Breaking out of the two-party (ballot) box

June 24, 2014

Jen Roesch examines recent breakthroughs and advances for the left in electoral politics and what they mean for the future, in an article for Jacobin.

NEARLY SIX years into Obama's neoliberal presidency, there are growing signs of discontent within the Democrats' traditional voting base. While both of Obama's electoral wins can be attributed to the turnout of young, female, Black, Latino/a and working-class voters, these are precisely the groups that have most suffered from the economic crisis and his administration's commitment to austerity. This is part of the reason why, for the first time since 2000, there is a space opening up in mainstream politics to the left of the Democratic Party.

In Seattle, socialist Kshama Sawant's campaign for City Council was able to gain support from constituencies, including some unions, that would normally support the Democrats. In Lorain County, Ohio, union activists angered by their local Democratic mayor and City Council broke ranks and ran their own independent slate of two dozen labor candidates--nearly all of whom won. This represents a flexing of labor muscle in the face of Democratic betrayal, rather than a firm break, but it points to the potential working-class audience for an independent political alternative.

Not much of a choice

These are relatively small and localized examples, but they reflect a real and growing frustration and impatience that reaches beyond the radical left into the American working class. Sawant's victory in Seattle may have been aided by the support of a hip indy newspaper and a base of lefty volunteers, but her campaign themes were solidly working class, and her votes came overwhelmingly from households making less than $40,000 a year. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio remains a solidly committed Democrat, but his "tale of two cities" campaign also reflected an economically populist break away from the status quo.

What direction all this takes remains to be seen. While space is opening up for independent political challenges, progressives who see possibilities for creating a left-wing within the Democratic Party will also step forward. Adolph Reed's recent article "Nothing Left" criticizing liberals' commitment to the Democrats was a cover story for Harper's and led to an interview on Bill Moyers' show.

That his argument can get this kind of attention is a sign of the opening that exists. But Michelle Goldberg's response accusing Reed of electoral nihilism gives just a taste of the pushback from liberals that will develop as we approach the 2016 elections.

The stranglehold of the two-party system has, along with racism, been a main obstacle to the development of working-class consciousness and organization in the U.S. It has meant that the mainstream political debate has remained incredibly narrow, conducted on terms largely acceptable to the capitalist class, and it has created an inevitable pressure on social movements to adapt to the "politics of the possible."

If social and labor movements are to break out of this cycle, it will have to mean an actual break to the left of the Democratic Party. While some of the developments in the most recent electoral cycle are encouraging, this is by no means an easy task.

THE LAST time there was a significant electoral challenge to the left of the Democratic Party was Nader's presidential campaign in 2000. While Nader was no socialist, he consistently and successfully challenged the two-party system from a national platform, garnering close to 3 million votes. While this was a small share of the ballots cast, he managed to impact the national debate and inject left-wing issues into an otherwise narrow discussion. At the height of his campaign, he spoke to an audience of more than 20,000 at Madison Square Garden.

There were two factors that shaped the development and popularity of that campaign. First, two terms of a neoliberal Democrat in office had produced a reservoir of discontent, especially among young people. This prompted large numbers of voters (or would-be voters) to look leftward in search of new alternatives.

But what really galvanized the Nader challenge and gave it the feeling of a movement was the global justice fight that had first erupted on the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organization protests less than a year earlier. The Nader campaign represented a social movement, which was at that point on the ascendance, finding electoral expression--"Seattle goes to the polls," as some put it at the time.

Today, we are also in the second term of a neoliberal Democrat who has frustrated and failed expectations. And we are five years into an economic crisis in which both mainstream political parties have pursued a program of austerity. In this context, left-wing--and even socialist--campaigns can tap into this frustration.

At the same time, many of the struggles that have inspired people in recent years have run up against challenges or been outright defeated. So electoral initiatives are less a reflection of a movement on the offensive than an attempt by the left to find a different avenue by which to give political expression to the radicalization that we know exists.

This context explains the widespread enthusiasm and discussion on the left about electoral possibilities in the wake of Sawant's victory. But it also speaks to some of the challenges we face. It is tempting to see electoral work as an easier avenue of political activity or a shortcut to broadcasting a left-wing message to a much larger audience. Both of these things can be true, but there are two questions that must be considered as we attempt to develop our electoral strategy.

First, we have to recognize that the favorable conditions that existed for the Sawant campaign are not easily replicated. These include: highly favorable election laws (nonpartisan elections that allow candidates to run without party affiliation), the ability to run for any open council seat on a citywide basis and mail-in ballots (this last factor became decisive in the campaign's final days); the lack of a Republican challenger, which typically gives Democrats a means to demand a lesser-evil vote from their base; and strong grassroots movements and organizations that could be tapped for support.

Relatedly, we need to think through the relationship between potential electoral initiatives and grassroots social struggles. Electoral work needs to be understood as one part of a process of rebuilding working class confidence, consciousness, and combativeness.

Given the relatively small forces of the left, we need to ask some hard questions, even if there are viable options for a campaign: Will directing energy into an electoral campaign help to give confidence, advance and project existing struggles and the broader resistance, or will it act as either a substitute for those struggles or a drain on limited resources?

In most cases, independent campaigns are unlikely to actually win. Therefore, in the majority of situations, the primary goals are to raise the need for a political break with the Democrats, to amplify and strengthen existing movements, and to engage a wider audience in left-wing ideas.

Even in cases where independent candidates are able to win, like in Seattle, success can't be measured on the usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation or building alliances with other legislators. Instead, the challenge will be to use this platform to give confidence and support to struggles and to create a left-wing pole of attraction within mainstream politics. Thus far, Sawant has shown the ability to take advantage of precisely that potential.

GIVEN THESE considerations, there are active discussions in a number of places about how to take advantage of the audience for independent politics.

In New York, Teamster and long-time labor and environmental activist Howie Hawkins is running for governor on the Green Party ticket. He has teamed up with long-time educator and socialist Brian Jones to run a campaign that puts forward a defense of public education, the fight for racial justice and working-class demands like the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Hawkins is running against Rob Astorino, a far-right Republican with no real chance of winning, and front-runner Andrew Cuomo, the current governor and a right-wing Democrat with presidential ambitions. Cuomo spent his first term attacking public-sector unions, undermining funding for public hospitals and pursuing an education deform agenda that funded charter schools, pushed high-stakes testing and undermined public schools.

This has created an enormous reserve of anger, which was reflected in a Sienna poll conducted in April that showed 24 percent of respondents favoring an unnamed Working Families Party candidate over Cuomo.

The Working Families Party, while nominally independent, has consistently cross-endorsed Democrats (and sometimes Republicans) on its ballot line--including Cuomo when he ran for his first term. This year, there was a bitter fight within the party about whether to break ranks and run an independent candidate.

Since the fight resulted in a decision to endorse Cuomo for a second term, there is a live debate among progressives and union activists about whether now is the time for a genuine political alternative to the two parties. This has opened up a significantly wider political space to the left of the Democrats, and it's one that the Hawkins-Jones campaign aims to fill.

There are interesting developments taking place in Chicago that show both the range of possibilities and challenges in the electoral arena. This is not surprising--the Chicago teachers' strike of 2012 was one of the most successful in recent memory. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was able to build successful rank-and-file organizations in schools across the city as well as build alliances with students and parents fighting for their schools.

This brought them into a direct confrontation both with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and with the education reform agenda pushed by the Obama administration. When Emanuel responded to the successful strike by pressing forward to close a record 50 schools, it raised much more centrally the question of a political alternative.

What electoral forms this developing resistance will take remains an open question. Perhaps the clearest expression of these dynamics is the campaign of Tim Meegan for city council in Chicago's 33rd Ward.

Meegan is a social studies teacher and rank-and-file activist in the CTU. He is running as an independent on three main planks: fully-funded, quality public schools for all students; economic justice including a $15 per hour minimum wage; and an end to privatization of city assets and services. The campaign has arisen organically from the education battles in Chicago and seeks to use an election campaign as a vehicle for further movement building.

At the same time, the Chicago Socialist Campaign--a project mainly involving forces of the organized left--sought to build on the Sawant experience by mounting an explicitly socialist campaign. Unlike the Sawant campaign, this was an attempt to draw together both unaffiliated progressives and socialists from different organizations into a common effort.

After much discussion, activists have organized to support Jorge Mujica's campaign for city council in the heavily immigrant and working-class neighborhood of Pilsen. Mujica was one of the main organizers of the 2006 mass marches for immigrant rights in Chicago. His campaign is rooted in existing community struggles and networks of activists, and hopes to amplify those struggles through the electoral arena. At the same time, it is also raising a broader challenge to the two-party system and doing so as an openly socialist campaign.

THE INITIATIVES described thus far are all at the local and state level. At this point, they are still driven by progressives hoping to take advantage of some of the current openings. They are also still highly dependent on specific local conditions that allow a third-party run to be viable.

These local campaigns, be they Green, independent or socialist, can play an important role in giving political expression to the radicalization that exists, bringing together different forces on the left and raising confidence. But they do not yet represent either a significant break from the Democratic Party or the basis for a national third-party challenge.

There are signs that political conditions are creating the potential for this kind of development, but it is a much more challenging proposition than simply running candidates in local races with favorable conditions. The process of such a break will not be straightforward, and will likely proceed in fits and starts.

The recent resolution of the Chicago Teachers Union to form an Independent Political Organization (IPO) that will "enable a broad multitude of diverse organizations to establish a pipeline for candidate development to identify and train people who are part of our movements to become elected officials" gives a window into some of the prospects, as well as the challenges. This resolution clearly represents the political development of the public education fight in Chicago and a desire to pose a challenge to the Democratic Party machine, through developing candidates who will be accountable to the union and to movements.

But the initiative runs right up against the questions of the two-party system. Earlier this year, the CTU endorsed two Democratic candidates for the Illinois legislature: Will Guzzardi, who won, and Jay Travis, who did not. Both candidates were clearly as far left as you can get in the Democratic Party, had strong support in their communities, and have been active in important grassroots struggles.

But Travis' campaigning and Guzzardi's victory as Democrats won't do anything to help develop an independent political alternative. Campaigns by these kinds of candidates have been a traditional mechanism by which the Democratic Party absorbs activists into its ranks and attempts to co-opt emerging struggles. Christine Quinn, for example, who lost the Democrats' New York City mayoral nomination to Bill de Blasio because of her identification with Michael Bloomberg, started her career as a grassroots LGBT activist with extensive connections to local struggles.

Once in office, left-wing activists who try to carry on their struggle while representing the Democratic Party ultimately end up having to choose between making deals with and accommodations to the existing power structure, or becoming marginalized and unable to accomplish their goals.

This does not mean that the CTU initiative should be dismissed by the left. It represents the initial cracks in the Democrats' traditional base and is, therefore, an important development. If anything, it shows that the tasks for the left are much more challenging than simply running successful campaigns on our own terms.

It requires a commitment to engage with the broader forces that are starting to explore what genuine political independence, and power, could look like. It grows out of some of the same conditions that gave rise to the independent labor campaign in Lorain, Ohio. As social struggles develop, we may see more places where activists who have previously been tied to the Democratic Party begin to question that commitment.

One example of this is in Oakland, Calif., where long-time civil rights attorney Dan Siegel is running for mayor. Both Siegel and the current mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, were socialists who entered the Democratic Party in the wake of Jesse Jackson's 1984 Rainbow Coalition in an attempt to pull the party to the left.

Quan's use of police repression against Occupy Oakland in the fall of 2011 aptly demonstrated that it was the Party that changed Quan and not Quan who changed the Party. This prompted Siegel to publicly split with Quan and rally to the defense of the victims of numerous police assaults.

Siegel has deregistered from the Democratic Party and decided to run as an independent. His campaign is highlighting the key issues facing working-class people and people of color in Oakland, and has inspired and organized activists from movements ranging from Occupy to the fight against police violence.

However, he has not yet made the need for a political break with the Democrats central to his campaign publicity. The extent to which this campaign can take a step towards organizing Oakland's vibrant activist community into a formation independent of the Democrats will depend precisely on addressing this question.

Meanwhile in Richmond, Calif., veteran labor radical Mike Parker is running for mayor, as two-term Green Party Mayor Gayle McGlaughlin is being termed out. As these are both nonpartisan races, the thorny question of what exactly constitutes independence from the Democrats will have to be worked out in practice.

THESE DEVELOPMENTS are still in embryonic form, and it is difficult to predict whether they will grow in the near future. We should encourage them and, in cases of genuinely independent runs, look to supporting such campaigns. And we should continue to participate in and initiate discussions within labor and other social movements about the need for an independent political alternative.

But we also need to understand that a credible, national third-party alternative will not emerge in this country simply from the accumulation of a series of successful local races. Nor will it be the result of increasing unity on the left and an agreement of a diverse array of progressive forces to back a national challenge (though this would certainly be a good thing).

If our goal is a political break from the two-party system, this will require that substantial forces that would normally vote for the Democrats decide to break ranks.

The development of the conditions that would make this possible will require efforts that go beyond the ballot box. The political basis for such a break will likely develop through struggles that confront the Democratic Party in power. The CTU is one such example, and the fight for public education generally is in direct contest with the Obama administration's reform agenda.

But it is not the only arena. Environmental activists have been battling the Obama administration to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Thus far, they have been successful in winning delays on the decision, but each round of struggle has raised questions about Obama and the Democratic Party as a whole.

Immigrant rights activists are increasingly targeting deportations as Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants in the last five years. These struggles, and others like them, have the potential to drive participants towards third-party alternatives while also increasing confidence and militancy.

The Sawant victory in Seattle has shown the potential for electoral campaigns to give political expression to and advance such struggles. It has laid down a marker and raised expectations on the left and beyond. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the next step is simply increased engagement in electoral campaigns.

At the moment, the prospects of such campaigns remain localized, and their potential needs to be individually assessed. But our sights must also stay focused on developing struggles that can rebuild working class organization and confidence.

Within these struggles, we should be looking for every opportunity, including electoral opportunities, to build a stronger, more coherent and politically independent left. By doing this work now, we can begin to expand our horizons--and the mainstream political debate--beyond the narrow confines set by the two-party system.

First published at Jacobin.

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