By C.M. Lewis
Democratic Socialists of America has expended extraordinary energy debating a proper approach to electoral politics. With some exceptions, the primary positions fall into two categories: Seth Ackerman’s plan for the ballot line, and building a mass, independent working class party (in full disclosure, I favor Ackerman’s approach with some small reservations).
But we’ve missed a crucial question intimately connected to the value and role of electoral work: what do we do when we win?
If we fail to confront the politics of governing from the Left we risk replicating business as usual. Answering this question means assessing the wide array of things elected officials do. How do they conduct constituent services? Who do they caucus with? How do they relate to their (ostensible) political party, if they ran on a party ballot line? How do they negotiate party pressure once in office? We need to answer what substantively differentiates a socialist from any other left/progressive once in office.
There’s a temptation to view the primary benefit of elected socialists as access in the upper echelons of currently-existing power, or to think that elected socialists can or should be under our “discipline.” Both are wrong and dangerous. Defining our political mission as simply co-opting the existing machinery with elected officials under our “discipline” does nothing to change a political state that is (as currently constituted) intrinsically hostile to the working class and intrinsically undemocratic except in the narrowest sense; moreover it subverts democracy by expecting that elected representatives are answerable to one organization rather than the working class. When we talk about accountability, we shouldn’t talk about it in terms of our discipline: we should talk about real accountability to the people. Doing otherwise is simply business as usual replacing one group of political elites for another.
Something as simple as constituent services offers a different way to do business. I worked for a year as an unpaid intern in a California State Senator’s district office when I was in high school. A lot of what I did was routine: creating rough drafts of correspondence, answering emails, taking calls, and directing those calls to the right field representative. The core of my job was the front line of constituent services, and we acted much like a service-driven union: as fixers for constituents with a problem.
Even in instances when representatives take a more deliberate approach to outreach (perhaps at the suggestion of coffee lobbyists), the model is still fundamentally one that disempowers the constituency. At worst, it’s empty glad-handing: a transactional way to buy votes by making an appearance in the District and lending a sympathetic ear. At best, constituent stories that are of interest will be used in stump speech or when introducing legislation; on occasion, a constituent may be invited to be part of the legislative process or be present at a bill-signing. The agent of change is still the representative moving the levers of power on behalf of individual or small groups of constituents.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Like union work, approaching constituent problems (when possible) through organizing rather than servicing—in other words, bringing people into the process and work of collectively building solutions—changes the dynamic. Rather than isolating constituents as individuals or small groups with a problem requiring “fixing” through the traditional channels, casting issues as community problems with community solutions—and potential campaigns in the making—changes how constituents relate to politics. District offices cease to be service-driven “fixers” and start to act as base-building organizing centers running permanent campaigns.
How does this become part of the culture? Long-term community and constituency-level councils, town halls, coffee hours, and other forms of deliberate outreach need to be the norm. Canvassing in between elections needs to be the norm. Meeting with block clubs and dropping by social clubs, community centers, VFW halls, and even the neighborhood bar needs to be the norm. To build a real base and center politics on the people rather than their representative, elected representatives need to intentionally be part of their communities and intentionally involve their communities in solutions.
When only a few constituents know who represents them, that’s a problem—and not just electorally. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s dramatically successful campaign for Chicago Alderman powerfully demonstrates how out-of-touch establishment politicians are with their constituents. When asked about his race, Ramirez-Rosa noted that “It was incumbent upon [Rey Colon] to go out there and knock doors and make his presence known and introduce himself as the new alderman . . . I started knocking doors in August and I can tell you that he had not done that work[.]” Elected socialists should never have to worry about whether their constituents know their names and faces.
A lot of this is just good politics. But if done right, it can be more than that. The goal isn’t to build a new machine to fuel re-election, it’s not to simply build the left wing of a given legislative body, and it’s not to get elected representatives that “owe” DSA in a transactional sense. It’s to build a politically educated community that sees themselves as in charge of their political representation and that feels empowered to demand more than the scraps of capital. It’s using the office to support and build a political movement instead of simply shoving the requisite number of voters to the polls come election day.
The bottom line is simple. Elected socialists aren’t leaders in the traditional sense: they’re servants accountable to the people, and that accountability is negotiated each and every day. Socialism isn’t in the business of elevating leaders abstracted from their base, and we’re not in the business of deputizing tribunes. Socialism is for society and done in society, and how we approach everything we do—including electoral politics—must reflect our core value: putting the people in charge.
C.M. Lewis is a rank-and-file member of Centre County DSA.
Photograph: Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services Creator: Mayor’s Office – City Photographer Date: circa 1984-1987 Source: Mayor Raymond L. Flynn records, Collection #0246.001 File name: RF_0573 Rights: Copyright City of Boston Citation: Mayor Raymond L. Flynn records, Collection #0246.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston. Via Wikimedia Commons.