Where do progressives belong in elections?

photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders via Huffington Post
photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders via Huffington Post

The question of if and how to be involved in elections tends to cause a lot of handwringing and debate on the left. Many people are understandably discouraged about the possibility for change through electoral means, especially in a post-Citizens United landscape. The process feels impure to some, and it’s easy to throw up one’s hands at the two-party system.

I think most realize, however, that completely ceding the field is unwise. After working in several election cycles to educate and help elect progressive candidates based on their issue positions, I am convinced that our voices must be inserted at all levels of the process. Politics is about relationships, and forming them early, and proving yourself committed and useful, can pay dividends in the long run. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Bill Fletcher Jr. takes on an aspect of this debate in a piece for The Progressive focused on the possibility of a Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy:

If a run makes sense, and I think Sanders might be the candidate who would turn his campaign into something lasting, the question is how to do it. I believe that Sanders needs to make a strategic decision to run within the Democratic primary system for the nomination. Despite the discontent with the electoral system among so many people in the United States of America, it is not likely that an independent candidacy at this moment can win. Should the Republican Party fracture, which is a real possibility over the next few years, all bets would be off. But as long as the Republicans stand firm as a hard, rightwing party, it is unlikely that at the national level an independent candidacy can win.

Fletcher focuses on finding the most effective way to organize within the existing system. He dismisses the idea of an independent run to “show the colors” as a waste of time and resources. This gets at the key core issue: what is the goal of a progressive elective initiative, and what is the best way to get there. Fletcher posits that Sanders should only run to win. I would be pleasantly surprised if Sanders were ever able to pull something like that off, but even if the goal were to pull the debate significantly to the left, working within the Democratic primary system would clearly be the most high-profile way to do that. It’s obviously difficult to make the case that it’s worth running a campaign that isn’t likely to win, as Fletcher points out. But I have seen how a losing primary campaign, at least on the congressional level, can reverberate down the road and help pull a district to the left.

Fletcher’s emphasis on the context for a run is what I see as the most important lesson from his piece:

On the other hand, if the candidate has a real mass base, is building a broad progressive front around a clear, transformational program, and sees the candidacy as one step in a multitiered process, then it might be worth going for it.

Without a long-term organizing plan, electing candidates will only get progressives so far. Hopefully that lesson has sunk in almost six years after President Obama was first elected. Many left-of-center activists were hesitant to put pressure on Obama early in his presidency, and balked at any pointed criticism. Months, and even years, of precious organizing time were lost. While many positive developments have come forth from the Obama administration, we’ve also seen disturbing trends from record-setting deportations to a huge uptick in deadly drone strikes. It’s become almost cliche in organizing circles  to cite Obama’s mandate to “make me do it,” but it’s abundantly clear that outside pressure must always be present.

This is an important lesson to keep in mind as income inequality permeates the Democrats’ election rhetoric. They’re well aware of which way the political winds are blowing, but there’s no guarantee that they will fight as hard as necessary to make real changes that benefit working people around the country. Progressives will need to be ready to hold their feet to the fire and can’t sit back and wait for the change to happen purely through electoral means.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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