Last Wednesday’s far right terror on the Capitol Building in DC is a reminder of the urgency to build an organized left in the US. As Socialist Alternative has pointed out, Trump leaving office does not mean that the threat of the far right is neutralized, in fact, far from it. With a Biden administration and Democratic control of both houses of Congress, it is likely the legitimacy of right populist ideas will only grow as the Democratic establishment once more carries out a pro-corporate agenda and fails to resolve the compounded crises facing working people.
Unlike in past decades, there are now a handful of US Congressmembers from the Democratic Party who consider themselves socialists or left-wing, “the Squad.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the most prominent Squad member, has acted audaciously in important ways that Socialist Alternative has enthusiastically supported. One notable example was her occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office with young climate activists in the Sunrise Movement. Another was her campaign of exposing the pro-corporate Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Since she was first elected, AOC has shown a willingness to stand up to the Democratic Party establishment. The pressures will greatly increase however in the next two years. With Biden as President and Democratic control of both houses of Congress it will be far harder to blame Republicans for the failure to address the urgent needs of working people. This will be where the rubber meets the road.
For the left, the time for serious discussion and debate on building a credible working-class political alternative to the discredited two-party system is now. We should welcome political debate around the principal issues facing working and young people, even when it becomes sharp as it has around #ForceTheVote, because it can help to clarify for hundreds of thousands of people the type of decisive left leadership this moment calls for.
Early in January, sections of the left, including the Movement for a People’s Party, along with public figures like Briahna Joy Gray, Cornel West, and Jimmy Dore, unleashed a furious debate on the left when they led calls for AOC and the other movement-backed members of the Squad to refuse to vote for corporate Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House unless she agreed to a debate and a floor vote on Medicare for All. As Speaker, Pelosi has the legal ability to choose which bills to bring up for a floor vote in Congress.
AOC rejected this tactic, tweeting that “The Dem votes aren’t there yet,” and suggesting that #ForceTheVote would be shortsighted and use up political capital over an empty threat without a strategy.
Socialist Alternative and I supported the #ForceTheVote tactic as part of a larger strategy of building a movement-based fightback. In contrast, the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America joined AOC and the Squad in rejecting it, as did several other organizations and figures on the left.
David Sirota wrote in Jacobin that “only asking for that performative [#ForceTheVote] — rather than also asking for things that might change the structural power dynamic — would be a waste, and yet another instance of progressives reverting to a feckless tradition of prioritizing spectacles rather than the wielding of actual power.”
In their statement rejecting #ForceTheVote, DSA leaders say “there are no shortcuts to liberation.”
Socialist Alternative and I agree it would be a misguided to believe that merely carrying out the #ForceTheVote tactic in isolation would force the corporate representative filled Congress to support Medicare for All. And we need to educate against any such naivete among activists.
We said in our endorsement of #ForceTheVote that we support this tactic as it points in the direction of a fighting approach of using elected office to rally working people, standing in contrast to the dead-end strategy of backroom negotiations. If we want to win reforms like Medicare for All, we need a clear movement-building strategy – an understanding that open conflict with the political establishment is inevitable and necessary if we are to win anything meaningful. Squad Congressmembers forcing a floor vote on Medicare for All, an issue with heightened mass support in the middle of a pandemic ravaging lives, could help act as a galvanizing point to build our movement. We can focus the public eye on this life-or-death demand. We can work within our unions to win support. We can organize our forces to mount public pressure on Congress to concede on this massively popular issue.
Why Did Sections of the Socialist Left Reject #ForceTheVote?
The key question that flows from the debate is why organizations like the DSA rejected #ForceTheVote, rather than endorse it as part of a movement-building strategy.
For socialists to dismissively refuse to support a loud demand from the left on a key issue with huge working-class support is an abdication of responsibility. Leaders and organizations on the left, especially socialists, have an obligation to seriously engage with the genuine frustration working people feel at progressive politicians for not fighting on their behalf, an obligation that is no less in the context of tactical disagreements.
I do believe, however, it is actually a strawman to argue that most who are advocating #ForceTheVote do not understand the need for a larger strategy. In my view, #ForceTheVote was not an immature call for left Democrats to engage in adventurism with a one-off move. Rather, it was motivated by the desire to see movement-elected Congressional Democrats begin to use their positions to organize against the Pelosi-dominated corporate establishment.
Unfortunately, I think the rejection of #ForceTheVote by the Squad, the DSA, and others reflects a disagreement not so much on individual tactics as on the fundamental need for head-on combat with – and bold challenge to – the Democratic establishment. This conflict is completely unavoidable if we hope to win substantive reforms like Medicare for All, because the big corporations funding the Democratic Party are hellbent on defeating them.
AOC correctly understands the need for conflict with Republicans even when votes may fail, both to expose them and as part of a larger strategy. She articulated exactly this on Tuesday, when she explained the importance of the Trump impeachment vote by saying that “sometimes these votes create real political pressure that forces developments. Sometimes we vote for the historical record – to let future generations know we did everything we could.” The key missing aspect is the willingness to direct the same challenge to the edifice of the Democratic establishment, and corporate stalwarts like Nancy Pelosi.
We’ve seen a similar hesitation around the question of how to fight far right attacks. In the wake of the riot at the Capitol, rather than calling for mass, working-class action – our only weapon against the far right – Squad members have echoed calls from the Democratic establishment for new impeachment hearings. Needless to say, Socialist Alternative supports Trump being impeached or removed from office. But it would be a dire mistake to think that this would be remotely sufficient to demoralize the far right and stem its ominous growth. AOC and the Squad should be calling for mass demonstrations as well as boldly putting forward a pro-worker program (Medicare For All, $2,000 stimulus checks and comprehensive COVID relief funded by taxing Wall Street and the rich, a Green jobs initiative) that can unite the widest sections of the working class.
A “Movement Building Strategy”
The DSA and others on the left have, ironically, offered up the need for movements as their reason for refusing to positively support the #ForceTheVote tactic as part of a longer-term fightback by building mass movements. By doing so, they have given cover to the Squad and other Democrats who got elected on progressive promises. Contrary to this, it is the responsibility of leaders on the left to provoke discussion on a serious strategy to win and push the movement forward.
Openly holding elected officials accountable – even when we cannot win a given vote – has to be an essential part of any movement-building strategy! Exposing corporate politicians is important to raising working-class consciousness and laying the ground for future struggles and victories. The Squad’s own rejection of the #ForceTheVote tactic, and the DSA leadership’s support for the Squad’s response is, in fact, tied to the larger and longer-standing question of political lesser evilism. Many DSA members and others on the left, for example, based their refusal to support #ForceTheVote by pointing to the danger that withholding support for Pelosi would allow Republican Kevin McCarthy to take the Speaker seat.
This is really unfortunate, and is a replay of the “lesser evil” politics certain prominent DSA leaders advocated going into the election, and fails to be rooted in a real strategy to successfully build an alternative to the establishment. Socialist Alternative and I have said repeatedly it is a mistake for Squad members to be supporting corporate tools like Nancy Pelosi, who openly opposes Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. And as social media commentator and self-described socialist Ryan Knight said, “Progressives in Congress shouldn’t even be voting for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker in the first place, but to vote for her without demanding any concessions shows a complete lack of courage to stand up to the corrupt Democratic establishment.”
The DSA statement goes on to say: “Speaker Pelosi alone can’t deliver us a floor vote. The Medicare for All bill in the House needs to pass through six Committees’ jurisdiction, and it currently lacks financing language (i.e. how to pay for it), so it’s not a bill that can be voted on yet. This is why getting the bill out of committee has been one of DSA’s priorities. Over the past few years, working with other national and local groups, we’ve succeeded in pressuring chairs to hold the first hearings on Medicare for All in the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Rules, and Budget committees. These hearings were historic; the first ever on Medicare for All legislation.”
This is a tragically misplaced understanding of how social change happens, not to mention the raising of illusions in entrenched representatives of the billionaire class such as Pelosi. No meaningful victory such as Medicare for All is going to be led by left representatives who are focusing on the technocratic processes of Congressional Committees instead of taking up the opportunities to fight that are staring them in the face.
Socialist Alternative and I don’t agree with holding the movement back by brushing aside the justifiable anger of the left and of young people by telling them they don’t understand how Congressional Committees and “floor votes” work. Rather, we think this anger must be channeled into exposing the Democrats who are failing us and into building movements. The left is headed for a dead end as long as our leaders believe that mastering parliamentary arithmetic is the key to social change.
Over and over, history has shown that it is mass movements which clearly expose the betrayals of politicians and chart an independent course forward that can force the hand of the capitalist class and their representatives. Such movements have had to first shed illusions that the way forward is through the leadership of level-headed, “collaborative,” “policy wonk” politicians and their inside negotiations which will yield the votes to win.
The Socialist Example in Seattle
In Seattle, where Socialist Alternative and our movements have elected a revolutionary socialist to City Council three times, we have demonstrated how the seemingly impossible becomes possible when the movement has its own elected, fighting office that fearlessly uses a class struggle approach. We of course work with Democratic politicians on issues where we agree to fight for working people, and always have. But this can never mean basing yourself on insider deals or making peace with the establishment and then trying to force working people to accept marginal changes to avoid conflict. It cannot mean holding back criticism when Democratic politicians sell out working people. Since we first took office, Socialist Alternative and the movements we have helped build and lead have transformed Seattle’s political landscape, winning victories like the $15/hour minimum wage, the Amazon Tax to fund housing and a Green New Deal, and a fleet of renters’ rights victories.
It would have been a complete non-starter for our movements had I decided to eschew open conflict with City Hall Democrats, refused to use my position to relentlessly expose them, and chosen to only take on demands that already had “the votes”. An overwhelming number of our movement’s victories – starting with the $15/hour minimum wage – began with only one reliable vote on the Council (mine), and ultimately passed unanimously or with supermajority votes, under pressure from our fighting Council office and movements.
In her response to the call to #ForceTheVote, AOC also tweeted, “If you want a model on how we can *successfully* secure floor votes on progressive leg, examine how the grassroots JUST successfully forced (and passed!) a $15/hr min wage in the House even over Conservative Dem objections.”
I think that unfortunately, this statement misses the real story of $15/hour. In 2014, Seattle became the first major city to win a $15 minimum wage, leading to victories in dozens of other cities. This was only due to the fighting strategy used by our 15 Now movement and my Council office. Our first term in office started in January that year with a couple of corporate Democratic Councilmembers privately warning me that even though I had rabble-roused my way into office, I was not going to win any minimum wage increase, much less $15/hour, and that City Hall ran on their terms. By June, we had won the unanimous and historic City Council vote. Far from being the result of vote-counting or negotiations by my office, the victory saw the light of day only because we used our Council position to help launch the 15 Now campaign along with progressive labor unions, which overcome not only the vicious opposition of big business and the corporate Democrats, but also the cautious instincts of some labor leaders reluctant to openly clash with the establishment. The 15 Now campaign organized a series of mass conferences, launched “neighborhood action groups”, held a series of marches, and then democratically decided to file a grassroots ballot initiative so that we could take the issue to voters if Democratic City Councilmembers failed to act. All of this was crucial to forcing the hand of big business and the establishment.
Similarly, we won the Amazon Tax last year after our grassroots campaign first defeated the onslaught of big business and Jeff Bezos against our re-election in 2019. The Tax Amazon movement was launched as part of my third-term inauguration, and organized independently of the city’s Democratic politicians (though they were invited to participate), with mass Action Conferences that involved hundreds of activists. Despite fierce big business opposition and repeated ploys by city and state Democrats to derail it, the movement won during the height of the Black Lives Matter street protests, primarily on the basis of a viable ballot initiative threat. As testament to the enormous support among ordinary people, the Tax Amazon ballot initiative gathered 20,000 signatures at the George Floyd protests in 20 days, ultimately tallying up 30,000 signatures.
I would add that we should be sober about where things stand with a federal $15 minimum wage. While it’s important that the legislation is passed in the House, unless a movement is built to put powerful pressure on the Senate, it could remain a symbolic victory. Big business will be loath to allow such a measure to actually go into law by approval in the Senate, as it would represent a major transfer of wealth from big business to low-wage workers. Working-class representatives need to strive at all times to be honest about the forces arrayed against us and not inadvertently paper over the real challenges we face.
Using elected office to win concrete victories for movements is impossible without being willing to openly speak out against politicians who reject progressive measures. Without exposing the betrayals of both outright corporate politicians and, frankly, even those who may be well-meaning in words but who refuse to break from big business and the Democratic leadership in practice. Socialist Alternative supports the genuine courage that has been shown by Squad members like AOC, but our experience in Seattle has demonstrated that working people cannot afford our representatives to choose to only take on a limited or symbolic conflict with the establishment. Most critically, we have to use our elected positions to help build serious movements on the ground, which is the only counterweight to the horrendous pressure of the Democratic establishment. The #ForceTheVote tactic would be one step in exposing the Pelosi-led establishment, by forcing them to take an actual stand on Medicare for All in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. It is only when establishment politicians are relentlessly exposed, and come to fear exposure, that they support things they otherwise wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Having been in office for over seven years as an independent socialist, I can attest to the real pressure to be “civil” to your “colleagues” on the legislative body. This may be even more palpable if you are a left elected inside the Democratic Party (which is a strong argument for a new party), but it is ever-present and acute even when you are elected as an independent socialist. It has been practically an everyday experience.
There’s no question these pressures are real and the conflict is challenging, but we should be crystal clear about the lessons of our experience – we did not win our victories in Seattle by my office refusing to put Democrats on the spot. We did not raise the political consciousness of our movements by refusing to force them to vote on key issues that exposed the chasm between Democrats’ rhetoric and action. We did not win by refusing to speak out publicly against Democrats who opposed working-class demands, with the idea that I need to be nice to colleagues rather than calling out their betrayals. We did not win through my parliamentary calculations of how many votes I had before I was willing to build movement pressure or provoke a debate on the dais.
We won precisely because of the political clarity of my office that we must base ourselves solely on movements in order to overpower the establishment politicians’ loyalties to big business – which is used to having its way. We won because I refused to exchange my own loyalty and accountability to the working class for having some day-to-day peace inside City Hall, a career path up the political ladder, or the opportunity for the friendship or approval of other Councilmembers.
Changing the balance of forces by activating working people is what wins the “votes.” Integral to our success has been a fighting strategy of street protests and public pressure inside Council Chambers, alongside labor unions and rank and file, community activists, and socialists. It is no surprise that big business, the right wing, and the establishment are infuriated with the success of our movements and the example it provides to working people, and have targeted my office with a recall campaign, after having failed to defeat our re-election even with unprecedented corporate cash.
Last but not least, having my own political organization that stands with me, that is accountable to working people and not big business, and that is democratically organized with rank-and-file membership determining program and strategy together, has been decisive in enabling me to take on the pressure of conflict with the Democratic establishment. In the days after the November election, AOC talked about how her experience with the Democratic establishment left her wondering if she even wanted to be in politics and run for re-election, because of stress from “the lack of support from your own party. It’s your own party thinking you’re the enemy.” Having Socialist Alternative as my organization has been the backbone of both my morale and my ability to build movements that can turn the tables on the Democrats.
The Task Ahead for the Left
As part of the #ForceTheVote debate, I have seen some left activists on social media claiming that while Kshama and Socialist Alternative have been able to take on a conflict with the Democratic elite, it’s not reasonable to hold everyone to that standard. Others have argued that since movements not politicians win victories, why focus on putting any pressure on politicians?
In my view, both these positions reflect a fundamental, and even harmful, misunderstanding of what is required for the left to move forward, and of the role of the working class masses in shaping history.
Working people, young people, and the left have a historic opportunity, and urgent necessity, to build movements to win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and affordable housing by taxing Wall Street and the billionaire class. This will require all leaders of our movements – elected legislative officials, elected union leaders, non-elected movement leaders – to be prepared for a fierce conflict with the ruling class and their political representatives. Accepting the idea that we shouldn’t pressure the socialist and left elected officials we’ve fought to elect plays right into the hands of the Pelosis and Schumers, who welcome anything that ties the hands of our movements.
We have to take on the struggle in the way it is posed to us by the material realities of the system, not as we wish it to be. And as sharp as the fight for substantive reforms will be, it will pale in comparison to the almighty political clash that will occur when the working class readies itself for systemic change, starting with a serious fight to take large corporations into democratic public ownership under the control of workers themselves.
If it were true that only rare members of our movements are capable of summoning the courage to take on this conflict, the history of class struggle would have been utterly dismal rather than what it is — a proud record of revolutionary victories by masses of the oppressed over their oppressors. What is dismal is the record of those who base themselves on backroom negotiations, the “politics of the possible,” and their personal career calculations. AOC needs to fight ferociously against the pressures for her to buckle to this type of politics.
And it would be a mistake to believe this was just important in relation to political office. For the rank-and-file of labor unions, for workplace struggles, and for social movements, holding leaders (elected or otherwise) to high standards of accountability is not an optional position or a purity test, but a life-or-death imperative to have any hope of change. Careerism, reformism, and parliamentary calculus are dead ends. The rank-and-file leadership of the West Virginia teacher strike in 2018 won only because they exposed the insider deal of the higher-up union officials, rejected that deal, and kept on fighting. This must be our map and guide — the path of the class struggle — not the insider calculus of House committees.
Over the next two years, with the Squad holding the numerical balance of power in the House of Representatives, this means they can withhold support for any pro-corporate measures Pelosi tries to advance. It means they can force issues like Medicare for All onto the table.
This presents a huge opening for the development of a fighting left in the US. The Squad, with its two new members Representatives Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, are positioned to be at the forefront of a real fight against the Democratic establishment, if they choose to.
The Squad should announce a comprehensive set of demands they intend to put on the agenda over the next two years and develop a movement strategy to win them. They need to build leverage within the halls of power by helping to call mass demonstrations and direct action to win these demands.
Ultimately, the events of the next two years will clarify for millions the incompatibility of genuine progressive politics with big business politicians like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. The Squad, Bernie Sanders, and organizations like the DSA need to draw this to its logical conclusion and begin building a new, working-class political party independent of the Democrats. If they do not take this step, it will hamstring our ability to fight for the reforms working people desperately need. This will not only leave millions of working people trapped in the thoroughly pro-corporate Democratic Party, but also further fuel the growth of the far right.