The Political Revolution: Where From Here?

Beyond Bernie, what?

Since mid-April, when Hillary Clinton handily won the New York primary, variations on that question have animated discussions all over the country among activists, Sen. Sanders’ detractors as well as his supporters, who recognize that his run’s successes present an opportunity. Attending that opportunity, however, comes a burden. The political terrain opened up by social movements over the last five years demands the formation of a politicized constituency to inhabit it, and the Sanders campaign hinted at such a project’s near-term viability.

Developing a strategy for electing a socialist government is now an urgent matter.

Not that implementing that strategy should take priority. Any chance the left has of obtaining power is premised foremost on groundwork that must continue to be done outside the electoral sphere: labor and community organizing, base-building, political education, mass spectacle, direct action, grassroots leadership development, and so forth. Even if the left were to achieve electoral success, it would be fleeting and unsustainable, if we’d abandoned political groundwork to attain it.

Still, the reverse is also true: we risk losing the political ground we’ve been gaining if we don’t undertake an effort to populate it. Unfortunately, existing institutional avenues for achieving left electoral success are woefully deficient.

The Problem with Socialist Parties

In Parliamentary systems that operate on the principle of proportional representation, the leftist electoral strategy is simple: join or start a party and campaign on its line. If you only manage to get 2% of the vote, you are awarded 2% of the representation. If you get a plurality of the vote, you get to try to form a government.

A First-Past-The-Post system like ours strongly discourages this approach. Here, whoever wins an election, whether in a squeaker or a blowout, gets 100% of the representation. No representation whatsoever is awarded a loser, whether their campaign mobilized no voters or 49.9% of them.

In certain races in leftist pockets of the country, such as Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant’s Seattle City Council district, a leftist party may be able to pull a majority, and in such cases it should. Scaling up to national or even statewide races, though, it runs a risk that parties in a Parliamentary system don’t have to worry about: throwing the election to the right. If Socialist Alternative were to increase its share of the vote and begin running in more ideologically diverse electorates, the likely result would be increasing right wing majorities in government. The electoral odds confronting third parties do not generally admit of present success in gubernatorial, senatorial or presidential contests.

For organizer Waleed Shahid, the impediment posed by the winner-take-all approach is counteracted by an advantage US parties have over their Parliamentary counterparts. Whereas in proportional representation systems “parties develop candidate-lists up and down the ballot from school board to parliament,” here “candidates can theoretically gather the required number of signatures on an official party form and be placed on a ballot in a primary election.” An insurgent faction of “Sanders Democrats” could take on the party elite, leaving the Democratic Party to serve “a purely administrative function to foster electoral functions of the state, rather than a programmatic or disciplinary role.”

It is tempting to consider this option in the wake of Donald Trump’s populist conquest of the majority of the Republican establishment, its prominent politicians and major institutional constituents. What is a US political party anyhow, Trump’s success challenges us to ask, but a group of people who can be defeated through collective action?

Shahid proposes a new “party” which takes the form of a faction within the Democratic Party, like a left Tea Party. Such a form might maintain “its own accountability mechanisms, membership models, and decision making structures” without sacrificing “the existing tools of the major party’s administrative machinery: primaries, ballot access, petitions, conventions, and the party line vote used by an increasing number of voters.”

Not everyone is on board with this strategy.

The Problem with the Democratic Party

Shortly after the New Hampshire primary, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, made a peculiar political endorsement. She forcefully condemned Hillary Clinton, but declined to endorse Bernie Sanders, preferring instead to endorse the idea of a political revolution. Why promote a candidate’s catchphrase and not the candidate himself? Because of his ballot line: “it would be easier,” according to Alexander, “to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”

Paul Heidelman, a proponent of the strategy of splitting completely from the Democratic Party, invites us to consider the socialist effort in the 1960s-70s at party realignment. Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington and others advanced a strategy of expelling the Dixiecrat faction of the New Deal coalition, thinking this would liberate the Democratic Party to pursue social democracy. In the end, though they managed to shed the South, the Democrats did not become more socialist.

In predicting otherwise, Heidelman argues, Rustin and Harrington ignored the essential core of the Democratic Party: its funding base. Since the Great Depression, the Democratic coalition included those segments of the capitalist class most easily able to absorb the tighter labor markets the New Deal sought: capital-intensive and multi-national firms, like oil companies and international commercial banks. These interests were only induced to go along with the program because the alternative seemed to be mass insurgency, courtesy of a militant labor movement. When, a generation later, the oil sector threatened to abandon the Democratic Party, the counter-threat of working-class insurgency had dwindled, setting the stage for the the Carter Administration’s energetic pivot rightward, toward deregulation, austerity, and militarism.

Even if Sanders had been elected President, he would still be the titular head of a party whose major funding centers, and therefore whose major politicians, would be hostile to his agenda. The Sanders campaign’s small-dollar fundraising success was a marvel to behold, but normal Democrats don’t put up those numbers, so the party is, for the moment, still beholden to its moneyed interests. “Should he become president,” wrote Alexander, “he would also become part of what he has otherwise derided as ‘the establishment.’” Indeed, as tantalizing as Trump’s example of party-conquest may be, his prospects of advancing his agenda through a ruling coalition remain dubious.

There is also a more mundane reason for the left to want distance from the Democratic Party than its unreliability as a champion of working class interests: it is bedeviled by deep unpopularity. The latest from Gallup indicates that although the Party’s favorability rating has risen “slightly” since its historic low of 36% in November 2014, “both parties remain unpopular relative to their historical performance.” It is sensible to suppose that the unusually high degree to which Sanders is not a Democrat boosted his Democratic candidacy.

In the interest of its program and its political prospects, the left should seek a greater degree of independence from the Democrats than Shahid’s Progressive-Caucus-but-better offers.

The Problem with the Working Families Party

The Working Families Party is supposed to provide just such a vehicle. To be sure, it is the best attempt we currently have at operating within-and-without the Democratic Party. Through its shrewd use of fusion voting, WFP became a major force in New York politics and has expanded to nine states and is implementing a “pipeline project” to make politicians of grassroots leaders. However, as Shahid, a WFP organizer, writes, “Neither the WFP nor a prior, important effort to similarly challenge the two-party system — Rebuild the Dream — have generated the kind of momentum and mass participation of the Tea Party.”

For obvious reasons, the burden cannot fall to Shahid to give an account of why this should be.

As recently as 2013, the WFP was showing signs of powerful ascendency. A wave election swept Bill de Blasio and other WFP-nurtured politicians into office in New York City, defeating a powerful business-friendly Democrat who early on was considered the inevitable victor. The New York Times declared “A New Era for Progressives.” Here was a model capable of electing governments farther left than normal Democrats.

But only a year later, the model collapsed. For months leading up to its 2014 convention, the WFP searched for a viable progressive challenger to Andrew Cuomo. The Governor was a perfect WFP Primary election target, despised by liberals not only for his plutocrat-friendly policies but his tacit support for throwing the Senate to the Republicans, via the “Independent Democratic Conference” — a group of four State Senators who, elected as Democrats, promptly turned coat.

At last, shortly before the convention, a solid candidate emerged in the figure of anti-monopoly law professor Zephyr Teachout, now a candidate for Congress. Despite the raucous ovations she garnered at from grassroots members at the convention, the party endorsed Cuomo, upon the prevailing of the executive leadership of the state’s largest union, 1199SEIU — and Mayor de Blasio. Wisely, Cuomo did not show up in person to the convention, remotely delivering a speech that outlined his concessions, above all that he would restore to New Yorkers the Democratic majority they had elected by reigning the IDC back.

Party members who had boo’d through the video knew what was coming. They very next morning, Cuomo revealed his level commitment to the deal: “It’s very simple at these political conventions: you either win or you lose. Uh, and I won.” Not only did he win, he won ugly, sinking millions of dollars into a fake “Women’s Equality Party” designed to resemble and thus siphon votes away from WFP in the general election. Moreover, he convinced 1199SEIU and other unions that had supported him to cease paying WFP dues. As for the IDC, its leader, Bronx Sen. Jeffrey Klein wasted no words: “Nothing changes.” Voters justly knocked WFP down one ballot line for four years.

Ironically, Heinelman’s injunction to socialists that we ought to beware of funders is apt not only when the funders are organized capital, but even when they are organized labor. Union leaders, after all, represent the interests of a specific membership, not the working class writ large. If you have to deal with the governor for the sake of your members’ livelihoods, you don’t think he can be beaten, and you know he’s a vindictive demon, you, and thus the party you anchor, are at his mercy.

So the WFP is changing models. New chapters are staring up in states like Wisconsin and Nevada. Fusion voting is not an option in those states, so the WFP exists not as a ballot line, but as something closer to what Shahid calls for, an organization within the Democratic coalition. I am not privy to the party’s finances, but it appears to be in the unenviable “Do More With Less” mode.

If reliance on labor unions for funding is a liability, albeit a smaller one than reliance on capital, political independence will have to be driven substantially by small dollar donations. Here is where even the WFP’s new model provokes doubt. The type of exuberant small-dollar fundraising Sanders has accomplished requires something WFP lacks and the Tea Party had: an emotional connection with a mass of people.

Shahid points out that the Tea Party’s decentralized, open-source structure facilitated the kind of mass rallies and listening-session shout-downs that propelled 2010’s far-right electoral insurgency. I share his regard for decentralization, and admire many of the strategies advocated by the Momentum model of organizing (with which Shahid is affiliated) for achieving it. The Sanders campaign shows, though, that if there is energy around a project, it decentralizes spontaneously. People who were inspired to participate in the Sanders “movement moment” formed their own outfits, chapters, and networks, which become a sort of “Greater Campaign Area” — People For Bernie, Labor for Bernie, Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, and so forth. If an open source structure provides a conduit for left political power, it is the emotional connection with a mass of people which provides the propulsion.

Resonant iconography is critical to fostering emotional connection. In a presidential campaign, the iconography inevitably revolves around a single icon: the candidate, who can symbolize many things to many people. In the absence of a candidate, though, iconography formation demands a more deliberate approach. The Tea Party claimed a historical lineage, which had a widely resonant iconography built in — imagery, sounds, and dramatizations that inherently bespoke an appeal to insurgency, with the strong value of liberty from tyrannical government at its core.

If the Working Families Party has a symbolic logo, much less an animal to compete with a donkey and elephant, or any other type of mascot, symbol, anthem, costume, custom, ritual, ceremony, idiolect, &c. — it is unknown to this long time WFP supporter. The name itself limits the appeal of the party: not only are there millions of people who don’t identify primarily as workers, there are millions more who don’t identify as families. An iconography revolving around a candidate or an historical event admits of mass, diverse emotional investment, and thus decentralized funding; it is not at all clear that an iconography-less Working Families Party does.

The Problem With The Tea Party

Though there is much to admire about the swiftness with which the Tea Party insurgency was able to advance a political program (however odious the program itself), it is easy to overstate the desirability of replicating its model.

Its chief deficiency was that it happened in a single wave. The Summer 2009 shout-downs may have propelled a crop of politicians embracing the Tea Party iconography into office in 2010 in sufficient numbers to impose a ruthless program of austerity, but by 2012, notwithstanding Ted Cruz’ attainment of a Senate seat, the Tea Party label all but ceased to be a force at the ballot box. If the left is going to implement a socialist program, it will need a sustained effort that builds on its own success in cycle after cycle.

To this end, the Tea Party lacked some crucial attributes: a coherent political critique, transformative vision and understandable program. Its critique took the form of a freewheeling, seething opposition to social welfare broadly and President Obama singularly. Its vision, freedom from Big Goverment, was never especially vivid, and it thus was never able to articulate a program capable of achieving it — policies to overhaul, institutions to erect or abolish, &c. That the 2010 insurgency was able to yield severe budget cuts and the defeat of the proposed Public Option component of Obamacare was no mean feat, but these policy outcomes were also already GOP priorities. That is, “Tea Partiers” were, from a policy perspective, like mainstream Republicans, only moreso.

A wave of sentiment provoking a political lurch rightward followed by an erosion of power is nothing like the sustained, transformative change the left seeks. The Tea Party was effectively too open source, lacking a central pillar capable of sustaining the decentralized insurgency. If the left replicated its model, we would wind up assisting the realization of the liberal agenda — regulated access to market-based services — rather than advancing our own program of guaranteed economic rights, directly provided by the public sector.

A Strategy for Political Independence

I’d like to offer a strategy for political independence, not as a blueprint, but as a provocation for discussion. I think it may be viable in the main, and that we may have a considerable amount of the necessary infrastructure already in place.

The strategy revolves not around a party but a national inter-partisan slate (and, once elected, caucus). Candidates could run for office at any level, but to achieve the greatest national significance with the smallest voting bodies, it might be wise to focus on the US House. They would share a core message, a basic program, and an explicit affiliation with one another under a common banner, maybe even with shared campaign ads. To maximize its degree of independence from any party’s funding base, the caucus should fastidiously maintain a diversity of parties — perhaps there could be a bylaw stipulating that no more than 20% of a given slate’s candidates would appear on the same ballot line. A given slate might feature primarily Independents, some Greens in areas where local chapters are strong, some from socialist parties, some people running on the Working Families line, and a deliberately small number of Democrats.

For unity as its own entity, the slate/caucus would require a broad vision, a program for achieving it, a stated commitment to values/principles, and, critically, an iconography which resonates with these. Much of this may already exist in embryo.

The “divest-invest” framework has attracted social movements from climate justice to the Movement for Black Lives, and the Sanders campaign occasionally employed it, conceptually if not by name. It is capable of linking the diverse interests of social movements into a narratively coherent critique, vision, and program. Broadly speaking, the left wants to divest from prisons, policing, border enforcement, war, energy extraction, and the surveillance state, and invest in guaranteeing everyone the essentials for a dignified life: healthful food, comfortable housing, quality healthcare, student-centered/directed education, meaningful work, leisure time to build family, community, and culture, and the energy and communications tools required to do it.

The call to divest from the enforcement regime and invest in people’s livelihoods articulates commitments to freedom and dignity. To these, a third pillar might be added in commitment to democracy: unconditional universal enfranchisement, public election funding, a much more decisive system of participatory budgeting, federal standardization of election procedure, and so forth. Freedom, dignity, democracy. Divest-invest-enfranchise. Make love, not war, and power to the people.

In addition to this program, which is adaptable to local circumstances and priorities in every community in the country, the caucus could unite around a set of values/principles. Two closely related examples come to mind that pervade social movement spaces and the young activists propelling the Sanders campaign.

The first is “targeted universalism,” characterized by a devotion to the interests of the people who live farthest on the losing ends of various hierarchies, double standards, and violent relations — the “margins of the margins.” Without this anchor, universalism is often carried adrift by the prevailing currents of bigotry. It tends to become abstract: “All lives matter.” The slate should demonstrate this commitment not just by enshrining it officially in its documents, but by realizing it in the figures it elevates to “party” leadership.

The second is what movements tend to call “accountability” and Sanders supporters tend to call “integrity.” His demonstrated inability to be bought by, and indeed his hostility toward, wealthy interests clearly ignited Sanders’ popularity and fundraising.

To bind the program and principles, a unified iconography is necessary. I am nowhere near capable of offering up a comprehensive scheme in this division, but for my own part, I am a fan of birds. A great deal of the symbology already employed by youth-led social movements and the ones from which they derive inspiration is already about freedom and dreams. What could signify those more vividly than birds? Birds mean renewal, birds mean grace. As Bernie Sanders pointed out when he summoned one to his lectern in Oregon, birds mean peace. “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Flocks of birds operate as a collective mass, following rotating leadership. Birds have vision wide enough to survey all the terrain visible from the sky but sharp enough to peer down at particular areas of focus. My two cents.

With these points of unity in place, a diverse slate of candidates might successfully organize as a left political faction, independent of any one party or funding center. Eventually, when powerful enough, it might become a party in its own right, seeking a ballot line and full realignment resembling what the Republicans achieved in the mid-19th Century.

Problems With The Strategy

I look forward to being alerted to many problems with my idea that I can’t see. One that I can is, as always, the funding question. A pool of small-dollar donations is ideal for political independence, and I hope the form I propose would be well-suited to generating one, but even a large pool would be unlikely to be able to truly sustain a major political operation by itself. If the caucus were to grow in scale, it would likely need to think of other sources for funds. Might union reform caucuses be able to shoulder some burden? A politicized federation of co-ops, land trusts, and other “new economy” institutions and organizations? What could a left formation produce that people might want to buy — music, fashion, software, or something else millennials are good at?

Strategic discussions about leftist political operation will become increasingly vital in our newest “new normal.” I hope this essay will prove useful in provoking more of them, and that critics of what I’ve written will not be shy about identifying its deficiencies. And I hope that, if anyone reading is already busy building something like what I’ve outlined, they’ll let me know how I can be useful.