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How Progressives Can Compete for Major Office: A Class Analysis of Political Paralysis 

Photo by David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0


Learning from the Green Party Defeat in New Jersey.  

Local electoral gains are beginning to add up. The Green Party won 45 local seats nationwide in 2017 for a total of 141 in 18 states. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) added 15 new elected officials to their 20 already holding public office. Progressives endorsed by Our Revolution and running as Democrats also did well. Overall third party and independent representation is up 40% since 2014. This bodes well for the long game.

But, how alternative party can win major office remains an open question.

In 2017, Wall Street’s strongest candidate, Phil Murphy, won the New Jersey Governors race with under 20% of the eligible vote. But it was “none of the above” that had the big numbers with at least 65% of the eligible voters staying home, making it the lowest turnout in history. The people of New Jersey have rejected the major parties without choosing an alternative.  The Green party was unable to win significant votes, totaling a tiny .5% of the vote cast by a brave and desperate 10,000.

The Class Analysis of Political Paralysis 

Beneath the liberal pretensions and snobbery that shape the narratives of New York City media, New Jersey and New York City have become increasingly conservative. Or more precisely, the remaining voters have become more conservative as a growing number abandon elections altogether.

In both substance and style Chris Christie foreshadowed Trump and he was elected twice. The second time was a landslide with the support of many Democratic voters and officials. New Jersey also voted for Clinton when they had the choice of Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, as did NYC. Murphy’s victory depended on voters that were willing to overlook the central role of Goldman Sachs in creating the brutal inequality that helped to give us Trump.

Nine New Jersey counties voted for Trump as did Staten Island, Orange, Putnam and Suffolk County — the most Jersey-like suburban counties in the New York metro area. Trump is New York City born and bred — a plain fact that the corporate media has all but ignored.  Imagine the scorn that would have been heaped on Iowa, Alabama, or West Virginia had Trump hailed from the deplorable hinterlands.

Is it fundamentally conservative to accept that fact that Phil Murphy can buy his way into the governor’s mansion? I can hear the appeals to so-called realism now and anyway “that is just the way it is.”  Well, that’s the way it was when Jon Corzine purchased the same post in 2005 before losing to Christie in 2009.  The Republican’s open class-war program and New Jersey’s own financial crisis will give Murphy an excuse to betray his promises and — Corzine redux — pave the way for an eventual Republican return to power.

While there are lots of good people within every demographic, New Jersey has two large related social groups that act as a support network for the two-party system.  The urban professional and managerial classes are the core constituency of corporate Democrats and the affluent white suburbanites are the Republican’s base. Beneath the appearance of extraordinary differences between them, they have a lot in common starting with a belief that the established order is the only possible world.

Both believe, in there own way, that the economy is based on merit. Both believe they have earned their social place and their political opinions through hard work or higher education. The liberals just toss in a dash of corporate identity politics to rally their troops and the conservatives stir their side by scapegoating immigrants and calling on  white identity. Both are galvanized by the fear of foreigners — be it Russians or Mexicans — and fall into line by blaming others for problems of our own making.

Many in both these buffer groups have careers with the major industries of the region: insurance companies and Big Pharma that oppose universal health care; Wall Street firms that produce extreme inequality; media conglomerates that control the newspapers and TV; and the large corporatized universities that serve business interests while impoverishing students, workers and contingent faculty. These corporations exert enormous economic, political and cultural power, pushing New Jersey and NYC to the right. Voting records too often reflect that conservatism.

Many unions, environmental groups, student organizations, even some civil rights groups remain faithful to the well-worn but worn-out tactic of “access” to the powerful rather than challenging the powerful. They continue on the same path as if the same 50-year period of relying on access has not also been one of across-the-board decline in the fortunes of the multi-racial working class, students, women and the environment.

In 2016, a record 43% of union members showed their desperation and acceptance of scapegoating and white supremacy by voting for Trump. In 2017, instead of embracing more aggressive campaigns to better educate workers or organize the unorganized, New Jersey’s union officials took the shortcut, circled the wagons and went for Wall Street.  Now we will see what they can make of their victory.

Will the two-party system retain the allegiance of urban professionals, managers and affluent suburbanites as the multiple crisis of environmental destruction, war, inequality and corporate control continue to deepen?  Its hard to say. Many individuals from both groups already do the right thing.  If their complicity with and support for the corporate order can be weakened, even a little, it could mean a lot.  The best way to force their hand however is by exerting pressure and leadership from below.

The Green Party is a Poor People’s Party

The primary problem with the 2017 Green party campaign for governor of New Jersey was the lack of resources. All other problems were secondary.

The Green Party could not have hoped for better candidates and staff.  Given the progressive, visionary, and hardworking leadership of Seth Kaper-Dale, Lisa Durden and campaign manager Geoff Herzog, I think it is safe to say that great candidates are a necessary but not sufficient part of a run at major office

The Green Party has the values, principle and platform to win. The Sanders campaign proved that. Sanders offered a less complete version of the Green Party values to a public more than ready to hear it despite media censorship and a rigged election.

The Greens have it all except a convincing path to power and the resources to make it real.

Too few volunteers and too little money limited the Green Party’s ability to really test the strategy of reaching out to the young and the largely black and brown working-class communities.  The focus on the most exploited and oppressed was not simply the result of a grand analysis but was the product of face-to-face interactions with people from the outset. People of color and younger voters from all backgrounds were the most likely to take our fliers, talk with us a bit, look us in the eye and thank us for our efforts.

And, we should not forget that Kaper-Dale/Durden did get the endorsement of two local Our Revolution chapters and two civil rights organizations. An unknown but surely substantial number of our 10,000 votes were from immigrant and anti-racist activists, Berners and social-democrats and young people hoping for a better life.  The Jabari Brisport campaign in NYC also suggests a coalition with DSA and Our Revolution is well worth exploring.

The Green strategy was twofold: outreach to the unrepresented and discouraged working class and to other progressives.

The team was approximately 100 people with about a third who made major commitments of time, energy and money. A real run at power would have required a minimum of ten times that much: 1,000 volunteers with 300 ready to devote serious resources to the campaign.

This begs the question: How can progressive campaigns dramatically increase their resources?

It’s Deep Organizing or Deep Trouble 

One possible answer is to conduct electoral campaigns much more like social movements. If the Green Party is going to have successful runs at major office it will be to the degree that it becomes the electoral wing of the social movements.  Can we organize the unorganized?

First, we must bring a culture of organizing into electoral politics and then fuse the Green Party with the kind of social movement organizing that continues outside of elections.

For electoral organizing, progressives might start two years out from the election with a series of listening sessions hosted by local leaders from various communities — urban, rural, small town and suburban. Based upon these listening sessions party activists could go on to help people form organizations suited to their needs or support existing ones. These might be community groups to advocate for their neighborhoods at city hall or service organizations to fill urgent community needs. Electoral reform groups, tenants unions, environmental groups, civil rights groups, Green Party chapters — a victorious campaign might be built on any number of organizations. But, there must be “structure” or what Martin Luther King called “units of power.”  It’s about building power, not just speaking truth to power. Each community should develop leadership, strategy and units of power based on their own needs.

Given the dismal turnout it would also be wise to aim for an intermediate goal. While we failed to get 5% for Jill Stein, having a strategic goal helped people understand why their participation mattered. Progressives could launch our own “Fight for 15%” as a way of giving people a handle on the value of sending a powerful message still short of total victory. A 15% turnout in a major election would deliver real power forcing the two parties to move toward the people or face the consequences.

This takes time, a lot of time. The lesson of the Green Party New Jersey Gubernatorial race is that a two year campaign would be absolute minimum and only if it is also based on a foundation of ongoing community organizing. It’s a high bar and I wish it were easier but nothing short of a serious long-term organizing approach will prevail against the most deeply entrenched political machines in the world.

Only millions of people can make history. For progressives that means mobilizing the latent power of the occasion and discouraged voters of every class and color. Most people in the US no longer have faith in the system but no convincing alternative has yet to emerge.  And that alternative can only be created with the energy and power of millions dedicated to challenging power and disrupting existing forms of social control. Getting the people back into politics and the money out will take deep organizing and persistence in the face of defeat.

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Richard Moser writes at befreedom.co where this article first appeared.

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