By Carlos Jara
Este articulo también está disponible en español. This article is also available in Spanish.
As the 2020 US election finally approaches its weary conclusion, bourgeois pundits have once again taken to the age-old autumn pastime of demanding that all self-identified progressives swallow their pride and punch in a vote for the lesser evil of a Democrat ballot. With the announcement of the Biden campaign’s vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, in early August, socialist publications have risen to respond to these taunts, pumping out article after article to list the many shortcomings of the Biden–Harris ticket. These articles are unsparing and accurate in their analyses of the Democratic Party and its candidates. But are they actually a worthwhile use of our time and energy?
Judging by the outpouring of articles criticizing Kamala Harris’s record in particular, you would be forgiven for thinking that some socialists were actually still holding out hope that the Biden campaign would make a Left-friendly pick for vice president, as if it was even possible for the Democratic Party to make such a decision. While it is appropriate to point out how hilariously on-brand it is for the Democratic Party to respond to massive anti-police protests by nominating a member of the law enforcement establishment as their standard bearer, getting mired in the details of the Democratic Party’s electoral game misses the forest for the trees: rather than throwing righteous fits over the question of whether or not to vote for a specific slate of corrupt capitalists, we need to focus on building a political alternative outside of the undemocratic US electoral system.
Electoral politics as they exist in the US and most other capitalist republics are a shell-game designed to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie (and with the institution of the Electoral College and the Senate further distorting the popular vote, the US system is undemocratic even by the standards of other capitalist republics). While mass participation in elections provides a democratic veneer to the system, the existing parties in government’s control over who is allowed to appear on the ballot, as well as their close relationship to media corporations that present establishment-friendly candidates as the only viable options, elections become, as Lenin put it, an exercise in simply choosing which representative of the ruling class will oppress us next. The spectacle of massive, drawn out, expensive elections further obscures that the true nature of political power doesn’t come from who holds the Oval Office, Congress or the courts, but rather from control over the economy and the masses of the working class. When we look at the most important progressive reforms of the last half century: Civil Rights for Black people, the Equal Rights Amendment for women, an end to the Vietnam War, or LGBTQ protections, none of these were passed by presidents that campaigned for such reforms or considered them part of their platform; the hands of the Johnson, Nixon and Obama administrations were forced by mass movements that refused to stand down and made the government concede to demands or risk losing control over the country. Despite the Trump administration’s gleefully reactionary agenda, mass protests over the summer have made local and state governments make unprecedented concessions to the antiracist movement for police abolition. Any “power” that a voter has over a politician to hold them accountable after an election is an illusion; the power of threatening to shut down workplaces and cities is real.
Our political approach is not defined by running to the ballot box once every few years, but rather by building the power of the working class to take matters into its own hands. Socialists know that we can demand change primarily by putting feet in the streets and organizing our workplaces. This kind of political organizing requires a level of connection that runs much deeper than the kind that an electoral campaign relies on. While organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America hold that we can build socialist power by engaging in campaigns, the superficial phone banking and door knocking required by most electoral campaigns rarely results in the kind of deep political relationships that are necessary for building a socialist party. While it may sometimes be tactically appropriate to support campaigns for local candidates or specific ballot measures, such as measures to protect rent control, such campaigns are work that we primarily engage in due to the importance of the specific policy at stake, not as a means to grow our political organization for the long term. Our engagement with these kinds of campaigns needs to be the product of a careful analysis of the amount of resources that we are able to contribute and what we actually stand to gain by winning, tempered by the likelihood of success. We do not see it as our primary avenue towards building a militant political party that can take matters into its own hands.
By rooting our political approach in the working class as opposed to the electorate, we are also able to mobilize a core sector of US society: immigrants. Undocumented or otherwise, they are denied the right to vote and are thus passed over by electorally-focused initiatives, despite the critical role that they play in our economy. While both Democrats and Republicans are happy to treat immigrants like powerless bargaining chips, as socialists we recognize their agency: equal among comrades, an immigrant engaged in a militant socialist political organization has more power than an atomized voting citizen at the ballot box.
Whatever happens in November, the result will not be decided by the participation or abstention of socialists in the election itself. Rather than chasing around a political circus where we don’t stand to win anything by our efforts, let’s spend these next months organizing our workplaces and community organizing networks to build the political power we need to fight for a future we can believe in.
Do We Really Care About Kamala Harris?
By Carlos Jara