My frustration with the Left when it comes to electoral politics


I was recently asked to participate on a panel regarding the Left and electoral politics.  I declined.  For many people this may seem strange since I have been a very strong proponent of the Left looking at electoral politics strategically.  Well, that is all true but I have encountered a problem and maybe you can help me resolve it.

Most Left “debates” on electoral politics take a very predictable route.  It looks something like this:

  1. Electoral politics will not bring about socialism and freedom.
  2. The Democrats have consistently sold us out. They are the party of the rich.
  3. The Republicans and the Democrats are two wings of the same evil bird of prey.
  4. We need an alternative.
  5. Therefore, either:
  • Abstain from electoral politics and wait till the masses, in their millions rise up against capitalism, or…
  • Create a pure, anti-corporate (if not anti-capitalist) third party right now and start running in elections even if we do not have a snow-ball’s chance in hell of winning.

What I have found striking about this line of thought, and the so-called debates that unfold around it, is that they are actually un-political and lack any sort of concrete analysis.

Let’s be clear so that we do not have a needless exchange.  Electoral politics under democratic capitalism will not result in our freedom.  Second, the Democrats are not the party of the working class.  So, now that we have that out of the way, what do we do?

Electoral politics is a field of struggle.  It is an arena.  On that arena, however, we on the Left can do two things:  participate in the struggle for popular power and raise issues that have the possibility of gaining greater attention.  Much of the Left focuses on the latter and ignores the former.  Many who focus on the struggle for power, however, abdicate being Left altogether.  Therein exists the challenge.

Given the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system, a concrete analysis of the USA (rather than other countries) means that we have to grapple with what it means that in most elections independent, third party candidacies fail and are viewed as spoilers.  There are certainly historical exceptions, but those exceptions prove the general rule.  This means that a concrete examination of US electoral politics must focus on the notion that a third party movement on the Left will more than likely result from an “insurrection” within the Democratic Party and a major section of its base (with the character of such an “insurrection” being more of a united front rather than a pure, Left challenge).  This is to be counterposed with the idea that such a party arises out of nothing, or to put it in its best case, out of generalized popular discontent.

So, if we on the Left really want to discuss electoral politics we must examine a concrete question:  what do we do in the USA given the nature of the electoral system?  If your answer is to simply raise the red flag of radicalism to see who salutes, with all due respect, you are not serious about politics; you are stuck in the world of pure ideology.

The larger challenge for the Left in electoral politics is conducting the fight, in and through our mass organizations, for the recognition of the need for an independent, progressive program that represents the interests of the downtrodden and the dispossessed.  We should not start with organization in the abstract, but with program.  We then need to figure out under what conditions we run people within Democratic Party primaries and under what circumstances we run independently.  Always, I should add, recognizing that this is a fight within the context of democratic capitalism for structural reforms, thereby laying the basis for the longer-term struggle for socialism...

…That is, if we are interested in the fight for power rather than just being ‘correct.’  But, alas, it will mean that we will need to get a bit untidy in the alliances we will need to build.

Show me a ‘purist’ revolution and I will show you a bridge that you can buy for almost nothing.


Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO. 

Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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  • Spending cuts......spending cuts...........spending cuts...

    Posted by br, 12/30/2012 10:13pm (11 years ago)

  • Before outlawing voting, if voting changed anything, "they" would first make it harder and harder for those groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, youth, and immigrants who usually vote more progressive to vote at all. "They" would find ways of more easily buying elections. "They" would find better ways of corrupting the voting process in their favor.

    If voting changed anything, "they" would ensure that their elected representatives did everything to destroy union rights.

    And if voting changed anything, historically "they" would have denied the vote to the working class, to those of African descent, to women.

    Brother Fletcher is right. Some on the left substitute slogans for analysis. Those serious about change struggle in every arena available to them.

    Posted by HenryCT, 06/03/2012 12:02pm (12 years ago)

  • What can we do? Is there a general forum for PoliticalAffairs anywhere? I'm interested in learning more and wanting to get more involved...

    Posted by Leon, 05/31/2012 11:02am (12 years ago)

  • The majority of people in this nation think of the Democrats as advocating "progressive" solutions. We know that this is not the case, but when the "too little too late" ideas of the Democratic party don't WORK - who gets the blame? The left of course. It's those radical leftist Democrats that have ruined things.

    Until the left makes is clear that Democrats to not represent us, or our ideas, we will continue to be blamed for the failure of their half measures.

    Posted by Luciano Moriconi, 05/02/2012 1:56pm (12 years ago)

  • Spot on. I am constantly fighting with young ultraleftists who consider me a sell out for supporting some Democrats, and against a 3rd party. They simply dont understand strategy and tactics, and the difference between them TACTICS-Realizing that they are not strategy, taking into account the changing ways and means of the correlation of objective and subjective forces and forms of struggle, of immediate tasks, of defeats and victories, the ebb and flow, (quick changes in offense, politics, retreat, defense, gathering of forces, siege, assault), the phases of developmenet, the historical and national specifics, what is needed in an action, learning new legal and illegal forms (eg, civil disobedience) as well as learning from the experience of others, selecting the time and place, maintaining flexibility, mobilizing alliances, refusing wait,or to jump stages, to trail behind, STRATEGY-Maintaining grounding in constant contact with the leading role of the masses (without falling to their level, but raising them), the total movement, the final transformational objective, adapting to new circumstances without becoming lost, maintaining firmness in flexibility, elaborating the correct line, putting it in practice and mobilizing the forces for it.

    Posted by ANTONIO BERNAL, 05/01/2012 11:35am (12 years ago)

  • Sorry you're frustrated.

    But if voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.

    Organizing to the rhythms of electoral campaigns is about as effective as rhythm for prevention of conception.

    Posted by Linda Jansen, 04/27/2012 8:47pm (12 years ago)

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