Democracy Spring After The DNC

How do we advance a nonviolent political revolution in the 2016 election?
A statement from the DS Interim National Coordinating Committee

In the weeks after the Democratic National Convention ended with our demands only partially met and dreams of victory for a political revolution unfulfilled, many of us have asked, “Which way forward for Democracy Spring — for a revolution to win real democracy in our country?

The Democracy Spring Interim National Coordinating Committee, a motley group of 11 racially and culturally diverse Millennial leaders (5 women, 6 people of color) charged with stewarding our growing decentralized organization through a time of transition, has grappled carefully with this question and reached a conclusion we are compelled to share. Here we lay out what we believe must be our movement’s orientation to the 2016 election, placing that in the context of our basic mission and identity, our plan to win, and our strategic analysis of the US electoral system and how civil resistance movements can best engage it.

Brevity is beautiful. But this is a complex, controversial, and highly-charged matter. Because we feel it is imperative to be as clear and thorough as possible in articulating our position, this statement will be longer than usual. Please read it fully and consider our argument carefully before forming conclusions in response.

First, a review. Democracy Spring is a nonviolent movement organization fighting to win fundamental democracy reform in 2017. We see the task of ending the corruption of big money in politics and guaranteeing the universal right to vote in free and fair elections as the best available path to swiftly winning reforms to address the profound crises of our time, from devastating climate change, to historic economic inequality, to mass incarceration and deportation. We believe that the democracy fight will not be won without building a movement of mass nonviolent civil resistance that can disrupt business as usual and galvanize popular will to force change.

We are nonpartisan and not affiliated with any political party, but — though we will always diligently seek pro-democracy conservatives and libertarians with whom we can partner — we recognize that our organization is a home for people united by a progressive moral vision and a commitment to solidarity with the other egalitarian struggles that motivate us, from the movement for Black lives to the struggles for immigrant rights, feminism, queer and trans liberation, climate justice, peace, and more.

Our basic strategy to win is this: build a mass, decentralized movement capable of sustained nonviolent action; define the 2016 election and through it, establish a mandate for fundamental democracy reform; then escalate to mass civil disobedience and noncooperation in 2017 to enforce that mandate and pass reform. In this way, we aim to make 2016 the last corrupt election and 2018 the first post-reform, substantially free & fair election — paving the way for the emerging Millennial-led progressive majority to take power and advance rapid change before the intersecting crises of our time reach the impending point of perhaps irreversible catastrophe. We know this vision is extremely ambitious, but we feel it is even more necessary and so we accept the clear risk of failure in order to claim the radical power of hope.

So, how — as a nonviolent, progressive movement of civil resistance with this urgent mission and ambitious plan — do we orient to the 2016 election as it stands? To answer this question, we must first establish several fundamental points.

First, the social view of power tells us that popular movements can win regardless of who holds authority in government. When the People, upon whom governments (and every institution, whether economic, political, or cultural) ultimately depend, refuse to cooperate with and instead disrupt the status quo, the business of society can no longer continue until our demands for change are met. This is why movements can bring down dictators, why people who have no right to vote can still win change.

Yet, wherever people have won the right to vote — almost always through bitter struggle that renders it sacred and the duty to exercise it profound — voting becomes an essential weapon of nonviolent struggle. Strategic voting and participation in elections, no matter how compromised or corrupt, is in almost every conceivable circumstance an absolutely necessary means of shaping the political terrain on which our movements fight. Voting for candidates who position themselves more closely to our movement’s demands will not by itself deliver any fundamental change, but electing them lowers the bar for the social force we must then generate to win.

Further, voting must be clearly understood, as Noam Chomsky argues, not as “a form of individual self-expression [but rather] as an act to be judged on its likely consequences.” Predictable social impact, not preferred alignment with personal values, must guide us.

Second, the fundamental structure of the United States electoral system limits our options for effective political action. Denying these constraints won’t help us change them. We must understand them and act accordingly. Ours is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all, single-member district electoral system: the candidate who secures a plurality of votes wins 100% of the representation for their district. Unlike in the proportional, parliamentary, multi-party systems common in many other countries where 15% of the vote will garner 15% of representation, in our system losing candidates win zero representation. Further, if a minor party candidate gains substantial minority support they actually empower the major party most opposed to their positions by pulling a potentially decisive margin of votes from the more closely-aligned major party. The “spoiler effect” is real. Because of this incredibly high threshold of electoral success and the serious threat of spoiler backfire, systems like ours across history and around the world have reliably produced two-party systems and prohibited third parties from successfully vying for power.

At no level of government is this more true than the Presidency. In the US, the presidential candidate who wins a majority of electoral college votes wins the race. And, with few exceptions, the candidate who simply wins a plurality of a state’s popular vote garners all of its electoral college votes. This essential doubling of the winner-take-all rule makes presidential success for a minor party candidate almost insurmountably difficult.

Because of these long-established rules, in over two centuries of elections in our country, no third party has ever won the Presidency or substantial representation in Congress. At times, a new party has taken the place of one of the prior major parties (i.e. Republicans supplanting the Whigs), but there have never been more than two major parties who contended for a majority in Congress at any given time. Yes, there are local outliers where an especially progressive population enables a minor party candidate to challenge the Democrats for a majority because the Republican Party is so weak (like in Seattle, where Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant won a City Council seat). Or, in a state with fusion voting like New York where the Working Families Party is on the rise, a minor party can grow as an independent force operating both within and outside the major party by cross-endorsing its candidates, enabling it to build power without risking the spoiler effect. But these are all-too-rare exceptions to the rules that define an entrenched reality: in the United States third parties essentially do not work, especially at the Presidential and Congressional level. These rules suck. And, yes, they can be changed, of course, but at this time there is very limited popular support to do so, or even awareness of the problem, much less a powerful movement fighting for the necessary reforms like Instant Runoff Voting, proportional representation, or multi-member districts.

Thus — a third key point — in the US, movements win by mobilizing popular support to shift the political landscape and force at least one of the two parties to adopt and institutionalize their demands. We see this in the victories of every progressive movement, from labor, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, to the movements for environmental protections, marriage equality, and immigrant rights. Minor parties may have emerged and grown for a time in alliance with a movement but victory was not established through their ascendance to majority power or by shifting power as a spoiler to the right wing party that opposed their demands.

Together, these three points lead to a clear conclusion: strategic voting and effective electoral engagement for progressive struggles in our country requires that, with rare exceptions, we shape the terrain of political struggle in our favor by supporting egalitarian challengers like Bernie Sanders in Democratic Party primaries and — to defeat Republicans who firmly oppose our demands — critically supporting Democrats in the general election.

As the Tea Party has done so effectively on the right, progressives must on the left. The lesson of the Bernie almost-miracle — nearly seizing the nomination as a 74 year-old Jewish democratic socialist — is not that the Democratic Party is impervious to progressive challenge, but that the Millennial-led insurgency is now almost strong enough to win. Bernie didn’t lose because of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and DNC foul play. He lost because his campaign failed to break through with communities of color and never even came close to winning a majority of Black or Latinx voters. Future challengers can do better. For the first time in American history, the Democratic voter coalition is made up entirely of progressive or left-leaning forces: liberals, young people, women, people of color, environmentalists, LGBTQ folks, and labor. The key barrier to progressive power now is exactly that which Democracy Spring is determined to tear down: big money-funded elections and voter suppression. If we can do our part and win reform next year, the path will be cleared for a “Tea Party of the Left” to remix the Bernie magic and lead a multi-racial campaign to historic victory in 2018.

So what about 2016?

First, we must defeat Trump. In this populist moment, Trump’s fascism represents the greatest possible threat to the democracy movement and any progressive insurgency. Despite his critiques of political corruption and our rigged economy or arguments that Trump is all a calculated show without sincere substance, the interests and ideology Trump is actually empowering are the worst strains of American politics: fear-based, authoritarian, violent racism, anti-immigrant bigotry, rejection of science, misogyny, Islamophobia, and unrestrained capitalist greed. The consequences of a Trump presidency for the most vulnerable in America and around the world would be devastating. Trump and everything his campaign represents must be crushed, by as great a margin as possible.

Second, we must accept the fact that Trump will only be defeated by electing Hillary Clinton. Because of the electoral rules we reviewed above, a minor party candidate like Jill Stein — despite her bold progressive platform and transformative aspirations — simply will not win. One of two candidates will be elected President, and it won’t be Stein. To condemn Trump without clearly advocating a vote for the only alternative, however unfortunate, is to leave open options — voting for Stein or not voting at all — which will help him win. To defeat Trump, we must, as Frances Fox Piven said at the People’s Summit, “Hold [our noses] and vote for Clinton.”

However, let us be very clear. By voting for Clinton, we are not choosing a friend, a leader, or a champion of our values. We are choosing the better option among two possible political battlefields. Further, in advocating a strategic vote for Clinton, we are not endorsing her record, campaign, character, or corporate allies. While we recognize the rightful joy of so many at the prospect of America’s first woman president — a symbolic breakthrough that should not be dismissed — that victory does not obscure our understanding that Clinton is a neoliberal hawk with strong ties to Wall Street and a record of public evasion and political opportunism.

We must also acknowledge — if only to recognize the victories and power of progressive movements — that Clinton has been pushed to adopt many just positions including the key demands of our movement, DAPA, the fight for $15, debt-free college, and opposition to the TPP. These promises matter not because Clinton is a trustworthy leader, but because the support of a presidential nominee legitimizes our positions, shifts the debate in our favor, and creates political costs for elected officials (including her) who fail to enact our demands. Though Clinton has not signed our Equal Voice For All Declaration (we have not asked, declining a direct association), she has publicly committed support for every one of the major reforms we are demanding: voting rights protections and expansions, publicly funded elections, and an amendment to overturn Citizens United. Her promises empower us to enforce action if she is elected, despite the resistance we fully expect. And we will continue to demonstrate — as we did at the DNC — that we will hold her and every Democrat who is elected accountable to honor these promises or else face sustained mass civil disobedience and noncooperation next year.

Third, we must remember that despite the importance of the Presidency for defining the political landscape, control of Congress is even more critical for our fight. We have always understood that to win fundamental democracy reform, we would need to consolidate the Democratic Party in favor of that reform and win a minority defection of Republicans. From Clinton’s pledge to introduce an amendment to overturn Citizens United in the first 30 days of her administration, to House Democrats introducing the “By the People” package of our reforms, our movement has forced the Democrats to take up our positions. The path to victory in 2017 now requires a White House and at least one house of Congress controlled by lawmakers who are on the record in favor of our positions. That means electing Clinton and, with perhaps a few exceptions, Democratic candidates for the Senate and House. We must continue to intervene in this election to ensure this result. How?

With the Equal Voice For All Declaration (EVFA) and decentralized nonviolent direct action. We will challenge competitive Congressional and down-ballot candidates across the country to sign the EVFA and go on the record in support of democracy reform. Refuse and side with corruption? We will disrupt your campaign and expose your position. Sign on and stand in support of democracy reform? We will lift up your commitment and mobilize support to elect you. With a wave of decentralized actions across the country, we will force the democracy debate into the headlines and demonstrate the political price of defending the corrupt status quo. Our movement must fight to make certain that the story on November 9th includes this message: the American people demand a democracy for all and the new government must deliver it.

That victory is essential but it will only set the stage. We must organize, train, and build a powerful decentralized network of volunteer teams and leaders in every state in our country. In the weeks after the election, we will issue a demand to the new administration and to the leaders of Congress: honor the people’s mandate and deliver fundamental democracy reform by a deadline in 2017 or face sustained mass nonviolent civil disobedience and noncooperation. No reform, we shut it down. Then in 2018, we take over. To get there, we must use all the nonviolent weapons of everyday people — including the vote. And we must use them well, guided by a clear understanding of history and how movements win change in our nation. On this path of careful strategic discipline and determined escalation, we may hope — and not in vain — to meet the test of this time of crisis and open the door to the future we all deserve.

Join us in the struggle to win real democracy in the US at