January 2021Strategy

Can we really force the vote?

Late last November, a debate over the strategy and tactics to be deployed by national progressive allies roiled the online left. With Trump seemingly out of the way, the corporate positioning of Joe Biden’s cabinet was no longer obscured. And so, across the various forums, hashtags and talk shows that facilitate the national left-wing conversation, you’d find murmurs of open revolt against the Democratic Party.

Much of this uproar was a reaction to the power secured by the national left in November’s elections; with AOC’s faction of rabble-rousers bolstered in Congress by the likes of Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, tight margins in the House put the left in a strong position to demand real concessions from centrist Democrats who are hellbent on retaining ideological control of the party.

There’s little disagreement that this leverage needs to be used; disagreement has centered on what, exactly, progressive allies in Congress should be demanding of the Democratic majority. Many have called for left leaders in Congress to extract something that brings us closer to a single-payer healthcare system. Medicare for All was the signature position that united Bernie Sanders’ insurgent alliance — but the call for drastic changes to the American healthcare system is not unique to the left. If opinion polls are to be believed, there is a clear appetite for change to the American healthcare system.

David Sirota, a former advisor to Bernie’s 2020 campaign, outlined five clear ways to advance M4A in the House. The first four of these options would represent a meaningful lurch towards securing a single-payer healthcare system without completely spooking conservative Democrats still unconvinced of the need for a single-payer system. If proponents of M4A are looking to make a move, pick one and go for it.

But a faction of comrades has been pushing for Sirota’s fifth and most radical approach: demanding a floor vote on M4A, with some using the reconfirmation of Nancy Pelosi in the House, backed by a mass pressure campaign, as leverage. This campaign is unlikely to go anywhere soon, given that Nancy’s vote is set for early January — far too soon for a proper riposte to be mobilized. But a #ForceTheVote campaign has already formed, and DMV area leftists are being asked to mobilize on behalf of this campaign. How should we think about engaging?

digital debate

The idea of calling for a hard vote on M4A has been kicking around the internet for some time. But the idea was elevated to mainstream attention when NFL player Justin Jackson asked AOC about the tactic directly. She provided a prompt response:

AOC’s reasoning here is pretty straightforward. She argues that it would be better to secure advantageous positioning for progressive candidates now so that progressive boosters of M4A are better prepared to engage in these larger structural fights in the future. And even if we held this vote, AOC notes, is the left capable of an electoral response that would deliver on the supposed threat to Democrats who voted against it?

Some remain unconvinced. A faction of the left, which appears to be led by a cabal of podcasters and national left-wing personalities, advocates for a swashbuckling mutiny of AOC’s strategy by holding firm in demanding a floor vote.

There’s nothing wrong with a debate over tactics — and this strategy is certainly worth considering. I recommend seeking out these arguments on your own, but if you are looking for a concrete entry, Briahna Joy Gray, ex-press secretary for the Sanders campaign (and who has taken time to boost DSA in the past), has penned a cohesive argument in Current Affairs in favor of bringing M4A to a floor vote.

But the reasoning for a vote is not really the issue. All of the arguments I’ve read have failed, for me, to satisfy AOC's original critique: after the vote, what comes next? What publics will be called on to pressure politicians who voted against M4A? Which formations and organizations will take charge and lead a public mutiny of Democratic leadership? And what structures and systems are we using to make sure a mass movement can execute a nationwide political attack on opponents to M4A? Not in the abstract - specifically, what's the plan?

These are complex questions, and it's why this campaign will likely go nowhere without buy-in from local organizers who are capable of spearheading the execution of a mass pressure campaign. I believe Gray, who has been one of the most relentless boosters of this “Force the Vote” strategy, understands this — and it may be why she’s been going so far as to take the argument to organizations directly (including, curiously, DC’s band of socialists).

beware of burnout

I don't speak for any organization – I’m just someone who has been trying to keep some record of what’s been happening in the local activist scene in DC. But you can take it from me that you don’t have to look hard to find that many left-wing organizing collectives across the DMV have been running on fumes. As much as I want to believe that this movement is invincible, people are clearly tired. I am concerned that opening another front like this will only fracture what is, as of now, a pretty united activist left and pull attention away from many of the local fights that will continue into 2021.

Lefties in the DMV have had a busy year. In DC alone, the broader left has been involved in numerous fights looking to uproot capitalist entrenchments: taking on local political machines, engaging in political education work around police abolition, embarking on a campaign to defund the local PD, fighting for expanded and broadened rent control, organizing tenants to fight extractive development corporations, building an expansive mutual aid network across the city, organizing protests against police brutality and even defending DC from marauding gangs of fascists. These are just a few of the activities embarked on by grassroots, left-wing activist collectives — and all of this was done under the twin pains of economic depression and pandemic risk to boot. But new fights loom on the horizon, and we really need to get ready to prepare to engage them: deep cuts to social services are expected, the police still haven’t been defunded (and, actually, have been dramatically expanded) and the rent control campaign is consistently being sidetracked by a local establishment intent on denying the local left another inch.

Thinking about all of this (and again, this is just a smidge and we are excluding those in MD and VA) might seem daunting. But local activists have been taking it in stride; as far as I could tell, most are united in commitment to defying capitalism and preventing a return to politics as usual. And because there are so many of us - we are able to engage these battles on different fronts and call for aide when needed. But the more fronts you add, the thinner our lines get. And the thinner our lines get, the more vulnerable we all are to establishment subterfuge or just plain exhaustion.

The small fights are winnable — victories at the state and local level act as building blocks for larger national campaigns. They build out anti-capitalist political networks, establish momentum for change, provide activists needed experience in political organizing and deny establishment operatives places to build easy favor with corporate clients.

If executed haphazardly, a giant endeavor like Force the Vote risks opening a new front on a national issue that might obscure or distract from these smaller, winnable battles. I don’t mean to suggest that local organizers shouldn’t be building a local effort to achieve M4A or even that this specific campaign shouldn’t be undertaken. But we have to acknowledge the difference between organizing to take on local power and engaging in high-wire strategies that bring us into direct conflict with entrenched, immovable power. The former will help build out political bases that can be used to take part in (or launch!) national campaigns to achieve larger political objectives in the future; the latter risks sending a lot of people on a one-way trip to burnout city. 

Still, if local Medicare for All activists feel that there is a plan for really engaging in this campaign in a way that will manage potential burnout, that case can and should be made (the Washington Socialist always welcomes such ideas!). An argument from local organizers — many of whom have been organizing around Medicare for All for some time and have experience navigating local networks in order to push an issue forward – will be the most convincing to lefty activists who tend to value horizontal planning over vertical directive.


red flags

But a deeper look into the big boosters of this #ForceTheVote campaign is alarming. Most are left-wing media personalities with little evidence of clear relationships to labor unions, local activist outfits or regional political organs that are needed to ensure this sort of campaign is more than some glossy publicity stunt for alt-media talking heads.

One of the biggest red flags is the open participation of comedian Jimmy Dore. A niche left-wing shock-jock and early contributor to The Young Turks (a staple of the left-wing internet circa 2005-2010), he’s since begun his own independent venture — and his campy outbursts directed at AOC are what prompted the #ForceTheVote campaign to begin in the first place. A supporter of Tulsi Gabbard during the 2020 primaries, Dore has a history of peddling conspiracy theories (sometimes on contract from Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad) in desperate bids to curate an audience of anti-establishment leftists. His schtick — rant loudly at the camera with a poorly cribbed Lewis Black impersonation (without any of the tact or restraint that makes Black's performances so entertaining) — appears designed to chase social media algorithms by exploiting anxiety in agitated lefties, rather than curate an audience by providing consistent and legitimate political analysis. [NOTE: I wrote this paragraph prior to 12/30, but a recent video released of Dore drunkenly (?) yelling at a fellow booster of #ForceTheVote should be clear evidence that this “comedian” is toxic to any sort of serious political effort.]

Other boosters, such as Kyle Kulinski and Krystal Ball, exist as similar, if more thoughtful, alt-media figures that, like Dore, lack any clear connections to any sort of localized organizing or activist hubs that would need to be mobilized to actually engineer this sort of effort. In fact, the only larger organizing outfit that seems to be resolutely behind this is the Movement for a People’s Party, which appears to have taken up the mantle for the campaign.  But they are a deeply confusing, if upstart bunch. They’ve organized with local protest coalitions in the past and do contain some public socialists and labor organizers, such as Cornel West and Chris Smalls. However, a quick look at their “advisory council” suggests that the whole thing may be little more than a holding pen for the cadre of alt-media personalities that exploded in the shadow of the Sanders campaign.


so?

“So what?” you might say. We need health care for all, and if this cast of performers wants to boost it, why should we deny help where we get it?

All of this has the trappings of a closed system — a circular network of characters that are disconnected from the sort of real movement organizing that is needed to actually build a coalition and take on an entrenched order in Washington. These thoughts were summarized well by journalist Yasha Levine:

… there is no organized political movement to back them or their policies up. It doesn’t matter if they broadcast from LA, DC, or New York; none of them operate from within any local politics … and so national and federal fights are pretty much the only thing they focus on. Raging and yelling [about] this stuff might be entertaining — but it’s pointless as politics

I don’t fully endorse Levine’s article — which is not only a little too cynical but gets some big things wrong about the national left. There are, in fact, local bastions of left-wing power across the country, contrary to what Levine opines. Though, Levine is correct that many of these national left-wing media figures seem completely disconnected from all of it. Many of these personalities built (privately owned) brands providing talking points to a “grassroots” audience without establishing a clear record of experience organizing their listeners in reality (except, of course, by monetizing their attention into a revenue stream). At the end of the day, many of these boosters are entertainers who have only really produced storylines to soothe and entertain a national left-wing base — and so why would we trust them to understand what it means to mobilize politics at the level needed to really #ForceTheVote?

The real danger in all of this is that these media figures don’t really have a theory of change —a series of steps that will bring about the sort of political change they want to see. Egging on folks eager for change without clearly identifying a larger infrastructure that can guide, influence, care for and support local activists risks, as stated earlier, leading people to burnout or fostering larger apathy towards political engagement entirely.

Only Gray has really outlined what the next steps for bringing this sort of campaign to fruition might look like. In her Current Affairs article, she suggests that “if [the squad] were to coordinate with the activists and protesters who helped to organize the historically large mass protests from this summer, it’s difficult to imagine they’d be ignored.” But this is wrong. The mass protests over this summer were not organized — they were notoriously spontaneous — a confluence of cabin fever induced by quarantine, the murder of a US citizen at the hands of the state, and fair weather. And the only reason these events weren’t ignored was because they weren’t even really protests — they were uprisings, replete with fights against the police, battles in the streets, tear gas and arrests.

We have to be careful to distinguish between the sort of capital-P Protests and the sort of mass revolts which we saw over the summer. Protests — the kind with fun hats and expensive sound systems — are actually quite easy for political leaders to ignore (although they can be good for boosting morale or kicking-starting political networks). But revolts are harder, specifically because of their volatility. To the extent that organizers helped to “coordinate” within these mass uprisings, it was mostly to treat injuries, organize relief and support, provide guidance and direction to protesters on the ground, or creating the sort of networks and pipelines to follow up on the demands of unrest to be performed after rage in the streets quieted down. Smaller sorties led targeted direct actions or events, but even at their peak they rarely reached the sort of critical mass that I think Gray is envisioning.

But even if organizers could choose to spontaneously prompt and control mass chaos — these events are taxing, traumatizing, tumultuous and weird. The cost of a badly organized revolt is not just loss of political capital but the loss of inspired activists to burnout, depression, PTSD or injury. You lose activists in the field — you make it harder to actually staff the sort of political engines needed to follow up on the demands that arise from a given protest or revolt in the first place.

Asking people to engage in mass political action — even less intensive actions like making phone calls and undertaking letter-writing campaigns — means asking people to put themselves out there in ways that are deeply discomforting to most. And if we don’t have a clear plan, and a well-oiled organization or pipeline capable of taking care of people shocked, confused or riled up by the excitement of potential change, you risk burning people out and incinerating any goodwill or momentum built by local leftists in the process.


next steps

I want to emphasize again that none of this means that local organizers shouldn’t be building a grassroots effort to force a vote on M4A if they truly believe it’s the best path forward. To really do this, supporters would need to define what, exactly, it means to engage in this campaign so that local activists — stretched of time and energy — know what they are getting into. This means defining how far we’re willing to go and laying out a real mobilization plan that goes further than sending emails. If the plan is to take direction from some podcaster shot-calling from his LA mansion — you can count me out.

The real path to getting M4A is long. There will be no quick fixes, cheat codes or secret arrangements of hashtags that will get us universal health care. Most activists involved in organizing around the issue are keenly aware of this, of course. And so it will require consistent grassroots engagement and support — like the kind the DSA’s local Medicare for All working groups are building — to make sure that there are activists and systems capable of executing pressure on vulnerable politicians, emboldening agents of change who want to push for a vote, or guiding protests and uprisings if it comes to it.

For national media figures who honestly want to make #ForceTheVote more than a hashtag, it might be best to start talking to activists in grassroots organizations — not at them.


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