The Left and the Vote in 2012

by Alan Maass (ISO, U.S.) on January 17, 2013

Some readers of SocialistWorker.org may have come across a long article from Socialist Alternative (SA), a small U.S. group, attacking the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for its alleged position on a local election campaign in Washington state. The topic may seem obscure – because it is obscure – but the article’s criticisms will come as a surprise to any regular reader of this site.

The campaign in question involved a candidate of Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, running for a state House seat from a district in Seattle. SA claims that the rest of “the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections” by not supporting Sawant, and they single out the ISO for a very lengthy critique.

SA does admit that it first attempted to contact the ISO as a national organization about supporting its candidate with an e-mail sent in mid-October. Our reply to that communication began by noting that we “encouraged [ISO members] to vote for genuine anti-corporate third party alternatives.” We then pointed out that contacting the ISO national leadership a couple weeks before Election Day was “not a serious effort at collaboration” since there was no time for any actual collaboration.

Likewise, the tome published by Socialist Alternative earlier this month is not a serious effort at discussion on the left. It ends by claiming that SA has “initiated a dialogue in Seattle and elsewhere about running broad left slates of candidates in 2013 and beyond.” SA has not initiated anything of the kind, at least that they’ve told us about – since that would mean having an actual discussion with forces other than themselves, rather than lecturing them.

We thus must reach the same conclusion we came to after receiving SA’s mid-October request to support its candidate–that SA is not interested in collaboration or dialogue toward common efforts on the left, but with rhetorical statements to that effect and sectarian point-scoring.



Then again, the self-important tone of Socialist Alternative’s missive about the left’s failure to embrace a “historic” opportunity seems to reflect a radically overblown estimate of the importance of the Sawant campaign.

It’s certainly positive that a socialist candidate won a significant vote – more than 20,000, for just under 30 percent of the total – against a well-known Democrat and the speaker of the state House. Of course, Frank Chopp, the Democrat, was running unopposed in a liberal-leaning district, so casting a protest vote was an attractive option.

The main reason for the Sawant campaign’s stronger-than-expected showing was an endorsement from Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger. It’s great that a firmly pro-Democratic paper urged a protest vote against a well-known Democrat. But the paper also endorsed Democrats in every other race where it made a selection, from what I could tell – including ones where an independent left candidate was running. So its support for Sawant doesn’t exactly represent a consistent break from the two-party system.

But however you explain the results of the battle for Representative Position 2 in the 43rd Legislative District in Washington state, it’s a little much to draw conclusions about Election 2012 and the “historic” opportunities for the left based on an election where approximately 99.93 percent of voters in the U.S. couldn’t cast a ballot.

leftvoteAn analysis not focused on a single local race for state office would have been a little more sober about the outcome for left candidates.

There were occasional signs of local success, but they were few and very far between. On the national level, the Green Party’s presidential candidate Jill Stein won only 468,907 votes, or 0.36 percent. Left-leaning protest candidates Roseanne Barr and Rocky Anderson combined for another 100,000 votes, and 0.08 percent.

No one reading this website will believe that 0.44 percent reflects the real level of discontent with the two-party system in this country. That’s not even close to the level of sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, with its critique of both corporate greed and the corruption of the two-party system.

So unless you believe that a left-wing campaign managed by Socialist Alternative or some hypothetical coalition of other left organizations would have done significantly better, the conclusion has to be that the sentiment for political change in this country wasn’t most effectively expressed and built through left-wing protest candidacies in 2012.

Three different lead articles at SocialistWorker.org (here, here and here) urged readers to consider voting for candidates who represented a genuine left-wing alternative, in the presidential race and in local elections where possible.

But as Lance Selfa wrote, “[W]e have to understand that these campaigns are shoestring efforts.” As Lance and others wrote there, “the left’s time and resources were better utilized building struggles outside the electoral arena last fall – like the spreading fight to defend public education, building on the Chicago teachers’ strike, or the strike wave among low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and other workplaces.”

Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative is prisoner to a bit of dogma passed down through generations of orthodox Trotskyist organizations that they must try to run candidates in elections, no matter how tiny their ranks, no matter how meager their resources, and no matter how little such campaigns reflect the actual state of the working-class movement.

SA’s polemic against the ISO since the election reflects another shibboleth–one that Leon Trotsky would have despised – of such groups: an obsession with attacking other left organizations for real or imagined differences, inflated out of all proportion as “historic” failures and betrayals. It’s hard to take such critiques seriously – any more than Socialist Alternative’s claim to be engaging in constructive dialogue.

Anyone on the left should welcome opportunities for genuine collaboration to build a political alternative. But collaboration requires honest discussion about proposals for united action, not sectarian point-scoring.

Published by Socialist Worker.

 

  • PM

    There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I’ll begin with the last few paragraphs, where Maass resorts to pure sectarianism by dismissing SA’s position not on practical grounds but on purely ideological ones: “Socialist Alternative,” he writes, is prisoner to a bit of dogma passed down through generations of orthodox Trotskyist organizations” and adheres to the “shibboleth … of such [ortho-Trot] groups” of “attacking other left organizations for real or imagined differences.” In other words, according to Maass, the disagreement here is really between SA’s “orthodox” Trotskyism and the ISO’s heterodox Trotskyism (though obviously every bit as hardened into doctrine). Whatever the merits or demerits of SA’s politics, the group, to its credit, never made this about competing “traditions” in its article criticizing the ISO’s position, sticking instead to the real practical issues.

    • Brandy Baker

      “Whatever the merits or demerits of SA’s politics, the group, to its credit, never made this about competing “traditions” in its article criticizing the ISO’s position, sticking instead to the real practical issues.”

      Exactly!

  • Patrick A.

    Alan Maass concludes by saying, “collaboration requires honest discussion about proposals for united action, not sectarian point-scoring.” Let’s examine Alan Mass “honesty”:

    First, what SA asked for concretely in the spirit of generally strengthening unity was “an endorsement”. I don’t see how we could possibly collaborate on an election in the first place unless they first agree to our request for an endorsement.

    Next, Alan Maass overlooks the SA claim that we verbally aproached them starting in July 2012 and only emailed them two weeks (email was dated October 15, more than three weeks) before the election. This is probably good to avoid for the ISO, because it avoids the problem of having to explain the proper ways of communicating with the ISO, which can often give the impression of bureaucracy.

    Next, Alan Mass says, “SA claims that the rest of’ ‘the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections’ by not supporting Sawant, and they single out the ISO for a very lengthy critique.”

    Here’s what the full quote from the SA article actually says: “In our view, the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections. Five years into an economic crisis, with millions disillusioned in Obama and the Democrats, in the wake of Occupy and the global revolt of 2011, we argued throughout 2012 for the left to seize the moment and begin seriously building a political opposition to the two corporate parties.”

    Alan Maass says: “Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative is prisoner to a bit of dogma passed down through generations of orthodox Trotskyist organizations that they must try to run candidates in elections, no matter how tiny their ranks, no matter how meager their resources, and no matter how little such campaigns reflect the actual state of the working-class movement.”

    Okay, Please point me to where so-called “Orthodox Trotskyist” organizations like SA argue organizations “must try to run candidates in elections, no matter how tiny their ranks, no matter how meager their resources”? Can you provide any quote or evidence that this is really what SA argues. I thinks Alan Maass just made this up as part of his appeal for “honest discussion”.

    Socialist Alternative’s whole argument was that it’s not a question of principle to run in elections “no matter how tiny [our ranks], no matter how meager [our] resources.” But, there were historic openings in 2012 in the changing context of the “actual state” of U.S. politics with Occupy and the massive anger at both parties and the 1%. I think socialists should at least – AT LEAST – reeaxmine whether there are bigger opportunities to use the elections to build our movement. Alan Maass’s article clearly shows that the ISO leadership has ruled it out. They are not going to be advocating the left or the ISO take bold initiatives to run in elections in 2013. Maybe not even in 2014 or 2016. Maybe never.

    Lastly, Alan Maass says, “The main reason for the Sawant campaign’s stronger-than-expected showing was an endorsement from Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger. It’s great that a firmly pro-Democratic paper urged a protest vote against a well-known Democrat. But the paper also endorsed Democrats in every other race where it made a selection, from what I could tell–including ones where an independent left candidate was running. So its support for Sawant doesn’t exactly represent a consistent break from the two-party system.”

    The Sawant vote did get a huge boost from the Stranger. No question. But why did the Stranger endorse? Was it a mistake? a Fluke? No. Here’s an attempt to explain why:

    1) It is a reflection of the “actual state” of the U.S. political situation. There is enormous disappointment with the Democrats at their base and there is growing openness to socialist arguments. The Stranger’s willingness to endorse Sawant over the second-most powerful Democrat in Washington state is a reflection of this development. Sure the Stranger wanted to use Socialist Alternative as a stick to beat the Democrats and we know the Stranger really just wants to push the Democrats to the left. But, it would be stupid for this reason to then turn down an opportunity to get a wider hearing for revolutionary socialist views. The whole point of participating in “bourgeois elections” in the first place is to get a wider hearing for socialist views! And isn’t far better a revolutionary socialist is the Stranger’s stick to beat the Democrats than a liberal Democrat? It certainly did not prevent us from honestly putting forward the case for socialism.

    2) Socialist Alternative recognized the possibility for an endorsement and SEIZED IT. Kshama EARNED that endorsement. She spent hours and hours preparing for the interview, which was in the form of a debate with Democrat incumbent Jaime Pederson in the Stranger office (Jaime Pederson was our original opponent before the Stranger initiated write-in campaign allowed us to switch races after the August primary). I encourage everyone to read what the Stranger originally wrote when they endorsed Kshama Sawant in the primary http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/vote-or-well-kill-you/Content?oid=14208972. While they actually endorsed Jaime Pederson – our opponent – in the race we were officially running in, they felt compelled to being their endorsement of Jaime Pederson with praise for Kshama. Kshama earned that. Kudos to her.

    • RedPleb

      “Next, Alan Maass overlooks the SA claim that we verbally aproached them starting in July 2012″
      I don’t know how many times this has to be made clear, walking up to people and casually just asking if they’re going to endorse your candidate is not a serious plea for endorsement. Its not. At best thats how you ask individuals for a vote for your candidate, not a national organization’s endorsement. If you want an organization to formally endorse another organization’s candidate you formally ask them for an endorsement. This constant rehashing of the “verbally approaching” line shows either amateurishness, laziness or disingenuousness on your part, I’m not sure which.

      At the end of the day the key issue is: SA has an orientation on electioneering, the ISO does not. That’s why you are putting so much energy into defending this campaign even after its over, and we still don’t care that much honestly. Its certainly neat and all that your candidate got 30% of the vote in one city and all, but we still don’t believe elections are an effective and strategic use of our time and resources. If you want a group that doesn’t put any priority at all in getting their people, or any people, elected to endorse an election, then you might want to be more serious energy into convincing them to endorse you next time.

      • Andrew Ray Gorman

        They were seeking to work with socialists in Seattle. Not in Chicago. If you want to work with someone, you approach them. I mean what in the world do you want? Is there some detailed plan for approaching someone in order to work with them? Don’t over think it. I work with a multitude of people from various groups where I live. Sometimes there are disagreements, but they are actually talked about. Instead of this form of anti-social behavior.

        If socialists want their policies to be implemented, we need to seriously consider elections. Otherwise you aren’t socialists, you are anarchists. That isn’t said to be negative, I understand many do not think elections will bring much. If you think rank-and-file union action is the way to go, then push for that. But if you don’t put up candidates that actually promote socialist principles, then you end up with wasted energy like what happened out in Wisconsin, with only weak Democrats being put up for the nomination, and ultimately losing the general election.

      • PM

        RedPleb: “SA has an orientation on electioneering, the ISO does not … we still don’t care that much honestly.”

        Shaun Harkin: “we were active supporters of the effort to build and launch the Labor Party in the US in the 1990s; we actively supported and campaigned for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo in their campaigns in 2000 and 2004; we were part of a broad coalition of left organizations supporting Dan La Botz as Ohio’s Socialist Party candidate for US Senate in 2010″

        So which is it?

        • Patrick A.

          The ISO didn’t mention this, but also Todd Chretien of the ISO ran for Senate in 2006 in California as a Green Party candidate. I couldn’t find an article from socialistworker.org about it, but here you go: http://www.smartvoter.org/2006/06/06/ca/state/vote/chretien_t/

          • Nick G.

            The ISO were not a part of the effort to build the Labor Party.

            • Chris

              With the exception of the Providence branch, the ISO only offered lip service to the US Labor Party.

        • Cowboy Dan

          The ISO does support efforts to build left alternatives but only when there is broad support for it. The ISO is only going to run a candidate of its own until its large enough to handle class war taking place in the workplace, schools, communities and etc and handle election campaign work all at the same time. If the ISO is going to support anybody it has to be capable to juggle election work with activism. It’s not easy.

  • Manuel Barrera, PhD

    My thanks to North Star and the ISO (I hope with their consent?) that this rejoinder is published here given that it is not really possible to discuss (or debate) any such issues on the Socialist Worker site since they do not seem to invite open-ended commentary and will only publish replies they approve (this point is not the focus here though, so, “’nuff said”).

    It seems to me that there is “blame” to go ’round between these two organizations. Not because I believe S-Alt “only” approached ISO late into the election (I believe S-Alt owns a different story). This logistical problem may or may not be a political problem of “lack of seriousness” in S-Alt’s intents. However, it is a political problem to use “logistical” reasons to oppose solidarity in principle and then to argue “principle” to make one’s explanation seem more “serious”. That S-Alt was successful in moving a “firmly pro-Democratic paper” The Stranger to endorse Sawant is not a bad thing–it’s actually a good thing. How is that fact a criticism of the Sawant campaign? Wouldn’t we want to force left-leaning liberals to vote socialist instead of Democrat regardless of the “logistics”? Wouldn’t such an event create openings that one could not otherwise get? Indeed, SP candidate, Pat Noble won an election to school board in the Red Bank (sic) Regional School District of New Jersey by receiving such wide support including a Tea Party endorsement?

    In Vermont, is there any doubt that a vote for Bernie Sanders (as smarmy as I think he is) as a socialist is a useful alternative to supporting the Democrats? Don’t we want to have socialists elected to office even if we know that doing so is far from the essential need to build a mass movement? Wouldn’t such elections of socialists signal a difference in the mass movement and wouldn’t joint action support every 2-bit (or in the case of ISO, 3-bit) pretend vanguard organization even in their own narrow designs as being the “biggest” on the Left (whatever that means)? Wouldn’t it have been an interesting turn of events to have had the Chicago Teachers Union strike supplemented by, not “socialist” candidates even but union or “Occupy” candidates available to channel the courageous effort of CTU in challenging Daley’s–and Obama’s–machine with independent working class campaigns directly just “weeks” after the strike? I notice that ISO argues on the one hand that the endorsements for S-Alt’s campaign weren’t exactly a “a consistent break from the two-party system”, but then do not really show how their “alternative”, which was to remain silent and especially so in Chicago where they engaged in quite otherwise stellar work on the teacher’s strike. Could it be that all this “sturm and drung” over S-Alt’s criticisms have more to do with their own membership’s “consistent break with the two-party system”? Wouldn’t an exercise in magnanimity with a call to endorsement–even in a “safe” election campaign in Seattle–have been a great example of solidarity never mind an education for the cadres of ISO and of S-Alt?

    And, by the way, it’s not really a criticism of ISO if they have cadres “unclear” about whether to engage in lesser-evil politics. Learning to become “consistent” socialists is something for the entire class to experience, so, providing such an education to a growing membership in context of a real set of events is a rich opportunity not to be taken lightly. I just wonder if the leadership of ISO is either all that clear about this issue or simply too concerned with potential fallout among their members? Again, this is not a condemnation of leadership or of the organization–at least for my part–but an appeal to recognize broader implications of seemingly only engaging in “sectarian point-scoring”.

    I wonder if ISO is willing to call its own bluff and actually engage in “genuine collaboration to build a political alternative” with “honest discussion about proposals for united action”?

    I’m sure many would welcome such an event.

    • admin

      Re: consent.

      “Material on this Web site is licensed by SocialistWorker.org, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [5] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and SocialistWorker.org.” Source:
      http://socialistworker.org/print/2013/01/17/the-left-and-the-vote-in-2012

  • Brandy Baker

    When I first heard about this by reading the headline on this site of the article written by SA, I thought that theISO would have very reasonable explanations and that SA would come off looking silly. When I clicked on the link to read SA’s article, the venom-filled last paragraph from the ISO to the SA, and the comments from ISO members below, I saw how bad the ISO was making themselves look and SA came off as reasonable. Yet another lesson to me about fixing my beliefs and expectations about groups, activists, etc. Maybe someday I will learn.

    Anyway, after reading this latest piece from the ISO, they look even worse than they did before.

    SA asked for an endorsement in July more than once. ISO-Seattle, let’s be honest, blew them off. Okay, fine. Their right to do. But they never told SA “no”, or “probably not” or “let’s talk about it” etc. Or even,”you have to ask Chicago.” They said that they would,”discuss it.”

    SA contacts ISO-national, two weeks before to ask for an endorsement,which would not have been hard to do on ISO’s part, a line in their paper, a mention, or even an announcement of Sawant’s existence, etc. ISO turns them down, which is their right. But adds a bunch of snark and pettiness in the last paragraph showing their open hostility to SA out of some weird paranoia that SA is “trying to set them up” or “score points”.

    Even if that were true, so what? All ISO had to say was, “thank you for your letter, but we have decided to not endorse specific candidates this year,” or whatever their position is. If SA publicly complained, they could have politely explained that they were focused on other things, and that with activists’ time and limited resources, sometimes hard decisions have to be made.

    But no. ISO is unnecessarily nasty, as always. They have egg on their face publicly and they have only themselves to blame. They said more than they needed to say, even if they really feel the way they do about SA and even if they are right about SA. There are good people who are in the ISO, but the culture of the organization is one of meanness and dismissiveness towards anyone who has any criticism of them be it another group, ex-members, or current members at meetings. According to multiple sources, newer members are afraid of speaking up out of fear of being derided or ostracized.

    In various activists groups that I have been in, folks have asked for endorsements, and we talked it over, usually say yes as the people who asked are good, unless they are opportunistic Democrats who are trying to secure a left endorsement. No big deal and we all move on.

    For a group that is so hell-bent on using the word, “sectarian”and make accusations of, “point scoring” this group needs to take a look in the mirror.

  • Ty Moore

    This entire article simply avoids engaging with our political arguments. Instead of politics, Alan Maass substitutes various barbed misrepresentations of our points to paint us into their stereotyped narrative of “orthodox Trotskyism.”

    The political issue that stands out most from the ISO’s reply is their complete misrepresentation (and therefore avoidance) of our analysis about the “historic opportunities” for the left in the 2012 elections. In the second paragraph Alan Maass tries to sum up our argument, partially quoting us, but adding his own clause at the end to completely transform the meaning of our statement: “SA claims that the rest of ‘the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections’ by not supporting Sawant…”

    Of course, anyone who reads even the first few paragraphs of our article will see that our argument was that similarly successful campaigns to the one we waged in Seattle could have been possible in cities across the country. There were undoubtedly favorable conditions that helped the Sawant campaign. But our argument is that Sawant’s success reflected the growing openness to socialist ideas post-Occupy (which is itself why a liberal publication like The Stranger felt pressure to endorse us). The only political response the ISO makes to this argument (leaving aside their psychological assessments of us!), is to point out how poorly the various left presidential candidates did. Maass provides no response, for example, to our suggestion that in Chicago, following the historic teachers strike against Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, that the ISO could now be gaining traction if they agitated within the Chicago Teachers Union and allied community groups for local electoral challenges in the period ahead.

    I would encourage ISO members especially to actually read through the article we produced. It was not designed as an exercise in point scoring or chest pounding. Rather, along with the other analysis we produced drawing out lessons from our success in Seattle, this article too was an attempt to shake up the routines of the U.S. left and suggest that big opportunities to grow our numbers and political influence are now present. What’s necessary is for us to be smart, creative, and sieze the time.

    There are of course more things raised in the ISO article that I could respond to, but that’s all I have time for now.

  • Kevin

    Time and time again ISO’s petty and condescending attacks surprise me more and more. This article literally is a perfect example of a ” straw man” argument. I’m not even a member of SA and I find this “response” to a serious failure offensive.

    ISO should have the “S” removed from its name and replace it with an “L”. The “I” itself should also be removed because there’s nothing “international” about the “ISO.”

    At any rate the ISO should just stick to Menshivik politics and be honest with themselves and those who may join. Just call yourselves what you are, social-democrates.

  • Brandy Baker

    I am glad that SA came forward with this, not to beat up on anyone in any way, but in order to open this dialogue about coordinated electoral activity for the future. I am also impressed with the comradely way that they handled themselves in this situation.

    Millions of Usians think that politics is only going to the polls every 2-4 years, we need to find a way to tap into that sentiment.

    • Brandy Baker

      *tap into the sentiment and change it.

  • dave riley

    I’d think the best response would be — something to remember next time — is to endorse other socialist campaigns as a matter of course and write that up accordingly.

    You shouldn’t have to be asked.

    That’s what we do in Australia in the Socialist Alliance . We’d appreciate reciprocation but don’t always get it, but the issues are broader than playing games.

    But there has even been instances of cross effort and members of Socialist Alternative sister org here have worked for the Alliance election campaigns such as in Western Australia. Other groups, like the ISO there, have chosen to ignore our existence in the poll.

    As for not standing in elections? Hello:thirty percent.

  • http://www.appeal-to-reason.info/ Andrew Ray Gorman

    If we look deeper into the exact divide here, it seems to be one based on electoral differences. Much of this is reminiscent to the debate at the Labor Party convention of 1996, which was whether or not to run candidates. Those who won out at the convention used very similar reasoning that that Alan Maass seems to be using here. And look what happened to that effort.

    I do not want us to miss out on this opportunity this time around. There is no reason we can’t run candidates at the local and state level. However, I understand holding out on national candidates for the time being. State parties must first be able to show they can manage local and state campaigns, earning the confidence from the people there. So at the present moment, we can organize our respective states, and utilize in-state coalitions to help build something new.

  • Lonnie

    It should also be noted that the Seattle ISO also backed the 2006 Green Party US Senatorial campaign of former Black Panther Aaron Dixon. In fact, an ISO member was the campaign manager. That campaign won significantly fewer votes than the SA campaign.

  • http://www.socialistworld.net K

    “Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative is prisoner to a bit of dogma passed down through generations of orthodox Trotskyist organizations that they must try to run candidates in elections, no matter how tiny their ranks, no matter how meager their resources, and no matter how little such campaigns reflect the actual state of the working-class movement.”
    In my entire time in the CWI I can think of only one election campaign run by Soc. Alt. preceding the Sawant Campaign and that would be Matt Geary for Boston City council in 2007. And, as far as I know, that was the first Soc. Alt. election campaign run ever. It’s pretty obvious Maass description doesn’t hold, so either he is not being honest or it’s just an misinformed attempt at a jab. And, as comrades have already noted, he misrepresents Soc. Alt.’s position by bringing in half a quote and claiming it means something other than it does. What a shame.

  • Lonnie

    I’m a former ISO member in the Seattle branch and publicly supported the Sawant campaign. Sure, I may have disagreements with SA’s politics, but the campaign wasn’t about raising a debate about Trotsky’s transitional program. What it did was introduce a revolutionary socialist perspective in the ongoing debates about budget cuts and the 1% with a leading member of the state Democratic Party. I am still close to the ISO, but I feel that, on this question, they put their own interests ahead of the interests of the broader working class.

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