|Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images|
By Joseph M. Schwartz
The Dialectic between Social Movements and Electoral Politics
Throughout modern history, the property-less, women, people of color, and undocumented immigrants have fought and died for the right to vote. People understand that those who hold state power shape everyone’s lives through legislation and the administration of the law. Democratic social movements, however, have never solely relied upon their electoral numbers to bring about social reform; they have also protested against and disrupted the dominant rules of the game in order to redistribute power and resources. Social change has come most rapidly when people believed the state may be responsive to their needs; the militancy of the 1930s and 1960s arose when, first, trade unionists and, later, civil rights militants protested because the nominally liberal governments they helped elect were not fully responsive.
A 40-year corporate offensive against the gains of the 1960s has rolled back some of these gains, particularly in regards to reproductive justice – such as abortion access — and income support for single mothers with infants. But even this offensive needed democratic numbers; the corporate-funded, think-tank propaganda of Tea Party politicians worked to deflect the anger of white middle and working-class voters away from the oligarchs and towards people of color, feminists, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and the poor. On the other hand, the gains in human rights experienced by the LGBTQ community illustrates how social mobilization can lead to democratic change even in a conservative era. Thus, the complex interaction between social movements and electoral politics is a permanent fixture of capitalist democracies.
Why State and Local Electoral Politics Matters
The provision of public goods (from roads to schools to Medicaid, to welfare–now called TANF–and unemployment benefits) are differentially determined by 50 separate state governments and thousands of county and municipal governments. The outcome of the 2014 state and congressional elections will, in part, determine who gets or does not get food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, or increased funding for public education. Thus, non-presidential “off year” elections impact the lives of working and poor people as profoundly as do more visible presidential races. If progressives could turn out their base in off-year elections as well as they do in presidential years, local and state legislatures and Congress would be far more progressive.
The failure of the Obama administration to challenge Republican control of Congress over the past two years means it has few progressive themes to deploy to mobilize its black, Latino, and trade union base, although unyielding Republican attacks on reproductive rights may energize the Democrats’ strong base among single women. On the other hand, Democrats may have particular problems mobilizing the Latino community, as the administration recently postponed executive action to expand the rights of “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors) out of fear of alienating swing white voters.
Obama only stumbled upon an electoral theme in 2012 because Occupy’s focus on plutocracy enabled him to portray the patrician Romney as the more plutocratic candidate. This past summer, the administration briefly said it would go on the offensive to tackle inequality. Yet when corporate elites charged the administration with resorting to “class warfare,” the administration retreated to vacuous calls for “equality of opportunity.” The administration has even failed to aggressively attack Republican governors who have refused to take federal Medicaid funds to expand the number of working class families benefitting from the Affordable Care Act.
The 2014 mid-terms will be an indirect referendum on the reactionary “right to work” laws enacted in Wisconsin and Michigan and the racist and anti-democratic voter suppression laws passed in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The Republicans presently control 25 state governments from top to bottom—the governor, both chambers of the legislature, and the courts. (Democrats only so control 14 states.) DSA members in Michigan and Wisconsin are actively involved in efforts to defeat governors Rick Snyder (R-MI) and Scott Walker (R-WI) and to take at least one state legislative chamber back from the Republicans. If the Democrats can take back the New York State Senate then grassroots activists could better pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to fulfill his progressive agenda (as it depends upon state funding for his education and affordable housing initiatives).
The Republicans may have lurched too far right. For the first time since the 1930s, Kansas may elect a Democratic governor because of the unpopularity of fundamentalist Governor Sam Brownback’s huge tax cuts for the rich that have gutted funding for public education. In Maine, progressive Democrat Mike Michaud has a chance to defeat incumbent independent far-right Governor Angus King. Michaud, who served five terms in the US House, is both openly gay and a former US Steelworker activist. Republican incumbent governors Tom Corbett (PA) and Rick Scott (FL) are in trouble mostly because of their tax-giveaways and slash-and-burn budgets.
Who holds state power can either constrain or enable social movement politics. Wall-to-wall Democratic rule in California, largely brought about by a strong, predominantly Latino labor movement which then proceeded to pressure the elected officials they put in office, has brought a $15 minimum wage to Los Angeles hotel workers, the unionization of county-funded domestic care workers, and an increase in state taxes that has begun to reverse recession-induced cuts to public education and welfare benefits.
|Joseph M. Schwartz teaches political science at Temple University, is active in Philadelphia DSA and is a National Vice-Chair of DSA and a member of its National Political Committee. His most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality.|
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here