United States: The electoral opening for the left

Kshama Sawant.

By Jason Netek, Chicago

December 16, 2013 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- There is a lot of debate among socialists in the United States about just how to engage in this country's rigged electoral game, if at all.

In a time when the revolutionary left is numerically small, some socialist groupings have made a fetish out of participating in elections, local and national, in attempts to realise their ambitions of becoming the party of the US working class all by themselves. Others have made a fetish out of not engaging in any kind of electoral work for lack of a viable mass workers' party or else as a permanent boycott of the objectively pro-capitalist electoral system in the United States.

In the International Socialist Organization (ISO), we have tried to think tactically about our role during elections, given our size and influence, and the strength of the movements at a given moment. The handful of times that we have either run our own members in local campaigns or endorsed a national campaign (as was the case with Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004), the goal was to try to maintain some kind of left-wing pole of attraction opposed to the Democratic Party, and to keep the movements we're involved in from being completely overshadowed and subsumed in the tremendous spectacle that is election season in the United States.

Nader's bid in 2000, giving political expression to the broader global justice movement, had another element to the campaign that the modern left isn't very used to; it had widespread popular appeal. Nader denounced the two mainstream parties as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" to stadiums full of enthusiastic people, and in the election, nearly 3 million people voted for him.

With Kshama Sawant's breakthrough election to the Seattle City Council last month, the question of how and when socialists should consider electoral work has taken on a kind of importance that it has not had for 13 years. Sawant ran as a member of Socialist Alternative and defeated a Democratic Party incumbent with an energetic grassroots campaign that put forward three key demands: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a rent-control ordinance to make housing more affordable, and a tax on millionaires to fund transit, education and other public services.

One could make the case that these are not explicitly socialist demands, but that misses the point altogether. These demands were an attempt to connect to the mass sentiments of the current period, as well as raise all of our political horizons a little bit. The United States is a country where the general populace has been raised to excuse and even admire the extremely wealthy and to blame themselves for structurally enforced mass impoverishment. The Occupy Wall Street movement shattered the myth of this consensus and raised the issue of inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power in structural terms.

It has been said that what happened in Seattle was that Occupy went to the polls. In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative's Ty Moore came within 230 votes of winning a seat on the city council by running a similar campaign.

Given this fact, it is hard to say that what happened in Seattle was an anomaly of the city's special conditions. These two socialist campaigns are significant in that they have articulated something that many people all over this country are feeling in their guts.

Bill De Blasio, the first Democrat (in alliance with the Working Families Party) to be elected mayor of New York City in more than 20 years, ran a campaign that successfully painted him as a populist-challenger to the pro-Wall Street agenda of previous administrations. Of course, he is already backing away from the promises he made during his campaign, but he's a Democrat ... that's what they do.

Bernie Sanders, the nominally independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, has said publicly that he would consider running for president in order to ensure that progressive ideas have a hearing in the election. Of course, what Sanders means by "progressive" is a wing of the Democratic Party, as opposed to something fresh, new and genuine. There also is no real reason to believe that this is anything more than posturing in an attempt to grab some headlines. Leftists in Vermont know that what Bernie Sanders really stands for is re-electing Bernie Sanders. Still, it's telling that the senator feels that he has to do more than just criticize the obstructionist Republicans in Congress in order to maintain his lefty credentials.

What does this all mean? It means that there is a palpable anger with the profound inequalities in this country that didn't go away just because the Occupy protests dissipated.

For those on the left who are still wondering aloud whether or not that is what is happening, consider that two dozen city councillors just got elected in Ohio on an "Independent Labor Party" ticket. Their purpose was to punish the Democrats for "one too many sellouts" of their labour base.

There is a political shift underway, and it's time to recognise it. De Blasio is a textbook example of how the establishment parties seek to capitalise on our resentments, Sanders represents some of the perils of supposed "independents" with no real connection to social movements or organisation, while Sawant represents the possibilities for something altogether more meaningful.

Given the scale of the crisis that working people face, there is a serious need for some optimism that our side can fight back not just on the picket lines and in the streets, but even at the ballot box. Every possible political break to the left should be encouraged.

If the union-led revolt against the Democrats in Ohio could be replicated in other places, it could give the whole labour movement a reason to lift their heads. If a few Green or independent candidates could make a splash here and there, it could give every progressive-leaning person a reason to think outside the two-party system.

Most importantly, between now and the 2016 presidential election, we will likely see a higher level in socialist electoral activity, but not all of it will be created equal. Some groups will invariably see this as a moment to run token campaigns in an effort to win over another recruit or two.

For those of us who wish to see a socialist movement that is greater than what we already have, this could be an opportunity for meaningful collaboration on a programmatic basis. A few well-organised socialist campaigns that have roots in workplace and neighbourhood struggles, which can raise relevant demands, could assist in the development of a more significant fighting left -- something this country desperately needs.