What will advance our struggle in Columbus?

November 1, 2017

Rachel Reiser, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Columbus, Ohio, provides a socialist viewpoint on a progressive challenge in local elections.

THE BALLOT for City Council and School Board in Columbus, Ohio, will have some unexpected choices next week: five candidates of the grassroots organization Yes We Can Columbus who qualified by winning enough votes in a primary election chock-full of "establishment" candidates this past May.

In a city where the Democratic Party machine holds a tight grip over local elections, this is a considerable achievement that is no doubt a reflection of growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in Columbus politics and part of the ongoing radicalization of sections of the Columbus community since Trump's inauguration.

Yes We Can wants to change the miserable conditions plaguing Columbus and shift power out of the hands of the wealthy few into the hands of everyday people. The organization's members and supporters have been involved in struggles for justice here alongside other activists.

But at the same time, however critical it has been of politics as usual in Columbus, the organization has maintained a strategic orientation toward the Democratic Party, rather than clear-cut independence.

Volunteers for the Yes We Can campaign in Columbus
Volunteers for the Yes We Can campaign in Columbus (Yes We Can: Columbus Working Families | Facebook)

It is for this reason that the International Socialist Organization in Columbus has chosen to not endorse Yes We Can's campaign this fall. We share the organization's vision of working for social justice on many fronts, but we believe that project will not be advanced through the vehicle of the Democratic Party.

Building unity in struggle requires engaging in debates about strategy so the movement can be as effective as possible. This article is an attempt to further the frank discussion we need about what it will take to build power and win our demands.

THE SITUATION in Columbus is nothing short of a disaster for working-class people.

Despite the gilded titles of "#1 Opportunity City" and "Safest Big City in America" bestowed on it by the likes of Forbes magazine, these hollow descriptions could not be further from the reality that ordinary residents of Columbus experience.

More than one in five residents live below the poverty line, and the city has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. Gentrification continues to decimate affordable housing and the livelihoods of those who rely on it.

Columbus is number one among the 15 largest U.S. cities in police killings of Black people per capita. Yet despite this shocking statistic, the city has moved forward with plans to continue its controversial Summer Safety Initiative--a program designed to pump more money into the already-bloated police budget and target poor communities of color with greater repression--throughout the year.

The Democratic Party, which dominates Columbus' political establishment, has had no solutions to these many crises. On the contrary, it has presided over measures that increase people's suffering.

This is the context in which Yes We Can Columbus emerged in 2016. The organization started when a group of people realized it was feasible to run for the local Democratic Party Central Committee--you only need five signatures to get on the ballot. Their aim was to influence the direction of the Democrats locally and represent the voice of progressives in local politics.

In an interview, Will Petrik, a member of Yes We Can who was elected to the Central Committee and is currently running for City Council, described the ideas that unified the group at its foundation:

[O]ne was that there is no heart and soul of the Democratic Party, everything's been corrupted by money and power. Both political parties just care about winning, and ultimately, that means they care most about raising the most money and cozying up to big money interests that don't align with people in our community...The other thing that we talked about was essentially the political culture in this city, which is very authoritarian, kind of enforced by fear and punishment...

[F]rom the beginning, there was a vision that we want to build a movement that's full of leaders, and we want to redefine like what we see as real leadership. And that's fighting for what you believe in--fighting for social and economic justice, for racial justice, for the environment, for women's reproductive health.

Yes We Can Columbus is right to conclude that the mainstream Democrats offer no kind of leadership to get us out of this crisis, and that the urgency to build an alternative is clearer than ever.

But their attempt to displace the corporate-connected Democrats locally in order to achieve progressive aims doesn't take into account the long history of the Democratic Party in absorbing and co-opting such efforts, squelching the potential for building a true left alternative that can mobilize power at the grassroots toward turning the tide against capitalism's injustices.

ATTEMPTS TO reform the Democratic Party for progressive ends aren't new--they have been attempted regularly since the time of the New Deal.

Not only has this strategy repeatedly failed to influence the character of the Democratic Party, but those who carry it out end up, despite their best intentions, having to contain emerging radicalism and mold social movements to be palatable to the Democrats' priorities--either that, or they are pushed out of the party before they can accomplish their goals.

The Democratic Party is a capitalist party in both its politics and its organization. The pattern of "cozying up to big money interests," as Petrik described it in Columbus, is not a bad habit that the Democrats have gradually acquired, but part and parcel of its structure, down to the foundations.

By "capitalist party," we don't simply mean that the party's politics are in favor of the capitalist system--although this is true--but that its purpose is to represent the interests and mediate the competing elements of the U.S. capitalist class.

This is why, throughout its history, the Democrats have been the party of slavery, the party of war, the party of mass incarceration, the party of deportation and the party of Wall Street bailouts, despite masquerading as the "party of the people."

Of course, because it is the main opposition to the right-wing and proudly pro-capitalist Republicans, the Democrats appear by default to be of the left. But a closer look shows that this isn't the case.

Take its organizational form. The Democratic Party isn't a membership party, and despite its name, it doesn't operate through a democratic process. Power is exercised most of all through the vast amounts of resources given to it by its supporters among the capitalist class.

As a result, the Democrats are designed to be able to squash dissenting politics when they emerge within the party. The way in which the Democratic National Committee operated to sabotage the Bernie Sanders campaign for the party's presidential nomination last year is a resounding testament to this.

AT FIRST glance, local politics might seem to be exempt from this lack of democracy and accountability to the party's working-class base.

It is true, for example, that it is much easier for a progressive candidate who isn't endorsed by the party establishment to run for various local offices. This is one factor that inspired Yes We Can to form in the first place.

But this greater openness at the local level can't be separated from the fact that even if progressive candidates do get elected, they will face severe limitations on how much they will be able to accomplish, given the structure of local government.

This is certainly true in Columbus. The city has a "strong mayor system," in which the mayor directs the administrative structure, appoints and removes department heads, and can exercise veto powers over City Council decisions. Thus, individual members of the City Council have limited power even to influence local issues.

Even higher local offices, such as the mayor, suffer profound limitations of power. Municipal budgets, for example, rely largely on property taxes and tariffs on public services. There is therefore an incentive for gentrification to increase property values and push poor communities to the margins of the city.

Cities can't go into debt in the same way the federal government can, so when money is tight, local politicians are often forced--whether against their intentions or not--to impose austerity measures on working people and grant tax incentives to the business class to keep capital flowing through the city.

As Martin Luther King Jr. lamented in the 1960s, "Mayors are relatively impotent figures in the scheme of national politics. Even a white mayor...simply does not have the money and resources to deal with the problems of his city."

Therefore, to "get money out of politics" will take a lot more than winning even a number of City Council seats, since the structure of the government is designed to resist progressive measures and promote those that fit with business interests.

As the example of the civil rights movement, among so many others, shows, the truly effective means of putting pressure on the state and the system is struggle from below, not electing candidates to office.

THAT ISN'T to say that movement-building and elections are necessarily opposed.

Petrik, while acknowledging that his views don't necessarily represent all of Yes We Can and its supporters, described a broader vision of what "success" looks like:

I would say elections are a means to end goals, which are ultimately building leaders and educating the public about issues that we care about...We're trying to build a mass movement that builds understanding and builds support for justice. And once you have a majority, the politicians fall in line with you because they feel like that's what's safe and that's what will get them elected...

Each new person who comes into the movement is a part of a group of people who can help educate and politicize other people...Whether you get seats at the table or not, that's the base that's actually going to make change. So to me, it's way more about building organization and shifting consciousness and understanding.

The left has learned in the past how election campaigns can be used to represent the voice of the movement and promote progressive ideas in a public arena.

But the problem is attempting to do this from within the Democratic Party.

Some people cite Bernie Sanders as an example of a progressive campaign inside the party that, despite losing the nomination, successfully advanced progressive ideas, exposed corruption in the party apparatus and laid the ideological foundations for a mass movement.

If Sanders hadn't run within the Democratic Party, the argument goes, he wouldn't have been given a platform to express his ideas. Therefore, running as a Democrat for president was the most productive thing he could do to advance the cause of the left.

There are certainly aspects of this argument that are correct--for example, Sanders wouldn't have gotten the attention he did if he ran as an independent. But it is important to look at the whole outcome of the Sanders campaign.

For one thing, while Sanders gave a national platform to left-wing ideas, he wouldn't have won the kind of support he did if those ideas weren't already in the air because of the widespread radicalization that has taken place in the past decade, previously gaining expression in such protest movements as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

More importantly, while the Democratic National Committee's war on the Sanders campaign exposed the true nature of the party for all to see, when Sanders lost the nomination, he encouraged his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton, the very candidate they were disaffected with in the first place.

Sanders did give expression to left-wing ideas and proposals that are rarely heard in mainstream politics, but his commitment to run as a Democrat left unchallenged the notion that a capitalist party that has moved constantly to the right and accommodated to the Republicans is the left's best bet for advancing its cause.

What's more, Sanders became the most effective critic of those among his former supporters whose anger with the Democrats led them to consider an independent alternative.

This attempt to advance the cause of the left within the Democratic Party has been made many times before. But from the Populist movement of the 1890s, to the labor upsurge of the 1930s, to the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s and '70s, along with many other examples before and after, the Democratic Party has remained unfalteringly committed to serving the status quo, while those who hoped to change it were most often changed themselves.

THERE IS a wider battle to be won than simply putting forward progressive ideas in mainstream politics. Our side needs the power to achieve change, and throughout history, that power has come from struggle from below.

If the politicians simply fell in line with public opinion, the U.S. military would be out of Iraq, and we would have had single-payer health care long ago. The problem isn't simply that U.S. public opinion is too conservative. Both the Republican and Democratic Party are guardians of the status quo, and they will maintain that status quo no matter what ordinary people think, unless they are forced by protest and mass expressions of discontent to do otherwise.

The New Deal of the 1930s is associated with Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, but it didn't occur because he was responding to a shift in public opinion. Roosevelt and the rest of the U.S. political system were responding to a radical working class movement, mass strikes and upsurges of struggle in many forms that shook the capitalist system.

Roosevelt insisted--against the opposition of some in the capitalist class, but also with the support of others--that the system had no choice but to grant reforms in order to save capitalism from a revolutionary upheaval.

And at the same time, he and the Democratic Party worked to co-opt the leadership of the labor movement and head off any attempt to build a political party independent of the two-party establishment.

We need mass movements to challenge all the injustices of capitalism, and we need our own party to represent it. We need a party that unapologetically proclaims the demands of the movement: Indict killer cops, free abortion on demand, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and more. We need a party that is owned, organized and democratically controlled by ordinary people, free from the vulnerability of co-optation.

No matter what the outcome of the November 7 election, it will be independent struggles and organization of everyday people in their workplaces, schools and communities that will give Columbus residents the power to truly proclaim "Yes we can"!

Coco Smyth contributed to this article.

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