When Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic primary earlier this year, it was a blow to the independent progressive and left forces, which had been working hard in support of more progressive candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. People grieved, then rallied. The most important thing now, many have reasoned, is to oust President Donald Trump from office, even if it means backing a candidate who does not share the same core values you do.
Now, in the final weeks before the election, progressive and left organizations are working hard to get out the vote for a candidate many of them don’t feel enthusiastic about. In the process, they’re aiming to build a stronger, independent left.
LeftRoots dives into the campaign
LeftRoots, a socialist organization, doesn’t normally get involved in campaigns. The organization educates and trains community organizers (mostly people of color and women) across the country in political education and strategy development, with the goal of establishing 21st century socialism in the United States.
This year is different. In the wake of a catastrophic Trump presidency, LeftRoots took a step back to review the whole picture. Several times a week the organization mobilizes its members and networks to canvass, phone bank and text bank for Biden through Seed the Vote, a volunteer-based coalition working with already-existing groups providing grassroots efforts to get out the vote.
“In this moment, defeating not just Trump, but also the forces that he represents, is our number one task,” says Milena Velis, LeftRoots’ training director. “That’s because of the real danger this white supremacist authoritarian minority that’s vying to take control of the country right now poses for our communities and for our organizing going forward.”
Campaigning for Biden has not been an easy decision. The establishment Democrat, who voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and rejects key left demands like Medicare for All, doesn’t reflect the socialist values that LeftRoots holds. “Biden is not a left-wing candidate,” Velis explains. “It requires us to both be honest and to not lose sight of our vision. We have to be talking about much bigger change than Biden’s platform policy.”
In its recently released situational objective document, LeftRoots says that left forces working to oust Trump should not “hide our politics,” nor become subsumed within the Democratic Party. Rather, the group says it “sees the defeat of Trump not as an ending, but as the launching point for new struggle.” The organization argues that “whenever possible we should be open socialists against Trump, voting for Biden, defending democracy.”
So far, the call to action appears to be working. The enthusiasm from the LeftRoots community around getting out the vote has been strong, despite the many other issues staff and volunteers juggle. “Many folks who are on the frontlines of community organizations, who are really engaged in fights against evictions, or trying to fight for labor protections for workers, at the end of the long day are getting on the phones for two hours to call someone in a swing state,” Velis says. “We have parents who are home with their kids, squeezing in a few hours to text folks on a weekend. This is really the time to throw down.”
Seed the Vote focuses on swing states
LeftRoots is just one of many groups working to support Seed the Vote’s campaign effort in swing states, particularly Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.
This year’s mission is to fill the gap in the Biden campaign’s outreach, which appears to be neglecting to reach some marginalized communities with a powerful voting pool. In activating those people who have traditionally been left out, Seed the Vote hopes to nurture and build onto its existing base of voters and volunteers, creating a movement independent of the Democratic Party that can be activated for change.
“We don’t know what the next weeks of the campaign will bring, but one thing is clear,” wrote Emily Lee of Seed the Vote and Peter Hogness of Water For Grassroots in New York in a recent Guardian op-ed. “Defeating Donald Trump is too important to leave up to the Biden campaign.”
The solution, they argue, lies in supporting established grassroots organizers who already have connections to communities that are at risk of voter suppression, or who aren’t yet registered to vote.
“In conversations with disenchanted voters, a group doing long-term organizing can have more credibility than a candidate’s campaign,” state Lee and Hogness. “They’re working in the community 12 months a year, not just appearing at election time, extracting a vote, and then vanishing.”
These on-the-ground organizations, however, don’t always have the staff or volunteer base available to run operations for a major campaign, particularly in dense urban areas. Seed the Vote draws from a national pool of volunteers, trains them on the needs of each geographic area, and deploys them to canvass or phone bank for small organizations. Often, community-based nonprofits or neighborhood groups are a way to start a conversation with potential voters who the Biden campaign may overlook, or not be culturally adept to talk to. For example, the Biden campaign didn’t ramp up efforts to target Puerto Rican voters in Florida until mid-September. Seed the Vote has been making Spanish-language calls in Florida since at least August.
In Florida, which Trump won by 112,911 votes in 2016, Seed the Vote partners with the New Florida Majority, which fights for inclusion of marginalized communities in the electoral process, and Mijente, which advocates for Latinx rights.
Florida is a vital state to watch in the upcoming election. As the third most populous state in the country, it has 29 seats in the electoral college, and has historically gone Republican.
It’s not impossible to flip. The population of people of color in Florida has grown 25% since 2010. Florida now has the third largest Latinx electorate in the country, with 3.1 million eligible to vote. But race does not always connote a political stance. As Seed the Vote states on its website, “we can expect that Trump’s campaign will aggressively pursue Latinx people and other key groups in Florida through anti-abortion and anti-socialist fearmongering.”
In Pennsylvania, Seed the Vote volunteers provide support for Pennsylvania Stands Up, an umbrella advocacy organization with nine networks statewide that supports candidates who fight for racial and social justice while battling voter suppression and working to get people to the polls.
In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,292 votes. This year, those on the ground believe the state can be flipped, but it won’t happen without a ton of work.
Michaela Purdue Lovegood, the deputy executive director at Pennsylvania Stands Up, says that voter suppression is a major concern for the upcoming election.
“When I think about the work of voter suppression, there’s a lot of work that we need to do around laws, and around really figuring out how do we change laws, how do we ensure that people show up at the voting polls, how do we ensure that people get our mail-in ballots,” she says. “All of those things we have to do, but we dually have to do the work to deal with the decolonization that exists in our minds about what our vote is, and what it can do.”
Every Thursday Seed the Vote volunteers team up with Pennsylvania Stands Up to help state residents make sure they are registered to vote, and to ensure they understand the process.
The work doesn’t stop there. Even during the pandemic, there is a call for volunteers to travel to high-density areas like Philadelphia to canvass for Biden. “Simply put, research shows us that there is no more effective way to persuade someone to vote than through a face-to-face conversation,” reads an information guide for Seed the Vote volunteers. “That is why it is critically important that you and your friends travel to Philadelphia to bring locals to these polling centers.” (The Biden campaign initially declined to do door-to-door canvassing, but recently reversed its position.)
Last but not least is Arizona, which Trump won by 91,234 votes in 2016. In this state, Seed the Vote partners with Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), which advocates for the rights of the state’s large Latinx population, and has been wildly successful.
In a 2019 New York Times op-ed, LUCHA founders Alejandra Gomez and Tomás Robles Jr. state that Democrats “have long treated communities of color as instruments of someone else’s power rather than core progressives who should be instruments of their own power.” This is despite the fact that there are 1.2 million eligible Latino voters in Arizona, making them a highly impactful voter base.
In the years since its creation, LUCHA has launched a highly successful reclamation of that power. In the 2020 August primaries, 14 of the 15 legislative and county candidates LUCHA supported were victorious. In the primaries, LUCHA endorsed Sanders. The organization hasn’t openly endorsed Biden, but its work hasn’t stopped, and the mission is clear: kick Trump out of office.
For organizers who campaigned hard for Senators Sanders or Warren only to see them lose, it’s important to keep their eyes on the horizon. Change happens in increments, and this is just one step toward a more progressive nation.
“Biden is not our savior,” write Lee and Hogness. “In fact, if he wins, on many issues he may be our opponent. But defeating Trump will open possibilities for organizing that won’t exist if he remains in office.”
Launch of The Frontline
While existing organizations continue their legacy of voter education and empowerment, new collaborations are being born.
“Every four years there’s a chorus of voices that says ‘this is the most important election of our lifetime,’” states Maurice Mitchell the national director for the Working Families Party. “This year I am one of those voices. Things are bad now, and they can get worse. But that doesn’t have to be where our story ends. In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, there is much we can be hopeful and driven by.”
The Working Families Party — which identifies itself as a “progressive grassroots political party” with chapters in 15 states nationwide — is now part of a new movement christened The Frontline. Launched in September, The Frontline is a collaboration between several groups, including immigrant rights group United We Dream Action and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project. It’s a collaboration that centers the myriad experiences of people of color, uniting them toward one clear cause.
The movement’s goals are short and succinct: Mission one is to defeat Trump in a landslide, to make it harder for him to refuse to step down between the election and inauguration. Step two is to push candidates Biden and Kamala Harris’ policies further left.
“We must seize the opportunity in the first hundred days to lift up the demands our movements have been fighting for decades,” Frontline volunteer Cindy Wiesner recently told Organizing Upgrade. “We have an opportunity to make the BREATHE Act real. We have the capacity to pass a Green New Deal, to continue to push for a real People’s Bailout, not a corporate bailout.”
The energy, organizers believe, is already there. The Black-led uprisings around the country in response to police violence has activated a community that is desperate for change. Black and Brown communities, meanwhile, are the ones Trump is working hardest to discredit and exclude through voter suppression and criminalization.
“Our lives and the lives of the people that we love depend on us fighting with everything we’ve got to overthrow the Trumpism, the white supremacy, the white nationalism — all the harm that is being done by this administration to our communities,” says Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project. “We are committed, not to fighting for a savior on Pennsylvania Avenue, but to fighting for our next target. And we will come as hard at the new administration that we hope will follow the Trump administration as we are at Trump right now.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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