Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jonathan H.

Electoral Politics and the Left Today: Fighting the Defensive Battle


First Published: Forward Motion, March 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In the 1980 presidential election, stopping the Right appeared to many activists to be the most pressing task: a new Right-wing was on the move. Yet Left and progressive forces could not actually stop the Right through that election. To have thought otherwise was subjectivism. Because the situation of the Left and the Right in this country are not comparable today, we cannot expect to enter, let alone win every political battle that we might wish. This paper sets out some preliminary thoughts about electoral tactics in the Left’s present circumstances.

Right-wing forces in the United States are stronger now than they have been in a generation. The possibility of a new and stable conservative governing coalition is one of the most serious prospects the U.S. people today confront. Yet the conservative momentum does not arise from a single coherent movement; nor does Reagan’s election owe to a singular New Right source. The furious reaction last summer in some quarters to Reagan’s Sandra Day O’Connor appointment to the Supreme Court brought into sharper relief differences over agenda if not program within and around the new administration. By early fall, over-drawn media images of the New Right social crusade gave way to more reasonable reports of its difficulties as well as its strengths. Barry Goldwater vowed publicly to fight the New Right; numerous articles revised downward audience estimates for the right-wing television evangelicals; the New York Times reported “Anti-abortion Forces in Disarray” (September 22) and that “Conservatives Demand Stress on ’Moral Issues’ Instead of Economic Program” (September 6); and the more conservative Wall Street Journal portrayed “The New Right Campaigning] for Its Social Issues” against the administration more than with it (September 11).

The Left has often not adequately distinguished the New Right which has attracted so much media attention from the corporate offensive of the last decade. Since the Right’s Goldwater dog-days, a new and genuine reactionary mass movement has grown up, trying to reopen the books on a series of popular presumptions about social equality and democratic rights. This independent right-wing has been growing at the same time that real wages declined, employment insecurity increased, social inequality grew, unemployment, welfare and other social programs thinned out, and mass transit, schools, and other urban municipal services steadily decayed. Busing, abortion and other social issues focused some sharp confrontations in the 1970’s, but the class struggle overall mainly took the form of widescale retrenchment and austerity imposed by dominant capital groupings on the people. The independent Right aided and abetted this process, but it was not the main source of most of these attacks, many of which began before New Right organizing hit its stride.

Economic crises always have a falling-out-among-thieves side to them, as different capital sectors seek long-term advantage for themselves in the working out of capitalism’s common problems. Erosion of the working class’ urban, unionized base, especially Black and Latin communities, has not resolved the present economic crisis, but it has been a common thread that ran through the whole range of corporate approaches to the country’s problems. An interim solution to sagging capital accumulation, this retrenchment also offered a certain coincidence of interests with the emerging independent Right’s attacks on the people’s rights. Through the election of Reagan, the right-wing coalition extended its appeal among business groupings, but dominant sections of capital as a whole have certainly not converged with that coalition. Our tactics today have to not only take on the independent Right itself, but also head off such a convergence, and the conservative governing coalition it would establish in U.S. politics.

Defeating the Right-Wing

Stop-the-Right tactics grow out of experience in city and state politics in the 1970’s. In a number of struggles, independent right-wing forces emerged to set the tone and the pace for local politics. In the Boston busing crisis, for example, while the anti-busing movement could not prevent court-ordered partial desegregation, it became the driving force in city politics for a number of years. With the Left divided and disorganized, progressive opposition rallied largely under the banner of the NAACP and suburban liberalism or not at all. During the 1970’s, where it has been at all effective against right-wing initiatives especially on the whole range of contemporary social policy issues–from busing to abortion and the ERA, gay rights, crime and racist violence, and others–the Left has joined in mainstream coalitions, liberal-dominated or influenced. The Philadelphia battle to “Dump Rizzo” by heading off the charter change he needed to run again shows the kind of success left-progressive forces can achieve in coalitions like these. Because of the scarcity of independent mass leaders and distance from electoral politics in the past, Left-wingers have rarely been the key spokespersons for such efforts. But we can expect to continue to be presented with realistic opportunities to resist the Right which are not of our own design but behind which it will make a lot of sense to try to swing popular strength.

Today a number of mainstream liberal institutions are trying to rally nationally against the New Right in new and potentially important ways. Planned Parent-hood’s year-long plain-speaking advertising campaign for abortion rights, the outcome of a major policy debate in that group in 1980, was an early sign of this change. Since the election, liberal organizations of all kinds have revived. Most dramatic has been environmental groups’ discovery of an uncharacteristic activism against James Watt’s plans for national resources, but groups like the NAACP, NOW, and others have also grown significantly.

Success in these efforts is far from guaranteed. On a number of issues, progressives have had difficulty escaping the anti-popular, elitist labels the Right-wing tries to pin on them. As a number of observers have recently pointed out, the ERA, for example, foundered on an inability to set the equal rights issues against a mass appreciation of the aspirations of and pressures on women within the family structure.

But the possibilities for success are there, given the balance of political forces in the U.S. today. If social issue activism helped cement the right-wing core, it is not sufficient to stabilize a new majority coalition. A succession of polls has shown that New Right opposition to abortion rights, the ERA, and gay rights are minority perspectives, that white working class attitudes toward racial equality, if not any stronger, at least have not worsened since the New Right’s emergence. In addition, the centers of corporate power remain ambivalent about the New Right initiatives, often regarding them as diversionary from the overall problems of the domestic and international capitalist crisis. In this situation, though the old New Deal coalition has fallen into disarray, liberal forces can still rally around particular issues. Where they do, creative tactics and solid organizing can bring some success against the further growth of a New Right social movement.

These kinds of tactics, however, can not be our only ones, as other local organizing experiences have shown. The same sort of broad coalitions have found it very hard, for instance, to resist the right-wing “tax revolt.” True, voters in California and some other states grew more wary after a taste of the simplistic tax-Cutting policies. But in first-time situations, liberal-led defences of big government no less than union defenses of public employee jobs have had a hard time gaining a serious hearing. The popular classes are economically pressed and fed up with the decline in public services and the general erosion of urban life–problems to which the familiar liberal slogans and programs fail to respond.

The lesson here is that we cannot meet the full challenge of the corporate offensive on the basis of old politics. This is the meaning of the 1980 election: the old New Deal policies have withered. They are unpopular because they do not work; they no longer work because they are out of touch with new international and national realities. To meet this challenge, we still need broad coalitions, but we also need tactics of left-progressive initiative.

Put Left-Progressive Politics on the Agenda

The predominant Democratic Party response to pressures on U.S. capital over the last decade has been retreat. Democratic state house and city-hall austerity pinched working class living standards no less than unemployment, inflation, and collective bargaining roll-backs. The Carter administration heralded Democratic Party ceding of initiative to the new conservatism on job training, OSHA, and a range of other domestic policies. More recently, Senators Tsongas and Hart and others have given this trend a name–the “new realism”–which aims to update and replace the tired liberal keepers-of-the-old-faith. In the 1981 budget battle, the Democrats unsuccessfully competed to offer the greater special interest tax breaks. Now we find the early Democratic resistance to Reagan’s 1982 budget spearheaded by Sen. Hollings of South Carolina’s classic conservative gripe that the spending is still too high.

The debate over reindustrialization has given some activists experience in the difficulties of mounting broad yet progressive responses to the corporate offensive. By and large, organized labor has so far approached reindustrialization from firmly within the pro-corporate camp. In the many battles over industrial relocation around the country, for example, the predominant discussion is over whether and how much benefits to give industry to stick around, with barely a word on corporate concessions in return. In General Motors’ quest for public assistance for new manufacturing facilities for themselves in Detroit, the UAW and others joined with the company to battle a stingy Washington for tax breaks. Penalties-for-leaving the city or other elements of a progressive agenda (pressed in that case by the DARE group, Ralph Nader, and others) have had little political impact compared to the rush to provide benefits-for-staying.

Just as stop-the-Right tactics have an objective basis, the balance of political forces today also provides an opening for independent initiative by left-progressive forces. In this case, the opening arises from the very fluidity of national politics.

Corporate irresolution continues on how to lift the U.S. economy out of its stagnation: what shifts in capitalist investment and organization of production, government spending and urban conditions need to gel out of present wave of retrenchment. The dominant liberal policy since the New Deal has rested on ever-expanding capitalist development. But the old promises are inadequate to present-day conditions of stiff economic competition from Europe and Japan, Soviet worldwide aggression and Third World independence. Right-wing dreams of a return of the U.S. to worldwide economic and political supremacy also seriously misjudge current conditions. They will only bring a more precipitous decline while bringing further suffering to the people along the way. But tendencies also exist in ruling circles toward accommodation to a new world balance of forces. A new liberalism is liable to arise on that terrain which will provide new openings for progressive struggle, for a democratic foreign policy (accommodating worldwide hopes for peace and national independence) and for a new democracy at home (accommodating a degree of popular economic control and democratic rights).

Around the country, there have been a few election campaigns which show the new kinds of openings we can expect to find–and help create. Lucien Blackwell’s campaign for mayor of Philadelphia in 1979, Mel King’s campaign that year in Boston, and the Barbaro campaign in New York last year all were based in the Democratic Party. And these campaigns were practically-oriented–campaigns to gain office by already established Democratic political figures. At the same time, these were politically independent campaigns, relying not on one or another grouping of Party “regulars,” but on community-based activists and organizations. All three would never have gotten off the ground or never amounted to anything without strong support in the Black communities of their cities, and in each case independent electoral coalitions formed around their candidacies. Blackwell ran as an independent primarily backed by the Philadelphia Black Political Convention. Local union support enabled Barbaro to continue on an independent, third party line after defeat in the Democratic primary. In King’s race as well, an independent campaign organization formed around his candidacy and continued past it.

Independence in electoral politics does not necessarily mean outside the Democratic Party at this time. For some time to come. Left electoral initiatives will often be hard to conceive without taking advantage of the Democratic Party primaries or seeking alliance with maverick liberal figures and groupings among the Democrats. It is possible with the right circumstances to start someplace else, as the Detroit D.A.R.E. coalition successfully did around Ken Cockrel’s city council candidacy and as the Citizen’s Party and National Black Independent Political Party are trying. The hope is to make some start and then work to find a social base to sustain long-term competition with the Democrats. But if not at the beginning then later, progressives have to confront the Democratic Party. Still aided by the constraints of the two-party system, the Democrats continue to have the loyalty of enough people to shape the discussion of people wanting social change in the United States.

Independence has to refer more to the political content of an election campaign than to whether or not it is specifically organized on a third-party line today. In assessing electoral possibilities, activists should look for three things: independent politics, ties with mass political struggles, and a democratically-run campaign.

Independent politics means a willingness to commit the campaign to a progressive platform at whatever level it can be posed but without accepting the constraints of mainstream liberal and conservative alternatives. This entails a generally anti-racist, pro-working class approach to the specific issues of the campaign.

Some activists shy away from the idea of “progressivism”. They characterize things at this end of the political spectrum as either “liberal” or “left.” But the kind of broad alliance the people need will have to be more than the Left just grouping the masses around itself; while to be a significant independent force, it will have to be a movement outside the framework of mainstream liberalism. Progressivism tries to capture this idea. Progressivism is not just consistent liberalism; liberalism is not the political center. The progress of liberalism is the progress of capitalism: for liberalism, the people’s needs are satisfied as a by-product of what used to be hailed as the “march of industry.” The people’s own unity, determination and organization form only the impatient reserves for this process. By contrast, the idea of progress in progressivism is the progress of the people’s interests in the day-today fight for a better life.

It may be a fine line between strengthening the resolve of a shakey progressive campaign and trying to exert pressure from within a traditional Democratic machine campaign. A fine line, perhaps, but one worth drawing. If we start out with the goal of pressuring less-than-progressive figures to become more than that, then we have opted to expend our resources helping re-form liberalism, or even just to form liberals. That may not be bad in itself, but where will it get us? In city politics today, we occasionally find traditional politicians edging away from the pack to espouse anti-corporate positions on some questions. This is a sign of the wider capitalist crisis the country is going through. But vague populist rhetoric against corporate abuse does not necessarily give rise to a distinct anti-racist, pro-working class politics. The downward spiral of someone like Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich, who initially attracted a wide, populist-oriented backing, into more than a bit of racist demagogy shows the dangers of this approach.

Especially since left-progressive politics are still not well-defined in most cases, we should gauge the independence of election campaigns not just by their stated platforms but also by how they are run. To the extent that activists use up their energy bargaining with established politicians who insist on keeping their own political counsel, who permit the support of unions and activist groups but will not join with them, or who keep the traditionally tight rein on their campaign apparatus, we will find ourselves by the end of this decade no further along toward building a new progressive movement. In the Blackwell campaign, by contrast, the Black Political Convention brought large numbers of people into the policy-setting process. Even without such formal mechanisms, electoral campaigns can open up ways for popular political activism that 1970’s Left activity did not offer: canvassing of all sorts, providing many people at once a chance to test their ideas; house parties and other meetings opening up political discussion far beyond anything that the Left press or forum circuit could hope of reaching; rallies, demonstrations, and other large gatherings enabling people to assess political forces and forms of struggle on a city-wide and not just community or local union basis. Independence in an election campaign has to be not just in staffing arrangements for activists and in who draws up the literature, but at the mass level. Other political activity will also help form a new progressive movement, but through their forms of participation and stance toward mass struggles, electoral organizing campaigns can help advance the independence of that movement.

Looking Ahead: For a Progressive Realignment

The problem of many union activists and community organizers is that in many situations, even after searching around and getting to know the field of candidates, no one stands out for their political independence. Pressure nonetheless grows from co-workers to support someone in the election anyhow. The Local’s COPE committee will surely endorse someone, for instance, so what should we do. Many activists will argue that, especially today, we should throw our support to the lesser-of-two-evils choice as a holding action against the Right until the Left grows stronger. They argue for sticking with existing popular sentiment against the more rightist politics, much the same as in rallying against the Right’s single-issue ballot referendums. But backing the generally more liberal candidate against the less liberal candidate is not the same as backing the better position on many single issues at once against the “worser” position on those issues.

We have to decide, are we going to lend the effort of the Left to keeping the political debate within the present framework of the political mainstream, or are we going to look ahead to something beyond those limits? Adopting lesser-of-two-evils tactics in this transitional period marked by capitalist crisis spells disaster. Lesser-of-two-evil tactics inevitably lead the Left to getting swallowed up and to the stifling of independent progressive forces–not to expanded opportunity for those forces to speak for themselves in the electoral arena. The problem is, there is always going to be a lesser evil among the pro-corporate alternatives, but there will never be a viable progressive alternative until Left and progressive forces begin to speak for themselves.

The problem of left-progressive electoral weaknesses is going to remain particularly acute in state-wide and national politics. We just will not be able to have a big impact in every election that we would like, and we should not try. We have to choose our electoral battles carefully, and this means mainly working at the more local levels now. It is true that a lot of Left organizing already suffers from parochial pressures of dispersed local and community-based activism. We need to bring local struggles into the framework of national and international politics, but we have to base our organizing where conditions are the most favorable. Electoral organizing is only going to get somewhere where there is a base for it. The most dramatic independent electoral effort of the last thirty years probably remains La Raza Unity Party, whose impact in a number of Southwestern cities was inseparable from the Chicano national movement taking root in the last 1960’s.

In some situations the answer to what to do when there is no one to support will be to field our own candidates anyhow. Barry Commoner’s 1980 Citizen’s Party campaign, whatever its shortcomings, gave a push to independent electoral politics wherever it took hold. The D.A.R.E. experience shows the possibility of success with a known radical under the right circumstances. The Left has not been particularly bold in openly entering elections, and this has to change.

Still, this article has not put a lot of emphasis on launching third parties because such organizational initiatives, taken in isolation, just will not succeed on a wide scale today. No labor party, for example, will emerge as a progressive force just by union candidates winning elections. To have a new progressive party means to have a progressive realignment of class forces in U.S. politics. A new party would be one expression of such a realignment, but no third party–no matter how big, or how many votes, or even what specific measures it legislates–is that class realignment itself. Elections test strength more than they are a trial of strength: the election process will not resolve class contradictions for us. Building toward a progressive electoral realignment depends on rebuilding the mass movements to support and sustain it.

Today, the people need to organize mass resistance at many levels against the right-wing and the corporate offensive, and need the new political lessons that new experience in struggle will bring. Political action and electoral politics will be a critical means for accumulating those lessons and beginning to coalesce a new progressive political force. The stronger left-progressive initiative is today, the more likely we will be able to head off the emergence of a new conservative governing coalition and open the road to a struggle for electoral realignment shaped in part by left-progressive politics.

February, 1982