In a recent piece, “Some Input for Bernie” (Znet, March 23, 2014), Bill Fletcher Jr. and Ted Glick propose a Democratic presidential run by Bernie Sanders as the vehicle that can advance the construction of a broad-based progressive coalition, one that may match or even surpass what Jesse Jackson’s campaigns of the 1980s were able to accomplish. While such a coalition is without a doubt sorely needed, attempting to build it through the electoral arena is a quixotic adventure that not only is virtually destined to fail but also runs the serious risk of undermining the very objective it hopes to achieve. It thus reproduces a distinctly conventional progressive approach to politics that fails to place the electoral arena in its proper context. In this respect, it stands in stark contrast with the right, which, for all its recent internal squabbling, has dominated the US political scene for four decades and is likely to continue to do so as long as this conventional progressive approach is the only challenge it has to contend with.
Unlike most progressives, the right – and let’s be clear, we’re really talking about corporate capital – understands that politics comes down to a fairly straightforward formula, consisting of two basic elements: (1) the balance of social forces, and (2) the strategic institutional terrain on which they contend for power. The right grasps that if one expects to prevail politically, it is necessary to amass greater social power than one’s opponents and to deploy it both to attack those opponents and to transform the institutional landscape so that it serves one’s interests more effectively. Crucially, it understands that the electoral arena is but one among many institutional sites of struggle, and that all of them are subject to redesign.
In its current incarnation, big capital and the right have been at this for over 40 years. Since at least Louis Powell’s famous 1971 memo, they have had a long-term vision and have been ruthless in carrying it out – concentrating ever-greater wealth in their hands, destroying the labor movement, gobbling up media, privatizing public education, dismantling the welfare state and imposing increasingly severe limits on what was already a very limited and undemocratic political/electoral system. And they have been aided in this grand strategy by the very political forces that most progressives insist we support, i.e., the Democrats, who instead of correcting the balance of social forces and democratizing institutions so that they serve the interests of the great majority, have done the opposite. Indeed, among other things, the Democrats have dealt one body blow after another to the social base of the left (e.g., NAFTA, the mass incarceration of African-Americans), accelerated corporate control of the media (the 1996 Telecommunications Act), deregulated the financial industry (the repeal of Glass-Steagall), hastened the privatization of education (Obama’s Race to the Top), eroded basic civil rights (e.g., the persecution of whistleblowers, NSA spying), and made no effort to democratize an electoral system that serves as the foundation of their own hold on political power.
In the face of the right’s onslaught and the Democrats’ complicity, too many progressives insist on plunging blindly ahead with an extraordinarily narrow and short-term conception of politics, treating an increasingly restrictive and regressive two-party system not only as though it were a permanent feature of the institutional landscape – like an immutable force of nature impervious to change – but also as the paramount institutional terrain on which to contend for power. For them, politics is primarily about electing “good guys” and throwing out “bad guys” within the rigidly narrow confines of a deteriorating two-party system, while for the right it is about creating the structural and institutional conditions that force both “good guys” and “bad guys,” regardless of political affiliation, to serve their interests. Thus, for big capital and the right, American politics has become a virtuous circle of ever-greater wealth and power; while for the rest of us, it has become a vicious one of diminishing life chances, social power and political capacity to influence the course of events.
It is therefore long overdue for the left to break out of this downward spiral by building politically independent social movements that, rather than measure their success by how well they advance the professional careers of individual politicians within the ever-tightening constraints of a profoundly undemocratic electoral/political system, develop the capacity and commitment to counter the power of those who dominate the commanding heights of both parties and democratize the political arena so that it serves the interests of the great majority.
That’s what a left worth its salt would do. Such a left would understand that movement building and electoral politics operate according to very different logics of collective action, which most often work at cross-purposes. It would understand that elections may possibly serve to advance an already powerful social movement, but only under very special circumstances and that, even then, pose a significant risk. Indeed, it would recognize that the electoral arena has been a minefield where social movements typically go to die, dramatically illustrated most recently by the fateful decision to divert the Wisconsin Uprising into a high risk/low reward electoral recall effort that dissipated the energy of an impressive grass-roots rebellion and left most of its participants deflated and with nowhere to go. It would see that most significant advances, both historically and in recent times, have occurred outside the electoral arena but lost influence as soon as they attempted to play an inside game. It would acknowledge that over the decades organized labor has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bankrolling elections with virtually nothing to show for it, other than an accelerated decline. And it would realize that even a third-party effort that successfully displaced the Democratic Party would quickly succumb to the same structural and institutional pressures as the latter and morph into something very much like it in a newly reconfigured two-party system.
Such a left would therefore concentrate first and foremost on building powerful social movements that are very jealous of their autonomy and would only engage the electoral arena from a position of strength, with extreme caution, and with an eye toward democratizing it so that it is more vulnerable to pressure from below. To the degree that it became involved in elections, it would privilege local races where it is possible to have a more immediate impact, but it would not lose sight of the fact that the balance of social forces is no less important at the local level, that the same clash of logics of collective action is at play there and that local autonomy has been seriously eroded by political developments elsewhere. Crucially, it would recognize the urgency of forcing fundamental changes in the electoral rules of the game that would institutionalize a multiparty system and give voters a genuine – and viable – left alternative, unsaddled by winner-take-all elections that are the bedrock of a two-party system. Even were it to achieve that electoral objective, however, it would never lose sight of the paramount importance of movement building and an uncompromising commitment to profound social transformation regardless of who is running for – or in – office. Most importantly, it would grasp the paradox that it is precisely when movements are least concerned with the fortunes of candidates and elected officials, and in fact when they don’t give a damn about them, that they have the greatest influence over them. It would therefore understand the self-defeating folly of trying to initiate social movement building through the electoral process.
In short, attempting to build a broad-based progressive coalition via a presidential run by Bernie Sanders not only amounts to putting the cart before the horse: Like so many such failed efforts in the past, it also constitutes a potentially immense waste of precious resources and energies that would be better put to building politically autonomous social movements. By channeling such an effort onto an institutional terrain where we are at an enormous disadvantage, it thus risks dealing a major blow to the very objective it seeks to accomplish. Seen in this light, the Jackson story is better understood as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of pursuing an electoral strategy centered on an individual who unilaterally and single-handedly dismantled the coalition that backed his candidacy. One might also ask what happened to the much-ballyhooed broad-based coalition that put Barack Obama in office in 2008? What social transformation did it bring about and where is it now? Was its failure due simply to the shortcomings of Obama as a candidate and president? Or was it more importantly a reflection of the fundamental limitations of a political strategy that seeks to build movements around individual career politicians operating within extremely powerful structural and institutional constraints? Would a Sanders candidacy succeed where an Obama presidency has failed, or would it be more akin to Dennis Kucinich’s runs for the presidency, never making it onto the radar screens of most Americans or overcoming the enormous financial and institutional obstacles of the primary process? And if Sanders were to run as an independent, would he succeed in overcoming the enormous obstacles that Ralph Nader encountered in 2000? Or like Nader, would he be consigned to political oblivion, and would his supporters, like many of those who supported Nader (or Obama, for that matter), join the growing ranks of the politically cynical and disillusioned?
As admirable an individual as Bernie Sanders may be, it is long past time that we abandon looking for messiahs as a quick fix and get down to the serious business of what it will take to transform this country: building politically autonomous social movements with the capacity to counter the social power of capital and dedicated to democratizing workplaces, schools, media, and the electoral/political system so that they serve the interests of the great majority.