Elections bring various things like clockwork, and one of them is debates among leftists about whether, why and how to participate in them. This year more than most, many leftists put considerable time into electoral campaigns. Some threw down with visionary candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, Rashida Tlaib and Cat Brooks. Others helped swing historically red districts to blue, sometimes by working on behalf of less than enthralling candidates like venture capitalist Josh Harder, in California’s Central Valley and Jacky Rosen in Nevada, one of two House democrats who voted for a permanent tax cut on rich people. Others ran for city councils, school boards, transit authorities or water boards.
Some leftists did not let themselves get distracted by the elections, just kept doing movement work. Others sat on the sidelines, predicting doom and criticizing those who chose electoral paths as dupes or false friends.
With the elections barely decided – a few of them yet to be called – the postmortems are flowing fast and furiously. Among the folks who committed to the fight, some are on much-needed vacations, some are picking up the neglected threads of their lives, some are rolling up their sleeves to help capitalize on a victory or near-victory. Among the anti-electoral set, some are breathing a sigh of relief and hitting the ground running on tenant assemblies, migrant justice coalitions, caravans to the border, socialist schools, climate sit-ins, mutual aid projects – something nearly every day of the week and four a day on weekends.
For some of us who had one foot in and one foot out of the electoral madness, this is a time for some sober reckoning about what is productive and what role we should play.
Elections are a very flawed tool for the left. We’re nearly always outspent, and our opponents control the media. That’s why California, where almost 50% of voters are renters and almost 60% of renters are paying 30% or more of their income for housing, rejected Proposition 10, which would have allowed cities to expand rent control to include properties built after 1995. The national Democratic machine threw its muscle behind millionaire Dianne Feinstein, even after the state party endorsed Kevin de Léon, a relative progressive from a working class immigrant family.
But blaming Democrats, or blaming people who participate in electoral politics, for the weakness of the Left, is backwards thinking. The reason left-wing candidates and initiatives don’t win elections is because the Left has not built political power. It’s not the other way around. If the Bernie Sanders campaign should have taught us anything, it’s that people who sit out elections are not waiting around for socialist candidates to emerge.
What Is To Be Done: December 2018 Lesbian Chorus Recording
The Left can do many things besides try to win policy victories. We can continue to stand aside, holding a militant pole, helping build protests, supporting strikes, encouraging deeper and more critical analysis, reminding people about wars and other things they prefer not to think about, rooting for or dismissing or cautioning against the Yellow Vests in France and waiting for the next big wave of actions to try to get in front of. If that’s what you want to do, more power to you. If what you believe in is fighting fascists in the street, you don’t want nearly-sixty-year-old women in your bunch and I don’t want to be in there with you. So Go With God.
But for those who want to be effective on a policy level, here are a few things we need to do.
(1) Learn to read a map.
We like to quote big-picture statistics: 52% of white women voted for Trump, 70% of the country supports Medicare For All, people of color are the new majority. These are (1) not that accurate – it seems like the percentage of white women who voted for Trump is closer to 47%; “non-Hispanic whites” still make up 62% of the population; and (2) not that relevant, given the political system that we live under.
Take health care: 70% is a huge number, and it’s meaningful. But it becomes a lot less meaningful when you consider that the country does not get to vote on whether to adopt a single payer health care system (point of information: Medicare for All is just a much better name for single payer). Who does vote is Congress, and Congresspeople don’t represent the population that responds to opinion polls; they represent their districts or their states. Here’s another big number: 63% of the population lives in cities. And here’s a small number: 3.5% is the amount of land that those 63% are crammed into. Here’s another small number: 9. Just under half of the country’s population lives in 9 states: California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and Florida. It’s pretty likely that that much of the 30% who don’t support Medicare For All live in those 41 other states, and a huge majority may live in that 96.5% of the land that is not cities, which is vastly overrepresented in Congress. If you’re a Congressperson from some gerrymandered district in Nebraska, Arizona or Mississippi, it makes zero difference what 70% of people in California, New York and Florida want.
(2) Think globally, act strategically
We want everything for everyone now. But that strategy – which is not really a strategy – has for many years gotten us nothing for anyone. Here’s yet another number: 1 in 8 Americans live in California. If California gets single payer, a right to housing and a $20 minimum wage, that will mean more than 12% of Americans have them. Washington and Oregon may well beat us to it. Hawaii and Massachusetts could be close behind. And California is bluer than ever. Orange County, which gave us homophobe John Briggs and Proposition 13 author Howard Jarvis, is now blue and majority people of color.
California has big Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and a new governor who is not progressive but claims he is. We don’t have to believe that to use it.
Every group doesn’t need to do the same thing, but we should be pulling in the same direction. That means the universal health care people going to the climate justice people and the homeless action people and the no-more-prisons people and working out some agreement that we’ll show up for each other. Social justice nonprofits should (be pressured to) build into their budgets some time spent working on issues that aren’t their primary focus. Grassroots groups should do the same with the resources we can mobilize. In order to do that, we need some way to come together and work out some kind of timeline, so instead of three actions on the same day, we have one major mobilization every two weeks, or whatever, the way the various canvasses used to get together and divide up turf (maybe they still do).
New York and Illinois peeps, get it together. Folks in hopelessly red areas, make this California Winter. I have a guest bed you can sleep on (if you don’t mind a few rats, but we’re working on that).
We got this.
(3) Get out of our own way.
When I was living in Palestine, I went to the bus station in East Jerusalem one day to find a car going to Bethlehem, where I had a meeting. A guy was wandering around and he said, “I heard the checkpoint was closed.” Another woman nodded her head. I asked where they heard it. “Around,” the guy said. I thought, well, maybe it was but often there was a way in, especially for a foreigner. I poked around and finally found a car going that way. I got to the checkpoint. No delay. I went straight through. When I mentioned it to the guy I was meeting, Sami Awad from Holy Land Trust, he said, “That’s what happens when people are occupied for so long. You get so used to being beaten down, you take any excuse not to bother.”
I think parts of the left are infected with that low energy that comes from decades of losing. Some of us are afraid of getting our hopes up and being disappointed again. Some of us are afraid of looking foolish, by believing in some liberal who sells us out. And it’s all a good excuse not to do the f*** of a lot of work it’s going to take to get stuff done.
But here’s the thing: Being right is really nice. I should know, because I’m right almost all the time. But being right with good health care, safe drinking water and a livable minimum wage is much nicer. If someone wants to pledge the flag, I could maybe argue with them about imperialism after we’ve gotten a few wins under our belts together. Something tells me, they might be more willing to listen then. That doesn’t mean I am gonna stand up for the national anthem, but being unwilling to work with liberals has not gotten us revolution in the last four decades. I’m even willing to put up with some annoying nonprofit people.
I suspect some leftists secretly don’t want anything good to happen under Newsom because that might make it look like he’s a good guy. Don’t worry. He’s not. But not-good people have done good things before, or at least allowed themselves to be given credit for them. Need to hear that old saw about Nixon and the Clean Water Act again? George H.W. Bush was just lionized for being the guy who brought us the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he didn’t. He just saw that it was not politically wise to oppose it.
We all know what gets things done: movements. When Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a Green New Deal, she signaled her understanding that getting progressive candidates elected is only the beginning of a long process of social change. Don’t tell me Newsom will try to backtrack on his campaign pledge to support single payer. I don’t doubt it. But if the 84% of Democrats and 66% of independents who support single payer are out there demanding it – not passively on the internet but loudly in the streets and the halls of the Capitol of this in 46% Democratic and 23% independent state, Newsom won’t dare deny them. Don’t tell me Pelosi won’t allow it. Last I checked, the Speaker of the u.s. House of Representatives doesn’t run California. The potential blow dealt to the hanging-by-a-thread Affordable Care Act by the ending of the individual mandate can only strengthen support for universal health care. So let’s get busy.
4) If we don’t fight, we can’t win.
The happiest woman in the country right about now has to be Jane McAleavy. She’s a labor organizer and author of the 2017 book, No Shortcuts, which looks at unions and other working class organizing projects. Her main thesis is that mobilizations that don’t require participants to make a commitment by signing a union card, paying dues, joining an organizing committee or voting yes or no in an election, are basically worthless. For the record, I do not agree with her assessment of the value of protest and other types of actions. But recent events certainly give a lot of credence to her approach.
The victory by Marriott workers (see labor roundup, page __) proves that full-on strikes work, while the one-day quasi-strikes and corporate campaigns favored by “new labor” often don’t. (Though, I would point out that Fight for $15, which uses a mobilizing and lobbying approach that minimizes the sacrifices individual workers are asked to make, has won bigger raises for more workers than the Marriott strike did.) The November election results did more than just change control of Congress. It also provided clear and usable data on what works and doesn’t work in a wide variety of political contexts. It shows us where our strength is, where we need push just a little harder, and where we maybe can’t win right now. (Beloved Oakland, what’s your problem?)
It’s up to everyone whether to heed the messages in the bottles or continue spinning impossible fantasies or dire predictions. I personally want to see what we can accomplish if we agree to put our inner Eeyores to sleep.
It’s not always true what they say, that “When we fight, we win.” But this is always true: If we don’t fight, we can’t win.
See you in the streets.