Practicing Electoral Politics

  • 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: We can learn how to run an accountable, grassroots campaign from RPA before doing it ourselves, and show our strength a little in the process

Written by East Bay DSA member Jamie Gardner

I support endorsing Jovanka Beckles with substantial resources, and Gayle McLaughlin with minimal resources.

There are a number of thoughtful arguments from comrades opposing endorsement, but the one that floats to the top most often is about accountability--that while Beckles and McLaughlin seem like lovely people, we should not endorse any candidate for public office until EBDSA is large and influential enough to ensure that any candidate we back would require our ongoing support. However, I think this sets us up for very unbalanced organizational development, requiring us to develop huge organizational muscles before using them to take our first steps into a major political arena.

Electoral politics has a steep learning curve. Some skills, such as talking to neighbors about issues, crafting messaging, organizing public events & etc can be transferred to electoral work fairly smoothly by any comrade who wishes to do so. But those aren't enough to run a successful campaign. Our electoral system is designed to favor experts and to place huge hurdles in front of political newcomers. An honest accident in recording campaign donations can be a significant crime, and we should assume that the existing state power would not be especially forgiving of socialist campaigns' mistakes. Fundraising filings, rules around voter registration drives, norms and rules around seeking endorsements--all these constitute technical expertise needed to run a successful campaign, skills which we would have to build ourselves, from scratch, in a very public forum, if we chose to stay out of electoral politics until the day DSA is (hopefully!) large enough to constitute its own political party.

The many of us who have been embedded in local politics long-term need exposure to bigger, broader campaigns to learn the contours of the existing political landscape outside of our own circles. The Richmond Progressive Alliance has built a very powerful, but localized, political machine one of the most democratic and accountable models in America. If you agree that, as an organization, we may eventually want to run our own candidates for office with a real chance to win, and to do so without them being totally absorbed into the capitalist political machine, I can't imagine a better way to build those skills within our own organization than to encourage any interested comrades to volunteer with RPA-endorsed candidates.

There is one more point I want to address, that is, why engage in electoral politics at all? The bounds of what any elected official can do are very circumscribed by law and existing power structures, no matter how well-intentioned she may be. Electing Jovanka will not bring us socialism. She probably will never even be able to deliver most of her ambitious platform, unless there is a sea change in the state legislature. So why bother? When we take on issue campaigns that require some elected official to act, why not simply focus our efforts on whoever is in office at the time?

It's been my experience, working for about 6 years on local issue campaigns in my hometown, that elected officials can safely ignore almost any amount of public pressure or bad publicity that does not threaten their jobs. Part of the beauty of the RPA model is that they've successfully wedded electoral campaigns to issue campaigns; they can pick major issues and credibly threaten to unseat city council members who oppose their agenda. Jovanka's major opponents will likely be Dan Kalb (a milquetoast city councilman) and Buffy Wicks (Hillary Clinton's state campaign manager, who's already looking to cast herself as the Hillary to Beckles' Bernie).

Defeating them would reveal the lie that the people prefer centrist democrats to anyone further left. Given that EBDSA has a thriving neighborhood group in Kalb's own district, our participation in particular could establish us as a force to be reckoned with, a political group able to end the careers of rising corporate democrats who get in our way. That's a reputation we could take into many fights to come, on any issue we choose. And in the process, our members gain skills to take into future electoral work, the north-east bay gets a representative eager to win expanded tenant's rights and worker's rights. It's just one block in the tower, but it helps us build.

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.