A Home in the Digital World
August 28, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
It’s never easy being a socialist in the United States. And at no time is it more difficult then come election season. Because neither of the two major parties—hard-right ravings to the contrary taken as given—is socialist. Both Republicans and Democrats are capitalist. There have been many attempts to form major left-wing anti-capitalist parties over the last couple hundred years. Some, like two I’ve participated in—the Green Party US and the Labor Party—have been national efforts. The former is still struggling on gamely, though Mass affiliate Green-Rainbow Party currently does not have official party status—having failed to win 3 percent of the vote for any state or national candidate in the last election or to enroll 1 percent of registered voters. The latter petered out over a decade back. There have also been state-level efforts like the Peace and Freedom Party in California—which, for one reason or another, haven’t spread to other states.
The received political wisdom is that the major parties have set up so many structural roadblocks over their many decades in power that it’s impossible for any of the smaller so-called third parties to achieve major party status. And from my experience that received wisdom has been correct. So far.
Where does that leave a socialist like me? Well, I have a few options. None of them ideal… unless we manage to change our political system to allow for small parties to more easily become big ones. I could go back to the Greens. I could join one of the tiny socialist parties that runs candidates from time to time like Socialist Alternative. I could join the somewhat larger Democratic Socialists of America—which is not a party but a pressure group that throws its weight behind the most left-wing candidates it can find or field, mainly in the Democratic Party. I could help try to revive an effort for a “fusion” ballot in Massachusetts with the Working Families Party (of New York and several other states). Such a move would create a formation that would be allowed to support larger parties’ candidates (i.e., the Democrats for all intents and purposes) without sacrificing independence. But allowing that would require a change in Bay State law… and a 2006 attempt to make the necessary change failed. I could help start a new left-wing party in the Boston area, and try to win some municipal races before moving on to state and national contests. Or I can join the majority of Massachusetts voters and be an independent. Registering as “unenrolled” in our state’s parlance. Currently the simplest and easiest option. And a reasonable one for a journalist like myself since I remain independent of all political parties.
So like many other left-wingers, I’ve bitten the proverbial bullet and have been unenrolled for most of my adult life. But it’s a dissatisfying place to situate myself politically. Because functionally it means that I’m voting for whoever comes closest to my beliefs on a case-by-case basis. Not usually for a slate. As minor parties like the Greens rarely have the wherewithal to run candidates for multiple offices in one voting district. Just individual candidates. And should those candidates win, they are basically on their own. Meaning any political gains they make typically won’t outlast their terms of office.
Being unenrolled also means that I’m almost never voting for a candidate I fully support. Unless a maverick left-wing candidate happens to run for one office or other in my area—usually in a nonpartisan local race—I’m nearly always forced to compromise. And, sure, voting always involves compromises. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans. Yet casting such votes usually requires that I make a big compromise. A fundamental one, as the candidates on offer all share the major flaw of backing a political economic system—capitalism—that I don’t believe in. Even though I’m forced to participate in that system by nature of being born in a capitalist country in this time and place.
At this juncture, some readers will naturally ask, “Well, why vote at all?” After all, I’ve got more than a little bit of a libertarian streak in the sense that I’m a big fan of liberty. And many left libertarian traditions—notably anarcho-syndicalism—push for direct democracy at the local level in place of representative democracy at every level. I’ve always had a soft spot for such views. But I have never found them practical for a nation-state of over 300 million souls amid a planetary population of over seven billion and rising.
Ultimately, as messed up as capitalist democracy is, I refuse to take my franchise for granted. For much of human history, people like me didn’t get any say at all in how they were governed. Even the US restricted voting to white males with property at its inception. Only after generations of grassroots political struggle did we get universal suffrage for everyone 18 or older. So as long as we remain an even nominally representative democracy, I’m going to keep voting.
Great, but how do I go about picking candidates to support? Not easily, and I simply don’t vote in races where none of the candidates are good by my lights. Still, taking next week’s primary as an example, let me shed some light on my internal decision-making process. For sake of space, I’ll think aloud about only the hottest current local political fight—the 7th District Congressional race between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley—in the manner I normally do when preparing to vote as an independent socialist. Mainly by considering the candidates’ political positives and negatives from my perspective.
Capuano’s positive policy points include backing Medicare for All for many years and consistently anti-war foreign policy stands. Strikes against him include taking campaign contributions from the real estate and biotech lobbies. Pressley’s positive points include taking decent positions on issues like housing and immigration—including recent support for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Strikes against her include more hawkish foreign policy views. And a long Intercept piece on the race paints her as the chosen candidate of corporate Democratic leadership. Someone who fakes left, but will likely break right when it matters. A big negative in my book.
For me, Capuano is one of the last old line social democrats in Congress. Meaning he’s about as left-wing as he can be without leaving the Dems. He’s also been in office a long time and holds key committee positions that would be lost with the election of a first-term opponent. He’s brought a lot of money to his district that benefits the working class, and he’s taken a lot of stands he didn’t have to take in defense of that class.
Pressley has done much less as a politician thus far. According to Politico, her “biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods.” Admittedly while holding a seat in a political body, the Boston City Council, that has very little power. So not an entirely fair comparison, but food for thought nonetheless. However, given Capuano’s predictable and significant lead in the polls and in funding, I can’t shake the feeling that Pressley’s really doing groundwork for her next big race more than expecting to win this one.
For these reasons and many more besides, I have to back Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary for the 7th District Congressional seat.
But all that said—and there’s much more to say—in backing Capuano, I’m still backing a capitalist. This is not a guy who is pushing for workers to own the means of production. This is a guy who has consciously decided that the best path is to shave the rough edges off of capitalism to make it less harmful to workers. While allowing billionaires to control the commanding heights of our political economic system. He may not like it. But he’s decided that’s the best that can be done under the current circumstances.
I respect that decision, even if I disagree with it. Yet whatever I think about individual candidates, I always have to come back to the same problem: What can I do to help ensure that there is a mass socialist (and anti-racist and feminist and environmental and anti-war, etc., etc.) party that can field candidates with the experience and funding to win enough electoral races to change the face of politics in Massachusetts and the United States for the better?
And my answer? For the moment, I’m writing for a growing audience about the kind of political changes I’d like to see, and looking for opportunities to help build the kind of political party that could bring those changes to fruition. There are seeds of what I’m searching for in Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative and many other existing socialist and anarchist and green formations besides. But none of them presently fits the bill for me. All I can say is that I’ll know the party I’m looking for when I see it. And jump on board as soon as that happens. But for now, I’ll just muddle through at election time in the fashion I’ve described above. As best I can.
Readers interested in engaging in discussion and debate on this and related matters in various public forums can contact me at email@example.com.
July 30, 2016
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
The quadrennial whinefest has already begun.
The RNC and DNC pageants are barely over, the presidential election is still over three months off, and yet major party stalwarts are already trying to police the growing margins of their parties and guilt trip them into voting against their consciences. Sadly, this behavior has become a ritual of American politics. One that needs to end if we’re ever going to have a system that offers voters more choices than “Column A or Column B.” Or, as comedian Barry Crimmins once put it: “Do you want to get hit over the head with a hammer or a mallet?”
In the last few days, I have read at least a dozen impassioned pleas from people on the broad political left in my social network begging anyone who will listen to not be “stupid” and “throw their votes away” by backing the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, or any party other than the Democrats this fall. When begging fails, they turn to hectoring—usually based on the Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy: 2016 is 1933. Trump is Hitler. If you don’t vote Democrat, you’re letting the Nazis win.
When hectoring tanks, they start the insults. Which soon devolve into digital shouting matches. Convincing no one who wasn’t already convinced. But solidifying their belief that they’re the only ones possessing the relevant facts and the “maturity” to take “rational” action. That their political equation is the only political equation. That their choice is the only “sane” one. But that’s incorrect.
People can share some of the Democrats’ stated “progressive” views and still vote for minor party candidates, or for Trump, or for “None of the Above”—an option that many Americans choose on a regular basis. Because they understand that, in practice, Democratic presidents often back reactionary policies in the interest of multinational corporations and the rich. And they prefer to vote for the best candidate possible, or simply lodge a protest vote. Which they have every right to do.
I’ve also seen similar arguments being made from the political right—if not as vociferously—mostly concerned about the Libertarian Party “stealing” votes from Republicans. (Although, at the moment, it’s looking like Libertarians will woo voters away from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Providing the potential for umbrage from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters alike, one supposes).
So just a reminder to all major party supporters—including the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose hatchet job on Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein this week is a textbook example of the behavior in question: people in minor political parties are not in your political parties. They are Greens. They are Libertarians. They are Socialist Party (yes, they’re running national candidates, too), et cetera. And while they certainly have to figure out their relationship to other parties as part of their political strategy, they are not required to do what you want them to do. They are also not “idiots” for hewing to their own political course. Or for failing to fall into line behind the current duopoly.
Even though so-called “third” parties haven’t had a chance at winning major national elections for a longlong time, and even though we don’t have a parliamentary system in the US, that doesn’t mean their efforts are wasted. Or that their votes are “thrown away.”
Small parties run national elections for any number of reasons, but two big ones are to qualify for federal election funding and to earn a slot in the presidential debates. Others include: support for lower level candidates, demonstrating that their party has a national presence, the possibility of forcing one of the major parties to cut a deal on a key policy issue, and gaining visibility for their ideas. Whatever the reason, they are not stealing votes from anybody. They are vying for constituencies like any other party and trying to win them over and gain their support.
That’s politics, folks. It’s real life. The more power that’s at stake, the uglier it gets. As we just saw (and perhaps are still seeing courtesy of Wikileaks) with the highly questionable Clinton victory over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Therefore I suggest that major party backers remember that fact in the coming months and beyond. You all can try to convince minor party members and independents to join your party based on the strength of your ideas. But, given the degeneration of the Democrats and the Republicans into caricatures of their past politics—the social democracy of the former morphing into neoliberalism, and the conservatism of the latter descending into a chaotic stew of faux-populism, racism and nativism—and given that both parties have long stood for militarism, imperialism, and state capitalism, it should be no surprise at all that more and more people are looking for political alternatives.
I certainly am.
Also, a quick shout-out to Black Lives Matter Cambridge and Somerville allies for organizing this week’s “Setting the Record Straight” counter-demonstration in Union Square. That in response to the protest rally called by the Somerville Police Employee’s Association (SPEA) and the Mass Municipal Police Coalition (MMPC) in support of removing the “Black Lives Matter” banner that Mayor Joe Curtatone—in a welcome turn from his more problematic political stances—refuses to take down from Somerville City Hall. And replacing it with an “All Lives Matter” banner. A position based on the myth of “seemingly daily protest assassinations of innocent police officers around the country,” according to the original SPEA letter to Curtatone.
Yes, cops are people, too. But the city’s support for Black people’s humanity—and their demands for justice in an unjust and structurally racist political economic system that has historically been defended by police (and their often virulently racist unions)—takes nothing away from that.
More to the point, as the current excellent BLM slogan puts it: “If All Lives Matter, #Prove It!” Let’s see SPEA and MMPC support punishing killer cops and admit that there is literally no comparison between police deaths in the line of duty—which are actually in decline—and the ongoing execution of Black people by cops. Then there will be grounds for some genuine dialogue between area police and Black Lives Matter.