By Ethan Young
Another presidential election cycle is underway and familiar debates are breaking out on the Left about whom to support, if anyone. These discussions are often framed by three myths about electoral politics that inhibit the development of a Left opposition to the Center/Right.
Myth #1: Elections don’t matter. (‘They are completely controlled,’ ‘Non-voters are the real vanguard,’ etc.) Elections do affect policy, which can be life or death for many. They keep the soil circulating in politics. Most importantly, they spark political thinking among working people, whose democratic action is the basis for both progressive reforms and social emancipation. Representative government under capitalism is not the democratic form we want or need, but it can be leveraged.
Myth #2: It only starts being progressive when we break completely from the Democrats. (‘The two parties are identical,’ ‘The masses are waiting for us to build a third party,’ etc.) The Democratic Party is a big mess encompassing plutocrats, technocrats, elements of various classes of professionals and working stiffs, influence peddlers, most unions and urban populations, and women concerned about their rights. These constituencies, like voters in general, have a conception of politics that has always been shaped by the two-party system. The system is deeply entrenched by historic tradition, financial limitations and legal structures. It will take a long time to break out. Ordinary voters understand this – some may like the system, some may hate it, but they get that it’s not going to be replaced anytime soon. Until that looks like it will change, in most cases they will vote with one party or the other. They know there is a difference, on any number of important issues, even if both parties fall short of democracy worthy of the name. Voters favoring justice, peace and equality tend to go with the Democrats, and fear giving an edge to Republicans. Not engaging these constituencies, in the name of independence, is nuts. Ignoring the two parties’ differences is suicidal.
Myth #3: It’s all about winning. (‘Don’t say we won’t win, it’ll jinx it,’ ‘If we lose, I’m giving up,’ ‘Wait til we win,’ etc.) Winning is nice. It’s almost always a long shot. But it doesn’t guarantee power for voters, either in general or for particular constituencies. Nor is it enough to hold occasional demonstrations to keep the winner’s “feet to the fire.” The pressure to abandon working class supporters comes from heavily organized, well-financed power blocs, created to keep property relations in check and money changing hands “by any means necessary.” Real opposition must be organized and conscious, sustained and politically savvy. And it needs to be made up of the people it seeks to represent. That opposition, whatever form it takes, needs to constantly expand its audience and base of support. It needs at least a toehold in existing power. And like it or not, access to elected officials is necessary to bring demands to fruition, and make a mass political movement feasible to the public.
That’s the real goal of electoral challenges: the prize we need to keep our eyes on.
Ethan Young writes and edits in Brooklyn. His latest tract, Populism and Left Electoral Politics, will be available soon from Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – NYC Office.