Truthout: A Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond

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"Elections are not a sideshow. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware"

Truthout - April 21, 2019

As the 2020 presidential campaigns begin in 2019, nearly everyone on the left knows the stakes are high. The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.

The removal of Trump’s bloc would also remove a stubborn obstacle to a range of urgent progressive reforms much needed at the grassroots — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, no new wars and interventions, a $15 minimum wage, and so on. Given how unlikely Trump’s resignation or impeachment is, the election of the candidate running on the Democratic Party line seems like the likeliest path toward his removal.

What would be the most effective way for the left, and especially the socialist left, to go about unseating the Trump bloc? The most fruitful strategy would not only accomplish that goal, but would also strengthen the left’s leverage in other upcoming rounds of class and democratic struggles, keeping the country on a socialist road.

Electoral Politics Is Not a Sideshow

Work in elections is always conflicted for socialists. There is a uniqueness to any campaign in that it is time-limited. There are specific tensions that are unleashed given the intensity of the effort, but one knows that on a specific day — Election Day — it all ends. There is no seamless spillover, moreover, into organizing on-going political organizations and their many longer-term mass campaigns, such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South. Here the time frame is far more open. The election-of-the-day looks a lot like the Gramscian “war of movement,” mobilizing forces quickly for the taking of a strong point of power. The other protracted base-building campaigns are more like the “war of position,” gathering strength, taking or winning over stronghold by stronghold, concentrating our forces on the weak spot to make a breakthrough.

What we want to argue here is that the “war of position” and the “war of movement” are best seen as tightly interconnected, like casting out nets and drawing them in. The art and science of strategy and tactics, then, is to know which to emphasize and when, which is not so easy with a battleground always in motion.

This requires a wide-awake assessment of our current conjuncture, a fresh survey of the terrain, and a good estimate of the balance of forces. The dramatic growth of left forces since 2016 — especially Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) surging to 60,000-plus members located in every congressional district, plus the election in 2018 of two DSA members to Congress and many more to state and local offices — is the most obvious change. But we are still in a period of overall strategic defensive, within which we view the war of position strategically and the wars of movement tactically. This is our orientation through 2020 and its immediate aftermath.

This means election campaigns are not a bothersome, if still required sideshow. They are at the center of our work. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware. Through electoral campaigns, our mass outreach can be magnified tenfold or even more. And we integrate electoral work in creative ways with all of our non-electoral mass campaigns for organizing our respective base communities.

But there is also a range of ways to do electoral work: effective, ineffective and in-between. The most ineffective way is merely to contact the local Democrats and volunteer for whatever task they might assign to you. At the other end is organizing a left-progressive bloc under their tent that becomes stronger than the regular Democrats themselves, where they might even begin to take our lead locally.

The starting point is getting a good grasp on exactly what the Democratic Party is. To say that it is “capitalist” is true, but only tells us something at the general level. Repeatedly, all too many of us on the left misread the Democratic Party and believe that it is actually a political party. It is not, at least in any regular meaning of the term.

The Democrats, instead, are an alliance of class interests and grassroots civic forces that exist in the form of a political party, dominated by a segment of the capitalist class. Since the 1980s, that segment has moved further and further in the direction of neoliberalism. The politics of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council represented a rejection of traditional liberalism and a rejection of the progressive populism represented by forces such as the Rainbow insurgency of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

... In other words, we should not provide volunteers for a campaign of the regulars, but instead, take on campaign work that we do in our own names. This sentiment arises from an understandable concern that electoral politics can suck in and suck up all the energy from the left. The danger, however, is that such a view can alternatively lead to practical sectarianism. It thus must be deployed carefully. ...
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