Here’s a question for you.
How do socialists get power in American politics?
To figure out the answer to that question, we have to start at the beginning. After all, if we start at the end, this article will be too short.
Entryism, to the uninitiated, is the practice of socialists coming to power via democratic elections for the purpose of changing the economic mode of production once in power and all around instituting socialist policies. It’s something of a lost art in the US, considering the very small number of successful socialist politicians. To help mend this at a time of surging socialist sentiments thanks to the Sanders’ campaign, this guide is here to assist any would be entryist in their electoral ambitions.
National politicians get their start in one of three ways. Either they have significant celebrity in popular culture ahead of running (such as actors or war heroes) , they are a successful or semi-successful business person, or they were previously elected to a lower level position.
Considering it is difficult for socialists to get power via the two latter means, being outside of the mainstream and unlikely to hold high management positions in large companies, we must to turn to the first. This is actually where most national politicians begin (only so many people can be celebrities and CEO’s after all).
Sanders famously won his first election as mayor of Burlington by ten votes. Eugene Debs, the father of American socialism, was originally a labor leader and a state legislator with the Democratic Party. Meyer London, Deb’s colleague, began in the New York state assembly before moving on to Congress. Other notable american socialist politicians never left the local stage, but had a great impact nonetheless, such as Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler in the mid twentieth century or our present day Seattle City councilwoman Kshama Sawant.
If socialists want to become a force to be reckoned with once again in American politics, we must learn how to win local elections. Only then will it be possible for us to take the state and local levels.
So what do you have to do to win a local election, anyway?
Firstly, you need a plan. Sit down one night and write down all the things you have to do and when you plan to do them. Getting on the ballot, what your strategy for canvassing and meeting people is, ect. Keep it handy and adjust it when necessary.
Second, you need to work hard. In small local elections, it often comes down to which candidate personally talks or reaches out to the most voters. If you’re up against an incumbent, as Bernie Sanders was in the race for Burlington Mayor, you might find they can be prone to complacency and even if they have a higher name recognition it is possible to overcome them if you put all your effort into it while they assume the election is already in the bag.
You also have to keep in mind that all politics are local. Instinctively you may want to focus your rhetoric on national issues of inequality and the broader problems in society. However, you must be sure to first and foremost address the issues most pressing to voters which the level of government you’re running for can deal with. Sanders won in part by campaigning about the housing crisis Burlington faced at the time, and Sawant made fighting back against Boeing’s shipping of jobs overseas a signature issue as well as a local $15 minimum wage.
If there’s another thing we can take away from Sanders’ politics, it’s to always punch above the belt. Socialists can often find supporters among those who may not necessarily share our ambitions for a more cooperative economy, but who are similarly dissatisfied about the corruption of the status quo. If you want these supporters to stay with you, you have to reject this same corruption, and the dirty politics that go with it.
But one lesson you can take away from all five of the politicians I’ve mentioned is to be passionate. Let your oratory soar and trumpet the “I was! I am! I will be!” of revolution to your hearts content. Care about serving your community and making the world a better place, and let it show.
It can also be helpful to connect yourself with larger organizations such as the Democratic Socialist Party of America, Socialist Alternative, Labor Unions or even the Democratic Party and churches if they’re willing. You need as much help as you can get in raising your name recognition and introducing yourself and your ideas to voters. Sawant had Socialist Alternative, Sanders had the help of friends still in the Liberty Union Party, Debs, London and Zeidler all had the backing of the now defunct Socialist Party of America, as well as organized labor, and in the case of Zeidler, local churches.
Which brings us to an important point. Christians remain the majority of the voting population in most areas in the United States, and may instinctively be hostile to socialism thanks to the lingering effects of the cold war and the hostility of many communist sects towards religion. However, if you are comfortable with it, you can tap into a long tradition of christian socialism which includes Zeidler who was drawn to socialism because in his view “[socialists] believed in brotherhood and equality and getting things done through democratic cooperation.” If you live in an area with a high christian population, and/or are christian yourself, it may be useful to look into the more theological justifications for socialism.
Thanks to decades of propaganda, it can be easy for voters to stereotype socialist politicians (sometimes this can even combine with liberal stereotypes thanks to frequent crying wolf on the part of right wingers). In the case of all the politicians I’ve mentioned, they were able to overcome such stereotypes and indeed become better known thanks to the sheer force of their personalities. Which is to say, be yourself when you campaign, or if not, at least be an individual and not just a person playing the role of a politician or socialist.
If you do get elected, it is then your job to govern effectively as well as to maintain your hold on power. To paraphrase Sanders, being a socialist has very little to do with running a city. Whether you are in the executive or the legislature, figure out what is the best policy for the people of your locality and do what you can to advance it. When possible, try to find solutions that make the economy more cooperative such as creating cooperatives and land trusts to lower housing costs. But no matter what, always fight for the working class.
Don’t be afraid of working with both Democrats or Republicans when it advances your purposes. However, they may at first stonewall you at every opportunity as your existence threatens their grip on power, so if reaching out fails, expose the gridlock and inefficiency their stubbornness creates to the public. When the time comes, you can use your position to help elect leftist allies to other positions in government and open up more portions of the local government to direct democracy so as to undermine the stonewalling of your partisan opponents.
If you happen to loose your first election, don’t be discouraged. So did Sawant, Sanders and Zeidler. But in doing so, they also built up their name recognition and rallied more workers to their cause for the next run.
To those reading this article who do not intend to run for office, I encourage you to get involved in a socialist organization or similar left leaning political apparatus near you, or if one does not exist, to start one, so that when one of your comrades does run, you’ll be there to lend them a hand.
Some Links to Helpful Other Advice and Resources: