Before the Midterms, Five Questions for the Political Left

Participating in US politics as a radical Black feminist often feels like I’m walking at an unsustainable pace, angrily chewing gum and balancing two tons of problems I didn’t create upon my shoulders. As the 2018 midterm elections near, and I prepare to vote, I join political leftists across the country who remain skeptical about the significance and power of voting.

The pending Democratic Party “blue wave” does not excite me. I am not inspired by the candidates running for statewide office in my home state of Illinois, because I’m a Black political leftist who sees the potential, not promise, of movements participating in electoral politics.

In this chaotic social, economic and political terrain, we have to start asking different questions in order to end the cycle of excitement and disappointment that voters experience time and time again. The dominant messages and efforts in any given election always focus on candidates, not issues we need to win. Potential voters are bombarded virtually every day of the year with speculations on who may run for office, political ads, yard signs, fundraising requests and phone calls urging us all to put skin in the game by voting and donating money. This candidate-based, party-based approach is not a long-term movement building strategy that lives beyond electoral politics. This is a fatal misstep and our communities deserve better.

I understand the need for a different approach because I’ve organized with communities across this country. In my book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, there are five questions I urge anyone to ask themselves if they identify as a political leftist. I believe they pertain to those who want to effectively engage in electoral politics as well. They are: 1) Who am I? 2) Who are my people? 3) What do we want? 4) What are we building? and 5) Are we ready to win? As the midterms approach, now is the perfect time to commit to answering each of these five questions to gain political clarity, purpose and alignment.

The answers to these questions aren’t immediate, and they can’t be answered alone. While everything feels urgent in these times, it’s important to keep in mind that the election cycle never ends in this country. We must take time to develop strategies based in sound assessments of the terrain in which we operate.

I ask myself over and over, “Who am I?” I didn’t grow up understanding electoral politics and have not always been part of organizing efforts that approached politics holistically. Like many people, I was taught that the election booth is the primary site of political participation. As I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, I witnessed my parents voting in every election. I knew that they felt a duty to show up and participate, and I am my mother’s and father’s daughter. Since then, I’ve committed the past 15 years to working on racial, economic, gender and LGBTQ campaigns and training hundreds of people to develop their leadership, strategic communications and grassroots organizing skills.

My work builds on community organizers and leaders who came before me including Ella Baker, a prolific organizer and civil rights leader, and Marsha P. Johnson, a trailblazing transgender and queer rights leader. My politics are rooted in my lived experiences and the history of an innumerable amount of Black people who have fought for collective liberation. The tradition I work in recognizes both the potential and the limitations of electoral politics.

Ella Baker understood that our work must be grounded in people. She inspired me to ask myself, “Who are my people?” As I became involved in activism at the age of 18 and later a community organizer at 24, I grew my own consciousness of the need to contend for power beyond the voting booth. I connected with people who were descendants of the Great Migration and many others who came from oppressed groups. My people are those people, the millions who stayed and those who continue the struggle for Black liberation today. Bridging my own southern and northern connections allows me to understand that broad aims of historical and current radical Black freedom movements include, but are not exclusively, a fight for the right to vote.

So given this, what do we want? I align myself with people, organizations and institutions that are unapologetically left of liberalism. And we are clear that the society and planet we want to live on includes universal healthcare, universal child care, public education at all levels and community-controlled safety free of policing. We want a world where services and goods essential to a healthy society and planet are public, not privatized by corporations or individuals. We want more than reform; we want transformation from what the world is into what it should be. As the indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer asserted, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

These ideas are left of American liberalism and the Democratic Party. Call it 21st century socialism or too radical if you’d like. According to the Dream Defenders Action Fund, a human rights organization in Florida that has endorsed Andrew Gillum, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate, our positions are deemed radical despite the fact that we are demanding access to basic needs like healthcare, education and access to clean water.

Contending for political power does not begin or end on election day. The types of power our communities require to win on issues including universal healthcare; free college tuition; abolition of student loans; and abolition of prisons, policing and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), will not come from the act of voting alone. Elections are, as political strategist Jessica Byrd says, “opportunities to build safe houses” towards our North Star of collective liberation.

The question of what are we building necessarily moves the conversation from the individual to the collective. Many radical activists are experimenting with building the world we want to live in right now through a short- and long-term strategy, including electoral, prison-industrial complex abolition and food sovereignty organizing. No single campaign, issue or platform is the solution. We do not need superficial unity; we can aim for political alignment. We need to build independent political power and local economies and we require strong and principled leaders.

The broader strategy of the political left must first focus on issues that significantly improve the material conditions of marginalized communities, not on candidates. Second, it must strip decision-making power from individuals and organizations that push civic engagement campaigns that come too late, with too little money and are led by people who essentially helicopter into Black and brown communities. Decisions should be made by people and organizations who are authentically rooted in these communities. Third, our strategy must encompass a rigorous post-election day strategy to flank politicians advancing our agendas and hold them accountable when – not if – they stray from their original campaign platform.

If the progressive institutions that hold the lion’s share of financial and infrastructure resources approached voting as just one muscle in the larger body of political participation, then maybe people would not be so exasperated, sore and overstretched with the superficial “just vote” rhetoric. But that is the message shoved into our brains by Democrats, progressives, celebrity activists and the civil rights establishment.

Are we ready to win? Elections allow marginalized groups of people to shape the terrain of political struggle by electing candidates who champion our issues and ousting those who act against our collective interests. There are many forces at play that prevent us from winning on the issues that matter most in our communities. Again, simply telling our people to vote is not nearly enough and serves the interests of self-identified progressive movement organizations, policy advocates, labor unions and philanthropic donors who have distilled political participation down to showing up on Election Day.

How do I know this? In the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed civic engagement efforts seemingly pop up just months before election day. I’ve been the person depositing the check from a donor who has magically decided to give to Black-led voter engagement efforts a month before the election. I’ve participated in meetings where priorities were set and incorrect assumptions were made about who had the ability to engage and turn out voters.

If you are among the millions of people living in the United States deemed eligible to vote, do so with managed expectations. Know that the process of creating the world we desire does not orbit around single individuals. Know that transforming society will take organized people and organized resources to sustain any given policy victory that is won before or after election day. Know that if the candidate we support wins, they will only be as strong as the organizational forces who are resourced, ready and committed to consistently showing up after election day. And finally, know that if we are not ready to win, then we must do all that we can to get ready.

If people who are accused of sexual assault can ascend to the highest court and executive branch, it’s clear that the rules we may have believed in are void. It is up to us to create new rules. Yes, the struggle is long-term and protracted, but the stakes are frighteningly high. The time for sustained action is now.