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Why the Left is Losing and How We Can Win


Why We’re Losing

Hope. It’s something that all activists need to sustain ourselves. Hope that we’ll win a fair union contract from our greedy employer. Hope that people will show up to our film screening or donate to our online fundraiser. Hope that the next city budget won’t hurt working people as much as the last. Hope that things don’t get worse.

We hope because we have to. For a lot of us, we hold onto an instinctual, almost spiritual belief that things will change for the better. A belief that “the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice.” We believe this because we have to. If we don’t think we can win, we’ve already lost.

At my job in the labor movement, I’m constantly talking about how the policies of Republicans will kill working people. And when you compare Mitt Romney to Barack Obama, we know, hands down, whose policies are more supportive of workers in the United States. We know that Mitt Romney wants to eliminate minimum wage laws, repeal health care reform, and frankly make life a lot more difficult for the “47%”.

We know that Obama secured deferred action for nearly a million undocumented youth in this country. He finally voiced his support for gay marriage, breaking from the late ‘90s Democratic Party Platform that supported the Defense of Marriage Act. Hey, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napoletano just announced that GLBT partnerships would be taken into account during deportation proceedings! Obama has certainly made things better for the lives of many people in this country.

But he’s also made things worse. Obama deported more undocumented immigrants than George W. Bush. He voted to subsidize the big banks, giving out a no-interest loan that likely will never be fully repaid. He let Bush Tax Cuts stay in place for the wealthy. He closed Guantanamo, but assumed the right of killing of American citizens without trial.

Still, given the choice, workers want Obama to win. In fact, we need Obama to win. Imagine the privatization of social security and Medicare, the elimination of collective bargaining rights; and yes, the repeal of health care reform. We cannot afford to lose this election.

But we have already lost. Not to Mitt Romney. Not to Paul Ryan.

We know that if Obama is re-elected, we have not won. We have merely ensured that for working people, for unions, things will not get worse on a national scale. But what is our strategy for making things better? How do we move from hoping that things don’t get worse to believing that another world is possible?

The left lost this election, because we stopped collectively believing in another world, and became content with an individualized struggle for a mediocre life.

Organizing Beyond the Election Obsession

While some leftists have become obsessed with the nitty gritty details of the elections, spending more time watching the Daily Show make fun of the RNC than they spent organizing in their own communities; others have strategically used the momentum behind the election to push for transformative change.

DREAMers have never stopped pushing. The day after deferred action was announced, DREAMers held a sit-in at Obama’s headquarters demanding the DREAM Act. The same day that San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro became the first Latino to give a keynote address at the DNC, DREAMers were outside the convention, urging Democrats to stop deporting their brothers and sisters.

While other leftists take every chance they can get to compare Romney to Obama and claim that the two parties are no different at all; DREAMers understand that their lives are dictated by the policies that these politicians support. They have strategic direct actions planned at every upcoming debate and are using the momentum behind the election to highlight Obama’s shortcomings to Latino voters, and to demand that the Democratic Party stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

Other grassroots organizations are continuing their fierce organizing tactics despite the election obsession of their peers. They’re continuing to pressure corporations like Chipotle for their refusal to do right by farmworkers, they’re bringing new members into their workers’ centers… And yes, they’re winning.

In too many places, our struggles are being put on hold to mobilize for the elections. Instead of 1) focusing on our local grassroots organizing or 2) strategically using the elections to highlight our issues, many unions and local organizations are using all of their energy to get out the vote for politicians who are not accountable to working class people.

This is a mistake. During elections, politicians will promise you the world. Sure, they’ll vote for a minimum wage increase. Campaign finance reform? No problem. They would never vote to eliminate collective bargaining rights!  They hate Scott Walker just as much as we do! And they don’t support Governor Cuomo’s attack on teachers, either.

They promise us the world.

So, we mobilize our community, we get boots on the ground. We get them elected. When our prized candidate is in office, if they do still support our issues, it’s difficult to get them to become champions. Especially if it contradicts with the leadership of their party.

Instead of getting community members simply to vote for the progressive-backed politicians, we could be arming them to become militant enforcers of a working class agenda. Educating one another about the kinds of policies that we need to transform the state, the country, and to create another world for workers. Elections shouldn’t be about getting out the vote, it should be getting out our agenda. Votes will follow, if they must.

By mobilizing and educating the community to organize and educate one another, we are creating an active base that can win so much more than an election. We aren’t settling for mediocrity, we are struggling for our movement.

Because on November 6th, we will not know if we’ve won from the results on the television screen. We’ll know that we’ve won by the communities that we’ve reached, the issues that we’ve moved, and the campaigns that we’ve built.

We’ll know that we’ve won because once again, we can hope. Not in politicians, but in people. Not that things won’t get worse, but that things will get better. And that one day, in the not so distant future, our hope will lead to the victory that we all have been fighting for.

Charlene Obernauer is the Executive Director of Long Island Jobs with Justice.

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
THE ARAB SPRING AT A CROSSROADS — Esam Al-Amin surveys the new Middle East, from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, to the aftermath of the overthrow of Qaddafi and the civil war in Syria, and outlines the economic and political challenges facing the fledgling Arab democracies; THE BI-PARTISAN PLAN TO GUT MEDICARE: Dave Lindorff digs beneath the rhetoric to expose the grim similarities in both Obama and Romney’s schemes to degrade Medicare by cutting spending, reducing eligibility and privatizing services. KAFKA IN SEATTLE: Kristian Williams details the surreal ordeal of Matthew Duran, thrown into federal prison even though prosecutors admit he committed no crime.


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