By Mike Parker
Socialists view inequality, social oppression, environmental destruction, and threat of war as inherent in our social system. We have to go beyond some reforms to the system and think in terms of how we change it. Elections are an important opportunity because, at least nominally, they put some questions of political power on the agenda for people we have to reach. But elections also serve to legitimize the system and those who rule. How we use them has to be considered carefully.
The "Good Candidate"
In the U.S., the prevailing view is that we should elect candidates based on character, ability, and record. We are supposed to look for people who know about public policy, know the players, have experience in the system, know how to think for themselves, and know how to "get things done." Or at least we look for a list of proper positions on key issues. "We should elect a good candidate and they will represent us in office. They will provide clean, rational policies that speak to our needs." A classic example is the "progressive" East Bay Express recently endorsing Buffy Wicks and Dan Kalb. According to the Express, Buffy has some "good ideas" about housing and Kalb is a wonk who can write good legislation.
But this conception of "good candidates" itself is part of the problem—it both reflects and strengthens the idea that the social-political system itself is fundamentally good and just needs some good people with the right ideas to solve any imbalances.
Nor does the election of "good candidates" produce progress toward a challenge to the system. It didn't work with Obama, it didn't work with the people elected from AD15, or our state senatorial district: Skinner and Thurmond, for example, both voted yes on the legislation that stripped our victory at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to roll back pollution. Voters elect "good people" who then disappoint us. In some districts it's worse than others but as a whole we have witnessed a political system moving closer to the interests of big corporations.
This, in part, explains the appeal of Trump and is one reason so many have just given up the battle for social change.
Positions on Issues
And what about stands on issues? Won't that weed out the true progressives from the corporate liberals? In the first place, candidates who are only concerned about getting themselves elected tell voters what they want to hear. Take for example the recent scorecard on candidates in the 15th Assembly District below. Some differences appear when you ask about corporate contributions but of course candidates are prepared with weasel statements. Like the promise not to take contributions from "bad" corporations like Tobacco and Oil (as though developers were not also driven by profits over people).
But the formal replies on the issues are not much help in distinguishing the candidates. You might get some hint of the real orientation of the candidates when you see how they talk to people who may not share these progressive positions. When the candidates spoke to Contra Costa Black Democrats for example only Jovanka was clear that she was for a moratorium on charter schools and a complete repeal of Costa-Hawkins. Most implied opposition but shift to talking about reforms that might be more "realistic." Even Wicks, clearly the candidate of corporate liberalism, presents herself as a progressive champion.
As for Gayle's race, the Lt. Governor's race has seen a flood of TV ads telling us that Eleni Kounalakis will fight for the people. Yes, while she is funded by her developer family working through the California Medical Association.
But the problem is not just the influence of money during election season. The fundamental problem with our political system is that economic power translates to political power in many ways, long before and after elections. Corporations control the culture of government. Thanks to the revolving door between government administration, lobbyists, and well-financed think tanks, a kind of patronage system keeps government officials in line.
Corporate influence is also embedded in the realities of "party politics" required to get complex bills through the legislature. Once elected to the state legislature for example, new representatives immediately have to think in terms of getting re-elected in two years. Not only does the Party leadership control access to corporate backers for money, they also control the ability to get even a hearing on legislation. An elected official trying to work the system becomes dependent on the party apparatus to get bills through so they can look like they have accomplished something and thus are pulled into the corporate control orbit. Even if a lot of Democratic legislators are good people with good intentions, the Democratic Party is highly disciplined and usually corporate influence is dominant. A candidate who does not go along with the party program is made to look ineffective and isolated. The Party makes sure that legislators go along with the program or lose Party support in the next election.
Further, corporations control the economy. No amount of state legislation can force a developer to build affordable housing. They have to be induced with tax breaks and other favorable legislation. A "capital strike"—holding off investment to show lack of confidence in government policy—means unemployment and misery. A politician that wants to look good will avoid provoking the hostility of business in action even while using corporate control rhetoric.
All of this together is how corporations control our politics. It is why, although we keep electing "good people" to office, we are eventually disappointed. Once elected, they become part of the system rather than leaders in changing the system.
System Change—not "Work the System"
The only way out of this sad state of affairs is to elect candidates who play by a different set of rules—who will help build a movement with real power and self-consciousness that can challenge corporate domination of society. That means building alternative organization that is not dependent on the corporate power that rules in Sacramento.
So for us, the primary consideration in selecting a "good candidate" must be: is the candidate committed to building and organizing people power? Is that what the campaign will be about?
Does the candidate recognize that the culture and network of our political institutions are dominated by corporate power and philosophy? Does the candidate reject the idea that they are taking office to "work with other politicians" and see their job as using the office to help build a movement outside the established machine that can force changes? Who will the candidate and then elected official look to for direction and support? Is the candidate clear that the fundamental struggle in society is around the class divide and knows clearly what side she is on?
We need elected officials who tell people that elected officials won't save them. What we need are leaders that are part of a movement that builds power to force government agencies to respond.
What separates Jovanka from the eight other AD15 candidates and Gayle from those in her race who claim to have the same progressive positions on key issues? Their opponents are all committed to working within the system—especially the Democratic Party. In candidate forums, a common answer to questions about what the candidate will do if elected is a description of how they will work the system to get particular pieces of legislation through. Jovanka and Gayle have committed to building an independent political force based on the organizations and needs of working people, and others oppressed by this system, to force political change.
The mainstream approach is to assume that the system is fundamentally good and only needs a few good ideas to fix some things. The candidacies of Jovanka and Gayle start with the assumption that the system is fundamentally broken, that the problem is power and interests rather than a lack of ideas, and that the job of leaders is to help build political power for working people.
It Must Continue After the Election
It is not just a question of building a movement that can win an election victory against overwhelming odds. We have seen that it is possible and we have to do that again. Once elected, an official needs research and knowledge that can successfully challenge the dominant corporate culture. Most importantly, the movement also must be capable of organizing mass support to see issues through against well-funded and well-organized opposition and the weight of a corporate-dominated culture. It requires mass mobilizations and direct action to back up progressive officials and force legislation through. Our biggest job begins after the election.
There are no guarantees when fighting such a powerful and corrupt system. A victory in the election only opens new possibilities. When Gayle and Jovanka win we have to build the force for them to support and which in turn can support them. The candidates must be as committed to and responsible to the movement as the movement must have the backs of those it elects.
The community must see elected officials not as "good" or "smart" individual politicians but as spokespeople and representatives of a movement for change. Likewise the candidates and staff must share this view. That will mean finding staff for the officials who do not see the job as personal ladders for advancement in the power structure. The elected officials and staff must see themselves as responsible and accountable to the movements that put them in office.
We are in this to win the election. But even were we to lose the election, a campaign that is about building ongoing political organization is still ahead. It has gained experience, a reputation, and organizational strength that can be used in ongoing struggles as well as the next elections. And a victory, with the right candidates, committed to building the movement, gives us the opportunity to use the resources of the office as an organizing center. The office becomes truly the voice of the working class and oppressed—a bully pulpit to expose the corruption and the power behind the real government and spread the alternative possibility: socialism.
Mike Parker is a longtime socialist and union activist. He's a member of East Bay DSA based in Richmond, California and has been a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. In 2014, he ran for mayor of Richmond as part of an RPA slate that included Gayle McLaughlin, Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez for Council. He is author of Democracy is Power published by Labor Notes.