elections. There’s a great book called Victory Lab about the use of big data, about how they, the Obama campaign, won the election. Incredible, incredible operation. We need to be learning from our enemies. And the point that Carl said about embeddedness and the Chicago precinct captains—ultimately politics comes down to relationships, and if you don’t know the people that you’re asking to vote, then they’re not going to vote.
Ursula Rozum: The office I ran for was a congressional office. The idea was to show that there are alternatives, that we can have independent non-corporate parties, with the aim of strengthening awareness of alternatives in local races.
One article that I really liked that I read recently was by Gar Alperovitz on this idea of the checkerboard strategy, when you have progressives or radicals in office you can implement local policies that help to build local control, democratic control, and use things like public services to really develop local wealth.
Every state has very different requirements on how to get on the ballot. So when we’re talking about electoral strategy, I think it is very important to recognize, as Carl said, and probably knows more about since he’s been all over the place, the different challenges to just run for office in different states.
Many people have criticized the Greens and said that their presidential race makes no sense. But for some state parties, they need to have a presidential candidate on the ballot to actually have ballot status and to exist as a political party.
In Syracuse we’re very much focused on local opportunities. Our public power campaign has been very popular among Republicans, non-Republicans and Democrats. So I think that local power is definitely what we want to be building. I think it’s really good to learn from your enemies because they’re so good at it.
One of the things I’ve thought about recently is that what the big campaigns do is, they don’t do movement building; they do marketing. What we want to do is, we don’t have to do marketing, we want to do movement building. One of the challenges that we see is that people are really swayed by the marketing, and that’s one of the challenges we see to movement building. Newer people who are just becoming politically conscious, aware, active, are much more susceptible to the marketing. And that’s something that we have to be aware of when movement building, that people are easily attracted to the groups with far more resources, and that make it seem easier. Because this work of party building, running elections, it is really a lot of work. So that’s just one of the challenges, to get people in who are in for the long haul and who understand you’re not going to build some successful independent party overnight.
Moderator: I was wondering if the panelists could also speak a little about how their campaigns fits in tactically within these larger strategic perspectives that Carl spoke about.
Seamus Whelan: I think a number of important questions have come up: when to run, why to run? I agree with the point that since Occupy there has been a significant change in consciousness. Occupy raised this whole idea, in a generalized way, that there are two antagonistic classes in society.
Running in elections, one reason to run is to build a movement, to increase consciousness, and to build a movement. You don’t have to just run in elections to do that, there are other ways and other strategies, but where there is the opportunity and where there is a credible campaign I think it’s important to do that.
During the Seattle campaign we were trying to affect Occupy activists to move that movement to take up community campaigns, to take up issues like evictions, but also to move those activists to use the momentum of Occupy to run for office. We weren’t successful with that, unfortunately.
In Boston the people with the resources and organization that can run credible campaigns are, number one, the trade unions.
I don’t agree with a lot of what Carl said as regards to reform within the Democratic Party. I think in general movements have abusive relationships with the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party will use progressives as a necessary safety valve. They will take movements and suck them in, placate them, and allow them to die down. The Democratic Party is the death knell of social movements. We’ve seen that with the anti-war movement, with the Wisconsin movement. So I don’t think you can reform the Democratic Party. We need a new party.
My aim in Boston is to popularize the idea, particularly among the union activists, of the need to use resources and to run independent candidates against the establishment Democratic Party candidates.
Carl Davidson: I never mentioned once reforming the Democratic Party. I think anybody who wants to reform the Democratic Party is nuts. I’m against it. I want to break it up. My tactics are about breaking up the Democratic Party, not reforming it. And I think one of the ways you break it up is, you build a faction within it that will press it on reforms it claims to stand for, and that’s a way to help exacerbate the contradictions within the Democratic Party, and eventually to the breaking point, especially if you have a mass struggle behind it.
On marketing vs. movement building: I’m against both. Or rather, I shouldn’t say that; I’m not against both, I’m for both, but I don’t think either of them are primary. What is primary is organization building. Movements come and go, movements ebb and flow; the waves will come in, the waves will go out. What’s really important is how much you can consolidate the wave when it’s flowing, so that when it goes out the next time the wave comes in, you have an organization that you can count on that’s at a higher place than it was before. So organization building is what I see as key. Not just the party, but all kinds of organizations. So organization building, to me, trumps both movement building and marketing.
Q (1): It’s been an interesting panel. We’ve got quite a spectrum. I think Seamus and Ursula are the closest in terms of ideas. With Seamus saying clearly that we cannot cooperate with the Democrats, and Ursula saying maybe a little bit in some instances. Not exactly sure what Tim is saying, and with Carl his views are about working from within the Democratic Party. I think one thing that clouds our thinking historically in America about what we need to build, a labour party or an independent third party, is the fact that parties, in the real sense of organizations that have grassroot structures, that develop policy through grassroots democracy and that flows upward, has been an anomaly. It hasn’t really existed in America’s political scene throughout most of its history. We have these bizarre, big-tent organizations that try to allow for everybody’s individualism but end up catering to the corporate interests.
I want to challenge Tim on one point where he said that “demography is destiny.” That’s what the Democrats would like to have us think: there’s more Latinos, the racial structure is changing, women are just not going to put up with the sort of patriarchal politics of the Republicans, therefore the Democrats are on the road to a permanent majority. That’s not true. Never underestimate the chance for the Democrats to screw that crap up. Because they continue to kowtow to the corporate interests. That’s where their money comes from. They’re completely stuck in those coffers. For example, Cuomo is in the pockets of the energy companies that want to do shale gas fracking in upstate New York. I think what’s somewhat more likely, contra to what Carl was saying. Perhaps the Republicans go the way of the Whigs. Maybe not in the immediate sense, but perhaps they break apart and a wing of the ruling class previously behind the Republicans gets behind the Democrats. And that would then open up a large space, of which we already see evidence of opening up, to the Left, to actually form independent groups, not to break apart the Democrats from within, but to form independent workers or social movement progressive parties, or a party, outside of it.
Going from the fact that we haven’t had these grassroots political organizations, perhaps the role of such grassroots parties, that exist in a national sense but have to start somewhere locally, perhaps they have a bigger role to play now than anytime in the past. If you look at the time when perhaps the Democratic Party had the most social movement influx in the late ’60s/early ’70s with the McGovern campaign, even then, at a time when labour was at its pinnacle as a dealmaker, the AFL-CIO at that time were big players. No one in Washington or mainstream politics takes the labour movement seriously today. It’s a shadow of its former self—notwithstanding the heroic efforts of people like Seamus within one of the few national unions, NNU, that’s like a bright spot in the dim picture of union organizing today—but perhaps forming mass parties that are independent and represent working people, maybe those need to play the role today that unions have played in the past, to perhaps help to reignite the labour movement.
Q (2): You’ve heard the phrase “red meat”? It’s a Republican thing. It’s like there are things that Republicans just really rally around and love in this really knee-jerk way. I think Leftists need to bring back their own version of red meat, which is class warfare. I think this is something that a lot of people identify with gutturally. And I think it’s why Occupy happened. That’s why I think a socialist party is the future of a third-party scene. A Gallup poll in 2012 said that 46% of people in an 18–29 age-range think of the word “socialism” as a good thing, as does 36% of the US population as a whole. That’s pretty tremendous, in my opinion. So one thing that I wanted to hear more about is regroupment. People don’t take socialists seriously because, I mean, there’s a number of reasons, but one of the big ones is that they’re all fragmented. I thought regroupment was going to be something more talked about at this conference, or this forum, and I haven’t heard very much about it. People like Bhaskar Sunkara, who I thought was about it, doesn’t seem to be saying much about it. So I want to hear more about that. I’m personally for it. I think we are at a historical movement for it. I’ve heard noises from Socialist Alternative about launching a broad campaign. Is there truth to that? Are they proposing a merger? What’s going on? Because I would jump on board something like that.
A (Seamus Whelan): We’re not considering a merger of any kind. Whenever we run an election campaign, we try to make it as broad and encompassing as possible, and encourage other groups to participate. Within Boston and all the cities we’re running in, we’ve been endorsed by the Green Party. In Boston, during the state elections, we’ve made appeals to the ISO to support this one campaign and to get involved in building a slate of candidates. We were running three candidates, but we were appealing for a broader slate of candidates. So we do want to broaden as much as possible an independent challenge to the parties of big business. And we will continue to try and build as broad a movement as possible. But, as you know, there are differences as regards to strategy and tactics. But we’re willing to have that debate. When we propose a slate, our slate would be opposition to budget cuts, [inaudible], on which there could be agreement not just from the Left but also from community groups. As cities come under attack, a defence of that and a refusal to accept corporate money could be the basis of building a broad movement.
A (Tim Horras): I never claim that the demographic shifts would play into the hands of the Democrats. It can go in many different ways. But certainly it is going to change politics. You saw this play out in the Republican Party recently, with a debate over whether it could continue to have a racist white wing when they recognize that there is increasingly a need to play to pro-business elements of other demographics. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know how that’s all going to play out, and frankly I’m not interested in making those kinds of long-term predictions. I am interested in seeing tangible challenges done at the local level in some of the ways that the others are doing. I support their efforts 100%—let a hundred flowers bloom. Overall I think demographics is destiny; perhaps that’s overstating it, but I think it points to where intervention points are right now. What Philly Socialists has had a lot of success with is organizing millennials. Not exclusively millennials; we have a pretty wide range of age groups. For example, in the US, leftists tend to focus on campuses, but we need to look at that strategy again: are the campuses the hotbeds of activism that they were in the ’60s? I don’t think so. We’ve had less success when we tried to organize in the campuses in Philadelphia than we did when we went into the neighbourhoods to try and organize the young people who were out of college, who had all this student debt. They were like, “Yo, sign me up. I wanna do something!” Maybe over time revolutionary actors change, and, for me, millennials are a demographic hungry for change. You saw it in Occupy, you see it all over the world. That’s what I mean by “demographics is destiny.” Not so much that the outcome, in the final analysis, will go one way or another because of demographics, but in the sense that this should inform our intervention strategy and tactics.
Q (3): I have a couple of different questions. The first is directed at Tim and Seamus.
Seamus, you said that you were interested in working with a broad group of socialists, or people who are willing to work with you. But I want to push: how come not more steps toward actual convergence? Why not try to bring the socialist parties closer together for a stronger, more inspirational sort of force? Tim, you were emphasizing multiple experiments, experiences, you said “try stuff,” but isn’t part of building particularly a radical left also saying we’re going to stop trying absolutely everything and narrow it down and be willing to make some sacrifices—yes, this might have been my pet issue, but for the sake of strengthening and focusing and concentrating, not everything goes?
Carl, I love the party-within-a-party strategy, but I’m not sure I completely understand it, because it seems like it involves a split consciousness, because on the one hand, it seems that you have to spend all this time and effort on a campaign to raise money, to do all that work, and then undermine it all from a different perspective. If the goal is to exhaust the electoral system—which was one of the things that you said that I thought was really good—why do the work to actually support it, to buttress it? Why not exist in it and build something elsewhere? This might just be my limitation of the party-within-a-party strategy, but it seems as thought there is a contradiction there—that it is building something that it is trying to undermine.
A (Seamus Whelan): I don’t think it is a good idea, or the most productive thing, to try and merge every socialist grouping. Real change won’t emerge from socialist groups, it will emerge from grassroots efforts. That’s not to say there can’t be cooperation between not just socialist groups, but many groups that are fighting on day-to-day issues. Wherever there’s an opportunity to build alliances, slates of candidates, Socialist Alternative would be very much in favour of it. And in a number of areas, our Socialist Alternative sister organization in Ireland, which I’m familiar with, has built alliances with other left groups and got members of parliament elected. So we are in favour of such alliances. At the same time, each organization has the ability to debate, to criticize, and to offer different strategies. And from such debate and discussion the best tactics can emerge. I think that’s a better strategy than to try and mix every grouping and to forcedly bring them together. With that I think you’ll just have one mess rather than a clear way forward.
A (Tim Horras): I think that the answer to your question gets found in the practice of how the groups operate. One of the big problems we saw with Occupy was that it started with protesting on the same page in the encampments, but then there were all the working groups, and the working groups had their own things which they considered more important, and then they split off into a million different subsets. At least that’s what happened in Philadelphia.
I think that one of the things ideologically that we need to do is reject single-issueism. Single-issueism has been one of the predominant activist forms, at least in the ’80s and ’90s, that I’m familiar with. For example, campaigns for clean water, or even the environmental movement, and climate change. I think that’s a very easily co-optable form. If you can get people to not be so much involved in an issue but rather to have an identity that’s based around a set of values or a social identity; “I’m a socialist,” “I’m a communist,” “I’m whatever,” that actually leads people to transform their sense of individualism away from the hyper-individualism that we have in this country, which obviously is a major organizing block. To do this we must reject the democratic-centralist model, which, if it worked anywhere it definitely does not work in the United States, because of the hyper-individualist culture. We have to have a culture of very open debate, which is one of the reasons I like The North Star, but there also has to be a level of unity of action, and to me the way to do that is to have democratic processes that actually hold decision makers accountable. One of the things about Occupy was that there was no leadership, supposedly, so no one was responsible for anything that happened, so if the strategy needed correcting, there was no way to vote in an alternative slate of candidates to move things in a different direction. Learning what we can from the consensus process and the organizational innovations of Occupy and the anarchist movement, but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as far as bourgeois democracy and things like Robert’s Rule of Order, etc., are concerned. These kinds of things can lead to a certain level of group cohesion and are certainly effective for many other types of organizations.
A (Carl Davidson): Two things. One, PDA—while the formulation I gave you was “a party within a party”—describes itself as inside/outside. What that means is that as an organization, we are engaged in mass social movements. Elections are a small part of what we do. We’re mainly engaged in mass social movements, and in those movements we try to represent the political choices that exist, and within the arena of electoral politics we try to bring the demands of the mass social movements. To give you two examples from where I live is “Healthcare not Warfare” and “Medicare for All.” We went to every labour council, every labour union in western Pennsylvania and got them to sign on to HR676. We went to town councils, county councils. We got three county councils to sign on to HR676. We got three city councils to sign on to HR676. In other words we’re using Gramsci’s notion of the long march through the institutions. All this is done without questions of elections. So that’s part of the outside aspect of our inside strategy. And within Democratic Party ranks we fight for Medicare for All, which is not the same as Obamacare. We will oppose the Republican right trying to defeat Obamacare, but we explain that Obamacare is mainly a gift to the insurance companies, and what you really need to work toward is Medicare for All. So that’s our view. That’s how we wage class struggle within the Democratic Party. The struggle between Medicare for All and Obamacare is a class struggle. So we continue to wage that.
The other example is “Windmills not Weapons.” We use that as a way to do our anti-war work. We do anti-war work, but we tie it to the question of jobs not war, particularly green jobs, windmills. We’re into building windmills. The steelworkers love windmills. They could get up and give you a speech on how many tons of steel go into a windmill, how many steel parts go into each windmill. We love windmills, and we want them to replace war machines. So we campaign on that. That’s part of the platform that we work for. The way this plays out is that we have the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which represents most of our views in the form of bills, and then they get declared off the table, and there’s a fight over them. So that’s again struggle exacerbating the contradictions. We were governed a long time by a Blue Dog Democrat. We do not support every Democratic Party candidate, we cherry-pick. We have our platform, we go to the candidates and ask if they support our platform. If they do we will work for them, we will support them. If they don’t, forget about it. Our Blue Dog candidate, he wouldn’t even put Obama’s name on his website or a single piece of literature in 2008 and 2012. So we made sure that he lost the election. We’ve got a goofy Republican Tea Party guy who’s not much different, but we made sure that he lost the election. We aren’t the only ones who made sure he lost the election, but we played a role in it.
Q (4): I’m the state treasurer of the Progressive Party of Vermont. So if anybody wants to find out how we went from an extremely sectarian leftist political formation to electing Bernie Sanders the independent mayor of Burlington, creating a statewide party over 30 years, talk to me. We do have three people in the state senate, which is 10%. We do have five people in the state house. And they are respected for their leadership on issues, even by the Democratic leadership. Although they are [inaudible] at every point where there’s money involved. We’re much more effective leaders on social issues, because most of the Democratic incumbents agree with us on social issues than on taxing the rich. I would argue that, I don’t know how many people here consider themselves Marxists, but if you’re a Marxist you understand that contradictions exist everywhere, and the fact that it doesn’t make sense to somebody or is not clear how supporting people within the Democratic Party can lead to independent politics suggests to me that you haven’t studied the contradiction, because that’s actually how it happened. That’s how the Republican Party was formed within the Whig Party. It’s an inside/outside strategy, but it’s not a strategy in the minds of the same people necessarily. In other words, there’s different forms and different people working on it. Anyway, I don’t want to talk too much, but I have a question first (for Ursula Rozum): how did you deal with the spoiler issue? And who won the election?
A (Ursula Rozum): Well, the Democrat won the election. So there was no spoiler issue. It was actually analysts and Republicans who were sending me hate mail saying how I spoiled the election for the Republicans, so you can’t win with the major parties. Myself, I saw it as a pretty significant victory for the left and for progressives in central New York, because we basically defeated a Tea Party Republican. I got 8%, the Democrat got nearly 50%, so it was a fairly significant defeat of the right. How did we deal with the spoiler argument? Sometimes we made a joke out of it, because the only other times this Democrat had won was when there was a Green running in the race. Every time he lost was when there was just two candidates. Basically, I would just point out that on big issue, like taxes and the deficit, for example, the Democrats and Republicans were close. How the tax policies of the Democrats wouldn’t address the deficit, and how the Republican also had no plan to address the deficit. I was trying to show how much closer the Republican and the Democrat were, than I and the Democrat were. On this panel we have a continuum of views of how to orient toward the Democratic Party, and one thing that we in the Green Party do is try not to run against Democrats who we think will be good progressives and who we think we can work with once they’re in office. So this particular race it was intentional that we ran, because it was against a very economically conservative Democrat. On issues like hydrofracking, which are very important to people in upstate New York, he would say things like “I personally oppose fracking but I don’t think we should ban it.” The only thing that the Democrat and Republican were divergent on was social issues, like abortion. I wouldn’t say that they were exactly the same, but they both represented elements in the major parties that were acting the worst. The Democrats were basically posing as progressives based on social issues. It was really challenging dealing with the spoiler issue. This is why I think that the real opportunity is in local elections, because they’re much more likely to be uncontested.
Q (5): On regroupment. The left of the 1960s is dead. Forget about it. There’s six members of Solidarity’s [inaudible] committee here, including myself. We had a meeting three, four weeks ago in Chicago. We said that one of our priorities was to get ahold of these guys in these post-Occupy groups like The North Star, like the Philly Socialists, and to get into conversation with them because this is where I think the future of the left is going. None of them are here except me. Solidarity is the anti-sect sect, it was the sect that was set up to try to break up the sects, and that’s what’s happened to it. The rest of the Left is worse. Marx and Engels had a brilliant insight, which is, when you’re through with what an organization is set up to do, destroy it, put dynamite under it, and blow it up. That’s what they did with the Communist League, they did that with the Communist League twice. They joined in 1847, and as soon as the revolution broke out, they said, “Now’s the time to dissolve the Communist League.” It wasn’t set up to do a revolution, it was set up to do propaganda. They set it up again because they thought there was an interregnum between the first phase of the revolution and the next phase of the revolution. Well, it turned out not to be, so by 1852 they said, “Forget it.” They split the Communist League and walked out of it. The world communist movement was represented by this outfit, only known by what [inaudible] called it, “Dr. Marx’s circle,” which met in the upstairs room of a London pub for many years. Then the First International came around, and they joined that, because that was the real thing. But when that got all messed up, they blew it up. They said, “Let’s send it to America and see if they can do something with it.” And I think this is a very important lesson: don’t keep organizations around, they are an obstacle. I disagree with Carl, I don’t think it’s about organization, I think it’s about movement. The organizations need to be expressions of social movement.
Q (6): I’m from Socialist Alternative. I was also the campaign manager for the Kshama Sawant campaign last year in Seattle, and I’m active again in it this year. Originally I was just planning on speaking about our experiences in Seattle, but I did want to respond to some of the points Carl Davidson raised that I think are key political issues that need to be grappled with in terms of building an independent party left of the Democrats. I definitely agree on the point that theory is grey and life is green. Things are never straightforward, they’re often much more messy and complex than we expect, and there’s a need for flexible tactics. But I don’t agree with your conclusions from that. And I would also point out, one thing that stands out on the US Left since the 1930s is extreme tactical rigidity of supporting the Democratic Party. That’s been the dominant approach, and that has not worked. Is it helpful for building movements?
Let’s just take the health care debate in 2010. The role that the Progressive caucus played in the Democratic Party was crucial in demobilizing and destroying the movement for single payer. Some of them spoke about it, but when there were protests in 2010—I was there in Seattle, there was a mass protest on health care, the main people at the forefront were calling for single payer, the Democrats and the SEIU leaders who put the demonstration together actually demanded that we put away our single-payer signs, we weren’t allowed to speak, and they never called a demonstration again because they saw that single payer was the most popular issue. And all the members of the Progressive caucus in the end voted for Obamacare. The idea that the Progressive caucus was putting some sort of pressure on Obama is the exact opposite: Obama was putting pressure on them to shut up and drop the issue of single payer. And they were putting pressure on movements outside of the Democratic Party to drop the issue of single payer.
The same thing happened in the anti-war movement in 2004 and 2008. In 2011 it was Wisconsin. The Democratic Party destroyed the Wisconsin movement by channelling everything into the recall effort, which was a dead end. Socialist Alternative was there, I was there. We warned that the strength was actually on the streets in terms of organizing a general strike. And the strategy of going to the Democrats, which a lot of labour leaders and progressive Democrats put forward, actually completely destroyed that movement. So, yes, we need flexible tactics, but when are we going to wake up to the fact that orienting toward the Democratic Party actually demobilizes movements, lowers consciousness, and doesn’t help strengthen the Left. Occupy in 2012 was shipwrecked on the issue of the 2012 elections.
In terms of Seattle, we had a very strong candidate, Kshama Sawant, and a credible campaign. And it points to the limitations of the orienting toward the Democrats, as none of the groups that traditionally support the Democrats were about to support a viable Left challenge in a two-party race, between a socialist and a Democrat, there’s no Republican in the race. Did the labour council support us? No. Did most of the trade unions support us? No. Did Planned Parenthood or civil rights organizations? Did Progressive Democrats of America? No. We’re running again this year, and we’re waiting to see if the PDA will support us. We’d welcome that as a step in the right direction.
The final point that I’ll make: we have to wake up to the fact that there is a historic crisis of the political system in the US. There’s an unprecedented discrediting of the political establishment. The republican political system is in crisis, it’s dysfunctional. The Republican Party is in disarray. Even though Obama is the most popular capitalist politician in the US, the fact is that the Democratic Party is in deep crisis in terms of its popular legitimacy. This is a historic opportunity, and Occupy was an expression of that. Occupy wasn’t trying to reform the Democratic Party, or [inaudible] the Democratic Party, in 2012, I feel like it crashed on that, but it was an explosion of popular discontent against the whole political establishment. The point I’m getting at, on the issue of left regroupment, I agree with what Seamus was saying about that. But the 2014 elections are coming up, and Obama’s support is falling, the Democrats are disappointing, there’s a massive disillusionment taking place with the Democrats. What’s going to happen in the 2014 elections? We can easily see a repeat of 2010, of Republicans on a populist basis exploiting that, not because the country is so right wing, but simply because if it is a binary choice and there’s discontent people will vote for the other guys. The left needs to get together and unite, not in one organization, as Seamus said, but we need to build broad left alliances, with the Greens, with socialist groups, with anti-cuts coalitions, to run independent anti-cuts working-class challenges to the Democrats and tap in to that anger. We have no control over that, that anger is going to grow both Obama and the Republicans, but Obama and the Democrats are going to be at the forefront of it because they’re the ones in power.
A (Carl Davidson): One of the first rules of politics is knowing how to count. If you think you could have gotten a general strike in Wisconsin, you don’t know how to count. The mass struggle in Wisconsin, the mass struggle of workers and farmers and different people, had gone about as far as it could go. Some people argue that it could have gone forever onwards and upwards to the point of a general strike. I call that an anarcho-syndicalist delusion. It went just about as far as it could go in terms of mobilizing the masses. Because I know how to count where the views are of the working class and the farmers and the people of Wisconsin; how many of them vote Republican, how many of them vote Democrat, what their views are on Walker, what their views are on the social resistance. They went with it as far as they could with the mass struggle. And therefore turning to the recall was one viable tactic that was still open to them. And they nearly won it. One of the main reasons they didn’t win it is because there were a bunch of leftists who should have known better, who should have gone out to every little town and every little county. They didn’t have to do it under the aegis of the Democratic Party. They could have organized working-class communities and councils in every little town and every little county in Wisconsin for the recall, which would have made it stronger, which may have put it over the top. But they didn’t. They decided to stay on the side lines. I think that was the biggest failure of the Left. To think that the Democratic Party sabotages a general strike means you don’t know much about the size of the trade union movement in this country. You don’t even know much about labour law—general strikes are against the law. You do not have a right to call a general strike. Your union could be taken over, busted up, and fined a million dollar a day for calling a general strike. You can come out with sympathy for mass action and make some kind of statements like that, but it is illegal in the US to call for a general strike. It’s even illegal to call for a secondary boycott in the United States. That’s the reactionary law that was imposed upon us.
Which gets me to another point. The Left has not consistently followed the argument that I’ve had. The Left has had a number of positions. We had a huge third-party movement in 1948, the Progressive Party. There have been other efforts by the Left to create a third party, other kinds of parties have appeared, we’ve had a range of experiences with different parties. And none of them have worked out all that well. And only a few of the Left have actually been engaged with the Democratic Party, the DSA, the CPUSA. Most of us have stayed away from politics like the plague. We have maybe 30 socialist groups in the US, so my question to them is that if you think our strategy hasn’t worked, how’s yours doing?
One final point. I happen to support your campaign in Seattle. I think it’s a great idea. I encourage all of our members to support it. Likewise Dan La Botz’s campaign in Ohio. I think that was a great idea. He only got 2% of the vote, but in Youngstown, Ohio, which is just up the road from me, that’s a thousand workers voting for La Botz. If I had a list of only one hundred of those thousand workers who voted for La Botz, I could have done wonders with it. To me that’s the value of that kind of campaign. I’m not against those sorts of things, I am for them. The campaign you guys are doing in Seattle is terrific, and if I was there, I’d be working on it. But I also think that if you think that Wisconsin could have had a general strike to bring down Walker, you’re living in la-la land.
A (Seamus Whelan): I think these kinds of questions are very important questions, are key for the labour movement, but also the general movement of society. Socialist Alternative actually had a large number of people on the ground actively involved in day-to-day on site in Wisconsin. We have a very interesting pamphlet out on what happened there, which is worth checking out on our website. But the idea that, the analysis that, the mood wasn’t there, that people weren’t prepared to go on a general strike, is just not true. The opposition to the general strike came from conservative labour leaders and the Democrats, nationally and within Wisconsin. There was actually a number of local unions that were supportive of the general strike. But the rank and file of the people that went out were overwhelmingly in support of a general strike. And that was beginning to grow until the push from conservative labour leaders and Democrats to pull that movement back into the confines of a get-out-to-vote campaign for the recall. And we’ve seen that was the graveyard of that movement.
What Socialist Alternative called for at the time, and what was getting an echo, was the idea of a one-day public-sector general strike. Not that that would have defeated Walker, but that could have been the next logical step to take the movement forward. Movements don’t emerge and then have a victory or whatever, there’s a way movements are built. If a movement doesn’t take the next progressive step forward to lead the movement in a direction, then there’s reaction and it goes back, it falls back. It’s not an inexhaustible thing. And the next logical step to build that movement was the call for a one-day public sector general strike. That would have mobilized people, and would have shown people that they have power, and then there would have been a next step after that. [inaudible] To blame the Left for the fact that the recall movement didn’t succeed is ridiculous. The reason that didn’t succeed was because the right-wing Democrat that they put forward wasn’t much different from Walker. Why should I vote for a right-wing Democrat over a right-wing Republican? Most people didn’t vote. There was no inspiration to make that decision. That’s the reality on the ground.
Q (7): This is for Carl Davidson. How do you inform and involve voters and members in your activities?
A (Carl Davidson): It’s very important for an organization to have a public face. For example, we have a website [inaudible] that has a history of everything we’ve done. In addition we have what we call Progressive breakfast, where we invite local labour leaders, key activists, some politicians—we have one coming up this week on a new trade deal, and we’ve got one hundred people signed up for it already. We have dinners and movies, where we bring out several hundred people, have a dinner, almost all working-class people, show Michael Moore’s films or something like that, documentaries to educate people on political issues. We also put up tables. We have the Racoon County Fair. I put up a table there with voter registration, a PDA banner, some Obama literature up on it, some bumper stickers.
I had four girls come up and ask if they could have some bumper stickers. I said, “I have four left, will you put them up on your car?” They replied, “No, we wanna put them on our backs!” This is a thousand white workers in a centre-right-wing populist area, and what these kids saw these Obama stickers as was a way to be anti-racists and a way to stick it in the face of the right wing. That’s what it meant practically on the ground to put an Obama sticker on your back and wear it around that fair. There were a thousand people there, and there were only two Blacks there. And we won 45% of that demographic to vote for Obama against McCain. The Democrats for McCain were sponsored by the Tea Party right. So you have to look at these things very concretely, and a vote for Obama was a vote against racism. And it was a mobilization of the most progressive sector of the white working class to put on an Obama T-shirt along with their pickup trucks with their guns in the back and go out knocking door-to-door on union households. It was a stand against racism. And don’t you ever forget it. And it was very important that they did so. Did they have illusions about Obama? Most of them, no. They were willing to give the Black guy a chance. They have fewer illusions about the Democratic Party than the people in this room. They know it very well. They also know the Republican Party better than people in this room. And they make their choices tactically. They figure out who’s going to do me the least harm, and on that basis they vote.
Q (8): I happen to be an activist in the Green Party, in the DC section of the Green Party, which happens to be DC’s second party, we beat the Republicans in the general election by 19,000 votes. That’s an interesting configuration, because DC is about 50% Black now, it’s still majority people of colour, and it’s Democrat. It’s basically run by Democrats who are following the agenda of finance capital, the Federal City Council. So we have great disparity, [inaudible] Black kids live in poverty. So we see our party as basically a force to challenge this programme from a left point of view. For tax justice, for rights of the formerly incarcerated, which are 10% of the population, we call them “returning citizens.” The inside/outside strategy seems to be the point of this discussion. Now, I happen to think that my organization that I belong to, the Committee for Correspondence, the foot that’s outside has largely fell asleep. I greatly value my comrade Carl and the work that he’s doing, but I think that the Green Party is absolutely imperative as we face the increasing danger of climate catastrophe. The Green Party has a programme to deal with it, the Green New Deal. And we have to begin to decarbonize under capitalism, we cannot wait until we have socialism, we have to begin the process, and we have to create the mass base—I’m an ecosocialist, I respect all of the different socialist groups that are putting out this vision, but to me the Green Party, we may have a convergence in the future with other parties, but to me the Green Party is the best organized national party. Given the time frame we have left to maybe avoid climate catastrophe, how should our electoral politics be shaped to capture that challenge?
A (Ursula Rozum): The challenge of that is that solutions to the climate crisis have to be national, or coordinated nationally. Locally we can advocate for municipal ownership and control of power. We need to consider bans on unconventional fossil fuels, which I think can happen at the state level. Since it is harder to capture national political office, it is really imperative to have some local victories to create the stepping stone for state wide victories. If the Democrats take on a climate action plan, then great, at least that’s some kind of solution.