Social Movement Organizing and Electoral Struggles

A Comradely Response to Mike Hirsch’s commentary (DL blog 6/28/17) on Joe Schwartz’s “Coalition Politics and the Fight for Socialism” (Democratic Left, Summer 2017 and DL blog 6/14/17)

By Joseph M. Schwartz

Mike Hirsch knows my politics and history of social movement activism over the years well enough to know that I would agree with him that democratic socialists should prioritize building social movements that empower working people and communities of color. Electoral politics represents only one tactic in broader movement building. Most of my political work with DSA was first in just such movements (e.g.; tenants’ rights, anti-apartheid).

But Mike would also be the first to acknowledge, I think, that the terrain of struggle on those issues is affected by who holds state power. Our California comrades have a realistic chance to eventually win a state single-payer system because a powerful Latino-led labor movement has helped create a state legislature in which Democrats control close to 70 percent of the seats.  So the fight for single payer there revolves around whether social movements can create, via pressure in the streets and ballot box (by primarying anti-single payer Democrats), a left Democratic majority that can defeat  the neoliberal Democrats who are blocking the bill (a somewhat less favorable, but similar dynamic, makes a state single-payer system a real possibility in NY state).

State-level single-payer systems are not on the agenda in any Republican-controlled state. In my state of Pennsylvania, Republican control means that the legislative fight there (as in much of the country) will be resisting Republican national and state gutting of Medicaid, which serves 50% of children in the US, the disabled, and funds 70 percent of nursing home patients.

That doesn’t mean DSA groups in red states should not canvass around single-payer and create greater popular support for a potential national bill (which will gain greater traction if the Dems take the House in 2018) , but they will primarily focus on the Medicaid cuts.

I believe social movement work and electoral work often go hand-in-hand, as Carl Davidson and others have argued. That’s why, in my article, I consciously emphasized several of our chapters’ impressive work fighting for single-payer and for tenants’ rights.

I also share Anand Perala’s belief that fighting voter suppression should be integral to DSA’s racial justice work and have long pushed for DSA to take up that fight as a major priority in red states. What racial justice work a local does depends on their localities and their relationships with progressive organizations rooted in working class communities of color. But there’s little doubt that much of this work, including that dealing with mass incarceration, affordable housing, and race-and-class integrated public education, has direct ties to our electoral work.

And what happens in electoral politics sets the terrain on which social movements operate. In general, I think we’d both agree that it would have been preferable if socialists were leading a left opposition to a Clinton administration rather than joining a centrist-liberal-led opposition to a Trump administration, one in which we have to fight with neoliberals as to whether a militant economic justice program should be central to electoral candidacies.

It’s not an accident that the social reforms that we are now having to defend came only in periods where mass social movements disrupted the moderate governance of liberal Democrats and forced them to enact reforms that, in an admittedly limited fashion, redistributed power from capital to that of labor and popular social movements.  I also think we would agree that socialists and the broader left can more easily go on the offensive fighting for state single-payer systems or a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation in blue states such as California than in red states such as Kansas.

DSA should not be in the business of solely working to secure Democratic majorities for the purpose of pressuring them from the left. But many of our allies in the black, Latino, trade union, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, and feminist communities will be mobilized in 2018 to flip Republican state legislatures, to expand Democratic majorities in Democratic states, and to take back, at least, the House at the national level. We can’t simply ignore what those constituencies who would constitute a multi-racial and class-based left will be doing.

Thus, in my view, DSA should deploy its limited resources primarily to build social movements and, where possible, shore up a progressive electoral pole (a more multi-racial and labor-based version of the post-Sanders trend) that opposes the corporate, neo-liberal dominance of the Democratic Party.

I believe that the best way of doing that is to run viable democratic socialist candidates either in Democratic primaries (see Ross Mittiga) or in local non-partisan races (see khalid kamau). But if the social movement groups we work with back a strong anti-corporate Democratic Party candidate of color or labor or another staunchly progressive activist, some locals will clearly consider working on those campaigns, too — particularly if they involve a primary challenge to a pro-corporate neo-liberal Democrat.

We both recognize that the huge challenge we face in terms of electoral work is that working class people often have no one to vote for. We both believe, I think, that candidates clearly committed to labor, civil and reproductive rights are the only ones worth supporting, but also that these candidacies enhance the chances of defeating Republicans, particularly in districts with significant working class communities. Working class voters of all races often sit out elections or are barred from voting; but progressive trade unions do have better chances of reaching swing working class voters when the candidate is clearly pro-labor and anti-corporate.

The work that many of us in DSA engage in (including Mike’s and my own) does prioritize social movement struggles and internal and public socialist education. But, as Neal Meyer and others have argued, electoral politics is where many people develop their political orientation; it’s a reason why even the most militant, left socialist parties have combined social movement (and trade union) work with electoral activity.

That’s another form of “walking on two legs.”

Joseph M. Schwartz is a national vice-chair of DSA and serves on the National Political Committee. He also is a leader in his AFT local of 2,800 faculty, including 1500 adjuncts, at Temple University where he teaches socialist and radical political theory.

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