Seeing all the opportunities in elections

August 7, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Robert Wilson.

The Ballot Box Beyond the Ballot Line

Robert Wilson | The debate on the left regarding the 2018 midterm elections has been among the most fruitful of any on this topic in recent memory.

Within the context of the growing socialist movement, developing strategy, tactics and perspectives is crucial as our movement strives to win gains for workers, break the Democratic Party straightjacket and put forward a desperately needed new political vision.

While most of the debate has revolved around candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon and Bernie Sanders, there are other important electoral considerations for socialists beyond whether or not to endorse insurgent democratic socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot line.

The reality is that in most cities and districts across the country, we won’t even have the option to work for a truly left-wing candidate. Just because there are no viable left-wing candidates doesn’t mean the election season lacks opportunities for socialists to put forward our politics.

I am an ISO member in North Carolina, where we have a Republican supermajority and a Democratic governor, whose executive powers have been stripped away in broad strokes since his election in 2016.

The resounding message coming from NGOs, Democratic politicians and liberals is that we need to vote for Democrats or else the Republicans will continue to lay waste to North Carolina’s democracy. For those who have paid attention to the Democratic Party’s activity when they controlled both the legislative and executive branches of our state, however, the pleas to vote for the party often fall flat.

It’s worth briefly surveying why the Democratic Party is not a friend to the North Carolina working class.

To begin with, despite being in power for the majority of the 20th century, the Democratic Party failed to repeal right-to-work laws passed in 1947, permanently harming the labor movement in the state. North Carolina continues today to compete for lowest unionization rate in the country with our southern neighbor.

It was under Democratic administrations in the 1960s that North Carolina saw the greatest increase of Ku Klux Klan activity since the turn of the century, with membership topping 15,000 at its peak.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers and contributors are debating the lessons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York. SW’s coverage of the election began with this article:

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte
How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

Eric Blanc
Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

Robert Wilson
Seeing all the opportunities in elections

Alan Maass
Can socialists use the Democrats?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
On spoilers and dirty breaks

Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh
What do socialists take into account?

Joe Evica
What kind of break are we looking for?

Nate Moore
What should independence mean today?

Eric Blanc
On history and the dirty break

Nate Moore
Precedents for flexibility?

From 2012 to 2016, when the Republican Party had total control over the legislative and executive branches of state government, the Democratic Party was unable to affect any real resistance to a series of attacks on workers, from slashing the education budget to reducing corporate tax rates and racist voter ID laws.

The experience of the Democratic Party in North Carolina since 2012 mirrors that of the national party since Trump’s election: rhetorically against regressive policies, while being completely unwilling to do anything about it outside of rallying votes behind their candidates.

As socialists in a state where the Democratic Party establishment has not been disrupted by socialists running on their ballot line, we can relate less to some of the experiences of comrades in bigger cities such as New York City and Chicago.

In North Carolina, however, this election season poses two important and distinct questions for the left. The first is a series of proposed constitutional amendments that would require all voters to show ID before casting their ballot and cap the state’s flat income tax at 7 percent. The second is the recently reduced signature requirement for third-party candidates to qualify for the ballot.

On the question of voter ID, as socialists we must be staunch defenders of democratic rights. An estimated 300,000 current voters don’t have identification, with these voters overwhelmingly being students and working class people of color.

Organizing to defend voting rights presents an important strategic consideration for socialists in our state. On principle, we socialists fight to defend democratic rights, however limited they may be.

But strategically, educating and organizing voters to strike down the proposed constitutional amendment on voter ID is an important opening for socialists to develop relationships with a broad layer of people on the basis of our politics and protecting democratic rights.

As for the proposed income tax amendment, socialists can raise slogans that we must tax the rich, instead of institutionalizing a low tax rate.

Just a few months ago, 30,000 teachers poured into the streets of the state capital to demand more funding for our schools. State employees have been laid off by the thousands since the recession, our infrastructure is crumbling, and state funding for affordable housing is drying up as cities gentrify.

Connecting these problems to the legislature’s unwillingness to tax the rich will be a key way that the left can engage workers on important issues, while avoiding falling into the trap of Tweedledee-Tweedledum electoralism. A recent poll found that 32 percent of voters polled nationwide would support a 90 percent tax rate on the richest 1 percent, so there’s clearly room for agitation around this issue.

As to the second point regarding signature requirements, the North Carolina General Assembly recently changed the proportion of voters needed for forming a new political party to 0.25 percent of the electorate in the previous gubernatorial election, and unaffiliated candidates now need the signatures of only 1.5 percent of the electorate.

These new provisions were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, but pushed through by the Republican supermajority in the legislature.

This change has led to a number of candidates on the left running independently from the two parties. While unlikely to win, they raise the question of how the left in North Carolina should relate to this new opportunity.

Marx and Engels’ classic formulation — “Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention” — is now perhaps more readily achievable in North Carolina than in many other states.

Together, these two developments in North Carolina — the first a threat, the second an opportunity — present an opening for the left in 2018 and beyond.

It’s true that those who don’t currently have IDs also have a lower propensity to vote, as they see no meaningful alternative to the status quo that has trapped them in poverty, debt and illness. These are the people who will be the base of any future socialist party worth its salt — an attack on their voting rights is an attack on the working class as a whole.

Building a united front to beat back the proposed voter ID constitutional amendment and taxing the rich, while putting forward a vision of building a party of our own, should be central to how the North Carolina left relates to the midterm elections.

In conclusion, we think the national debate on the left about the 2018 election season needs to be expanded. We don’t see simple abstention as a viable option for socialists in the lead-up to November 2018.

Whether in the form of ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments or small-scale third party/independent challenges, the ballot presents an opportunity for socialists to relate to wider layers of people who will be looking to elections for change, and to engage in struggles to defend the democratic rights of the working class.

We can do both without being sectarian or getting drawn into the two parties of American capitalism.

Further Reading

From the archives