As the post-election legal maneuvering continues in Florida, some in the progressive movement may be thinking, “So what? Whoever ends up the victor, the people still lose. Elections are a waste of time. We should stay focused on the issues.”
This is the flip side of the point of view of other progressives who violently opposed the Nader campaign because of the votes it would draw from lesser-evil Al Gore. Yet, in many respects, there are similarities between these two positions, the electoral abstentionists and the no-matter-what Democrats. Both essentially discount the possibility of building a powerful and accountable third party. Both lack faith in the ability of masses of people and their leaders to contend successfully against the corporate elite for fundamental change, at least on the electoral playing field. And both would weaken the popular, progressive movement in its on-going struggles around issues by defanging it, removing a potentially valuable weapon with which to defend our gains and make advances.
Ultimately, what is going to change this country is not the election of someone like Ralph Nader to the Presidency but the emergence of a broadly-based, massive political movement. Such a movement, to be successful, must bring together workers, people of color, women, youth, lesbians/gays, farmers, environmentalists, immigrants and others in support of a genuinely progressive agenda and program. And this movement must become more than just a pressure group pushing from the outside. It must gain the power to implement its program.
This is where elections come in. The fact is that the United States is a country in which “democratic” elections have been the method of choosing government leaders going back to George Washington. The fact that those elections have been distorted by the influence of big money, increasingly so today, or the fact that women until the 1920s and African Americans in the South until the 1960s could not vote, does not change the fact that it has been electoral campaigns, not military coups or armed revolts, that have been the historic method of determining those people who will officially steer the ship of state. This dynamic is deeply rooted in the collective political psyche of the U.S.
Accordingly, if we on the Left wish to build a mass movement for systemic change, we cannot avoid the necessity of constructing an electoral-oriented political party that will represent and be based upon a popular alliance.
The Democratic Party is not such a vehicle, even if significant numbers of people of color, workers, women, gay/lesbian people and others vote for its candidates much more often than for Republicans. This happens because of our choice-limiting, winner-take-all reality and the Democrats’ success in derailing or coopting potentially threatening independent movements, such as what happened with the Rainbow Coalition movement of the 1980s.
As many of us experienced through the Nader/LaDuke campaign, and as others have experienced through other independent electoral efforts over the years, independent electoral campaigns can be profoundly empowering.
It was empowering to sit in a filled-to-the-cheap-seats Madison Square Garden and hear alternative, truthful political analyses of what is wrong with this country and what can be done to make it right. It was empowering to know that you were one of many tens of thousands of volunteers giving of your time for a cause you knew was right. It was empowering to see your candidate on TV going toe-to-toe with the “experts” and coming out ahead, making his points clearly and with passion. And it was even empowering to see the election results, short of the 5% objective, for sure, but almost three million in number nationwide, despite everything that was done to destroy this movement.
Think how empowering such a campaign could be if it had significant involvement and leadership from trade unionists, from Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, from the women’s movement and from the other constituencies of the popular alliance. This must be a primary objective for 2004!
And yet, the electoral abstentionists have a valid point. The danger of electoral work is that those we elect, or who become prominent because of a campaign, will become more interested in advancing their political careers than in doing the right thing by those who worked for or voted for them. This is why a new, progressive political alternative in this country, the Greens in alliance with labor, communities of color and others, must be about on-going work year-round on issues, the use of a variety of tactics, and the building of organization that brings forward new leaders and keeps existing leadership honest. Only a wholistic, deeply-rooted, independent political alternative stands a chance of getting the job done. Let’s do it!