In any given society, the dominant ideas are those which serve the ruling class. As such, in a capitalist democracy, concepts about how electoral campaigns should function will reflect the needs and experiences of the ruling class. It is only natural that when the US Left finally embraced electoral politics in the aftermath of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, it also absorbed many of the ruling class’ perspectives and strategies regarding electoral campaigns.
Based on the concrete experience of electoral campaigns in Chicago from 2018-2022, I’d like to lay out some observations in the hopes that they may benefit current and future campaigns as we continue to both study, and gain ground, in the electoral field of struggle. In order to do this, I’d like to outline various concepts we’ve inherited from the ruling class and contrast them with what we’ve learned.
“A political platform has to appeal to voters.”
This is only partially true. Obviously, a platform has to be relevant, based on current or recent issues. But mainly, a platform should be based on current or recent movements. The reason being that a platform should primarily be used to inspire and mobilize volunteers. The volunteers then mobilize the voters. Remember, voters themselves are extremely fickle. 8 years of Bill Clinton were followed by 8 years of George Bush Jr, followed by 8 years of Barack Obama, then 4 years of Trump. In other words, voters are inconsistent. Conversely, political volunteers tend to be politically stable.
Grassroots movements, by definition, can never outspend our competition. Instead, we have to rely on volunteers. But electoral campaigns are long, exhausting ordeals with a high likelihood of failure. In places like Chicago, they are also frigid. In order for people to willingly volunteer for a long, exhausting, and frigid ordeal: they have to really believe in the campaign. Since most people are politically inspired by movements (i.e. Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the 2020 Uprising, etc.), then any grassroots campaign has to tap into the politics of those movements.
This has the advantage of not only appealing to voters that are already sympathetic to given struggles, but it also pulls in volunteers that are already battle-tested organizers within those struggles. Additionally, this means that a platform should be able to attract support from entire organizations, as well, like teachers unions, socialist groups, feminist groups, etc.
While bourgeois campaigns will try to appeal to voters through shallow politics, ads, and candidate personalities, the grassroots volunteers will go out to people’s doors and try to win them over to the politics of the campaign. In other words, the volunteers can help reshape the political landscape and shift political debate further to the left in ways that paid advertisements and paid canvassers simply can’t.
Just think of the way that both the 2020 Uprising and years of left-wing organizing in Chicago led to major defeats for pro-cop candidates, and landslide victories for perceived “defund” candidates, on June 28 and November 8, as well as the +90% approval for Treatment Not Trauma, and the successful passing of the Pretrial Fairness Act. This was the result of movements and canvassers re-shaping public opinion in spite of constant, racist, fear-mongering about crime on TV, radio, and social media.
So the question isn’t, “what kind of platform will appeal to voters”? It is, “what kind of platform will appeal to individual volunteers and organizations who will then go out and win over voters”?
“A politician is accountable to their constituents.”
Again, this is only partially true. Obviously, a politician in a seat that has any administrative duties must fulfill those administrative duties for everyone in their jurisdiction. For example, a Chicago alderman needs to keep ward services functioning across the ward. But again, when it comes to political questions, voting patterns, etc: the politician is primarily accountable to the people who volunteered for them.
If a grassroots campaign lives or dies based on the ability to mobilize volunteers, then a politician’s behavior in office has to reinforce the volunteer’s trust. If someone campaigns on a platform based on movement demands, but then goes on to betray those movements while in office, then they’re unlikely to re-mobilize that base. In which case, they’ll have to either find a new base or flounder.
When it comes to “holding someone accountable”, Chicago holds some interesting insights. So far, discussions of accountability tend to revolve around how an organization should “discipline” or “punish” a politician for voting one way or another. But if we use Chicago’s 2019 aldermanic elections as an example, it’s clear that no organization single-handedly won office for any of the socialist or progressive aldermen that took office. Which means that the people who won office in 2016 owe their success to a coalition of organizations. This also means they would need to be held accountable by that coalition.
Accountability isn’t just about discipline, it’s also about support and decision-making. If a coalition of organizations collaborated to get someone into office, it is also in their interest to defend and support the candidate while they are in office. If we consider the pressures a politician faces when making big decisions, then the coalition of organizations could also create a space to democratically discuss how a politician should vote on a given issue or handle a given crisis, thereby relieving some of the pressure from the politician… and behaving like a political party.
If organizations coming together to get someone elected, collectively serving as a space to hold them accountable, support them, and help them figure out how to handle given situations isn’t a party: then I don’t know what is.
So a politician isn’t accountable to all constituents, but to the volunteers and organizations that got them elected.
“In elections: winning is everything.”
This is false. Obviously, when anyone engages in any struggle (i.e. elections, unionizing, protesting, mutual aid, etc.) they should aim to win. But we can’t fall into the bourgeois deception that we hear every four years: “this is the most important election of our lives”, “this year, democracy itself is on the ballot”, etc. Life goes on after every election.
To be clear, everyone does love a winner. But if winnability was what mattered most, then people would only join a campaign after it had won. But winnability isn’t what inspires people: it’s the desire to pick a fight. Struggle itself is what activates people that would otherwise stay on the sidelines. This is true of movements just as it is for elections.
The idea that “winning is everything” is not only false, but dangerous. It can lead some campaigns to hide or sell out their politics, in the hopes that they will appeal to a wider swath of voters, causing them to forget that it’s the volunteers that they need to appeal to. It can also lead campaigns to make alliances with toxic people or groups in the misguided hopes that these toxic characters will provide them support, without realizing that such alliances can erode trust from the volunteer base.
The reality is that elections will come and go, they will be won and lost. But elections, like all forms of struggle, are ultimately about one thing: getting people organized. If you organize a protest, build a union, or set up mutual aid: you meet people, build trust together, and trade contact info. Elections are no different. Whether or not you win an election, you need to build trust with, and keep in contact with, the people you meet. Ideally pulling them into an organization or working with them to form an organization.
In 2015, Tim Meegan ran for alderman in Chicago’s 33rd ward. While the campaign lost, it was able to inspire so many core volunteers and get so close to a runoff, that the volunteers decided to form a ward organization: 33rd Ward Working Families (33WF). Instead of being demoralizing, the electoral defeat led to organizational inspiration. 33WF has gone on to work with other organizations in the ward to help with immigration defense, tenant defense, and much more. All of this culminated in the election of Rossana Rodriguez as 33rd ward alderwoman in 2019, and we’re now on the re-election trail for 2023.
So winning isn’t everything in elections. Meeting people and getting them organized is the priority. That kind of priority paradoxically makes it more likely to build the kind of campaign that can win.
In Chicago, we have a historic number of aldermen that have decided to retire rather than run for re-election. After four years of contending with a small, but committed, group of socialists and progressives in city council, many of these machine candidates have decided they don’t have the stomach for the struggle. Dialectically, this has also inspired even more insurgent leftist candidates to run for city council. In other words, the electoral field of struggle is one that will continue to be engaged by more and more people. This means we need to study our campaigns honestly to understand and learn from them.
The common thread is that there is a distinction between an electoral campaign, the base of that campaign (the individual volunteers and volunteer organizations), and the electorate itself.
Building out this base, inspiring them, and keeping their trust is essential. In turn, they will be ones that are able to win over and mobilize the voters. This base is also both the group that a politician is accountable to and the group that should help politicians in decision-making. Win or lose, prioritizing the building of this base is what will persist beyond individual election cycles, and ultimately help us build a political party of our own.