The Socialists and Progressives Working Outside of the Biden Campaign to Oust Trump

These grassroots groups may be reaching people the Biden campaign isn’t.

Nuala Bishari

A protestor holds up a sign that reads, "November Is Coming." Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

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 Votes 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.”

Nuala Bishari is an award-win­ning free­lance reporter based in San Fran­cis­co, where she cov­ers pol­i­tics, home­less­ness and pub­lic health.
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