Accountability and Structure: Building Coalition with the RPA to Build the Party We Need

  • Statement about: Jovanka Beckles and Gayle McLaughlin
  • For these candidates: I support a strong endorsement with a commitment to "boots on the ground" support from DSA.
  • Summary: Accountability is about structure. RPA has built an admirable organization: a partnership will expand our own power, as well as theirs.

Written by East Bay DSA member Mary Virginia Watson

One of the most important concerns raised about endorsing Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) candidates Gayle McLaughlin and Jovanka Beckles is that we will not be able to hold them accountable. I certainly share this concern. A lack of accountability in elected representatives is a central feature of the experience of being a working class political subject under capitalism, where we are coerced into a clientelistic relationship with politicians who cajole us for our votes, only to sell us out.

Like many DSAers, I came to DSA through a local Jacobin reading group. In an excellent and influential article in their fall 2016 issue, Seth Ackerman lays out the many challenges socialists face in confronting the current system of 2 dominant capitalist parties, which have colluded to make ballot line qualification a quixotic proposition for third parties. Ackerman also takes aim at the entrepreneurial form of politics in the U.S. system, in which parties are “internally mobilized”, meaning that entrepreneurial candidates declare their intentions to run, then go about trying to recruit a “base” by making a set of promises to which many of their clients have very little power to hold them accountable.

Ackerman contrasts this to what he calls “externally mobilized” parties, formed by ordinary people from outside the system, who share interests and recruit their own candidates, and proposes a vision for a substantively democratic party, in which an “organization’s membership, program, and leadership are bound together tightly by a powerful, mutually reinforcing connection.” In this model, a party is a real organization, with members “its sovereign power”: they have a real stake and a real voice, coming together to choose their own leaders and candidates from among their membership, debate priorities, and develop a program that their elected officials will be expected to push. Once in office, elected leaders are then accountable to the members of the party, as they rely on that organization for re-election.

I think this is the kind of organization we must create if we are to build socialist power, but electoralism is of course not enough. The RPA shows us that a strategy that combines the Ackerman model with organizing that builds extra-electoral power is not only absolutely necessary to win big gains that undercut capitalist power, but it can also break down the clientelism rampant in our representative government, and create a relationship of mutual collaboration and accountability between elected representatives and the communities they represent.

Central to the RPA’s success is an internal democratic structure that keeps elected officials accountable and members engaged. RPA members democratically elect their own members to run for office, and come together to deliberate and decide on priorities. Once in office, RPA elected officials consult with elected leadership and members on policy priorities and positions, and strategize to build campaigns around issues they know will be tough to win. (See labor journalist and long-time DSA member Steve Early’s book Refinery Town for more background on RPA.)

As Gayle McLaughlin noted in her speech at our informational meeting, the RPA is not just an electoral organization, they organize year-round, often in strategic coalitions with other base-building community groups, such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).

I participated in their Fair & Affordable Housing coalition to win rent control in Richmond and saw first-hand how the coalition used a variety of tactics--rent strikes, confrontational marches on slumlords, giant turnout to City Council meetings, and lots and lots of canvassing--to get out their message and get out the vote for a rent control ballot measure and RPA candidates. It was some of the most rewarding canvassing that I have done outside the DSA, as we talked to voters about their housing insecurity, and introduced them to candidates who shared their concerns and would make sure the ballot measure was fairly implemented, easily connecting issues to candidates. I think we can do something similar with healthcare if we choose to endorse Jovanka and Gayle.

Because all RPA candidates refuse any corporate funding, they are uniquely reliant on their organization--their members’ willingness to walk their neighborhoods and organize fellow community members--to remain in office. East Bay DSA is uniquely situated to help the RPA in an area where they are lacking in organizational strength. While the RPA has built a significant base in Richmond, they will need a lot of help in Berkeley and North Oakland, where we have established district canvassing groups and have hundreds of members we could mobilize to help get out the vote.

As socialists, we understand that accountability isn’t about the individual morality of a politician, but about their structural context. It is clear to me that the RPA has created a structure that ensures a collaborative relationship between elected officials and membership, and is focused on building working class power. Now they are reaching out to EBDSA to invite us to partner with them. I believe this is a chance to demonstrate, test, and build up our own power to become a political force in the Bay Area, while at the same time expanding the power of an organization that shares many of our values and is doing good work that we admire. I urge members to vote to endorse both Jovanka and Gayle with significant resources, defined as integrating canvassing for their races into our already-existing Single-payer work.

The statement above is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the opinions of East Bay DSA, its local council, or its members.