By: Danielle Corcione, James Yeun, and Ariel Diliberto
In the United States today, election results do not represent the will, or number, of the people who live here. Marginalized voters, year after year, are intentionally excluded from our so-called democratic process. Through voter suppression of marginalized people, voting in a capitalist system becomes of interest to anyone who benefits from capitalism—particularly, the ruling class.
American capitalism was built on the basis of stolen (African) labor and stolen (Indigenous) land and resources, and U.S. “democracy” was established to exclude Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized people. Still today, Black people are constantly barred from the right to vote, especially but not exclusively in the South, due to restrictive voter ID laws. Indigenous people on tribal land cannot vote because they do not have a street address, per similar voter ID laws.
Many immigrants, including refugees, also cannot vote because they are not citizens, despite being regularly attacked on our soil. Many, formerly or currently, incarcerated people have been stripped of the right to vote. Transgender people face discrimination at the polls when their gender presentation doesn’t match their ID. Disabled people, especially those with mobile disabilities, may struggle to even get to the polls due to the inaccessibility of public transit. Marginalized people of overlapping identities, such as Black and Indigenous women of color, often experience multiple of these hurdles.
The 2018 midterm election cycle illustrates the high level, and political stakes, of voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the U.S. Democrat Stacey Abrams of Georgia sought to become the country’s first Black woman governor, but in many historically Black neighborhoods, such as Atlanta’s Pittman Park, many voters were turned away on Election Day due to long lines at the booths. And in October of 2018, the Supreme Court sided with a restrictive voter ID law proposed in North Dakota, that requires voters to have proof of a street address—P.O. boxes don’t count—in order to cast their votes. As a result, Indigenous voters living on tribal land suffered from massive disenfranchisement.
Had these marginalized populations been able to vote, the 2018 election results may have more accurately represented the needs and wants of people living in our country. But a system—even if it includes popular elections—founded on slavery and genocide, maintained by border policing, fueled by mass incarceration, and rooted in colonial gender roles, cannot benefit marginalized people because it serves the rich. Election after election, marginalized people who are disenfranchised are reminded that their voices are not only unwelcome, but are erased by an electoral process which nonetheless claims to ensure that the will of the people is represented in government.
The clear falseness of this claim, compounded by a lack of civic education and the US’ failure to make Election Day a federal holiday, explains why tremendous numbers of marginalized people who could vote choose not to vote. The electoral system and elected officials operate at a distance from their needs and interests, and therefore many people feel voting doesn’t have an impact on their day to day lives.
This context gives rise to a variety of strategies. Some, especially liberal, organizations and individuals seek to elect candidates committed to fighting voter suppression. Sometimes, these campaigns are successful. But an electoral campaign to fight voter suppression excludes the marginalized and working class people that cannot vote in said elections. The campaign base for such an electoral effort is therefore different from the base of, largely working class, people who stand to benefit the most from its victory.
Even providing adequate civic education in our schools and declaring Election Day a federal holiday will not solve our voting woes as long as American democracy is set up to dissuade people from participating in the political process. Any progressive electoral strategy has to grapple with this contradiction: in the US today, the majority of people who will be most affected by the adoption of pro-worker, anti-racist legislation are unlikely to, and often cannot, be directly involved in electoral campaigns as potential voters. For those, like members of Philly Socialists, who seek a restructuring of society on the basis of the interests of the working and oppressed majority, a strategy which seeks to modify the status quo in favor of that majority but which does not include its mass self-organization is not viable, because it does not build independent working class power.
We know that our electoral system doesn’t have to be set up this way. The United States doesn’t have to be an anti-democratic society. Capitalism is optional—but we have to develop strategies that prove that, so that a base of the working class can be built and organized.
(Re)build the Base
The point isn’t whether electoralism—the strategy of electing candidates into political office—is inherently bourgeois. Our rejection of electoralism is rooted in an alternate strategy: base-building. The major strategic concern of base-building is rebuilding a direct connection between socialists and the rest of the working-class to help foster the working-class’s political independence.
The reasons are many, but the fact remains: the Left is nearly completely detached from its working-class base. Historically, this connection allowed the Left to mobilize and directly involve a significant section of our class in class struggle. Rebuilding this connection means regaining political legitimacy within broad sections of the class. To regain legitimacy will not be easy, but it will be impossible if the Left does not commit to the long-term strategy of building deep, trust-based relationships with our constituents.
To build these relationships, we need a Left that can deliver real material gains for the working-class. Often, electoralism cannot deliver in the regular and consistent ways that working-class people need. For example, evictions happen daily while proposed bills languish in City Hall. We can take direct action to protect tenants from evictions (legal or illegal) and provide direct services to our communities. Where laws can be passed in support of such efforts, they should be passed and, in those cases, politicians play a role. Pursuing an exclusively electoral strategy, however, means abandoning class struggle outside of the electoral arena, as well as the possibility to organize with a section of the working-class which does not, or simply cannot, vote.
Our primary concern is how electoralism mediates our relationship with the rest of the working-class. Of course, there are benefits that can be accrued by a successful election: expanded organizational capacity, more amenable conditions for reform, and simply victory for one’s constituents. But who is delivering? In the context of elections, the Left is weak and a minority coalition partner. When politicians are elected, it is not the Left but our more dominant liberal-Democratic coalition partners who claim the electoral victory, and therefore they gain legitimacy through our efforts.
In contrast to an exclusively electoral strategy, therefore, we organize on the basis of a strategy embodied by the struggle of the Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU). On December 6th 2018, the PTU won its main legislative demand, Good Cause eviction protections, which provides tenants on month-to-month leases with protections against arbitrary evictions. However, for two years, the PTU found little traction for Good Cause among elected officials, and relied on tackling individual tenant and building fights to build its membership and capacity. When the law faltered, the union provided, earning the loyalty of its membership. This dual strategy of advocacy and direct action provided the PTU with the independent political strength to act outside of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party machine. The PTU is not acting as a minority voice in a broad grassroots coalition, but as the dominant force. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its activist core initially rebuffed the PTU for its militancy and choice of an “unwinnable” reform. Two years later, the Democratic Party did not deliver this reform; the PTU did.
Given all this, what does an effective electoral project look like? First, an electoral campaign should be pursued in the context of a robust program of non-electoral base-building projects. The aim should be to devise a strategy which can generate political power outside of the election cycle and State. This allows a socialist organization to deliver material gains more consistently, rebuild legitimacy within our class, and build independent power. An electoral strategy should flow from a base-building strategy, not the other way around. Second, we should not be organizing campaigns on Democratic Party ballot lines. We do not need to participate in the election of progressive Democrats to win reforms and, certainly, do not need them to directly serve the people. Further, while winning elections can support the legitimation of political movements, as minority coalition partners, we do little to rebuild our political legitimacy and more to buttress the legitimacy of the Democrat’s progressive wing when those campaigns are pursued on the Democrats’ ballot line. Quite simply, we do not have the political strength to launch electoral campaigns either independently or within the Democratic Party—and quite honestly we don’t need to. By building our independent power through a dual strategy of agitating around specific reforms and direct action, we can both improve the material conditions and earn legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the working-class.
More conventional electoral strategies have benefits. Campaigning directly for an official may contribute to the process of legitimizing socialism and building the capacity of our organizations. But it is our belief that the primary cost of a standard progressive electoral strategy—the failure to build an independent political base in the working-class–would represent a fatal error for the Left in the present moment.
Power comes from the base
To what end do we build an organized base of poor and working class people? Philly Socialists’ dual power approach builds power outside the electoral system to build a working-class movement that can seize power for itself. It recognizes that without a powerful, organized, mass organization, any elected candidate will lack accountability and have only the tools of the capitalist state at their disposal.
We build power outside the electoral system by creating our own institutions and programs. And it is through these, not primarily through electoral efforts, that we build a mass base for socialist politics. Our projects directly meet people’s material needs by “serving the people and fighting the power.”
Philly Socialists’ projects, like our free English Second Language (ESL) classes, the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, the Prison Project, and Dignity–our new cross-workplace organizing project, give people a tangible way to become part of a mass movement. People participate through their labor, and through working together they build relationships and a shared political consciousness.
Further, those we serve and organize with receive benefits the capitalist state has failed to provide. When it comes down to, “who showed up with me in landlord-tenant court?” Or, “who cleared the contractor waste off that land and turned it into a garden?” Or “who covered our issue that the mainstream press has ignored?” The answer is: the socialists. Eventually, when people become part of the movement, the answer becomes: it was us.
Our projects themselves are also politicized. The César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden is not a do-gooder beautification project or misguided attempt to feed an entire neighborhood. It is our land redistribution project; we seized the land from negligent private owners and distributed it back to the neighborhood in the form of a public good. We’re gearing up for a land tenure fight as the garden’s land has recently become desirable to speculators and developers, bringing the political nature of the garden sharply into focus.
Another example is our student branches at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Organizing with students provides terrain to contest from within two of the largest corporations in Philadelphia, and to break down divisions between indebted students and working-class neighbors displaced due to university-fueled gentrification, allowing them to refocus on shared enemies. Drexel Socialists is running a direct action campaign against the property management company whicho intentionally misled and then punitively took to court a tenant in their privately-run student housing. It is the same company that mass evicted low-income tenants in a nearby apartment building (to convert them to luxury units), in which the Tenants Union intervened.
We are of course not the progenitors of this approach. Many movements have employed serve the people/fight the power projects, the most well-known example being the Black Panther Party.
In Philly Socialists, we also model the kind of democratic norms and mechanisms of accountability which do not exist in our electoral system. Our members voting for our leadership is part of our polity, but by no means its totality. We have a constitution written by and for members, which we amend every year by majority vote. We have an open budget, and term limits for elected leaders. Additionally, we have processes for leadership development and for recalling leaders, and open leadership meetings and minutes. The membership is considered the highest decision-making body in the organization and all major decisions must go through it.
Philly Socialists’ democratic structures stand in contrast to our electoral system, in which constituents have no mechanisms through which to hold elected officials accountable. Campaign promises can evaporate without recourse. This is why democratic institutions and structures outside the state are necessary, and why we have built one. As our movement grows, Philly Socialists will be in a position to use our own internal democratic norms as a means of holding potential movement candidates accountable to our membership. In the meantime, our commitment to working class independence has set us up to hold elected officials accountable outside of electoral politics: through public pressure and direct action.
For example, Philly Socialists was instrumental in the coalition that organized the occupation in front of the local Immigrants, Customs, and Enforcement (ICE) building in July 2018, which led Mayor Kenney to end the City’s agreement to share the Philadelphia Police Department’s arrest database with ICE.
Despite having a “pro-immigrant” mayor in office who once called Philadelphia a Sanctuary City, and the fact that immigrants rights groups had advocated for an end to this agreement for years, there was inaction on the issue until leftist groups took to the streets. The occupation lasted several weeks. Its disruptive nature meant that coverage of it was everywhere in the press, always with the clear demand of ending the contract. Police brutality against the protest drew more media attention and garnered more public sympathy for protesters. Mayor Kenney was forced to cancel the contract; the coalition had made it so that renewing would have been political suicide for a “pro-immigrant” mayor.
During Occupy ICE, Philly Socialists deployed the infrastructure we’ve built to support the occupation: our material resources and people power, jail support infrastructure, trained protest marshalls and medics, social media reach, and press coverage through The Philadelphia Partisan, our quarterly journal.
In some ways, Occupy ICE was the realization of the strategic choice we had previously made not to participate in electoral politics. Back in 2015, rather than spend time campaigning for the now-Mayor, we spent the year doing project work to build our base and institutions. In the summer of 2018, we were able to use what we built to wage a direct action campaign to pass a reform that will have an immediate impact by protecting immigrants from ICE. If we had spent 2015 campaigning for elected officials, we would have no base to mobilize and no ability to pressure the Mayor to keep his campaign promises.
Through the example of District Attorney Larry Krasner, Philadelphia has also seen the limits of electing progressives when they only have the tools of the capitalist state at their disposal. While Krasner is reform-minded, he still must use the mechanisms of the criminal injustice system—a paradigm that has been documented in both The Philadelphia Partisan and The New York Times.
When our democratic institutions and mass base are built up sufficiently, then we may consider supporting or running candidates of our own. Through the democratic structures we’ve built, candidates would be accountable to our base: working-class people with whom we interface beyond the electoral system, voters, non-voters, and the disenfranchised. Candidates would also be able to use the institutions we’ve built outside of the capitalist state to promote a socialist agenda. For example, deep organizing with and creation of construction unions could then be mobilized by a socialist elected official to build City-run affordable housing.
Elections are often seen as the obvious site for political activity because people in the U.S. are conditioned to think of them as the sum total of political engagement, and because they come with a fixed timeline and clear strategies that lead toward an obvious “win.” But the needs of the working-class are broader than the electoral system allows. Movements that focus on electoral campaigns miss the opportunity to build meaningful, long-term, trust-based relationships with large sections of working and marginalized people by focusing only on those who can, and do, vote. They also fail to develop their own independent political structures, leaving them ill-prepared to act without the support of either the State or elected officials.
The recent focus by some socialist organizations on tangible project-based work has united parts of the Left and pushed past anachronistic factional divisions. Philly Socialists has collaborated and learned from leftist organizations in other cities and their approach to base-building. We hope to expand on these connections through Marxist Center, a national network of socialist organizations committed to a base-building model.
Whether they are affiliated with Marxist Center or not, we advocate for other socialist organizations to base-build so that our movement can be truly representative of and accountable to the entire working class.
This chapter was written by Philly Socialist members Danielle Corcione, James Yeun, and Ariel Diliberto and originally appeared in the report Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics, published by Verso.