Social Movements, Elections, and Political Transformation
By Bernie Mayer
I have changed my political perspectives in many ways during the past fifty years, but one belief has remained surprisingly consistent (to me at least). I have never believed that electoral politics would create significant change. I have always believed that while it is very important to elect the best candidates we can, the focus of social change activists ought to be on building popular movements which put pressure on elected politicians, and not on electoral campaigns themselves.
This belief was first formed during the sixties. The Eugene McCarthy campaign was a tempting focus for anti-war activists, but it was in the end a distraction. And of course, that political season ended in the election of Richard Nixon and the prolongation of the war. The anti-war movement then put an enormous amount of energy into the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. Another mistake. McGovern’s lopsided loss to Nixon sapped the energy of the progressive movement, and, while far from the only reason, was a major contributor to its long term decline.
A corollary to this is my belief that third party political efforts are at best ineffective and at worst totally counter-productive. Ross Perot’s candidacy helped to elect Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader’s candidacy was crucial to the election of George W. Bush
Elections, it seems to me, particularly presidential ones, are terrible vehicles for pressing for fundamental change. The electoral process almost always pulls people toward the center and toward institutional maintenance rather than change. Elections often seem to make the forces for change appear to be weaker than the really are. This does not mean that elections are irrelevant. It’s very important that we elect the best people we can to public office, and putting energy into elections is not a waste of time—it’s just not an effective road to fundamental change. I suspect (but obviously don’t know) that the end result of this tumultuous electoral cycle will demonstrate this.
The most successful political movements in my life (those I support and those I oppose) have taken place for the most part outside the electoral process - for example, the anti-war movement, the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and both the pro-life and pro-choice movements.
The energy around Bernie Sanders has challenged my long held beliefs about the limits of electoral politics—but in the end, it has confirmed them. Sanders campaign from the beginning has been an amalgamation of a movement and a political campaign. His own rhetoric made that clear—particularly his persistent calls for a “political revolution.”
Bernie’s initial intentions were to exert pressure on the Democratic Party from the left, to galvanize a political movement to change the nature of how politics is conducted and to attack policies that advantage the very rich at the expense of everyone else. His events were in many ways more like movement rallies than electoral speeches. His campaign could have been a very effective effort to jump-start a progressive movement, building on the previous work of groups like Move-on and Occupy Wall Street.
But then – to everyone’s surprise (including Bernie’s) - it began to look like he might actually become the nominee—and maybe even the President. His efforts became about winning an election. So the social movement began to morph into a serious effort at achieving electoral success. Ralph Nader meets Barack Obama, or something like that.
Does Bernie Sander’s run for the nomination offer an opportunity to achieve political transformation through electoral politics?
Perhaps. Maybe Bernie has inspired enough younger supporters to take on the hard, long term (and frankly often boring) job of running and serving in local offices—perhaps starting with city councils, school boards, county commissions and eventually state legislatures, and congress. If enough progressives make a long term commitment to do this, and if there is an external movement to hold them accountable as they become more embedded in traditional political efforts, then maybe, just maybe, this will prove to be the start of a political transformation. The civil rights movement followed this trajectory, and its heirs have certainly become a force in the Democratic Party and in Congress.
But I doubt it. I don’t think he or his allies have offered a clear vision for how a “political revolution” can take place or begun the hard work of developing the infrastructure to really make that happen.
He is not alone in this. The Tea Party, while achieving great electoral success, has faltered in its capacity to actually bring about the change it has called for. The election of African Americans to positions of influence has been important, but as this past year has shown, it takes a movement to begin to move the dial on the policy changes that will actually make a difference to the lives of most African Americans and other people of color.
The most impressive political transformation in recent times has occurred around LGBT issues. Our cultural norms have changed dramatically in this arena—with attendant changes in policy. The LGBT rights movement has seldom focused on electoral politics. Instead it has zeroed in on changing public consciousness. It has been very strategic in picking battles along the way that it could win and that could open the door to further change. While not concentrating on electing people to office, it has galvanized its supporters to be politically active and they have made a difference in a number of elections.
The success of the Sanders campaign has been very important for America in many ways. But the focus on electoral success has also led Bernie astray. He did not figure out how to exit the race in a powerful way. He became too focused on winning a few concessions on the party platform and not enough on deploying his most impressive power, the capacity to deliver not just voters but committed activists in support of progressive candidates. He has never articulated a clear strategy for social change that puts electoral efforts in context.
The tension between building a social movement and influencing electoral politics is a challenge for activists across the political spectrum. The tension is founded on the struggle between social change and social stability. Social movements are about change, and that is where activist energies need to be focused if they want to bring about fundamental change. Elections are sometimes a useful tool, but a dangerous one because they can easily sap the focus and energy of movements.
Elections all for a focus on supporting the best candidate with a realistic chance to win, consolidating gains that have been made in our political culture, and sometimes preventing really awful things from happening. As such, elections are often a reflection of significant change, but seldom the cause of it.