The Election Is Only Half the Battle: Challenges of Progressive Governance

Primary wins by New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum have generated much excitement among progressives and socialists as well as much conversation about the role that progressives and the broader left could play in electoral politics. No matter what happens Tuesday, these campaigns have demonstrated the power and potential of left-wing social movements and grassroots-driven politics in a country where the two-party system has historically marginalized them.

Yet, there seems to be less discussion about how the left can actually govern — not just win elections — in institutional conditions that are hostile to progressive governance. Would elections of Ocasio-Cortez and Gillum inspire more leftists to run for office, and make it more possible to implement progressive changes? What would it take for the left to turn electoral wins into policy? Electoral success for the left also raises other strategic questions, not just for progressive elected officials, but for social movements. What kind of accountability structures need to be created in order to ensure progressives’ commitment to enacting policy and not succumbing to the reactionary impulses embedded in established political institutions? How will their elections affect radical social movements as organizers continue to mount critiques and push for transformative change?

The left has been successful in influencing mainstream conversations about particular issues, such as economic inequality, policing and mass incarceration, and health care. With more progressives running serious campaigns for office, now is the opportunity to strategize about more concrete ways to shape policy outcomes. When leftist candidates win, it will be important for leftist politicians, progressive political groups and social movements to continue to build and utilize power inside and outside of established political institutions. It is also necessary for outside groups to create accountability structures that can confront elected officials from both major political parties as well as socialist and progressive politicians. It will be important for progressives and socialists in government, especially executives, to use whatever policy tools possible while facing hostile political opponents.

While the prospect of engaging in electoral politics has been a vexing question for many on the left, devising movement-based inside-outside strategies of governance becomes vital, the more progressives are elected to public office. The left has long relied upon people power while the Democrats and Republicans have the money, institutional power, and election and campaign finance law on their side. Thus, building, or relying upon grassroots bases of power that are independent of both political parties will be critical for leftist legislators and executives in two major ways. First, progressives in office can maintain ideological and political integrity that will allow them to offer much needed moral leadership. Second, such a base could provide a greater electoral thrust in an effort to build more power inside government institutions, or could raise hell for members of the two dominant parties.

However, this independent grassroots base would need to be sizable. Detroit’s Kenneth Cockrel, Sr. and other activists sought to build such an arrangement in Detroit during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Kenneth V. Cockrel, veteran of Detroit’s Black revolutionary worker movements and a self-described socialist, won a seat on the city council in 1977. Cockrel and his organization — the Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy (DARE) — won with the help of activists from the local branch of the socialist New American Movement (NAM).

Cockrel and DARE served as Detroit’s principled opposition to Mayor Coleman Young’s use of tax abatement — a tax exemption—to attract business by financing redevelopment projects aimed at gentrifying the riverfront. However, Cockrel and DARE could not build a base large enough to make further inroads in the city council. Mayor Young’s domination of city politics was the main roadblock. As discussed by Richard Child Hill in his essay “Crisis in the Motor City,” Young built a formidable governing coalition that not only included developers, but also leaders in the United Auto Workers and African American political leaders. But, most importantly, members of DARE could not cut into Mayor Young’s base of Black Detroiters who lent their support.

Compared to progressive legislators, executives may have more opportunities to enact some policies that satisfy their base. Yet, should Andrew Gillum win, he (as well as Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams) could enter the halls of power facing a hostile Republican legislative majority. Such a predicament is not new to African American executives. While we would not consider President Barack Obama a progressive, we witnessed the difficulties a Black president faces when confronted with hostile majorities. Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, faced similar difficulties even within his own party. He famously encountered stiff opposition from the predominately white long-time operators of the Cook County Democratic Party machine. It was not until 1987 before Washington acquired a razor-thin majority to overcome that roadblock.

As Katrina vanden Heuvel mentions, Gillum, or any progressive governor, could pursue certain policies using executive power in order to bypass Republican opposition coming from the state legislature. Gillum could lead on the health care front by expanding Medicaid. Also, while expanding Medicaid, Gillum could opt in to the provision that allows Medicaid coverage for undocumented children. While, obviously, the law excludes undocumented adults from Medicaid coverage, one could follow California state legislators who have pushed for coverage for all undocumented people. In the realm of criminal justice, progressive governors could join with elected district attorneys and prosecutors to try to decrease prison populations. Governors could move to close prisons and elected prosecutors and district attorneys could alter sentencing guidelines in an effort to stem the growth of prison populations.

The possibility of progressive executives opens up further opportunities for statewide organizing. In addition to showing up in Tallahassee and Atlanta when needed to resist federal policy and state legislators who seek to pass harmful legislation, activists could approach state government as a useful battleground to push for policies related to health care, policing and incarceration, labor policy, and other important issues. Organizations could adopt a model similar to citizen-based organizations like the Ohio Public Interest Campaign, which aimed to stop industrial plant closures during the 1970s and 1980s. As documented by Edward Kelly’s essay on Ohio plant closures in the book Plant Closings: Issues, Politics, and Legislation Briefing Book, these organizations used local public meetings during the 1970s and 1980s to build support for state legislation — the Community Readjustment Act (CRA) — to save industrial jobs. They also traveled to state capitals to pressure lawmakers when necessary. The Ohio Public Interest Campaign successfully organized a coalition of civil rights leaders, labor organizers and other activists to support the CRA, but the legislation failed in committee.

Historically, progressive legislators have served as a bullhorn for some leftist ideas and, sometimes, as opposition to both Democrats and Republicans when their policies have converged around the interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. Cockrel performed this role in Detroit when he advanced critiques of Coleman Young’s relationships with real estate developers and his redevelopment policies circulating in DARE. Senator Bernie Sanders’s advocacy of single-payer health care is an example of progressive advocacy in the federal government. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would step into this tradition if she is elected to the House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez will join self-described progressives like US Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, but she will be the only self-identified socialist in the US House. Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to frame issues within the House may help to amplify leftist politics. Also, like Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez has expressed the importance of using her platform to advocate for other socialists and progressives seeking elected office with the goal of continuing to build power.

Yet Ocasio-Cortez faces a particular challenge: If elected, she will have to devise ways to build power in the House of Representatives. In a conversation with Daniel Denvir in Jacobin’s The Dig podcast, Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of focusing left-wing power by creating a smaller progressive “sub-caucus” as one method of building power inside the House of Representatives. Pointing to the conservative Freedom Caucus, she argued that a more ideologically cohesive sub-caucus would be more effective because the coalition within the larger progressive caucus (78 members) is too mainstream and they do not operate as a unified bloc to defend interests of workers, members of marginalized groups, and the left.

The makeup of the caucus reflects the ambiguity of what it means to be progressive in the US. It is also difficult to locate any significant policy victories, even when California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi served as House Speaker.

The emergence of socialist and progressive politicians inspired by the Great Recession, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) also presents its own challenges. In addition to chafing against the more revolutionary tendencies among leftists, electoral activity could put strains on left organizations’ already-meager human and financial resources (unless organizations such as DSA keep growing and the broader left is able to mobilize enough people willing to donate labor, spaces, money and other needed resources). Limited resources combined with the time commitment accompanying pursuing electoral work also suggests that an outside-inside strategy of power-building will be a challenge absent mass organizing.

Leftist organizers have successfully used protest and rhetoric to build opportunity structures for a range of politicians — from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Barack Obama — but the left will have to devise ways to build accountability structures if any electoral strategy can achieve actual progressive victories. This is a tough proposition considering the suffocating nature of the two-party system. While the right-wing supplies much of the Republican Party’s oxygen, the Democratic Party has proven rather adept at disciplining the more left-wing members of its coalition. How does the left build institutions and movements that would provide the support to allow its candidates to present strong critiques of prevailing Democratic policies around both domestic issues and foreign policy? Regarding progressive politicians using their platform to challenge the liberal status quo, social movements and progressive organizations devoted to participating in electoral politics will have an unenviable task of using direct-action pressure to support the leftist politician when they encounter opposition from members of both parties and of serving as the hook if that politician fails to meet expectations.

Robust and radical social movements will have to continue to bring in outside pressure and intervene into policy conversations when and where appropriate. Even if leftists have struggled to build more power within the electoral system and have largely been unable to achieve a heavy presence in politics, writ large, they have successfully intervened in particular policy discussions, typically arising out of crisis. The Occupy Movement’s analysis of the 2007-2009 economic crisis and its rhetoric injected economic inequality into political discourse. Bernie Sanders took advantage of this opportunity in earnest, using his voice to advance his own critiques of the capitalist economy and health care system, and to amplify progressives’ concerns.

Crises and social movements set the stage for Sanders to escalate his tactics and strategy, from speaking out and introducing pieces of legislation to running for president, which galvanized progressives and socialists throughout the US.

Now it may be time for progressives and socialists to think of ways to not only expand opportunity structures, but also accountability structures and mechanisms for policy creation and implementation.