|Jorge Mujica /votemujica.org|
By Joseph M. Schwartz
The Fight for the Senate: What’s at Stake for Progressive Social Movements
In part due to a massive corporate political offensive, the center of socio-economic policy discourse has shifted to the right over the past 40 years. However, the national Democratic Party leadership’s move to the pro-corporate center masks the underlying reality that the ideological differences between the two parties are the greatest since the civil war. The extinction of pro-labor “liberal” Northeast Republicans and white “blue dog” Southern Democrats means the respective party congressional caucuses vote in a more uniform manner than in the past. Given that 92% of Republican votes come from whites, and 42% of Democratic votes come from people of color (and that Democrats outside of right-to-work states are heavily dependent upon labor movement ground troops) it is no accident that 100 percent of Democrats in the House and Senate support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 while only 2 percent (!) of Republicans do. The Democratic Senate caucus backed the Employee Free Choice Act 51-4, while not one of 45 Republican senators supported the bill.
How much can change politically if the Republicans take the Senate in November, given their impregnable House majority and a consensus-oriented President who did not move against Wall Street even during the two years when he had a Democratic Congressional majority?
The answer is that on the environment, judicial appointments and immigration reform, the loss of the Senate would have immediate negative results. The Obama administration used its executive power to enact significant environmental reforms, doubling the required fuel efficiency standards by 2020 and requiring radical improvements in coal-fired energy plant emissions. The Republicans promise that if they gain the majority in both chambers they will attach riders in budget bills to overturn these regulations. Would Obama veto the budget to save these reforms if he were to bear the blame for the resulting government shut-down?
The Obama administration has also made significant progress in replacing conservative federal judges with center-left appointments. Many vacancies remain to be filled and Republican control of the Senate could literally shut down the replacement process for the last two years of the administration. Either Obama or the next president will likely replace several aging Supreme Court justices (Justice Ginsburg is 82 and Scalia and Kennedy are approaching their 80s). A Republican Senate would mean that Democratic presidential appointments would tack towards the judicial center.
Finally, the balance of power in the Senate will influence the pace of reform in the next administration. A Democrat will win the 2016 presidential elections only if s/he does well among a large Latino turnout. Given the immigrant rights movement’s justifiable outrage at the Obama administration’s horrific record on deportations, the movement will demand from a new Democratic president the immediate passage of an expeditious path to citizenship for the undocumented after 2016. But a Republican House and Senate would frustrate this militancy.
To retake the Senate this November, the Republicans have to gain six seats. They will likely win the open seats in South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia. Thus, they need to take three more seats in the tightly contested races in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Most pundits think there is a 60 percent chance that the Republicans will take three or more of these seats. But as all these races are within the margin of error, successful grassroots campaign efforts to mobilize voters of color and the union vote could still preserve a Democratic Senate. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) has a decent chance of hanging on, in part due to the registration and mobilization efforts among voters of color by the Moral Monday movement.
Senate campaigns rely mostly on a mass media offensive, one which leads most Democratic candidates to tack to the center to garner contributions from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But in tight races, a good ground war can be worth 2-3 percent of the vote. The labor movement often plays a key role in such ground campaigns. When the Democrats run up a 20 percent margin among non-college educated voters of all races they tend to control Congress; when the margin is only 10 percent or less (i.e., when the Democrats don’t do well among working class whites) they tend to lose control of Congress.
Thus, progressives may wish to link up with Working America and Jobs with Justice efforts to canvass voters in predominantly white working-class neighborhoods. Doing anti-racist organizing in white communities is one key task for the left; anyone who has done electoral work in such neighborhoods can attest that the politics of race often comes up for discussion. But unless there is a rebirth of a social unionism that educates and activates a broader range of their base, the benefits of Democratic rule for labor will be mostly defensive rather than offensive.
DSA Locals and Electoral Work: Choosing Campaigns that can Build A Local’s Capacity
A strong DSA local with skilled activists can do effective electoral work. Locals (and campus chapters) must choose a campaign where they can do collective work as DSA and be recognized for it. The local must also have a strategy for recruiting DSA activists out of the campaign. Locals should prioritize working in campaigns where the candidate and staff are comfortable with folks wearing DSA buttons in the campaign office and talking to interested volunteers about DSA. Otherwise, electoral work can be a big “roach motel”: DSA activists check into that work, but often do not check back into the local.
Moreover, the dialectic between competing for state office and building social movement power is a constant. Thus, working against voter exclusion laws, to get money out of politics, and to educate swing voters as to why the Republican Party’s racist, pseudo-populist message is a swindle should be part of any DSA local’s activist toolkit. By gaining credibility among grassroots progressive electoral activists (who often are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, feminist, environmental, and/or trade union activists) a DSA local can enhance its capacity to do both independent social movement and electoral work. The opportunities for explicit socialist campaigns in both local non-partisan races and Democratic primaries are increasing, as evidenced by DSAers working in Kshama Sawant’s successful campaign for the Seattle City Council and in Jorge Mujica’s current run as an open socialist for the Chicago City Council. But to take advantage of these opportunities, DSA locals need to gain electoral skills, as well as credibility among left community and electoral activists. This is particularly the case if Senator Bernie Sanders runs for president and a DSA local wants to play a major role in his local campaign. To paraphrase veteran activist Carl Davidson, the task of socialists is to “walk on two legs” by building a militant socialist minority within a larger progressive majority. That’s true for what needs to be done in the last few weeks of the 2014 mid-term elections and beyond.
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.
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