Left-Wing Groups Are Filling the Void Left By an "Invisible" Biden Campaign in Michigan

If Joe Biden wins Michigan, he’ll have these independent, grassroots groups to thank.

Eli Day

(Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

In Michigan’s tight-knit world of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, the most inter­est­ing aspect of the pres­i­den­tial con­test isn’t the con­test at all — at least not exact­ly. It cer­tain­ly isn’t the two con­tes­tants — one alto­geth­er under­whelm­ing (Biden), the oth­er a socio­path­ic scam artist (Trump).

Instead, the most inter­est­ing sto­ry is unfold­ing across the wider land­scape of polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing. Rather than obsess­ing over the man­ners or absur­di­ties of the can­di­dates, left-wing orga­ni­za­tions are march­ing in to fill the void left, as Time reports, by an invis­i­ble” Biden cam­paign. And they have done so through high­light­ing: 1) defeat­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, and 2) cen­ter­ing the long-range aspi­ra­tions of work­ing-class peo­ple while fram­ing the elec­tion as just one weapon in a larg­er arse­nal that pro­gres­sives can use to achieve those aspirations. 

In a recent Michi­gan Get Out The Vote vir­tu­al ral­ly, Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) called for a lev­el of vot­er turnout that makes the elec­tion too big to rig,” with our uni­fied voice becom­ing a bull­horn” loud enough to prompt­ly force the cur­rent goon squad from office. Besides a call to arms, Tlaib also high­light­ed the tech­ni­cal stuff: Michigan’s relaxed vot­ing laws, includ­ing no rea­son absen­tee vot­ing, same-day reg­is­tra­tion, and Detroit’s 23 satel­lite vot­ing loca­tions, encour­ag­ing any­one eli­gi­ble to grab their pals for a day of civic duty. 

It’s not just Tlaib: An entire con­stel­la­tion of grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions are mobi­liz­ing their bases to impact the out­come in Michi­gan, where 10,704 votes swung the Mit­ten State to Trump four years ago. 

Groups like Detroit Action, Michi­gan Lib­er­a­tion, Moth­er­ing Jus­tice and the Michi­gan Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Coali­tion are run­ning var­i­ous call­ing, tex­ting and door knock­ing pro­grams, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with tens of thou­sands in the Detroit area. And We the Peo­ple Michi­gan (where I work in com­mu­ni­ca­tions) is sev­er­al months into a deep can­vass­ing” pro­gram that, as Andy Kroll writes at Rolling Stone, engages peo­ple in extend­ed, empa­thet­ic con­ver­sa­tions, with the goal of com­bat­ing prej­u­dice and shift­ing beliefs.” 

Under the larg­er We Make Michi­gan coali­tion, we’ve linked arms with 482 For­ward, Detroit Action, Michi­gan Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Coali­tion, SEIU, and Ris­ing Voic­es of Asian Amer­i­can Fam­i­lies to help build pro­gres­sive pow­er in the state. With lead­er­ship from 482 For­ward, an edu­ca­tion jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion, and Detroit Action, the coali­tion has run a series of Freakin’ Vote Fri­days”: week­ly youth-led ral­lies to encour­age young people’s abil­i­ty to impact both elec­tions and the fights that will con­tin­ue to shape deci­sion mak­ing long after those out­comes are decided. 

Con­ser­v­a­tives are usu­al­ly much bet­ter at hitch­ing schemes for long-term pow­er, but the Left is catch­ing up. Tlaib offers a prime exam­ple. She has empha­sized the need to beat Trump and make way for trans­for­ma­tive change.” Notice that she doesn’t say that beat­ing Trump will lead to trans­for­ma­tive change. Pro­gres­sives under­stand that the first does not guar­an­tee the sec­ond. It mere­ly clears an obsta­cle to it, bring­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a bet­ter world — includ­ing poli­cies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal — with­in clear­er view. 

Take the Move­ment for Black Lives and calls for the Breathe Act—a sweep­ing set of reform mea­sures to begin, in Tlaib’s words, tear­ing down those sys­tems that have been set up against our black neigh­bors.” Tlaib does not tie the suc­cess of pop­u­lar move­ments to the good graces of pow­er­ful politi­cians, but to the mus­cle that pop­u­lar move­ments can exert on them. Trans­for­ma­tive change real­ly hap­pens on the streets,” she adds. That’s how the labor rights move­ment hap­pened, the right to vote hap­pened, the Civ­il Rights Act — all hap­pened because peo­ple on the streets” forced Con­gress to act. 

Tlaib is unique­ly posi­tioned to yank vot­ing off of its pedestal, and place it among a vast set of tools avail­able to help clear the path to bet­ter days. If we’re lucky, our move­ment will pro­duce and con­tin­ue to pro­duce folks like Rashi­da Tlaib,” Michelle Mar­tinez, pres­i­dent of the Michi­gan Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Coali­tion, recent­ly told me. Mar­tinez is point­ing to the fact that Tlaib emerged from Detroit’s broad pro­gres­sive ecosys­tem. It’s a world where vot­ing is not a be-all-end-all when it comes to pol­i­tics, but one where you occa­sion­al­ly pause to cast a strate­gic vote for a slight­ly more favor­able can­di­date, and then hur­ry back to orga­niz­ing in your neigh­bor­hoods, schools and work­places to improve the world. 

Think­ing of it this way, vot­ing may be strate­gi­cal­ly nec­es­sary, but not suf­fi­cient. As the Oba­ma years demon­strat­ed, with­out extra­or­di­nary inter­ven­tions, Amer­i­ca’s vast machin­ery will car­ry out the tasks it’s been set to: bombs will rain on civil­ians, sanc­tions will dis­rupt the flow of med­ical sup­plies, cor­po­ra­tions will move freely around the globe while fam­i­lies are torn apart for dar­ing to cross imag­i­nary lines, incomes will remain flat, med­ical debt will bank­rupt mil­lions and fos­sil fuels will boil the planet. 

The hero in this sto­ry is not pow­er­ful peo­ple whose speech­es bore you to tears, or the par­ty lead­er­ship that gets teary-eyed at the board­room diver­si­ty of weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers. Deep, last­ing change has a thou­sand and more authors — the prod­uct of pop­u­lar move­ments exert­ing enor­mous pres­sure on the nation’s shot callers, while build­ing an alter­na­tive to the cor­po­rate class that dom­i­nates our politics. 

Which is why pro­gres­sive groups in Michi­gan and across the coun­try are doing the grunt work usu­al­ly anchored by cam­paigns, set­ting them­selves up with the most favor­able ter­rain pos­si­ble for the fights that must come next. Because, even if Biden wins, the Left must still orga­nize inde­pen­dent sources of polit­i­cal pow­er to haunt his dreams,” as writer Anand Girid­haradas put it in an inter­view with Noam Chomsky. 

As we learned from Obama’s 2008 orga­niz­ing jug­ger­naut, retain­ing inde­pen­dence is the only way to pre­vent being absorbed into a par­ty known for boil­ing grass­roots move­ments into mer­chan­dis­ing vehi­cles for cam­paign mugs. Lan­dis Spencer, co-chair of the Black and Brown Alliance of the Metro Detroit chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca says, if Biden pulls this off, the Left needs to be an oppo­si­tion par­ty at every lev­el” in order to push the agen­da left… That’s our homework.” 

If Michi­gan vot­ers tell Trump to bounce on Nov. 3, tak­ing ghoul­ish white nation­al­ists like Stephen Miller with him, we will, in large part, have the efforts of these inde­pen­dent left-wing groups to thank. 

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

ELI DAY was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He’s also a Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in Vox, Cur­rent Affairs, Moth­er Jones, and the New Repub­lic, among others.

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