Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mae Ngai

Challenges for the Left in Electoral Politics: Looking to the 1990s


First Published: Forward, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Publisher’s Note: Mae Ngai is a New York regional correspondent for Unity newspaper, is on the Political Action Staff at UAW Dist. 65, and was active in Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

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THE 1980S WERE A PERIOD OF growth and expansion for progressive politics. Despite the right-wing climate of the Reagan years, the development of the African American and Latino empowerment movements resulted in major gains: the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983, the election of Henry Cisneros as mayor of San Antonio and the election of Federico Pena as mayor of Denver. And most prominent of all were the successes of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, which built a multinational coalition and have laid the foundation for a new progressive electoral majority.

Especially during the past year, thousands of activists and leftists entered the electoral arena, many for the first time.

The seven million votes won by Jesse Jackson reflect the many sectors of society drawn into a new electoral motion by the powerful message of the Jackson campaign and, at the grass roots, the translation of this message into painstaking voter registration and precinct efforts in cities across the country. In the aftermath of the 1988 elections, we need to assess the potential and define an electoral strategy that will continue to build the broad coalition against the right, empower the masses at the grass roots, and build the people’s movements in a way which furthers the struggle for socialism.

Looking Forward to the 1990s

Looking at the gains of the ’80s, we can expect increasing potential for change in the electoral arena in the 1990s. Although George Bush won the November election, the victory was deceptive, because a margin of only 535,000 votes would have put Michael Dukakis in the White House. We should also remember the impressive gains of the Jackson campaign in bringing 1,100 delegates to the Democratic National Convention (900 of them African American) and winning 35 out of 38 of its progressive platform planks.

During the next decade, we can expect economic and social conditions to propel the masses toward more political action. As important sectors of the economy have declined, it has exacted a terrible toll on working people and is threatening the virtual destruction of African American and minority communities. The deluge of mergers and takeovers, combined with loss of manufacturing jobs, has brought deep economic problems which will last through the new decade. Most economists are forecasting a major recession as well.

The driving out of small farmers and the continually larger gap between the rich and the poor is giving rise to deep dissatisfaction, which is translating into more struggle in the electoral arena, as one front of the mass movement.

The trade unions, long battered and attacked during the Reagan administration, can also be expected to launch increasing protest. As the rank and file grows more militant, a growing number of the trade union leadership will respond. In the past several years, a progressive voice has emerged from the public sector unions, as well as unions with a substantial number of African American and Latino workers.

The growth of the African American and Chicano/Latino political empowerment movements in the 1990s will also propel progressive politics forward. Hard-fought electoral battles of the ’80s will continue in the decade to come. As a result of lawsuits over voting rights, district elections will replace at-large elections in many states. In 1989, six to eight African American judges could be elected in Mississippi as the result of newly created districts. In California, Chicano representation on city councils, school boards and county government will increase dramatically as district elections take place throughout the Central Valley.

After the 1990 census, new congressional and legislative districts will be formed. The main gains will be in the South and Southwest, with new congressional seats in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and California opening the possibilities for more African Americans and Chicanos to serve in Congress.

The 1990s will offer the left new opportunities to participate in, and be an integral part of, the movement for electoral empowerment.

The Struggle for Democracy

In order for leftists and socialists to participate constructively in electoral politics, we must understand that the essence of the struggle for electoral empowerment is democracy.

As socialists, we do electoral work because we recognize it is integral to the expansion of democracy for the people and in building a mass base for the left. The winning of electoral reforms, such as changing unfair electoral laws and putting progressives into office, is important in improving the lives of working people and improving their conditions to organize and fight.

Because the U.S. has a long tradition of electoral politics, we can expect that the exercise of democracy through the ballot box will play a big role in shaping U.S. politics over a long period of time. Any revolution in the U.S. will include elections and other expressions of the public will.

Because of the actual limitations of democracy under capitalism – for example, the fact that even today in the South and Southwest, African Americans and Chicanos are terrorized by armed white vigilantes at some polling sites – the fight for greater democracy will fuel the fight for more fundamental social change and help strengthen the fight for socialism.

We need only look at the Jesse Jackson campaign to understand the powerful democratic sentiments of the people. To millions of people, the Jackson campaign represented the voice of the African American people opening the door and putting the democratic demands of all oppressed people and the working class on the agenda of the day. The Jackson campaign championed the interests of African Americans and the oppressed, and galvanized broad sectors in the fight against the right.

The campaign showed that this country is more open to left/progressive alternatives than appeared on the surface of the Bush victory. While Jackson himself is not anti-capitalist or a socialist, his campaign advanced the growth of progressive and left politics, as record numbers of new people became politically active, joined the Rainbow Coalition, built grass-roots and electoral organizations, and examined socialist alternatives for the first time.

The lesson of the Jackson campaign is that the left must be in touch with and lead the powerful sentiment among the people for the expansion of democracy. The power of the Jackson message was its appeal to the basic democratic needs of the people – for a quality education, for basic health care, for the right to a job, for freedom from the scourge of drugs. The left cannot sit on the side, apart from these democratic struggles, and hope to win the people to socialism.

In fact, the desire for democracy is integrally connected to the fight for socialism, because socialism will only be a real alternative if it concretely improves people’s lives.

New Electoral Majority

The Jackson campaign also pointed the way towards a progressive electoral strategy, which the left needs to develop as part of its immediate political program. Concretely, this means developing strategies to expand and shift the electorate, and breaking the so-called conservative electoral "lock" in the South and Southwest, which has upheld the right-wing edge in the last four presidential elections.

People of color now approach 30% of the U.S. population. The changing demographics in the U.S. will make oppressed nationalities the majority in California and Texas by the turn of the century, and they will comprise a steadily increasing proportion of the population as a whole. With increased voter registration and participation, Black, Latino, Asian, poor white and other historically disenfranchised voters can constitute a new, progressive electoral majority.

This new electoral majority, with its base in the South and Southwest and key Northern industrial areas, can make the critical difference in future elections. It provides the electoral basis for reversing the right-wing direction of American politics. Electoral work is thus an important aspect of our work to build the mass movement against the right, and for democracy and social progress.

The Focus of Our Work

Within the left, there are many approaches to electoral politics, ranging from the liberals and some social democrats who work in the Democratic Party exclusively to others who advocate third parties now. Some activists call for a boycott of the electoral arena and think electoral politics is diversionary.

In my view, a correct approach calls for building up working class and grassroots forces by linking electoral work with issues affecting the day-to-day lives of the people, while nurturing broad alliances in the electoral arena to advance progressive causes, including supporting the Democratic Party and independent candidates.

Our electoral strategy must proceed on two fronts. The left must be in the forefront of helping to forge a broad united front against the right, and at the same time aim our organizing efforts towards increasing the strength of the working class within the electoral arena.

The two tasks go hand in hand. But because of the relative weakness of the left, we must put our relative emphasis on building up the strength of the working class.

Jesse Jackson and the Democratic Party

A pivotal question in determining our strategy is how we should view Jesse Jackson, the Rainbow Coalition and the Democratic Party.

Quite simply, the left should recognize Jackson’s role as an historical figure who has led in opening up the attack against the right, and in uniting almost all class forces in the Black liberation Movement around a common motion for democracy and political power. We need to wholeheartedly support Jackson, with the goal of electing him president, and to build the Rainbow Coalition as a broad-based coalition reflective of the seven million Jackson voters at its base.

This also means, at this point, uniting with Jackson’s program to open up and expand the Democratic Party. Whether we like it or not, the electoral arena today is dominated by the two-party system. The left must participate in the existing system, while building toward viable alternative forms. This could include the formation of a third electoral party, but this will not happen until or unless significant sectors of people are willing to break with the Democratic Party.

While both the Republican and Democratic parties represent the interests of the capitalist class, the traditional base of the Democratic Party has been among African Americans, Latinos, labor, the elderly, among others. There is a tremendous amount of flux and struggle going on within the ranks of the Democratic Party over its future direction, and Jackson may be able to lead a motion which may eventually form an anti-right or even separate Democratic Party. This will undoubtedly be a long and difficult struggle.

The left must also recognize that Jackson is a representative of the African American capitalists and middle class, which today lead the African American Movement. Jesse Jackson is not a socialist, nor is the Rainbow Coalition a vehicle for revolution. We should support Jackson, build the Rainbow Coalition and join in efforts to expand the Democratic Party; but we also need to develop our own independent vehicles to organize and strengthen the working class component of the united front, from progressive mass formations to socialist organization. In the long run, it will be the strengthening of the working class and progressive movements at the grass roots that will be instrumental in producing an electoral victory for Jackson in the decade to come, and progress towards socialism.

Tasks in Electoral Work

At a time when the left is just coming into its own in the electoral arena, we need to have a clear focus to our work. Aside from our continuing support of Jesse Jackson, the left needs to focus on several tasks in the upcoming period of time.

First, we need to participate in the fight to remove barriers to the participation of the working class in the electoral arena. This includes involving ourselves in national, statewide and local efforts to reform voter registration laws, campaign funding laws and all other legal barriers to democratic participation in the electoral process.

We need to remember that only 49% of the eligible voting-age population voted last fall. The bulk of non-voters were not registered, because the U.S. has one of the most backward voter registration programs of all the Western democracies. The voter bears the burden of registration, unlike European nations, where registration is a function of the government and is done automatically as the person reaches legal voting age.

We need to pay attention to the 1991 redistricting, and fight for district elections and fight to accord voting rights to immigrants as well.

Mass Issues

Secondly, we must do electoral work in an ongoing way which is tied to mass issues, especially as a component of work in the African American and other oppressed nationality communities. Sentiments for minority representation have aroused revolutionary consciousness in the African American and Chicano communities. Community and labor organizing must have an electoral aspect – for example, community campaigns on educational rights, including lobbying legislative bodies and supporting candidates for school board.

This is particularly important because many people do not vote, due to deep alienation with the political process. It is no accident that low turnout often occurs in communities with the most oppressive conditions, and which have histories of militant struggles on other fronts. The fact is that many people do not vote because they believe that politicians have nothing to offer in terms of solving the immediate concerns of drugs, crime, unemployment and social decay.

The left needs to address this alienation and organize the people by bringing the fight for these issues into the arena of political empowerment for the locked out. Herein lies the potential for the left to grow and become a significant force in U.S. politics.

Lastly, the left should support and run grass-roots candidates for office. These candidates should be leaders of struggles involving masses of working people. They can run either as Democrats or independents, depending on the circumstances, but the content and stance of their program and campaign should be independent. Some examples would be fielding candidates who are leading strikes, organizing tenants’ struggles or leading struggles for better education in the public schools.

The left can give working people an option and voice by running mass-based campaigns and showing that there is no contradiction between being a leftist, a mass leader and holding office in an effective and responsible fashion. These candidates can also win support among broad forces by demonstrating both their mass base and personal credibility in the course of struggle.

As with our other work for economic and democratic reforms, the left’s electoral work should be combined with education on the nature of capitalism, and on socialism as the only social system where there is economic justice and thorough-going democracy for the people. If properly conducted, electoral work can be an important aspect of socialist work to build the people’s struggle against the injustices of capitalism and for greater democracy, and building the working class’ political independence.