The Season of Electoral Angst

In election 2012, what does ‘winning’ mean for the Left?

Bhaskar Sunkara

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaks in March at the Left Forum in New York. (Photo via

Every four years, the elec­tion sea­son finds many on the Left ago­niz­ing over whether to make a prag­mat­ic choice and vote for the bet­ter of the two major can­di­dates or to vote for the per­son that most close­ly match­es their polit­i­cal prin­ci­ples — regard­less of that cam­paign’s relevancy.

This year, as a result of Occu­py’s anti-elec­toral pol­i­tics, the land­scape looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. In These Times con­vened three pro­gres­sive voic­es to debate how the Left should be orga­niz­ing this elec­tion cycle: New York-based labor writer Mike Hirsch, activist Bill Fletch­er Jr. and Green Par­ty pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jill Stein. Their answers were stark­ly dif­fer­ent, but on one point they were in agree­ment: Beyond elec­tion cycle tac­tics, pro­gres­sives need a broad­er, long-term polit­i­cal strategy.

There’s been con­cern about co-opta­tion of Occu­py by the Oba­ma cam­paign. What impact do you think the elec­tion sea­son will have on emerg­ing social movements?

Bill: This has always been a red her­ring — I don’t think that there’s ever been a dan­ger of co-option. I think that it’s used as a way of advanc­ing an anti-elec­toral line and putting peo­ple in a box by counter-pos­ing elec­toral pol­i­tics to mass action.

Mike: The prob­lem with Occu­py is its core pol­i­tics — it believes that demands on the state val­i­date the state. On one lev­el, that’s nuts to me. But on anoth­er lev­el, it allows them to have the kind of plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance that a more polit­i­cal move­ment would­n’t have. This isn’t a move­ment that’s elec­toral; it does­n’t think in terms of what pol­i­cy-wise the state can or can’t be made to do. I think, if only for that rea­son alone, there’s no way the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could co-opt” them.

What pre­vents the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty from being an anti-cor­po­rate force? Is it the weak­ness of social move­ments in this coun­try, or some­thing more structural?

Bill: The Democ­rats and the Repub­li­cans are fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­po­rate par­ties — every­one knows that. The Repub­li­cans have now become much more con­sol­i­dat­ed as a hard-right coali­tion, where­as Democ­rats are not as con­sol­i­dat­ed at the broad lev­el but have embraced neolib­er­al­ism at the top. Part of the prob­lem is that with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty con­stituen­cy, there is a very poor­ly orga­nized pro­gres­sive bloc. I’m not just talk­ing about the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus. The broad pro­gres­sive forces that will tend to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic do not have a very clear vision, orga­ni­za­tion and strategy.

So we’ve repeat­ed­ly been in a trap of every four years, peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als — some­times as orga­ni­za­tions — tart an elec­toral cam­paign, get peo­ple engaged in it, and at the end of the cam­paign, noth­ing changes. With­out any dis­cus­sion about strat­e­gy, where are we going in the next five to 10 years?

Would we have seen Occu­py under a Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tion? Does a Demo­c­rat ver­sus a Repub­li­can in pow­er make a dif­fer­ence for movements?

Jill: Because Barack Oba­ma has adopt­ed so many of the posi­tions of George W. Bush and in fact gone beyond him, it’s hard to dis­cern the impact of one par­ty over the oth­er. Young peo­ple, who are always the engine of real change and the engine of social move­ments, have real­ly been left behind by all par­ties in the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment. They have a very bleak future right now and they are hun­gry for a vehi­cle that is real­ly prin­ci­pled and has a broad and com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy, vision, agen­da and game plan.

Bill: I’ve been hear­ing that for years. In 1968, I heard that. What we should be doing is pol­i­tics — pol­i­tics with a small P. How do we build pow­er for the mass­es of peo­ple who are oppressed?

That answer neces­si­tates strat­e­gy. It’s not just a reflec­tion of peo­ple’s out­rage and dis­gust with the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment. It involves an analy­sis of the way the elec­toral sys­tem works. And what that means in terms of how we orga­nize. That is why you can­not answer in the abstract as to whether we’re bet­ter off under Repub­li­cans or Democrats.

That brings to mind Michael Har­ring­ton’s vul­ture the­o­ry of social­ism.” He did­n’t buy the idea that the worse it gets, the bet­ter for the Left.

Bill: In 1932 after Hitler took pow­er, there was an expec­ta­tion that Hitler was going to so com­plete­ly dis­cred­it him­self that the mass­es would rebel against Nazism and turn to Com­mu­nism. Things did­n’t quite work out that way. And I think there’s an ele­ment among pro­gres­sives that believe that the worse things get, the bet­ter our posi­tion is.

How would the Green­Par­ty — if it achieved a lev­el of nation­al suc­cess — tide off the same influ­ences that impact the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party?

Jill: The Greens don’t accept cor­po­rate con­tri­bu­tions to cam­paigns. We do not accept mon­ey from lob­by­ists. What we’ve seen from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is pret­ty con­sis­tent fold­ing to the mon­ey that spon­sors them. The Greens are insu­lat­ed from those pres­sures because we don’t accept the mon­ey and we have noth­ing but the pow­er of a peo­ple’s move­ment and of vol­un­teers and of peo­ple who are impas­sioned by the issues.

Mike: But it hap­pened in Ger­many with their Green Par­ty. It’s not suf­fi­cient to say we won’t take the mon­ey, because at a cer­tain point, you will need the mon­ey. And then the ques­tion will be: Do you have anoth­er basis for support?

So how does the Green Par­ty plan to bring labor, peo­ple of col­or and oth­er key con­stituen­cies of the Left to the Green Party?

Jill: For the moment, we’re full speed ahead, ensur­ing we’re on the bal­lot in some­where between 42 and 48 states, and also we’re engaged in the pri­ma­ry cam­paign. So our focus right now of neces­si­ty is sort of on our own infra­struc­ture, to make sure we’re a vis­i­ble part of the dis­cus­sion. Truth be told, that is the whole rea­son for run­ning this nation­al race.

What’s ulti­mate­ly at stake in this elec­tion, both in terms of its impact on pol­i­cy out­comes and on social movements?

Mike: The way Oba­ma has run his admin­is­tra­tion has been dead­ly to our class — dead­ly — and the Left­’s got to say that. Will we be in any bet­ter posi­tion in 2012 after the elec­tion than in 2008? The ques­tion isn’t just how we vote; it’s how we organize.

Bill: In this elec­tion peo­ple can not sit back and say,” a plague on both your hous­es.” There’s a lot at stake in terms of what a Repub­li­can vic­to­ry will sym­bol­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent. I want to know how peo­ple will respond to the racial­iza­tion of this pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. At the same time, the main way that pro­gres­sives can offer a chal­lenge to Oba­ma is whether we’re able to run peo­ple at the state and con­gres­sion­al lev­el who real­ly are progressives.

But we’re also ignor­ing var­i­ous reforms that were insti­tut­ed under Oba­ma. Who’s going to make the appoint­ments on the Supreme Court? The thing here that we know is these guys are lead­ers of an empire, we’re not pick­ing some­one who real­ly is out of our move­ment, not even some­one like Bernie Sanders. But to me, the ques­tion is: In which sit­u­a­tion do we have some maneu­ver­ing pow­er. In that sense, it’s not like I’m boost­ing Oba­ma. I’m not sug­gest­ing this guy is the great­est thing since sliced bread. His record on civ­il lib­er­ties, on Afghanistan isn’t good. But this race is what I call the choice between Emper­or Augus­tus and Emper­or Caligula.

Mike: Will we be in any bet­ter posi­tion in 2012 after the elec­tion to do that than in 2008? My argu­ment in 2008 was that under Oba­ma, the move­ments would grow. That did­n’t happen.

Bill: It did­n’t hap­pen because of us!

Mike: Oh, I know that. Absolute­ly. We weren’t strong enough.

Bill: Not just not strong enough, but we also shied away from real dis­cus­sions about elec­toral strate­gies and their impli­ca­tions. Up until recent­ly peo­ple were tak­ing a pass.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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