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The mark of a genuine "movement," writes Gallagher, is that it tries to move people into action and interacts with every other positive strain of activism, no matter its origins. (Photo: AP)

Only in America? The False Dichotomy Between Movement Building and Electoral Politics

Tom Gallagher

Most people we might think of as being on the American left don’t generally embrace the idea of “American exceptionalism.” There is one apparent exception to this unexceptional point of view, however, at least in some corners of the American left. That is the notion that in the U.S. – unlike any other country with a reasonably democratic system – electoral politics are somehow only an optional part of a serious political movement. The latest expression of this “only in America” point of view comes in response to Senator Bernie Sanders’s declaration of his intention to run in next year’s Democratic Party presidential primaries.

The objections to his candidacy come in at least two variants – “not now” and “never.” The “never” perspective is articulated by David Swanson in his CounterPunch article, “Invest in Activism, Not Bernie Sanders.” It’s not that Swanson doesn’t like Sanders. On the contrary, although he allows that he has some disagreements with him – which he characterizes as “imperfections” on Sanders’s part – Swanson considers “the contrast with Clinton ... like day to night.” Nevertheless, he pleads, “please do not give him or Hillary or the wonderful Jill Stein or any other candidate a dime or a moment of your life. Instead, join the movement,” referring to people seeking justice on the streets of Baltimore, trying to abolish nuclear weapons in the halls of the United Nations, and doing any number of other valuable things.

This movement, he reminds us, “has always been the driving force for change.” For instance it “gave women the right to vote” and we should support the efforts of those now “struggling to create fair elections through steps like automatic registration in Oregon, and pushing legislation to provide free media, match small donors, give each voter a tax credit to contribute.”

But wait, electoral reform is of the utmost importance and yet the presidential election is not? How can this be? Swanson explains that he’s “not against elections.” In fact he thinks “we should have one some day,” but “at the presidential level we do not currently have elections. That office is not up for election; it is up for sale.” Well, we get Swanson’s point that big money will have an inordinate impact, but in fact there actually will be a presidential election in 2016. Maybe not the kind we’d like, but an actual election nonetheless. And despite our voter turnout being generally lackluster by world standards, upwards of 125 million Americans will take part in it.

What we have here is simply a matter of a writer getting carried away with his own rhetoric. Happens all the time – maybe more so in our editorless blogging era. We’re not supposed to take him literally and yet we are somehow supposed to take him seriously. We on the left may choose to be generous in this regard – after all, we’ve grown used to this sort of thing – but the 100 million plus voters are not likely to.

Organizer and freelance journalist Kate Aronoff takes a somewhat more serious tack with a “not yet” rather than “no, nay, never” approach in her Waging Nonviolence article, “Movement builders should listen to Bernie Sanders — focus on mass action, not candidates.” To the question “Is Bernie Sanders a more progressive presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton?” she answers, “Undoubtedly.” But “Will he single-handedly catalyze a united left front in the United States?” She concludes, “Probably not” (although there wouldn’t appear to be anyone out there making any claim that he will). She further contends that “electing a progressive into the White House doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a movement infrastructure in place to hold them truly accountable.”

Let me be clear: I don’t consider a Sanders victory probable (although I consider the effort invaluable) and I do think it unlikely that we will elect someone like him without a broader “infrastructure” of the sort that Aronoff presumably has in mind. But to say that it wouldn’t “mean anything” if Sanders somehow were to be elected is just another case of runaway rhetoric. It would mean a lot – to a lot of people.

Happily, Aronoff doesn’t think this situation need last forever. She believes Senator Elizabeth Warren may be keeping her options open for a future time when “America’s progressives, working together, may be well organized enough to actually put someone into office they can trust — and have enough street heat to make sure they don’t go back on their word.” Good for her for thinking that the future will be brighter, but as for putting off until tomorrow what we could do today, well, as the old song says, “Someday never comes.”

The fundamental problem with both the “not now, maybe later” and the “not on your life” rejections of electoral politics is their small mindedness, their view that political activity is a zero sum game where a Sanders candidacy inevitably diminishes some other truly valuable activities because there are only a limited number of potential activists out there. Their advocates are right enough in thinking the current “movement” barely touches the great majority of Americans – who would have no idea what this discussion is even about. But if we don’t have a horse in the presidential election race there aren’t going to be all that many of them motivated to find out either.

The mark of a genuine “movement” is that it tries to move people into action and interacts with every other positive strain of activism, no matter its origins. It does not try to dissuade people from undertaking important campaigns out of fear that they will “steal” its activists away. David Swanson and Kate Aronoff and everyone else who’s not into presidential election politics should just keep on doing what they think is important. But they shouldn’t think everyone in the movement needs to be just like them – it will never grow large enough if they are. The only way a movement grows is by doing more. And any grown-up left asks not whether to participate in elections, but how.


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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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