“The divide is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers.” Chris Hedges, 5/31/10
Imagine a three-way debate between Romney, Obama, and a spokesperson from Occupy on TV. The spokesperson from Occupy lists the Wall Street donors to both candidates and speaks about mothers thrown out of their homes by greedy bankers. She calls for the repeal of student debts, an end to subsidies for the oil, coal, and gas industries, and an urgent shift of our economy to green energy that results in the employment of all those out of work. She calls for a living minimum wage, an end to foreclosures, an end to the War on Drugs, and free health care for all.
This would be part of a bold strategy of using the local and national elections to publicize grassroots struggles and expose the agenda of our opponents in the 1%. Imagine the candidates committing to take no more compensation from their elected office than that of the average wage, to donate the remainder of their salary back to the movement, and to being subject to immediate recall if they fail to represent the movement. This is how socialists see the role of running candidates as part of movement-building.
We agree that struggles change society. But running candidates and building a new political party will help build a more powerful movement.
Wall Street and the elite 1% don’t plan to give over their wealth without a struggle. To defend themselves, they have the mass media, the courts, the police, and other instruments of repression and their political parties. In order to be successful, we need to challenge this power in every arena we can. This is where a real activist political party of workers, the poor, young people, and the broader 99% is essential.
We need a political party that is democratically controlled by its members and refuses to take money from corporate interests. We need a political party that is able to challenge the corporate domination of the mass media with its own working-class, anti-racist, anti-sexist message. We need a political party that can organize and bring into its ranks the tens of millions of workers, young people, and the poor who are fed up with corporate-dominated politics. We need to run dynamic anti-corporate candidates to expose the interests of the 1% and help build the struggles of workers and the 99%. We need a party committed to breaking corporate control of U.S. politics and to start transforming our society.
The present two-party system, based on corporate money and rich politicians who sell their votes to corporate interests, has turned most Americans off politics. But that is corporate politics. What we need is to re-establish the tradition of working-class and socialist politics.
Unfortunately, most workers and young people see politics only through the lens of corporate politics. Yet if you go back a couple of generations, there are vivid and exciting examples of working-class people running for political office not for personal gain but in order to challenge corporate power and become real spokespersons of the working class and poor.
Many in Occupy argue that running independent left candidates will take energy away from building powerful struggles, which is the essential thing we need to do. While we agree that struggle is the essential way to fight the 1%, we don’t agree that running independent left candidates is a distraction from that struggle. In fact, we believe that if it is done correctly it can help build those struggles.
Running independent working-class candidates is all about exposing the agenda of the corporate elite, challenging the program and policies of the corporate candidates, and putting forward an alternative for working people. Running such candidates is done to supplement struggles, to challenge and expose the forces against those struggles. It is about providing a platform to broaden support for those struggles.
For example, the American socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs used the electoral system. Debs ran for the Socialist Party in 1920 from prison, after being jailed for his opposition to World War I, and received close to 1 million votes. He did not expect to win, but he used the election as an organizing tool to expose the powers that be, to challenge the ideology of the bosses, and to put forward a fighting program against war and capitalism, exposing millions to socialist ideas and raising their political level.
Some people argue that if we participate in elections, we will sell out our movement to corporate interests. There are some who believe that the elections were created as a trap to ensnare our movements. In reality, the ruling elite have systematically looked to deny anyone the right to vote except themselves.
At the signing of the U.S. constitution, only white men of property could vote. It is estimated that as many as 50% of white men were excluded from voting, in addition to all women, Native Americans, free black men, and slaves. The working class fought and died for universal suffrage, to extend the franchise to women and people of color. This has been resisted at every step by the ruling elite, who have used every means at their disposal to divide us and keep us from the polls.
If we limit our struggles just to the workplace, schools, and the streets, then that allows the 1% to dominate the other arenas available in society. They already control the courts, the police, and the mass media. But we can challenge them in the political arena. The ruling elite spend billions of dollars to get the public to vote for one of their two parties in power to legitimate their rule. Otherwise, we would effectively live in a dictatorship of the 1%.
When dedicated individuals from our movement have challenged this political monopoly, the 1% has moved heaven and earth to defeat them or to disgrace them. Such is the way they treated consumer activist Ralph Nader’s popular presidential challenge as a Green Party candidate in 2000.
Nader’s independent left-wing presidential campaign emerged out of the anti-globalization movement and the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999, in which Nader played a prominent part. Nader’s presidential campaign gave an electoral expression for this movement and the seething anger of millions of workers. The ruling elite were terrified that if Nader got into televised debates he would expose the corporate backing for Gore and Bush, the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Despite a national poll showing that 64% of eligible voters wanted him in the debates, and despite attracting hundreds of thousands of people in the largest rallies of any candidate, Ralph Nader was excluded from the 2000 presidential debates (http://www.gp.org/press/pr_04_16_02.html). He was even arrested while trying to attend the debate in Boston, despite having a valid ticket. Polling 6-7% one month before the election, Nader faced a massive campaign of denigration launched by the Democrats, and most importantly by their liberal supporters in the leadership of the union, civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements, to beat back this support to just under 3% on election day. Nevertheless, Nader’s vote in 2000 was the highest for an independent left-wing candidate for president since the 1920s.
The 2012 Elections and the Danger of the Right
Corporate America is spending billions of dollars to promote its agenda again in 2012. Through their election campaigns, they will have a direct route into the home of every American. The idea that boycotting or abstaining from the election is the best way to challenge the 1% neglects this fact. That’s why we need to challenge them in the elections as well as in every other arena.
Also, if the left isn’t able to win support from those angry at the system’s failures, then the right wing will attempt to do so. The Tea Party and characters like Ron Paul tap into working people’s legitimate frustrations and anxieties. But their solutions amount to racist, sexist, and homophobic scapegoating alongside simplistic appeals for small government and traditional values. Since the crisis began, populist attacks on women, immigrants, the LGBT community, and the unions have gone way up.
The failure of the labor leaders and the broader left to expose Obama for his further bailout of the banks and his other pro-corporate policies, to step up and run candidates in the 2010 elections, and to put blame on the banks rather than the poor and workers allowed the Tea Party a captive audience. Boosted by corporate interests, they distorted the debate to blame public sector workers, immigrants, and the poor for the crisis and presented themselves as the spokespersons for the average person, which allowed them to tap into anger at the bank bailouts.
Combined with demoralization among Obama supporters, this led to the Republicans making gains in the November 2010 elections. The Republicans used this to launch an unprecedented assault on women’s rights in 2011. A record 135 legislative attacks on women’s rights in 36 states passed; an increase from 89 in 2010 and 77 in 2009. This included 92 new restrictions on abortion access, breaking the record of 34 abortion restrictions in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Tapping into people’s economic fears, the Tea Party and the right diverted public anger into a right-wing agenda of blaming immigrants and thinly cloaked racism. This is a real warning to workers and people of color of the agenda of the right wing. It also is a warning of the kind of political direction America will go toward unless we build a political alternative that puts the blame clearly on big business and organizes the working-class majority. The right wing can create huge divisions among workers, allowing big business to push through its agenda of cuts in living standards and to defeat unions and other organizations capable of fighting back against its agenda.
It took the Occupy movement to push the Tea Party out of the limelight of U.S. society in 2011. But this has only been temporary. The ruling elite are looking to distort the message of Occupy. Also, as shown by Obama, the Democrats can only be expected to fail again, giving the right new opportunities to gain more ground. If we don’t start seriously organizing an independent movement on the left, then the right wing will grow instead.
Organizing for Independent Candidates
Unfortunately, we do not have, in general, strong candidates or a political party on the left to represent our movement and our agenda in the 2012 elections. This is the result of decades of lesser-evilist pressure. It is also the result of the dominant position of U.S. capitalism in the world in the last 100 years, which had allowed the political system to give enough reforms to prevent a powerful challenge to its power building from below. But that situation is fast eroding.
While the ruling class obviously uses the rigged electoral system to channel the frustration and struggles of the 99% into “proper channels,” particularly into the Democratic Party, we can and should use electoral politics as an opportunity to raise our criticism of capitalism and fight back against the austerity they have planned for us.
In this election, Socialist Alternative is supporting independent left pro-worker candidates at the city, state, and national level. Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant is running in a race for state legislature in Washington
This campaign has had enormous success, speaking to thousands of people, distributing thousands of campaign flyers, attracting dozens of volunteers, and gaining substantial media coverage for its message of no cuts and for a socialist alternative to capitalism. In the primary, Kshama won over 9% of the vote against a well-liked Democrat, Jamie Pederson, in position 1 and over 11% of the vote in position 2 as a write-in candidate against the more vulnerable Speaker of the House, Democrat Frank Chopp.
Qualifying in both races, by itself, has increased the media attention and the number of people wanting to get involved with the campaign. But the unusual election results gave our campaign the opportunity to switch races and run against the second-most powerful Democrat in Washington state. It has since won wide publicity for its successful lawsuit against the Secretary of State, who had ruled that, as an undeclared write-in candidate, Kshama did not have the right to have her party affiliation, Socialist Alternative, on the ballot.
This campaign has already shown how people are angry at the two corporate parties and are looking for an alternative to challenge the status quo in electoral politics. By running in this race, the campaign has concretely posed the issue of how the pro-corporate Democratic Party can be challenged by running left-wing pro-worker candidates.
We also support building the strongest possible pro-worker, anti-corporate challenge to the two corporate parties in 2012. The best known independent left-wing candidates are Rocky Anderson, formerly a liberal Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2008, and Jill Stein, who is running as the presidential candidate of the Green Party.
While we have political differences with both candidates, we feel the candidate in position to have the biggest impact is Jill Stein. Stein has more clearly defined left positions in her program: a program of job creation, increased social services, cancelling student debt, ending the wars, and calling for taxes on the richest 1% while stopping short of calling for fundamental socialist change. For this reason, we are encouraging others to vote for her for President to demonstrate opposition to the two corporate party candidates.
A Party of the Working Class
We don’t just need independent anti-corporate, pro-worker candidates. We need a new political party that refuses to take corporate money. Such a party should be controlled through a democratic vote of its members and fight determinedly for the interests of the working-class majority on the issues of jobs, wages, benefits, health care, housing, war, discrimination, and the environment. Such a party has been created in the past by workers in different countries around the world. There are now two corporate parties. What we need is a party of working people.
Once such a party is created, has won a sizeable level of support in radical labor unions and progressive social movements, and has built roots in working-class communities, then it would be able to speak for the millions of dissatisfied workers and youth on the myriad of issues that they face. It would change the face of U.S. politics. The task in front of all working people, young people, the poor, and the elderly is to help build such a party.
An important and powerful force for building a new party of the working class has been the labor movement. However, this crisis has found the labor movement in a weak state. Many decades of bureaucratization has meant that the activist wing in the unions is very weak. Also, the weakness of the socialist movement means the union leadership looks at politics through the lens of supporting capitalism.
The disastrous consequences of decades of “lesser-evilism” has meant there are currently few forces on the left that support breaking from the Democratic Party and running independent left-wing challengers. Anger at attacks on living standards and experiences drawn from struggles will bring forward new forces and new organizations. Individuals will also play an important role in this process, whether they be existing activists like Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Cindy Sheehan, or Cynthia McKinney, personalities like Michael Moore, talk show hosts, athletes, priests, or movie stars, or politicians breaking from the Democrats.
The emergence of fighting sections of the labor movement will also be important. The harsh economic attacks and budgets cuts are beginning to build a new fighting layer in the unions. In the next period, more workers will get radicalized and look to transform their unions into fighting organizations and to break them away from the Democrats. Unorganized workers will also look to form unions in their workplaces. In this way, unions will begin to be transformed into organizations that fight to improve their members’ working conditions.
In the 2008 election, the leaders of unions and community organizations told us to vote for the Democrats. The unions alone spent over $400 million supporting Democrats. Imagine what resources like this could do if directed towards building mass struggle and a new workers’ party to bring together activists from all the different movements, non-union and unionized workers, into a common struggle against big business.
In our union locals and at our union conventions, we need to initiate a debate about why our movement is throwing its valuable resources into electing candidates for a corporate party. We need to demand that unions cut off their funds to the Democratic Party candidates. This money should be used to build broad working-class movements, fund candidates independent of the two parties, and build a new workers’ party.
Events in Canada show the gains that can be won by building an independent political movement. Unlike the U.S., Canada has a single-payer health care system. The reason for this is that Canadian workers built their own workers’ party – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – by running candidates with the forerunner of the NDP, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), to build up its power. By the mid-1950s, the NDP was threatening to get 30% or 40% of the vote nationally.
Big business in Canada saw this as a real threat, and it realized it would need to give concessions to stop the movement developing further. It pushed its two political parties to concede single-payer health care to temporarily delay the growth of mass anger at its system. This should give us confidence to follow the bold example of our neighbors to the North.