Wednesday Jun 20

On Electoral Politics

As did the Ronald Reagan presidential election victory in 1980, so the Donald Trump victory in 2016 is forcing many organizers to examine or re-examine their views on electoral politics. Also, a new energy, expressed initially in the Bernie Sanders campaign, and now manifest in campaigns and organizing across the country, is expressed in the “resist” movement. Mistakes were made by reformers in the 1980s, the major one being to give electoral politics more than its due. They should not be repeated.

A Context for New Thinking About Elections

Political parties tend to be run by politicians who have a deep interest in controlling them. So the idea of “member-run political parties” appears to be a contradiction in terms. International experience in countries with democratic elections and competing political parties, as well as in the U.S., confirms this.

Politicians tend to have an interest in moving up to higher offices. The days of a lifetime city council member are, for the most part, something read about in history books. Politicians have in mind two constituencies— the one that elected them to a current office and one that they hope will elect them to a higher office. Furthermore, their eyes are focused on who will pay for election campaigns as well as on voters. The more campaigns are dependent on pricey media, the greater the influence of money on them.

What conclusion should activists in the new resist movement draw?

Electing a candidate should make a difference, even if it is a marginal one, and you have to hold your nose to vote for the lesser-of-two-evils. The lives of real people are at stake; so is the character of the courts to which elected politicians make appointments. We don’t have the luxury of an Olympian heights contempt for both major political parties—however much deserved. None of this, however, requires that your organization be enmeshed in the ongoing operations of a political party.

Building Independent Organizations

Organizers, leaders and activists should ask themselves what they can build in their own organization, as well as what can be won by electing a candidate. “Builds” include the range of competencies that leaders, activists and members might acquire or further develop; increased self-confidence gained by their involvement; recruitment of new members, and recognition as an organization that can deliver people. The way to change the character of the country’s politics is to build peoplepower organizations. That building takes place independently of political parties.

Don’t simply turn “your people” over to the candidate’s campaign organization. Take a task as an organization for which you will be responsible. That could be as simple as having a specific day and time when your people are going to staff a phone bank or do door-to-door work, or it could be something demanding a greater level of commitment.

Most importantly, the organization you are building should have an arm’s length relationship with political parties. Getting involved in a campaign doesn’t require being part of a party.

Build the following activities into your organizing process so that your people learn, grow, and gain recognition in the experience 

• Evaluation. After an outing in the electoral arena, gather the people who participated and have a discussion on what was done and not done, and how those things look in the light of what you planned to do. The most basic evaluation is of turnout— who did what, and were goals met?

• Interpretation. This places what might otherwise seem mundane activities, like knocking on doors or making phone calls, in the larger political context in which you are working. As the politicians say, put your “spin” on what happened.

• Education. This looks at a wider picture, placing activities in the context of the ideas and forces at work in the country. In electoral politics, lots of players enter the arena. Why are they there? What benefit do they expect to gain? How is a politician juggling the sometimes conflicting interests that comprise her/his electoral coalition? Whose votes are counted long before the election, and how can they change that? For example, most Democrat politicians assume they have the black vote, because historically, a high percentage of black voters supported Democratic Party candidates. Can the election campaign be used by, for example, black constituency organizations to begin relationships with other groups in the electoral coalition, and to continue to develop them after the election is over? Without such horizontal relationship, the black vote will remain one that’s counted before the election.

• Reflection. This connects the profane to the holy; to the core values for which our side stands. The material for a pre- or post-activity reflection can be drawn from religious sources or secular ones. I was struck by their power when a pastor leading a post-action reflection likened its participants to Jesus and his followers. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Deepening the meaning of action is both important to the individual participant and to the organization.

• Celebration. Celebrate those who did what they said they were going to do and acknowledge whatever other contributions they made, beginning with the people who showed up, and including those who brought or recruited them.

In combination, these activities are part of creating a new story of everyday people as history makers. While elections mitigate against this in some ways —the idea is to elect someone who makes promises about what she or he will do for voters if elected to office—the job of people power organizers and leaders is to give a different meaning to the activity.

The Electoral Trap

It is instructive to look at what happened to explicitly radical parties and politicians who were successful in other countries because their example makes clear that these points are not limited to the particulars of American politics.


“Reform or Revolution? [T]he daily struggle for structural reforms can be revolutionary in nature,” said French Socialist President Francois Mitterrand upon his election in 1981 when the socialists swept the French Parliament. The content of his program is not my main point, but it was a threat to private, corporate and financial wealth and power.

The problems of governing are different from those of campaigning. Mitterrand and his parliamentary majority had to deal with constraints imposed upon him by European institutions of which France was a member. At the time, he said, “I am divided between two ambitions: constructing Europe and social justice.” He capitulated to Europe. And, as I will argue in a moment, it may be that he had no choice.


The Syriza coalition came to power in Greece in 2015 largely on its promise to renegotiate the debt payments and the austerity measures imposed upon the Greek people by institutions of the European Union to which Greece belongs. President Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis represented the new government. They got nowhere in their negotiations. Tsipras capitulated; Varoufakis resigned.

Varoufakis later said “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of democracy…I am here because our Athens Spring was crushed, just like the Prague Spring before it [when ,in 1968, the Soviet Union took over Czechoslovakia]. Of course, it was not crushed using the tanks. It was crushed using the banks.” He noted that when he and Tsipras met with the European institutions, they sought a compromise between “our new government’s election manifesto which the Greek people had just endorsed” and the European neoliberal program. “Germany’s finance minister immediately intervened: ‘Elections cannot change anything!’ he said. ‘If every time there is an election the rules change, the Eurozone cannot function.”

United States

The same dynamic took over the British Labor Party, the Workers Party in Brazil, and others across the globe. It took place here at home as well.

In the United States, the financial crisis of 2008 illustrates the powers beyond elected politicians. Despite ample evidence of illegal activities by lending institutions not one banker went to jail. While the equity of millions of working and middle-class Americans was destroyed, the banks made out like--well, bandits. Banks were bailed out, not the people who had their homes foreclosed.

The same lesson for current resist groups can be learned from another part of the political spectrum. “The Tea Party Is Officially Dead. It Was Killed by Partisan Politics” writes Matt Kibbe, one of its organizers, in the Libertarian publication Reason. He wrote:

The grassroots movement…was killed off by the very same Washington establishment it sought to overthrow. …What went wrong? And what do we do now? … partisan politics broke the Tea Party….

The Tea Party was never the product of some top-down design, and it wasn't owned or controlled by anyone. It was organic and leaderless. That's why it was so powerful, fueled by new social technologies that allowed citizens to self-organize outside of traditional political parties. Likeminded people, once anonymous and silent, found each other and found their collective voice.

The Tea Party also wasn't partisan. It was held together by a common set of values that united an otherwise disparate group. …

… How does a leaderless movement police its brand? We didn't have a good answer for that. Inertia pulled us toward partisanship…[T]here was growing pressure to support the party, not our principles. …

…We were trying to reboot the system, to make our principles viable in a political marketplace that values …power over principles. …

… Social movements don't ever stay the same, and they don't live forever. Like everything else in civil society, movements and their people and opinions are constantly evolving and changing and adapting.

But in this radically decentralized world, a whole new generation is available to learn about the values of liberty and cooperation…[T]he next step will be to connect with this generation, the liberty curious, to engage, encourage, and organize their collective power towards a common good, voluntarily agreed upon.

Are Politicians To Blame?

To blame politicians for capitulating is only a half truth. The other half is the complicity of a citizenry who expect that the mere election of a party or candidate is sufficient to get a program delivered or structures transformed. But that expectation is created by the dynamic of political parties—“elect me and this is what I will do for you” is the implicit claim of almost every political candidate, as it is of the parties they represent. And when it isn’t in the candidate or party platform rhetoric, it is in the reality of electoral politics as THE strategy rather than A tactic for structural reform. “Democracy,” as the saying goes, “is not a spectator sport”.

Governance is a complicated process. Legislation requires work-ups of bills, hearings, consultations with interest groups, amendments, negotiations to create congressional majorities, appropriations, votes, and then a whole new series of activities to implement the legislation, including guidelines that can undermine legislative intent. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the demand for vigilance regarding governance is too high a bar. A mass base cannot be sustained in a political party.

Let me be clear, electing good politicians is important. It is necessary. But it is not sufficient. Stopping the election of bad politicians with a lesser-of-two-evils can also be important. It may be necessary. But it is not sufficient.

Capital Strike

We need to anticipate that efforts to bring about structural change in the United States can, and likely will, be met with the withdrawal of investments and loans. If our organizing ever reaches scale in this country, we will be challenging major financial and corporate powers. These challenges may create an atmosphere inhospitable to investment—a capital strike. In different forms, that is what Mitterrand and Syriza were threatened with. They were elected to deliver, with voters as mere consumers of what politicians were supposed to do, and the politicians backed down.

A capital strike requires vigorous, militant and radical action to overcome it. Publicly owned banks may be required. Profits might need to be frozen. Massive bank withdrawals by individual and institutional depositors, including public ones, might be required to get banks to negotiate. If the capacity to engage in these struggles has not been built in as part of the organizing process, the people-power required for such engagement will not be present—insuring defeat before the battle is even waged.

What Then?

Across the globe, in the world of formally democratic countries, this consistent lesson can be drawn: without strong, mass-based, “bottom-up,” paid for by their members organizations that exist outside the framework of political parties and elections, the interests and small “d” democratic values of the great majority of the people will not be best served. Instead of having their relationships with one another mediated by politicians and political parties, these people-power organizations need to increasingly develop direct, horizontal, relationships with one another, perhaps initially around a campaign on an important issue, but expanding into continuing multi-issue federations at the state, national and international levels.

This is the larger “build” that should be guiding us. If we are successful, politicians will increasingly have to reflect where our side stands in how they vote and campaign. We are a long way from that today, but that’s where we need to be heading. That requires organizing, not simply mobilizing.

The other activities of a people-power organization are necessary as well—these are the other tactics to build people power. They include:

• Negotiation and direct action. One of my favorite organizing workshop sessions is to describe an abandoned building in a neighborhood. It is an eye-sore; broken glass makes it a dangerous place for kids to play; drug dealers hang out there. An affluent owner could tear the building down and leave a well taken care of vacant lot, replace it with a new structure, or repair it if it’s still fixable. In my scenario, the various city agencies that deal with this problem—building inspection, health and other departments—can issue a citation followed by a fine, and, if ignored for a considerable period of time board it up, and only in very particular instances tear the building down and bill the owner for the cost. When I ask, “With whom do you want to negotiate?”, the usual consensus is the owner. Yet throughout the organizing world, government is the typical target of action. Direct negotiation with decision makers in corporate and financial institutions and with individual owners is a principal tactic to both win and build. Direct action follows a breakdown of negotiations or refusal to meet in the first place.

• Mutual aid and direct service. Buying clubs, credit unions, consumer- and worker-owned cooperatives is another tactic available to both win and build. The benefits are immediate and concrete. So are the benefits of direct service---a tactic usually dismissed by organizers. Direct service can be turned into an organizing tool if it’s done by groups, and if beneficiaries are incorporated into the groups doing the service. Also, the demand for appropriate services can be turned into an organizing issue—as the Welfare Rights Organization demonstrated in the 1960s/70s.

• Boycotts and Strikes. These are self-evidently valuable but are diminishing in their number. The great thing about product boycotts is that they can provide even a block club with a handle on a national or even international issue and goal: get the product of the shelves of a neighborhood merchant.

• Legislative and administrative action. Getting a bill passed, or an administrative policy or practice changed is similarly an opportunity to both win and build. I don’t need to elaborate on these because they are common in today’s organizing.

Together these activities in the public arena can build the people power required to achieve structural change in the present system of wealth, income, status and power in the country. Without this kind of strategic balance, the energy now exploding in resistance to Trump will slowly recede.

I don’t think we sufficiently applied these ideas in the post-Reagan era. As a result, we ended up with a sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but at whichever speed a continuing drift toward concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an ever-fewer number of people; disastrous foreign policy decisions and unchecked empire, ecological disaster, and neo-liberal economics. Our organizations were either coopted or disappeared.

We need to do better this time around.

Mike Miller is Executive Director of ORGANIZE!Training Center in San Francisco California . and has over 60 years experience in community organizing.

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