Every serious progressive I know is gearing up for election work. There are basically two ways to go about it, and I would like to contrast them here. I’ll call them “what we normally do” and “what we oughta do.”
In almost every election, progressives work for certain candidates or we work for a political party. Analysis leads us toward choosing candidates and races where we can win. America’s elections, unlike those in more civilized countries, are “winner take all.” You either win a race or you lose it; consequently, activists check the demographics and opinion polls before they deploy their resources.
One of the important things that people look at before designating a certain candidate as “viable” is “how much money have they raised?” It is my understanding that 85% of all American elections could be predicted if we knew which candidate had the most money.
According to today’s newspaper, Texas Democratic governor candidate Mark White just became more “viable” than Lupe Valdez because he raised more than twice as much money in their first reporting period.
It’s ironic that White now has $100,000 in campaign money, while the incumbent Republican he wants to run against has $40,000,000 and rising. So White may be more “viable” than Valdez by this standard, but he’s 400 times less “viable” than Governor Abbott!
Nevertheless, Democrats will work for the more “viable” candidate and their fund-raising ability will be an important determinant.
At the end of the campaign, the chosen candidates will either win or lose. The people and organizations that put their time and treasure into those campaigns will think they either have a “friend” or an “enemy” in the given political position, but that’s about all they will have. Those “friend” and “enemy” designations aren’t very concrete. Our “friends” often betray us because they weren’t sincere to begin with. Nearly all politicians are opportunists who look out for themselves first and always.
Next elections, the progressive activists will go through it all again. They will start more or less empty handed, and they will end up more or less the same way. The one concrete thing that they will gain is a sense of self-sanctification that allows them to gripe about everybody else right up to the next election: “Why didn’t those so-and-sos vote!”
A Better Approach to Elections
Progressives should develop the ability to see past candidates, political parties, and elections. They should examine their own goals and realize that what they really want is fundamental improvement in our society — a lot more improvement than was ever intended by Democrats or Republicans!
To get that kind of change, progressives need to build our own progressive organizations. There are a lot of progressive organizations worth building, but my personal favorite is the American labor movement.
Instead of pursuing candidates or parties during elections, we can and should be examining our organizations and looking for ways to strengthen them. One of the best explanations I’ve ever seen came from some West Coast labor people who developed a “labor neighbor” campaign.
“Labor neighbor,” in essence, is a process of locating and strengthening the individual activists within a progressive organization. A union might, for example, identify one of their members who really wants to work for change. They then provide information and support for that member. Instead of canvassing door-to-door where some candidate wants them, they would canvass in that particular member’s neighborhood. His or her electoral strength would improve for that election, but also beyond the election to the next election or to the next political opportunity.
Then they pick another good activist and help him/her the same way. Labor/neighbor!
I’ve been working on a similar approach within the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans. Our Dallas Chapter identified one member, Mary, who was willing to improve her political strength in her own precinct. We were able to get two big lists of her neighbors. We telephoned a bunch of them and invited them over to Mary’s for coffee and donuts.
Mary ended up with a lot of information that can help her in whatever political opportunities, including the current elections, present themselves. I thought it was a pretty good program and I’d like to see it extended.
But I realize that a lot of political-minded progressives aren’t going to prioritize this kind of work. They are going to chase after some candidate or some political party in 2018 just as they always have done. There are two different philosophies here: one believes that election work is an end unto itself; the other believes that building a progressive movement is the priority.
One is purely reformist, the other has revolutionary potential.
Elections Matter, But They Aren’t Everything
Some radical activists don’t believe in elections at all, but I’m not one of them. I believe that every arena of political struggle should be utilized to bring about desired progressive changes in society. In my “labor neighbor” model above, the designated activist who was strengthened in his electoral work is also strengthened in other matters.
He/she, for example, might be able to bring some neighbors to a march or a picket line that had nothing to do with electoral politics but had everything to do with building progressive people’s power. As he/she applies their newfound ability and strength, they will develop more of each. The progressive movement will consequently grow toward being able to make some real improvement.
It’s not just a game.