Lessons for the Left from the 2014 Elections: Part Two

North Carolina’s Moral Mondays (Slate)

By Joseph M. Schwartz           

(This is the second part of a two-part article. Find Part One here)

3. Voter Suppression: A Major Threat to Democracy in the United States

The Democrats should run against Republicans on the grounds that they are a party that is hostile to democracy.  Republican voter restriction laws in 14 states potentially disenfranchise 11 percent of the electorate due to their lack of official government IDs. These are new poll taxes, since lower-income people often cannot take time off from work or afford the fees to purchase official government voter ID cards. Nate Silver of the blog 538 estimates that voter ID restrictions may repress turnout by as much as 2.4% (disproportionately students, the poor, the elderly and blacks and Latinos).

Ari Berman of The Nation and Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice have done preliminary analyses of the effect of voter exclusion laws on the 2014 elections. Their analysis should motivate progressives to prioritize organizing to overturn voter restrictions.  In Kansas, slash-and-burn tax-and-budget cutter Republican Governor Sam Brownback defeated Democratic challenger Paul Davis by only 33,000 votes. Yet 24,000 Kansans tried to register this year unsuccessfully because they failed to present the documentary proof of citizenship now required of state law. An earlier study by the non-partisan federal General Accountability Office found that new voter ID laws reduced turnout by two percent in 2012 in Arkansas and three percent in Tennessee.

In Texas, over 600,000 citizens do not have the proper ID required for voting, while in 2014 only 450 people completed the arduous process to secure alternative government identification (!). In North Carolina, incumbent Senator Kay Hagen (D) lost narrowly by 1.7 percent or 48,000 votes to State House Speaker Thom Tillis; one of the harshest new election laws probably cost her the election (a law that Tillis helped craft). In 2010, nearly 200,000 voters in North Carolina cast early ballots in the extra week of early voting cut by the new law. (This cut aimed to eliminate one Sunday of “souls to the polls” efforts in black churches.) In addition, in 2012 more than 100,000 North Carolinians, over 1/3 African American, used same day registration, which was not available in 2014.

Finally, in Florida, incumbent Governor Rick Scott overturned former Governor Charlie Crist’s return of suffrage rights to 150,000 of the 1.3 million Floridians who have lost the right to vote due to the state’s permanent disenfranchisement of all felons. Scott’s reversal of Crist’s reforms returned Florida to being a state where over 25 percent of African-American men are ineligible to vote (versus an already horrific eight percent nationally)!  Again, Scott defeated Crist by just 72,000 votes. Yet how many major Democratic politicians rail against felony exclusion laws or even understand their adverse impact on Democratic candidates?

Most mainstream pundits believe that the Democrats cannot walk on two legs by appealing simultaneously to black and Latino voters and white working class voters. But this insults the intelligence of ordinary Americans. What if the Democrats boldly said that the Republicans are  an intolerant nativist party, a party that diverts white working class anger at corporations that outsource jobs onto immigrant workers who rarely displace native-born workers. And what if Democrats said (as even some Republicans now do) that the mass incarceration of unemployed youth of color (and, increasingly, unemployed whites) costs taxpayers far more than would job training and high-quality reentry programs.  For too long the neoliberal wing of the Democrats thought that being “Republican lite” on criminal justice and “welfare reform” would win over swing white Democrats. But it hasn’t, so why keep trying?


4. Analysis and Program Alone do not Bring Social Change: Building Social Movements Does

Astute political analysis by itself does not make for progressive political change.  Given the structural advantages of corporate power in democratic capitalist societies, social change only comes when mass social movements use their power to disrupt (and to vote) to wrest concessions from beleaguered elites. There is plenty of resistance in American society; witness the protests around Ferguson spreading across the nation. But the national sum of the left’s grassroots local parts is weakened by the absence of a national, multi-racial progressive political organization. As Bill Fletcher consistently argues, movements must build organizations capable of bringing resources and coordinated numbers to bear upon policy elites.

The left lost a huge opportunity when it failed to build a national, grassroots-based, democratic Rainbow Coalition out of the 1984 and 1988 Jackson campaigns. The remains of organized labor today would be better served financing a pro-labor, anti-corporate political formation than funding moderate Democratic candidates who deliver little for working people. White middle strata progressives active in Move On or Progressive Democrats of America cannot win radical social change on their own, as evidenced by the failure of the “get big money out of politics” movement to gain traction in working class and black and Latino communities.  The demand to get money out of politics will only gain broader social traction when put in the context of corporate powers’ opposition to movements for economic and racial justice (e.g., corporate opposition to raising the minimum wage and the private prison industry’s role in mass incarceration).

Radical activists should not wait for the birth of such a national, federated, grassroots neo-Rainbow. We should join the “neo-Rainbows” being built at the local and state level, be it Moral Monday in North Carolina or the black- and Latino-led “New Majority” coalitions in Florida and Virginia. Multi-racial coalitions, with strong ties to progressives in labor, have recently won municipal power in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and elsewhere. These administrations are working to enact living wage ordinances and to increase access to affordable housing. But only grassroots pressure from below can offset the heavy weight that real estate developers and downtown corporate interests will place upon these governments. Addressing the needs of urban communities will necessitate major state and federal investments in education, public housing, and job creation. One cannot have true urban social democracy in one city.

5. White Progressives Need to do Anti-Racist Political Work in their own Communities

White progressives have to work in their own communities to weaken a “white” identity that the right works daily to strengthen. Despite people of color and immigrants doing the hardest, least well paid, and most valuable work in our society, the right has constructed a mythical “white” consciousness centered on the belief that “hard-working whites” pay excessively high taxes to fund anti-poverty programs that coddle the largely non-white poor. This despite welfare, food stamps, and public housing assistance having been gutted over the past 40 years by both Republican and neo-liberal Democratic national and state governments.

Where to start? DSA locals must seek to work in multi-racial coalitions that focus both on economic redistribution and the expansion of democratic rights. They must learn the political landscape of their communities beyond that of a predominantly white, middle strata, ideological “left.” Multi-racial coalitions need to be built (or strengthened) that speak to the needs of all working people for a living wage, the right to organize, and an easing of the regressive tax burden that falls on the middle class and working people. But these coalitions (and the candidates they support) must also speak openly and forthrightly for an immediate and expeditious path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers and their children and an end to voter suppression, the privatization and defunding of urban public education, and mass incarceration. Is this possible? In California, a labor- and Latino-led coalition has created a solid Democratic majority in state politics. The main political faultline in California politics today is between a neoliberal Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who desires to use increased progressive tax revenues to shore up fiscal reserves, and the progressive wing of the party, that wants to spend the funds on social programs.

These movements must dispel the right-wing ideological myth that we can only afford such programs if we raise taxes on people of modest means. Regressive taxation did not fall from the sky but from the Reagan and Bush II tax reforms that massively cut taxes for the top 10 percent and gutted effective corporate tax rates. In the early 1960s, corporate tax revenues made up 30 percent of federal revenues; today only 10 percent. The more prosperous 1950s and ‘60s saw marginal income tax rates of 70 percent, versus 35 percent today. Americans, overall, are not heavily taxed. We channel only 34 percent of our total GDP thru the state, whereas Germany spends 42 percent of its income on public goods, Scandinavia 50 percent, and France 55 percent.  And these nations only spend one-tenth of what we do per capita on “defense.” 

Campaigns such as a Bernie Sanders’ run in the Democratic primaries for president or progressive Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia’s race against Rahm Emmanuel in the May 2015 Chicago mayoral race provide a natural opportunity for white progressives to campaign in white working- and middle-class neighborhoods and discuss why economically progressive and anti-racist policies are in the interest of all working people. The electoral expression of such politics can also take a form outside of the major parties,  in non-partisan local, even explicitly socialist campaigns (such as Jorge Mujica’s socialist campaign for a non-partisan City Council seat in Chicago) or when the Democratic nominee is a neoliberal who faces certain victory or defeat (e.g., Howie Hawkins’ Green Party campaign against neoliberal Democratic Andrew Cuomo in New York). But if a multi-racial left grows, its most predominant electoral expression is likely to be in primary challenges against pro-corporate Democrats. In short, we need to build a multi-racial Tea Party of the left. 

Even elected officials put into office by progressive coalitions will only buck corporate power if subject to continuous street heat from independent social movements. Progressive electoral coalitions, built by independent social movements in labor and later civil rights, engendered the legislative victories of the 1930s (the federal minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and labor rights) and the legislative victories of the 1960s (the civil rights acts, Medicaid and Medicare, and Food Stamps). Corporate America opposed all of these measures whole-heartedly. Too many leftists forget that “bourgeois democracy” is both too “bourgeois” (or capitalist) to be fully democratic, but also too democratic to be purely “bourgeois.” That is, the power of democratic numbers in an imperfect democratic society can and do matter. But until the left rebuilds the type of organizational capacity that can elect people to office (at first at the local level) and hold them accountable, corporate power is likely to continue to dominate both major parties.

Read Part One of this article here.


Joseph M. Schwartz is a professor of political science at Temple University and a DSA vice-chair. Schwartz’s most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality. 

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