Building our Political Future

As the few days we have left of this pre-President Trump world tick away I’m having difficulty finding focus. We’re faced by a truly staggering array of urgent concerns: from an administration packed with climate change deniers, to a Congress whose very first act was to try and gut their ethics office just days before introducing legislation to simultaneously defund Planned Parenthood and repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement, and the list just goes on and on. Trump himself, an utterly abominable sleazy caricature of crass capitalist corruption straight out of the funnypages, pales in comparison to the threat posed by the impossible Legion of Doom that’s coalescing around him. Adding to the frustration, Democrats have announced that they’re building a War Room of their own to stop Trump’s rampage and it’s so far composed of the same people that utterly failed to stop Trump not two months ago—disgraced former Hillary staffers.

There’s a bamboozling effect to having so many moving targets that need to be confronted cluttering the field. It becomes difficult to prioritize and focus on a particular problem to deal with it effectively, sapping the sense of accomplishment an individual might expect from any one victory as four more targets spring up in its place. This can be paralyzing for the individual activist, when so much is wrong where do you start, how can you keep going in the face of at least some certain defeat, what can you do about anything, and why even bother? They’re questions we all need to grapple with and quickly, because as we’ve seen this administration is not going to waste a second rolling back progress as far as we’ll let them.

Before tackling the tough questions of how we resist we’ll need to explore the reasons we have to in the first place. The Democratic Party is flat-out wholly incapable of staging an effective opposition party, for a few reasons. Primarily they’re an entirely unaccountable organization and as such the botched election hasn’t resulted in any real reflection. The architects of this most spectacular failure are still fully in power, including no less than Chuck “For every blue collar Democrat we lose in western PA, we’ll pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia” Schumer in the highest-ranking Democratic position in the federal government, all while party insiders still feverishly insist on shifting the blame for their inept campaign to the Russians.

Seth Ackerman has an excellent piece in the November 2016 Jacobin that details some of the more destructive defects with American Political Parties and it’s truly essential reading. Basically the root problem is that our parties are structured in such a way that they have no actual membership and grant no special privilege, outside of voters of a declared affiliation being allowed into closed primaries in certain states. Most of the world wouldn’t even call what we have a political party. In Britain for example party membership is more like a traditional club, with binding rules and actual benefits to enrolling. They’re able to far more easily get a name on the ballot without our draconian restrictions, and then the whole membership can vote on their leadership and platform—and their platforms are actually binding. Elected officials that betray the planks they ran on can be expelled from the party. Meanwhile we’re stuck with parties that are nothing more than a loose affiliation of office holders that forms up every few years and allies with various interest groups for the purpose of getting elected. We have only two parties and both represent capital, with essentially insurmountable barriers to access and virtually no accountability to their electorate. Until our election law undergoes massive reform nationwide we’ll never have a labor party (or any third party) that can credibly compete.

The organization Open Primaries has had some success in 2016 working to build a movement to remove restrictions on primary voting, an issue that profoundly impacted this election as Bernie Sanders dominated those states that didn’t restrict voters to the primary for their registered party. New York was particularly egregious, with over 3,000,000 voters shut out of the process thanks to some of the worst eligibility requirements for primary voting in the country. There’s reason for hope here too as Attorney General Eric Shneiderman is working on legislation that would address a number of the most pressing problems impacting voting in New York. However positive the impact of this work is, the most thrilling part of the Ackerman piece is his proposal that such ballot reform may not even be necessary.

He proposes that we build political organizations that function similarly to political parties elsewhere, comprised of a large and diverse membership with a clear political vision they’ve hashed out through regular meetings and vigorous debate, and that we don’t worry about registering as party or having a separate ballot line at all. Instead the group would run candidates in whatever makes the most sense in their area—often this means primarying Democrats, though it could also entail running Independent. The main point would be to run pragmatic campaigns through an organization that can hold its candidates accountable and in doing so, we end up building large networked groups that are giving people back their voice in politics.

It’s only through this kind of collective action that we’re going to be able to tackle all of the problems that must be addressed. No one can focus on everything alone, we’ll have to leave the comfort of our social media bubbles and begin actively participating in local groups that are ideally linked in to state and federal level organizations. Luckily for the Buffalo activist we’re in something of a boom of very solid groups doing important work across a wide range of issues. For those looking for a group to plug-in to and start work–there’s a convenient gathering of these groups to build solidarity and strengthen the resistance network on 1/21 to coincide with Counter-Inauguration Weekend events taking place across the country.

At the national level I’m finding hope in the explosion of growth currently happening with the Democratic Socialists of America. Bernie Sanders had the audacity to defy the neoliberal consensus that’s constantly managing expectations downward and demand that our government fight to expand the possible rather than roll over and accept the meager offerings of the status quo. He de-stigmatized and introduced a whole generation to the possibility of socialism, the root-cause cure for the problems we’re up against today. The individual fights we face on environment, racial justice, women’s rights, health care, education, labor, and so many other fronts are of critical importance but without meaningfully reckoning with the force that assails them—unfettered capitalism—we’ll forever be in danger of the same erosion of progress we’ve seen creeping slowly over the past few decades, and soon to rapidly accelerate under Trump.

A better world is possible and it’s past time we rise up and build it together, because no one else is going to do it for us.

— Joe LiButti, Liberty Union Progressives and Democratic Socialists of America

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