An excerpt from an article by long time political activist Bruce A. Dixon:
Can electoral campaigns morph into social movements?
The short answer is no. We have to avoid and actively argue against the delusion that electoral campaigns build social movements. They don’t. I used to believe that under some circumstances they could. But I’ve seen twenty or more campaigns close up, in many of which some or the key participants hoped to morph into permanent bottom-up organizations capable of running themselves and holding candidates accountable. For reasons that require a book chapter to explain, it almost never works. I think I’ve seen it happen, sort of, once in my entire political life.
Electoral campaigns have been the graveyard of social movements, not once, but many, many times.
Wisconsin’s state capital was on the verge of a general strike over the machinations of the state’s governor and legislators, but instead they were directed into an electoral campaign to recall the governor and defeat a handful of state senators, in which huge sums of money were raised, countless volunteer hours expended, organizers deployed, and they lost, leaving few or no new permanent organized formations behind not beholden to the folks that sent them down the electoral road in the first place.
What if just a fraction of the money spent on Wisconsin’s futile recall effort had gone to pay organizers’ salaries and support for two years, and for ten or twenty photocopiers, with two year service agreements, available to grassroots organizations across the state? The movement in Wisconsin would be a lot broader, deeper, more diverse and more established. After electoral campaigns, win or lose, everyone pretty much goes home.
When campaigns are a good idea, when they’re not.
At the very least, your social movements should already be well constituted and in conscious motion before and outside of electoral politics before you enter into a campaign, or else the campaign will swallow them. The campaigns and candidates have to persistently pose the kinds of questions Democrats and Republicans dare not ask, let alone answer. Crucially they must raise up candidates from their own ranks who are loyal enough to the organization and its principles to resist the institutional pull of elected office and the elevated status our political tradition accords even to candidates for office. When you get a candidate on the ballot, that person becomes your spokesperson. If she is NOT with the program, won’t ask the questions that challenge capitalism, you’ve been a party to your own carjacking.
If you can do all those things, AND run a competent campaign, which is no small chore, it’s worth it. If you can’t, it’s not. Supporting Democrats and so-called “fusion” efforts are never worthwhile. Your volunteers ultimately become theirs, or disillusioned, and your efforts lend unearned credibility to the same old folks, who really need your new bottom-up enthusiasm every two years a lot more than you need them.
Campaigns that don’t ask the questions Repubs and Democrats shy away from aren’t worth mounting and their candidates not worth voting for. If you’re only demanding what the consultants say might actually get through the legislature in this or the next session, you’re not demanding enough, and if you do get it, your establishment allies will get the credit, not you. But if you demand five times above and beyond what they’re willing to give, asking the questions they dare not, any victory you win is yours.
Only fools dream that the establishment will allow us to vote them out of power. That will never happen. But until they’re willing to break down our doors, put bags over our heads and frog march us off to solitary somewhere our obligation is to make the most of open work with all the tools available. Completely eschewing campaigns and elections makes no sense.