Social Movement and Electoral Movements, Not One or the Other

2014 0412trudeau(Image: Voting via Shutterstock)

A recent ZNet article by Bill Fletcher and Ted Glick – who was a main proponent of a so-called safe-states strategy for the Green Party in 2004 – proposes that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent and self-described democratic socialist, should run for president in 2016 as a Democrat.

On the left, it has long been argued whether electoral politics can have any lasting effect on positive societal change or whether activists should instead focus solely on building social movements. In the latter camp, commentators such as Patrick Barrett, writing in Truthout, argue that a run for president by Bernie Sanders, for example, would be a huge waste of time and resources, and some even call for boycotts of elections. Why? The “social-movement-only” proponents argue that electoral politics is counterproductive because it undercuts social movements by diverting too much energy to elections. The argument goes that even electoral movements independent of the two-party system, such as the Green Party, weaken popular movements by pacifying them and quickly devolve into duopoly politics as usual.

The boycott argument goes that US elections are completely undemocratic, that voters are invited to choose between various representatives of the same corporatocracy. Boycott proponents have forgotten, though, that some parties exist to challenge that very corporatocracy. Boycotters are welcome to try to convince Democrat and Republican lawmakers that they have no need to worry about alternative parties threatening their rule. Maybe then these politicians would stop routinely passing bipartisan legislation meant to thwart the advancement of alternative parties – just as Obama did in concert with Republicans on April 3 by eliminating public funding of party primaries and conventions, a ban that disproportionally affects minor parties that do not rely on wealthy donors and corporate funding. The fact is, the duopoly sees the threat of alternative parties and works hard to curb it.

What are these social-movement-only activists – who sometimes scorn independent parties such as the Greens – picturing when they pose the argument that electoral politics are a nuisance and counterproductive? What is their vision for social change? Do social-movement-only proponents still believe that people such as Rahm Emanuel, George Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, etc., give a damn about their movements and issues? Do they still believe that the more progressive Democratic politicians will be able to deliver on these issues even if they do agree? Why do these activists think these politicians will enact policies their movement advocates? If the politicians do enact such policies, what makes these activists think the legislation would be anything but meager, incremental and placating? Remember to whom you’re appealing for change. When, in recent times, has lobbying these politicians resulted in the kinds of foundational changes fought for by committed activists and desired by most of the American public? Isn’t that exactly the problem that nearly all Americans recognize to be true, that politicians do not act in service to people?

Social-movement-only activists who disdain electoral movements must be envisioning a kind of utopian revolution in which all these bad guys in government simply step down, and all the noble and peaceful revolutionaries take their places or, more utopian yet, these altruistic revolutionaries democratically decide to abolish the entire idea of governance. What else could they be envisioning for revolutionary change? Don’t revolutionary movements with no electoral option almost always devolve into chaos and violence, especially when confronted with hostile police resistance, as has happened and will surely continue to happen in the United States? Don’t revolutionary movements with no electoral option end up getting one of various corporate, oligarchic spokespersons, as has occurred in Ukraine?

Wouldn’t a better strategy be to elect activists to government so that they can fight for social changes on their own behalf and on yours and bring popular movements into the halls of government?

A peaceful, coherent, organized, sustained, democratic revolution is probably impossible in the United States. There are police-state measures in place to see to that, such as laws limiting public assembly and efforts to sow chaos – and these measures are backed by corporate governance willing to get violent. It is time that social-movement-only activists acknowledge that no desirable foundational change is possible in the United States until there are a number of popular movements afoot, plus 25 million or so people voting for a radical noncorporate party in the presidential elections, plus noncorporate candidates winning councils, state legislatures, and then seats in Congress, ensuring these social movements have the political legitimacy that should already be rightfully theirs.

Not voting Democrat is key. This is the vital flaw of the Glick and Fletcher argument, the “progressive Democrat” argument. When activists commit to an independent alternative such as the Green Party or Socialist Alternative, they are voting their activism and they are voting against corporate governance – and they are building something new in the process. Movements do not die when we vote our activism. Green and Socialist Alternative candidates and members are activists. The movement for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, for example, is growing thanks in no small part to Kshama Sawant’s victory in Seattle; it’s not dying because of her victory, contrary to the logic of social-movement-only advocates. Imagine if Ralph Nader had magically won the presidential election in 2008. The antiwar movement would not have died as it did under Obama – no, it would have grown. Imagine if Jill Stein had won a good chunk of the popular vote in 2012; the forgive-student-debt and single-payer and Occupy movements and many others would have continued to grow. Under Green mayor Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, California, the effort to use eminent domain to subvert the big banks on their faulty mortgages is not dying because of McLaughlin’s reelection in 2010; it’s spreading.

Social-movement-only activists are correct that these movements have a tendency to fizzle out when they reach electoral politics, but that is because in recent history most of these movements have ultimately been funneled into the Democratic Party, by electing or appealing to Democrats. What else should we expect when we allow a corporate party to become the umbrella organization for noncorporate, grassroots activism?

That is why few Greens had hope for the prospect of a Dennis Kucinich presidency and certainly no hope for an Obama presidency. That’s why Greens will reject Senator Bernie Sanders as a Democrat in 2016 for president – but may very well fight for him if he wishes to join the Greens. Movements grow inalternative parties with or without election wins – runs by the likes of Ralph Nader and Jill Stein have increased awareness and the will to fight on a host of major issues like NAFTA and now the TPP, not made us “cynical and disillusioned,” as critics oddly claim. In the view of electoral activists, it is the cynics who think that voting and electoral politics have no value. The cynics believe this because they are not involved in alternative party-building, or perhaps because they fight for critical issues only to support Democrats at the polls.

Social movements die in the Democratic Party, but they grow in independent, alternative parties. Social-only activists would do well to recognize that we are in this fight together and to lend a hand. We need their help, and if our shared goal is a democratic transformation of undemocratic institutions, then they need ours. In the meantime, rhetoric about shunning elections only discourages newcomers and will leave the left further marginalized. Much to the pleasure of our corporate governors, it undermines what electoral activists are accomplishing.