Do We Stay or Do We Go?: A Progressive Inside-Outside Strategy


The feelings of those advocating for #DemExit.

Tom Perez is now the chair of the Democratic National Committee. I was disappointed that Keith Ellison had not been elected chair, though when the Democratic Party voted against a ban on corporate lobbyist donations, I knew that Perez would win. The Democrats, it seems, have learned little from their failures in the 2016 Presidential election. Still, I knew when the news officially broke because Twitter erupted, almost half with cheers and the other with jeers. Suddenly every other hashtag on my feed was #DemExit, calls for a #PeoplesParty and demands that we #DraftBernie to run for President of this newly formed political party.

Many progressives have been calling for a mass exodus from the Democratic Party for years. Rather than championing truly progressive policies, the Democrats have favored cutting the social safety net almost as strongly as Republicans. Both parties advocate for growth of businesses at the expense of regular people. Such basic change as a single-payer healthcare system or a living wage or free college tuition seem unthinkable to the Democratic Party, and more and more people, particularly young people, are growing disillusioned with the Party. Surely, if all of those disillusioned people abandoned the Democrats en masse, they would have to take notice, right?

Unfortunately not. While I’m sympathetic to those advocating for a #DemExit, if we want to bring about progressive change, we’re going to need to be more strategic than just rage quitting the Democratic Party, as tempting as that option is right now. And for anyone who thinks that I’m just shilling for the Democrats right now, please know that for most of my life, I’ve considered myself more of an independent than a Democrat, and even when I began supporting Democrats, I wasn’t so much as I was for Democrats as I was against George W. Bush. Even as a child, I was baffled as to how only two political parties could possibly represent all of the diversity of the American people. I knew that other countries had multiple political parties, and the notion of multi-party systems always appealed to me. Why force people to be one thing or the other when our ideas are vastly more complex? My allegiance to the Democratic Party in any meaningful sense has been something of a brief affair, with my buying into Barack Obama’s hope and change rhetoric in 2008. Then my living in conservative northwest Ohio pushed me into the arms of the Democrats for a while simply because in a region where the KKK still has an active presence, there actually is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, though it’s still not as pronounced as I wish it were.

Living in that region, however, did push me to consider why working class people supposedly voted against their interests for Republicans, so I did some research and discovered that of those working class people who vote (because most of them don’t vote), there really is no party that supports their interests. Bill Clinton severely cut welfare, a move that Hillary Clinton vocally supported, and even before that, the Democrats had sold out unions yet still expected their support because who else were they going to back? The Republicans? Much like the labor unions, we have all been taken for granted by the Democrats, who have not so much pushed a progressive agenda but played off the horror presented by Republicans. This strategy came to a head in the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton seemed to coast, confident that the country would not vote for a mad man, and while the vast majority of voters did choose Clinton—a fact that both progressives and the media seem to keep forgetting—she still did not muster enough electoral votes to win the election. The mad man is now in the White House. (Yes, the Electoral College is unfair and undemocratic, but it still exists, and winning it is the game our presidential candidates must play.)

Sufficient to say, I have no deep love for the Democrats and like many who are calling for a #DemExit, I wish I could wash my hands of them and be done. Unfortunately, while I am all in favor of people either forming new third parties or joining truly progressive parties like the Working Families Party or Socialist Alternative, among others, whether we leave or stay, the Democrats will continue to be a significant force in US politics that we must reckon with. As this Jacobin article explains, the United States is uniquely repressive in how many hurdles it places before third parties, so much so that it has more in common with authoritarian regimes than it does with other democracies. A mass movement away from the Democrats could gain traction, especially if it had significant enough numbers, but Democrats and Republicans both benefit from the two-party system, and they’ve both done a lot to consolidate that power and prevent challenges from outside parties.

And then, of course, the question of spoilers is always raised. While I roll my eyes at Democrats who blame Jill Stein for Clinton’s Electoral College loss, I do understand the fear of spoilers on a local level. In socialist and progressive circles, we often refer to Democrats and Republicans as just two factions within one big corporate party, but on a local and state level, the difference between a Democrat and a Republican can mean a lot to individual people. A bad Democrat might not implement any new progressive policies that will help you out, but the Democrat is also less likely than a Republican to go after what little gains you’ve already won. Better to hold on to what you have than risk losing everything, right? It’s an unfortunate position to be in, but I can’t blame many people for thinking that way.

So are we stuck with the Democrats? Absolutely not! We are already facing a fascist regime head-on and the neoliberal policies of the Democrats are squarely to blame. We simply cannot afford to acquiesce to the lesser of two evils anymore. Hillary Clinton promised to be the lesser of two evils, and we ended up with the worst evil anyway. A political party, any political party, must actively court voters and present a vision of the future worth voting for. It cannot take votes for granted. If third parties offer policies that align with what voters actually want, then those third parties, not the Democratic Party, deserve the loyalty of the people. People do not owe parties their allegiance or their voters. Rather, allegiance and votes must be earned. Any votes given to third parties should not be seen as stolen from the Democrats but rather thrown away by the Democrats who failed to put forward convincing policies.

Looking at the situation, there is merit both in remaining within the Democratic Party and attempting to make it more progressive from the inside out—from realigning it to a more progressive vision—but there is also merit in leaving the Democratic Party and growing third parties that put forward truly progressive and even radical policies. So why don’t we take the best of both strategies?

Specifically, I’m advocating for an inside-outside strategy similar to that of the Working Families Party, which has gained traction in New York, though some of that traction is made possible by New York’s unique political system. However, the Working Families Party has managed to run its own candidates in safe districts while also supporting progressive Democratic candidates in riskier districts. In the safer districts, the third party candidate does not act as a spoiler for the election, and in the riskier districts, the hope is that the progressive Democratic candidate will at least nudge the establishment Democrat leftward, even if the progressive Democrat does not manage to win. Democratic Socialists of America, though not a political party, has also seen some success at the state level with a similar strategy, in which it has supported Greens and progressive Democrats who also identify as democratic socialists. Under this strategy, progressives have a way of making their voices heard, Democrats must earn votes, and third parties have the ability to gain traction without being spoilers.

This inside-outside strategy isn’t going to win immediately, nor is it going to radically change the Democratic Party overnight. It must start at a local and state level to be successful, and the change it produces will be slow and incremental. It will see losses, like the losses of Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison, before it begins to see successes. But ultimately, I don’t see any other realistic way forward for the Left. Many of my more radical socialist friends will likely scoff at me for even engaging in electoral politics at all, which they see as inherently flawed, and I understand the frustration. Protests and direct action are just as necessary as they ever were, and I am not suggesting that we abandon our more radical tactics in favor of only seeking change through electoral politics. At the same time, however, electoral politics do have an impact on people’s lives in tangible ways, and the Overton Window will not swing Left instantaneously.

My hope is that we push hard enough leftward, eventually we can begin to realign the Democrats from within while also empowering truly radical third parties to begin implementing real change, first on a local level and then perhaps slowly, slowly on a national level as well. However, to even begin implementing both of these changes simultaneously, we must have a mass movement of people demanding that change. We are already seeing that movement, as disorganized and contradictory as it is, coalesce around resistance to Donald Trump. We see it in the hundreds of people who are showing up at town halls hosted by their Senators and Representatives, some of whom are Democrats. We see it in the tens of thousands of people who came out to Bernie Sanders’s campaign rallies, and we see it in the many people who campaigned for Keith Ellison to be DNC Chair. We see it in hordes of people who poured into Washington, DC, for the Women’s March and who attended local Women’s Marches in their hometowns, and we see it in the masses of people who surged to airports after the Muslim ban was introduced.

Both people within and outside of the Democratic Party realize that our fundamental freedoms, our precious civil liberties and our basic human rights are all at stake right now. People are actively looking for ways to resist, and as a result, they are more open change and to alternative ways of doing politics. Progressives must seize upon that openness to advocate for truly progressive policies within the Democratic Party, and we must channel that energy toward holding not just Republicans accountable to their constituents but also Democrats. At the same time, we must also build radical third parties that offer a way forward beyond the narrow confines of the liberalism of the Democratic Party, which sees single-payer healthcare as an outlandish idea. Both of these tasks are difficult, and working toward just one of them seems monumental, while fighting for both of them at the same time appears even more daunting. However, despite the fear and uncertainty of our present times, we are also experiencing opportunities to introduce new ways of doing politics. And never before have we had such a groundswell of people actively looking to create change. If we can quickly and effectively harness that people power, then we could implement the political revolution that Bernie Sanders called for in his presidential campaign while also paving the way for an authentically grassroots, democratic movement. If we seize this opportunity, we could break the chains of our two-party system to give people real choice while actively engaging them in the political process.



The Left Doesn’t Need More Writers…

intherevThe Left has more writers than we know what to do with. Seriously, we’re all opinionated and we all want to express that opinion and have everyone else tell us just how brilliant we are. I think we all secretly imagine that years from now, people will be hosting little reading groups to study our work, just like we pour over Marx and Engels. We think if we could just write convincingly enough, then we’d somehow silence the endless drone of the neoliberal media and awaken the proletariat to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Instead, however, we just end up talking to each other in a small, niche little circle that never seems to expand.

The Left doesn’t need anymore writers. Really, we’ve got more than enough of them. We all want to be writers, but for every one of us who wants to be writers, what we really and truly need is someone who’s willing to do the hard work of organizing. It’s one thing to write about the world and how it should be. Writing is, in that sense, easy. It’s neat and tidy. Construct an argument, get it published by a magazine or website in which the readership will more or less agree with you anyway, and then pat yourself on the back for having supposedly done something to help the world.

In reality, however, nothing is ever that neat and tidy. Organizing people involves crafting a strategy and then figuring out how people fit into that strategy. Organizing involves mobilizing people, encouraging them, thanking them, reminding them, and prodding them. Organizing is messy—people’s feelings get hurt, people don’t want to do what you want them to do, and there are frequent disagreements. Organizing involves reaching out to people who may not agree with you and attempting to work with them anyway. It isn’t always ideologically pure. Organizing also means working toward a desired outcome, and if that outcome isn’t reached, then there’s the risk of failure. The Left doesn’t need writers. It needs people to take on the tiresome, messy, thankless work of organizing.

And yet, here I am, writing.

My excuse is that I’ve done the organizing thing, and I’m absolute shit at it. And if I ever actually publish this article, I know that this is the point at which many of my comrades will disagree. They’ll tell me that I’m a fabulous organizer. They’ll remind me of all the leadership and effort I put into spearheading a Washington, DC, campaign for Bernie Sanders’ presidency. They’ll applaud me for creating flyers and posters and coordinating events. They’ll tell me that I energized the organization and gave it a sense of purpose and cohesion.

The truth is, however, that I’m not. I’m too timid to really push my views on people because I’m afraid of being seen as pushy or fake. I don’t trust people to carry out tasks competently, so I attempt to do them all myself, get overwhelmed, and then flake at the last minute. I procrastinate. I’m dreadful at convincing people to adopt my point of view, so much so that I doubt I could convince a starving person to eat a bowl of rice. I honestly don’t even particularly like people—they can be opinionated and rude and disagreeable and at the end of the day, I’d much rather interact with fictional characters in a book or television show than I would deal with the emotions and desires and needs of real, living people. I’m an awful organizer, but simply because I’ve stepped up and attempted to organize people, when otherwise no one else would have done anything at all, means that something was accomplished rather than nothing at all. In the sense that I did something, rather than nothing, I’m an okay organizer.

My point is, if I can be a somewhat competent organizer, that is, if I can attempt to motivate people and accomplish something rather than nothing at all, then anyone else on the Left can be an organizer. Seriously, yes, you reading this piece, you can be an organizer. I’m telling you that if I’ve done it, you can too. Don’t think that I have some sort of inherent ability that you don’t have or some sort of magical insight that’s not accessible to you. You are just as capable of being an organizer as I am. In all likelihood, you’d be better at it than me! And that’s a good thing!

It’s difficult, of course. I won’t lie and say that it’s easy or fun. Most of the time it’s a slog, and people will be much more likely to criticize you for what they think you’re doing wrong than thank you for what you’re doing right. (Note to fellow organizers: always thank everyone profusely and often for what they do, no matter how trivial it seems. A little “Thank you!” goes a very long way. And if you can make people feel appreciated, they’re much more likely to continue working with your organization and helping you out. Showing appreciation is one of the few aspects of organizing that I am actually good at, and it requires very little effort.) And most of the time, anyone who engages in organizing won’t feel like you are doing much right. Every campaign could have been run better. Ever action could have been better planned. Every event will have some small but vital detail that’s overlooked until the last minute. Looking back on activities and performing a post-mortem on them to see how they could be improved for next time is a valuable exercise, but it can also feel like self-flagellation, especially if you’re already prone to insecurity (like me!).

Being an organizer also means taking risks, the biggest of which being failure. I attempted to organize Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America’s campaign for Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Primary. I also attempted to unionize my previous workplace, and we lost the union vote. Campaigns don’t always have positive outcomes. The good guys don’t always win. And justice doesn’t always rule the day. This demoralized feeling seems especially pertinent to the Left, which has a history of near misses and almosts and has-beens in the United States. We almost had single-payer healthcare—until we got the Affordable Care Act instead. We almost had universal childcare—but then Nixon vetoed it. We almost had the Equal Rights Amendment too, for all its flaws, but it’s still languishing in the ratification process. On the Left, most of our stories are of attempts rather than wins. We often find ourselves waiting rather than celebrating. We’re remarkably hopeful, given our background of being repressed and beaten down, but sometimes that hope can wear thin.

Perhaps we’re all so drawn to writing because it gives us hope. Maybe we think that if we can put our ideals and visions into words, maybe somehow they can become reality.

Writing isn’t enough, though. If we want to actually make all of our utopian writings reality, then we are going to have to act. And we’re going to have to act now, because we are currently living in the darkest era our country has perhaps ever experienced. Even the paltry gains and compromises that we’ve won are threatened. We’ve fought so long to take our government back from the pockets of the One Percent to give it back to the Ninety-Nine Percent, and yet now our Commander-in-Chief is the One Percent, and he’s lining up his Cabinet members to privatize what public goods we still have left.

Just writing isn’t going to save us. It’s not enough anymore to keep our ideas alive in little reading groups and academic enclaves. If we’re going to turn these ideas into policy, then we need action. We need to protest. We need to fundraise. We need to swallow our pride and actually engage in electoral politics to push moderate politicians to the Left and maybe even get some third party candidates elected in safe districts. We need to tell our elected officials what we think, and that means making calls and showing up at local government meetings. We need to have difficult conversations with liberals and moderates and, yes, even conservatives. In short, we need to organize.

It’s going to be hard, and there is the very real possibility that we will fail. But if we do something, then there’s a chance that we might achieve some of our goals. There’s the chance that we could build a movement with real political clout that could implement our agenda. If we act, there’s the chance that we might win, however slim a chance it may be. If we do nothing, however, we’re conceding our country to the wealthy, and we will fail.

I’d much rather sit in front of my laptop and write, but the Left doesn’t need more writers. The Left needs organizers. Will you join me?