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Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) on April 26, 2017.

Speakers

Travis Donoho, Co-chair of the Knox area Democratic Socialists of America

Barbara Bridges, Chair of the Green Party (US) of Knoxville

Jason Dawsey, Lecturer of History at the University of Tennessee

Moderated by Matt Cavagrotti

Panel Description

Electoral politics are a longstanding problem for the U.S. left. In recent decades, a number of parties have formed as an alternative to the Democratic Party: the Labor Party, the Green Party, and now, the Justice Party. However, these parties risk becoming little more than networks of activists or pressure groups on the Democratic Party, and it still remains unclear whether a serious electoral challenge to the Democratic Party is possible.

Many progressives blame the “first-past-the-post” structure of U.S. elections, contra labour-friendly parliamentary systems; yet others insist that this procedural focus is misplaced. Leninists charge some quarters of the Left with misunderstanding the proper relationship of the party to the state; but for many, it remains unclear how State and Revolution bears upon the present. Most activists grant the desirability of a viable party to the left of the Democrats, but why exactly such a party is desirable-- to win reforms? to spread emancipatory consciousness?-- is contested as well.

These are old questions for the American left-- as old as Henry George, Daniel De Leon, and the 1930s American Labor Party, perhaps the high point of independent electoral politics in the U.S. This panel will investigate several contemporary approaches to electoral politics to draw out the theories that motivate Leftist third parties; it will also ask how the historical achievements and failures of third parties bear upon the present.

Questions

1. How does the present election represent an opportunity for the development of a third party?In what ways have Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson each helped develop a window of opportunity for a third party?

2. In what ways might these figures be responsible for miseducating, depoliticizing, or simply misdirecting potential allies?

3. What conditions would a Clinton or Trump administration produce for the left? How would each represent a challenge to the Left?

4. How might a third party avoid simply becoming either an instrument for pressuring the Democratic Party to the Left or a mere recruiting tool for activist and sectarian organizations? In other words: what are the practical and theoretical obstacles to the development of the Left beyond the default form of activity that have characterized it since the mid-20th century?

5. While we take for granted that a third party would have to distinguish itself from the two major parties, how could a third party attempt to draw from voters from both the Democrats and the Republicans?

6. The rise of progressivism and socialism in the late 19th/early 20th century defined every attempt at the development of a third party in the 20th century. How are progressive and socialist politics distinct and/or related? What role would each play in the development of a mass third party for the 21st century?

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little—the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.

A panel event held on December 6th, 2012, at New York University.

This past US election season saw an array of positions on the Left concerning the outcome that might follow from either major party’s victory. Among them, there were some who openly supported the incumbent Barack Obama as the lesser of two evils, others who opposed him by casting a vote for another candidate, and still others who followed the abstentionist line by not voting at all. Many of those who voted for “four more years” did so under the assumption that the Democrats were a broadly center-left party with vaguely social-democratic tendencies, who might be pushed to reverse neoliberal policies and stave off measures of austerity. Some, while generally less optimistic, endorsed Obama on the premise that organizing a mass movement against capitalism would be easier with the Democrats in power. Others argued that Obama had done nothing to deserve reelection, offering no hope for either change or progress moving forward. The rest, who took no stance either for or against any party, chose instead to eschew electoral politics altogether.

Now that the quadrennial plebiscite for the “leader of the free world” has resulted in a Democratic victory, we are afforded a brief chance to critically evaluate the prospects for the Left’s transition into the next four years. What is different today from four years ago, when Obama’s election seemed departure from eight years under Bush? Did the last four years signal progress or regress for the Left? How will the terrain shift for the Left with another term under the president? In terms of foreign policy, will there be an end to the wars? Or will US militarism continue unabated? Domestically, will government social programs and infrastructure deteriorate yet further? Or will legislative reforms breathe life back into the moribund welfare state? Should we, in fact, take for granted the idea that keeping Romney out of office promises a better environment in which the Left to organize? What does the future hold for a Left caught in the stale air of the status quo?

Panelists:
Ben Campbell (The North Star)
Annie Day (Revolution)
Chris Maisano (DSA, Jacobin)
Bhaskar Sunkara (Jacobin)

Moderator:
Tana Forrester (Platypus Affiliated Society)

Electoral politics are a longstanding problem for the U.S. left. In recent decades, a number of parties have formed as an alternative to the Democratic Party: the Labor Party, the Green Party, and now, the Justice Party. However, these parties risk becoming little more than networks of activists or pressure groups on the Democratic Party, and it still remains unclear whether a serious electoral challenge to the Democratic Party is possible.

Many progressives blame the “first-past-the-post” structure of U.S. elections, contra labour-friendly parliamentary systems; yet others insist that this procedural focus is misplaced. Leninists charge some quarters of the Left with misunderstanding the proper relationship of the party to the state; but for many, it remains unclear how State and Revolution bears upon the present. Most activists grant the desirability of a viable party to the left of the Democrats, but why exactly such a party is desirable-- to win reforms? to spread emancipatory consciousness?-- is contested as well.

These are old questions for the American left-- as old as Henry George, Daniel De Leon, and the 1930s American Labor Party, perhaps the high point of independent electoral politics in the U.S. This panel will investigate several contemporary approaches to electoral politics to draw out the theories that motivate Leftist third parties; it will also ask how the historical achievements and failures of third parties bear upon the present.

Nikil Saval is an editor at n+1, and a co-editor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America (Verso, 2011). He is currently writing a history of office design and white-collar work.

Lenny Brody is an activist, student of political change, printing industry worker, and descendant of union organizers. He fought with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement and refused induction during the Vietnam War. Mr. Brody has been active in local elections and in the Dennis Kucinich campaigns. He is a member of the Justice Party National Steering Committee and is working to build an independent political movement that will empower the victims of the current economic crisis.

Jason Wright, a contributor to the IBT's journal, 1917, began his career on the left in support of the Democratic Socialists of America. Breaking with DSA in opposition to the 1991 US invasion of Iraq, he spent several years in the Revolutionary Workers League. Disenchanted with the RWL’s mindless hyper-activism, Wright undertook a study of Trotskyism. He concluded that the Revolutionary Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party represented the continuation of Trotskyism and joined the IBT.

Katie Robbins is an activist and member of Healthcare-NOW! NYC and Healthcare for the 99%, a working group of Occupy Wall Street. Katie was national organizer with Healthcare-NOW! from 2008 - 2011 during the national healthcare debate. With doctors, nurses, and other advocates, she was arrested in May 2009 in the Senate Finance Committee asking for single-payer healthcare to be considered as a solution to the healthcare crisis when it was systematically ignored by policy makers.

The Platypus Affiliated Society in New York organized a moderated panel discussion and audience Q-and-A to critically evaluate the widespread assumption that the election of Barack Obama presents an opportunity for today’s Leftists. Asking how opportunity can be distinguished from opportunism, Platypus invited several intellectuals and activists to publicly think through the foreseeable pitfalls and potentials posed by the passing of the Bush-era into the age of Obama.

Panelists

Chris Cutrone (Platypus)
Stephen Duncombe (author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy)
Pat Korte (New School SDS)
Charles Post (Solidarity)
Paul Street (author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, 2008)

Transcript in Platypus Review #12 (Click below):

Platypus questions for panelists

1.) Many people across the political spectrum—including those who claim to be on the Left—assume that the election of Obama represents a symbolic vindication of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. But is the implied conception of the Civil Rights movement really adequate to this history? Pivotal Civil Rights intellectuals and leaders, including Bayard Rustin and even Martin Luther King Jr., advocated the use of political force against the economically structured social inequality of American race relations. As Rustin put it: “Negro poverty…will not be eliminated without a total war on poverty.” This vision clearly lost out—indeed, Rustin saw even purportedly radical declarations of “Black power” as both a conservative naturalization of the racial difference the movement had tried to eliminate and a rationalization of powerlessness. Today, changing the racial composition of the powers-that-be, celebrating diversity, and pursuing sanctioned reform and institutionally-given power are seen as the limits of what the Civil Rights Movement imagined or pushed to achieve.

2.) What are the roots of this historical forgetfulness? What critique can we offer to the reduction of the Civil Rights movement to symbolism and status-quo powers? And how might such a critique help foster popular political energy against the structural inequalities that remain intact in American Society?

3.) Organized labor was a major constituency of the Obama campaign, and put much effort into working for an Obama victory. For instance, the “Change to Win Coalition” mobilized the political power of six million workers represented by seven unions, it organized teams to knock on doors, make phones calls, distribute information, to rally for an Obama victory. However, even during the campaign Obama made statements, specifically about teachers’ unions, which revealed that he didn’t consider himself as squarely in the camp of organized labor. More recently he has said that he intends to bring all parties to the table, including labor and the interests of Capital, to seek solutions to the financial crisis. With this in mind, to what extent should organized labor see in Obama a “partner” in the struggles of the working class to secure improvements in their bargaining position? Furthermore, how can the working class take advantage of the limited opportunities presented by the Obama presidency without losing the degree of independence needed to push beyond what seems possible under the administration. What can be done beginning under Obama’s presidency to reverse the assault on organized labor which has characterized the past several decades and to put the working class into an active and not passive or defensive position? What is the agenda of labor regardless of the president?

4.) The vacuous phrase “Wall street vs. Main Street” was effectively used by the Obama campaign to portray the class divisions made perceivably more acute by the current economic crisis. How should this opportunistic rhetoric be addressed? And how should criticism of capitalist class-society and its crises be promoted without simply condemning the “greed” of Capitalists and heralding the altruism of the “working people”? What can be done to deepen a public understanding of class dynamics and to counter the ideological confusion produced by the crisis and its management.

5.) The politics of Anti-Iraq-War dissent, coupled with Anti-Bush-Administration disapproval, has driven Leftist organizing for most of the past decade. These politics have cemented a bond between political bedfellows who seem to share little more than the deep-set reliance on the quantification of “opposition” through mass-demonstrations and disapproval polling, and the cynical belief that practically anybody is better than Bush and the Republicans. Indeed, it often seems like the only thing that has held together groups with deeply conflicting principles and social visions has been a general “anti” stance towards the current regime. However, Obama’s administration threatens to dissolve this arrangement by meeting, at least in part, many of the rallying demands of the “movement”—for instance, by closing Guantanamo Bay, settling on a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, curtailing some of the gross war-profiteering, and becoming less hostile to the U.N. and more careful with “global opinion.” If Obama’s presidency does diminish the efficacy of Bush-era “anti” politics, can you foresee a new arrangement of principles and criticisms which could create a more successful oppositional force? What could this Left stand for? How might it be capable of fighting against the causes of war across presidential terms, specific military campaigns, and nationally bound politics?

6.) Rather than hysterically celebrating Obama’s election as the “beginning of a new age” or cynically dismissing it as a meaningless display of “celebrity politics”, how do we determine what is really new versus what is left wholly unchanged in the present political moment? What are the actual and significant new developments the Obama presidency represents—or may represent—for the Left? This seems to be deeply affected by how we understand the election in light of the continuing weakness and obsolescence of the Left as a social force. How is Obama’s election part of a more general historical trajectory, characterized by the loss of political possibilities and the decline of a Leftist politics? And what might be done today to buck against that trend?

7.) To what extent is Obama or anyone in his administration free to transform socio-economic conditions in the United States? To what extent are they—granting them even the best of intentions—bound to preserve and reproduce these conditions? How should a Left begin to clarify and aim to overcome this present limitation? And how might it address this problem of constraint so that the task to overcome the limitations of social agency is made clear and may point toward effective political action? In other words, what would the Left need to become to end capitalism in 10 years?