Monday, March 24, 2008

How To Work An Election Independently

Getting Organized, Getting Engaged:
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What We Need To Do

To Have an Impact in 2008

By Carl Davidson

Progressive voters and activists have the opportunity to make some far-reaching gains in the 2008 election cycle, but we need to move quickly. The last delegate-rich primary in Pennsylvania is on April 22, by June 3 the remaining 10 primaries and caucuses will be done, and by early Sept. the 2 major parties will have their nominees in place. The opposition to the war needs to be more sharply articulated, just as the war itself needs to be linked to the economy.

Most important, ending the war in Iraq, needs to be a greater part of everyone's political decisions in 2008.

There are now three main presidential candidates, plus, in some states, the Greens-a Republican who promises to win the war, whatever the cost, even if it takes decades, and two Democrats who promise to end it, with less than desirable timelines and qualifications.

Large numbers of people critical of the war have decided to enter the electoral arena in one way or another-but they are not necessarily one of those who have taken to the streets to date. Most have not. The most obvious is the insurgent wave of youth taking up Barack Obama's cause, seeing him as their favored instrument to end the war and advance other progressive causes. They may make other choices later, but they have chosen to enter the fray this way, whether anyone else thinks it's the best way or not.

Yet we, the more seasoned core of the antiwar movement, and progressive activists generally, are not as engaged as we could be. To address this, several groups hav put out a voter guides and calls to get involved in various ways. In this piece, the focus is on some of the key ways the work can actually be done, although just about any way would be better than doing nothing.

We need to stress something right from the beginning. If you think this project is only about wining votes for Obama or any other particular party or candidate, you're mistaken! This is also about bringing the voice of the antiwar movement into the public debate, and it is about building our capacity, as independent progressives, at the local and national level.

This project is also designed as a nonpartisan intervention that any group, including those with either 501C3 or C4 status, can take part in. It's aim is to move the electorate in the direction of our issues, set our issues as the prevailing ones for any candidate to address, educate both candidates and the electorate on our issues, get out the largest possible turnout of voters educated on our issues, and, most important, to strengthen our grassroots member groups and their alliances in the process. If you're not clear, go over this one more time, before looking at the following "to do" items:

Making Our Message Clear. With all the various "plans" regarding Iraq being floated, it's important that the peace movement remain true to the position we've had all along, and the one shared by the antiwar majority among the people themselves, of immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and their return home. Every candidate, presidential and congressional, of every party needs to be directly bird-dogged and confronted with this at every - opportunity. While there are important differences among them, not one of the major party presidential candidates shares this perspective. They are either lagging behind the electorate or opposing it. Those who claim to want to end the war need to be openly informed that they only gain support by taking a stronger antiwar stand.

Ballot Intervention. In some states, and on some very local levels, we can directly put issues on the ballot, as well as into the discussion. Near West Citizens for Peace & Justice, for example, put a cutoff of funding for the war on the ballot at its township level in a working-class suburb of Chicago in the recent primary, where it won by 77 percent. Since electoral law varies, this may not be practical in some areas, but wherever it can be done, it's a great nonpartisan, non-endorsing tool to bring antiwar voters to the polls. Winning local referenda or other ballot initiatives, especially when won by large margins are another important expression of the widespread opposition to the war, and as such puts more pressure on policy makers in Washington, DC.

RTV: Registering and Expanding the Electorate. This is already shaping up to be an historic election with a record-breaking turnout, if for no other reason than the prospect of the 'White Guys Only' sign being taken from the Oval Office. Growing numbers want to be part of that history, and not just watch it. The sharper the differences are drawn with the unabashed defenders of prolonging the war, the greater the potential turnout, but it has to be organized. Some new voters register themselves, but many do not until they are encouraged, especially among young people. The antiwar movement has everything to gain from registering voters in a nonpartisan fashion, so that the new contact lists, with the names and addresses of new voters, belong to it, rather than any party. Most states make it easy for volunteer organizations to get new registrations on their own and then turn them in. There's nothing standing in our way but our own lack of initiative. Getting the lists is why it's preferable to actually register voters ourselves, rather than simply passing out 'motor voter' or other cards for the registrants to send in themselves.

ETV: Educating, Shaping and Informing the Electorate. A few years back the average voter was a 60-year-old retired economically liberal but socially conservative blue collar woman in a 'white' working-class Midwest suburb. But everything changes, especially in times of crisis. An electorate more educated on the war-disabused of notions that Iraq caused 9/11 and other such lies and illusions-is more likely to vote rationally on the war, and to make educated selections among the candidates on their own, with an assist from wide distribution of candidate position survey and score cards, candidate night debates, and so on. Additionally, if our educational efforts now are strong they will help us sustain our antiwar organizing after the elections.

ITV: Identifying the Antiwar Electorate. Knowing that a majority of the electorate in your neighborhood is critical of the war is one thing. It's quite another to know all the names and addresses of voters in your precinct who are opposed to the war, support the war, or waver in between. The additional information is empowering to those who hold it, and there's no reason it shouldn't be in the hands of our local peace and justice groups. But you have to do old-fashioned, door-to-door organizing to get it. Fortunately, a voter registration drive combined with a voter ID survey in an election cycle is an excellent way to do it. And it's an additional plus that the same information is more than useful for mass mobilizations and other projects beyond Election Day and outside the electoral arena.

GOTV: Mobilizing the Electorate. Potential voters who are registered and antiwar but don't make it to the polls don't help much. There's no reason we can't organize nonpartisan GOTV-Get Out The Vote-events, not only ourselves, but with our allies in community organizations, at religious institutions, schools and unions. This way the relationships and ties belong to you after the election, not to any party. You can get your antiwar voters to the polls without endorsing anyone or any party.
PSTV: Protecting and Securing the Vote. Getting voters to the polls doesn't help much if you can't get a fair and reliable count. There's lots of justified concern about electronic machines these days, but paper is a problem, too. People determined to steal elections will try all sorts of tricks, so protecting the vote should be part of our election year work. It's definitely worthwhile getting a number of people trained and positioned as poll watchers and election judges, for the future as well as the present.

CTV: Staking Claim to the Vote. It's not very convincing to politicians or anyone else for us to claim a positive gain from an election we had little or nothing to do with. But to the degree we can reasonably claim responsibility for what might be seen as favorable results and turnouts in one battle, it enhances our independent 'clout' in future battles, inside and outside the electoral arena. It enhances our ability to 'counter-spin' the outcomes and post-election battles from those who would marginalize us. Most important, no matter who is elected, the need for an ongoing, independent and election-savvy ORGANIZATION is going to be more needed than ever in the dangerous 'end game' to Bush's disaster in Iraq.

There are different sets of rules for doing all the above, depending on whether your local group or coalition is a 501C3, a 501C4, a straightforward public interest group with a bank account and no tax exempt status, or just an ad-hoc group of volunteers. If you are in doubt as to what can or can't be done, and have a status that needs defending, consult a lawyer with some experience on the topic. But don't fall for the claim that you can't do anything.

There's a lot that can be done, and this plan is completely independent of any party or campaign. If your imagination fails, just pick an option above, but do it now. You don't want to tell your grandchildren that you sat on the sidelines in the Election of 2008.

[A version of this article was written for the UFPJ Voter Engagement Working Group. Carl is the author, together with Marilyn Katz, of 'Stopping War, Seeking Justice,' available at He was founder and director of Peace and Justice Voters 2004 in Chicago, a national committee member of CCDS, and a member of United for Peace and Justice's Voter Engagement Project. See for more information.]


Dan said...

Iraq is an occupation not a war. Using the word and the ideas that go with "war" undermines the goal of sharply articulating progressive opposition.

Tom said...

dan is right. thanks. tom hayden []

Anonymous said...

I love Barack Obama, he is the LIGHT this country needs. His message of unity, for all AMERICANS has not been the focus of no other in this campaign. THANK YOU Progressives for Obama for your vision, and ALL that you support. I connect with your MISSION.

Parthasarati said...

If progressives must unite behind Obama I would like to see Obama come to terms with Nader. Obama must not take the progressives for granted like Gore and Kerry and expect Nader supporters to simply fall in line. He must earn their votes. I am not asking for a complete endorsement of all of Nader's positions. But the issues important to Nader supporters must be debated. If not, do not blame Nader for loosing another one.

Patrick said...

Carl, Carl... how far you've gone astray from your roots. :(

Carl Davidson said...

Strayed? I don't think so, 'Patrick', at least not too far. I'm still sticking to peace, justice and 'a democracy of mass participation,' the same values that got me involved long ago.

Let's see, as far as elections go, I started supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, then Jesse Jackson, then Harold Washington in Chicago, then the New Party when we worked with Obama when he first ran for the statehouse, then I joined the Greens, at least those with the sense to work with the PDA types, now I'm into nonpartisan grassroots electoral alliances of all of the above, which is the point of this piece.

And if I still held exactly the same views, that would mean I haven't learned anything in 40 years, wouldn't it?

In any case, you don't have to endorse all of Obama's platform. I don't, I just know, as this site says, that he's our best option. Just get as many antiwar people under 40 as you can to the polls, telling them whatever you like about 'illusions.' They'll still figure out what to do.

Patrick said...

Obama is indeed our best option when it comes to (viable) presidential candidates, but I'm curious as to why you've thrown such energy into electoral politics in the first place, when the very bedrock needed for significant social change needs so much work - from labor unions to community groups to grassroots media to the alternative globalization movement.

Where's the path to 'mass participation,' assuming you don't just mean by that 'more people voting in November'?

Carl Davidson said...

Why electoral politics? Because its an electoral season and because I'm trying, like many others, to stop the damned war, every which way.

Otherwise, my 'base community' is still the grassroots community technology movement and the solidarity econonmy movement, here and elsewhere.

But I'm guessing, Patrick, that you're looking at electoral politics too narrowly.

First, in order to do it well, you have to have something to do it WITH. Which doesn't mean joining the Dems, but building our independent local 'base community' groups so they acquire an electoral capacity, ie, that know how to work elections when the situation demands it, and work in other arenas at other times, then link them in broader alliances.

If you're ever going to supplant the DLC Dems, again, you have to have something to do it WITH. Otherwise, it's so much cafe chatter.

My view is that radical change doesn't come solely or even mainly by elections. But I firmly believe it comes by passing THROUGH them, not by doing an end run around them.

Call it the Gramscian 'Long March Through the Institutions,' if you like, an approach that's appropriate to today's conditions rather than a revolutionary crisis that's yet to appear.

In any case, every major social change, of whatever class, is mainly won by people ranging in age from 15 to 35. Right now, that social engine, without asking me, you or anyone's permission, has emerged in the Obama insurgency.

So you can join with it as an ally, or stand to the side and watch, and I've never been much of a 'watcher.'

kathy said...

I'd like to know what folks mean by the "youth insurgency": concretely, what is actually being fought for besides getting out the vote and supporting Obama? in what concrete ways are Obama supporters, these supposed "insurgents," pushing for progressive goals? I'm glad to see progressive goals articulated on this web-site, but in what concrete ways, what campaigns are being waged to put these goals in motion??? convince me that this is not mass self deception about the Obama campaign representing a "movement"

Carl Davidson said...

Kathy, all the campaigns have young volunteers. You're right, there's nothing new in that.

But we're talking an order of magnitude of multiplying by 100 here when it comes to Obama, and many are not even paying attention to the official campaign. They just go out and do stuff, from hip-hop music, to you-tube videos, to creating web site and social nets, and, naturally, turning out at rallies and voting, in numbers that's causing all early expert predictions to be off.

That's what makes it a movement or an insurgency. Even the Clinton effort 'criticized' it, as in 'he doesn't have a campaign, it's just a movment.'

They're all nationalities, both genders, mainly young, almost all anti-war and anti-racist.

I went to an antiwar rally in Pittsburgh yesterday. A bunch of them, young women students from Pitt, showed up, and this was there first antiwar rally AND their first election campaign. I talked with them, asking if the campaign sent them. 'No we just set ourselves up and do stuff. We go there for buttons and posters.'

Will they considate into new organizations after the campaign? Some may, many will not. A lot depends on us here.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Just go out and talk to them, or go to the next Obama rally or event, and see for yourself.

kathy said...

I don't see how it is that massive numbers in and of itself constitutes a *progressive movement." How does this make sense? In what ways can this movement be differentiated from other forms of apolitical or anti-political mass gatherings like concerts, revivalist meetings, festivals, shopping mall crowds, etc?

Carl Davidson said...

Who's talking 'massive number in themselves?'

These kids, Kathy, white and Black, by more than 90 percent, say they're against the war, they're against racism, they want positive change to give them a decent future, and they want to see an African American man in the White House?

That puts them in the progressive arena in my book, especially the white kids.

And to compare this to your average crowd at a shopping mall, spring festival or ball game is, well, the kindest thing I can say is that it borders on being silly, don't you think?

You must have some other point under this that's bugging you. What is it?

kathy said...

"Putting" people in a "progressive arena" because they share certain beliefs does not a progressive movement make. Especially when "change" remains ill-defined, and in terms of anything substantive, ill-connected to the candidate (with a voting record identical to Clinton's, with positions on the military/occupation that does not question the occupation as a whole, with health care policies that will keep the health insurance industry intact, etc etc) that attracts the droves of these "kids" out into said arena-- My original question had to do with the definition of movement-making, and so far it seems to be, for you, when people with shared beliefs come out and demonstrate for something--express those beliefs. Is that the case?
I don't deny that the Obama campaign and Obama has attracted many people to rallies for him, and that many people who attend have some liberal to progressive ideas, but I still do not see how this constitutes an insurgency, or that anything new is being constructed in terms of a concrete agenda (my original question). I feel that the progressive argument for O, often boils down to a tautology: it becomes true by definition that Obama is progressive because progressives vote for him, and in turn, this vote or support, counts as progressive because it is for Obama.

Carl Davidson said...

Kathy, if you'll read our statement again, we don't claim Obama is a progressive or mainly speaks for progressives.

In fact we say he's in the centrist camp, to a fault, at least on the war. Then we add that he's the 'best option' of the three in this election year. Notice we didn't say 'only' option.

Finally, we assert the need for an organized progressive camp in his campaign so as to exercise some pull in our direction, as best as we can, and to keep the heat on an Obama White House, or any White House, after November.

If you want to make a case for Hillary or the Greens or staying home as a 'better option,' you're welcome to do so. You can do it briefly here or at length on the Forum page we've set up.

Some 22,000 students turned out for Obama yesterday a Penn State, surpassing all records, cheering his opposition to the war and other items. You can go to the website of the Centre Daily Times and read their letters, and decide for yourself where they belong in the political spectrum. But if this isn't an example of an insurgency, I don't know what to say.

Perhaps the problem is with the term 'progressive.' For some, it's adherence to any number of policy positions thisclose to socialism, while for others, it's for anyone seeing themselves as left of 'moderate.'

For the purposes of this project, I'll accept the entire range, and discuss and debate my own trend within it. As for my trend, you're welcome to explore my own blog.

Young people, almost by definition, do not enter the political arena with fully formed political programs. They enter on the basis of core values, and a moral compass that's often more sharply tuned than their elders. And from what I see of these youngsters, they're doing very well and more than welcome here.

Keith Joseph said...

An Appeal for Revolutionary Unity:

By Keith Joseph

I know Jeremiah Wright…

Well, I never met him, but I know his ideas, he is a part of the American political left. Nothing he said outraged me, or even upset me. I agreed with a lot of it, and disagreed with some of it. If we were to meet in person I imagine we would get along just fine, and we probably could do some good work together.

Obama had to distance himself from his pastor in order to remain a viable candidate -- a smart move.

Gary Wills, writing in the May 2008 NY Review of Books, pointed out that Abe Lincoln, who Obama invoked when announcing his own candidacy, was associated with John Brown and the "radical" abolitionists. Like Obama, Abe had to distance himself in pubic from the "extremists." But the abolitionists remained the left wing of Lincoln's coalition, and although he publicly disavowed them (gently) he was secretly and indirectly connected to them.

About 100 hundred years later, in 1968, Robert Kennedy's candidacy for president represented a similar coalition. His brother, John Kennedy's election marked the achievement of full citizenship for Catholic (Irish and Italian) workers (that's why Kennedy's picture hangs in all those Irish bars). Bobby Kennedy continued to lead those "white" workers and he was bringing them into an alliance with the Civil Rights Movement (Kennedy was meeting and marching with two of its most prominent leaders, Dr. King and Caesar Chavez). In other words, Kennedy's campaign was a next phase in the Civil Rights struggle.

But the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and the FBI repression of the left made it difficult for a left wing to get into that coalition and soon King and Kennedy would also be murdered.

These assassinations sent most left wing forces in the United States into a disorientating tailspin that we have yet to recover from. If it were 1968, Hilary would be Hubert Humphrey, McCain would be Nixon, and Obama would be Bobby Kennedy. Some of our friends on the left have asked us to "Recreate '68." Yes, but let's not repeat the blind rage, instead let's do it over and send Humphrey and Nixon packing.

So, we must build a John Brown, Malcolm X, Jeremiah Wright bloc— a left bloc allied to but independent from Obama's campaign.

As Malcolm and the movement developed, he emphasized uniting with other left forces. He and King drew closer together, but after Malcolm's assassination left wing forces pushed liberals and center-left forces away and into the hands of the right. Obama's campaign is the potential rebirth of the Kennedy-King Coalition. And it is time for the radical left to do what Malcolm would have done—get into the coalition as an independent force, consolidate a left wing and build a liberal and left coalition to stomp the war loving right wing in this country while building our own independent left movement.

We have a couple of immediate basic tasks: Obama must be the Democratic Party candidate—By Any Means Necessary. We should plan to camp right outside of Denver during the Democratic Party's Convention and hold anti-war demonstrations and our own left convention. If right wing Democrats try to force Hilary-Herbert Humphrey-Clinton on us we march on the convention and make sure Obama gets the nomination--By Any Means Necessary. In November, we must make sure Obama defeats the war criminal John McCain. And finally, after the election, we must be prepared to convene anywhere in the country (Florida, Ohio etc.) to make sure that the Supreme Court does not decide the contest.

Some of our fellow leftists have been very critical of Obama. The problem with their criticism is that they want Obama to be a leftist. He is not a leftist, he is a representative of the progressive, democratic wing of the capitalist class and he is making an appeal to workers of all nationalities to support him. Obama is a liberal. He is a center-left candidate. He is a part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. We are the left!

It is time we got back in the game.

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