In our view, this is a critical puzzle for the Left to solve, and one we need to give a lot more thought to. After all, progressives of various stripes have elected a number of candidates over the years, particularly at the municipal level (mayors from Harold Washington to Jean Quan), but also the state level (governors, Congress and Senate), and, in some countries, even to the presidency. But what happens once they get into office? If we look at examples in other capitalist countries, we see that the socialist or labor politicians are often equally responsible for austerity measures and attacks on unions, immigrants, and the environment.
We argue that a lot more strategic thinking is needed about how our Left form of governance will be different from the models that came before us. This raises at least four key questions:
While we think Bob Wing overstates the degree of unification on the right, our view is that he is correct in asserting that there is considerable coherence within it. We believe that a key component of that is an ideological commitment to “free market” capitalism (We put “free market” in quotes because in practice, the Right’s version of capitalism often includes heavy government intervention and doesn’t always look like the markets of Adam Smith.). However there is a general consensus around a political economic system that shapes how society produces, distributes and consumes. Certainly, there are differences within the Right on many things: the relationship between Christianity and the state; level of government intervention in markets; the commitment to US nationalism and so on.
Existent Left/Progressive alliances have no such unifying theory. Many unions, think tanks, and community-based organizations promote a form of New Deal-regulated capitalism, and argue that there are many ways that the state can intervene to create a more equitable economic system. It is becoming increasingly clear that this kind of intervention may not work as well in today’s global setting. As various kinds of borders have become more porous and the rules in much of the world changed to favor capital, “priming the pump” doesn’t have the same impact, as citizens turned into consumers buy more imports, immigrant workers send wages home as remittances that are an increasingly key part of a nation’s budget, and investors move their money in and out of banks and countries.
Others on the Left want to go “beyond capitalism” but there is little agreement about what that looks like. For example, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have put forth a model of participatory economics, while David Schweickart and others call for market socialism. However, there has been very little discussion among the kinds of forces Bob Wing suggests participate in the alliance about what the theoretical and strategic underpinnings of governance would look like. For instance, what woul dbe the long-term goal for those we elected officials under this inside-outside strategy?
This matters because though redistribution of America’s wealth could occur, thought would need to be given as to where it is expected future economic development might come from. Do we still want privately-owned enterprises with CEOs and shareholders making decisions about production? Do we think the public sector should be expanded to cover more aspects of our economy? Some of the forces that might be part of the broader electoral alliance may be in sharp disagreement on these questions. We don’t all need to cohere around socialism, but we should at least have the room for discussion on the basic economic and political model we want.
Related to theory is the reality of accountability. Once we elect someone to office, how do we hold them accountable to our vision and social bases?
The Right’s theory is unifying in part because it allows for personal rewards to accrue to those in office who exploit opportunities within the system. Politicians often start out wealthy, but those that don’t, often have the chance to become wealthy. Although a “free market” would imply a limited role for politicians, the Right’s version allows a space for elected officials who are supported by, and therefore support, capitalism and wealth – a win-win relationship. That is, there are financial advantages to remaining accountable to the corporate leaders and wealthy donors who elected you.
The same relationship doesn’t hold on the Left. If we expect politicians to remain accountable, we need to think about the pressures they will face in office, given the role of big business in the electoral system and the established infrastructure and ideology of a state geared to social repression and capital accumulation.
Left politicians will face pressure from investors who threaten to leave their city or district, or others who say they might come if only… Similarly, they may receive pressure from wealthy donors who won’t be around to help them fund their re-election campaign unless…
Even if we elected someone who was a hard-core committed activist before gaining office, once elected, they would then be responsible for maintaining a system that has been built on a Constitution which legalizes slavery in the form of prison and which has only been amended, thereby expanding democracy, due to waves of militant social movements most times led by organized, independent and public Lefts.
Therefore, how do we as the Left balance these pressures? What do we do to hold them accountable to our vision that offers few individual rewards?
3. Internal party functioning
Questions of accountability go beyond individual politicians. It is also about the way the electoral party functions overall. Some parties have experimented with ways to make the political system more about issues and platform, and less about individual candidates. US activists need to consider ways to restructure the party itself, and not just the Electoral College or the electoral system.
This is a key question as membership in political parties has declined in the US and other parts of the world. The Occupy movement and its relatives, such as the Indignados of Spain, highlight a large core of people who want new models of political participation. We should not be too quick to dismiss these activists as utopian or absentionist, and instead learn what we can about why traditional political parties and forms are so alienating. This might mean we need to take seriously the charge of reforming or rebuilding political parties to be more democratic and responsive. Some ideas tried include:
• Standards for endorsing candidates. When one of us was a member of Progressive Dane, a New Party chapter in Dane County, Wisconsin, we required any candidate we endorsed to go through a number of steps: interview before the party membership; sign onto a pledge and agree to follow the platform and work in a caucus with other Progressive Dane candidates; agree not to endorse or campaign for candidates running against Progressive Dane candidates. The idea was to get candidates to commit to functioning as part of a party, and not just an individual. Parties must commit to NOT re-endorsing a candidate who does not stick with the party platform or vote correctly on key issues. In Chicago, a labor-community coalition worked to run candidates against Alderman who voted against the city living wage ordinance.
• Quotas for candidates and party officers, based on gender and race. Insuring a more democratic party can mean creating space for marginalized members to be included within leadership. Some parties set a specific number of seats to be filled by women in party positions; in some systems there are even quotas for parity in the number of candidates.
• Term limits for elected officials. For example, this was applied to officials of the German Green Party for a period. However, term limits is not without its problems: It can often take years to gain any power within the legislature, and if it is your party rotating out, you undermine the chance of ever growing much power for your candidates within the larger body. In California, there are now term limits for all legislators – and some analysts have argued that this has resulted in a lot of inefficiency, as legislators are pushed out just as they are getting to know the state system and budget. New legislators are always coming in, needing to be trained, and, as a result, do not achieve what might other wise be possible.
We are not sure what the answer is to make parties more responsive and democratic, but we do know the current models are not working. Organizations like Bold Progressives and Progressive Democrats of America focus much on electing progressive candidates or supporting issue campaigns, but little or none on reforming the Democratic Party structure or internal functioning.
4. Democratic governance
A fourth concern is this: how can we actually provide better, more democratic, governance? Even if the left wins control, what can we do to increase the involvement in government considering low levels of actual civic and political participation? How do we guard against it becoming alienating and bureaucratic? What measures can community organizations and other elements of civil society push in order to deepen democracy?
Leftists from different traditions and backgrounds in many parts of the world have been emphasizing this same point and exploring alternatives to the dichotomy of “taking state power,” versus creating alternative spaces.
In Brazil, the Worker’s Party initiated a program called participatory budgeting (PB) in the late 1980s. This was an effort to extend participation and influence in one aspect of governance to more people, particularly those typically marginalized. The idea has spread to many parts of the world, and been adopted by a range of governments and actors, including a current project with some New York City Council Members.
Some argue that PB can, and in some places has, been co-opted and implemented in a way that does not meet its initial goals: that is, it lets citizens participate in only trivial decisions over a small amount of money, thus ultimately reinforcing the illusion of democracy, the inability of people to influence major state policy via inside reform work, and elite hegemony. Elizabeth Whitman refers to this in a recent piece in The Nation:
Gianpaolo Baiocchi, an associate professor at Brown University who has studied participatory budgeting and has been involved in the processes in both Chicago and New York City, cautions against the simplistic assumption that if participation is incorporated into an existing process, it automatically improves. In Porto Alegre, after the city’s administration changed hands in 2005, the city began “to pursue pretty explicit policies of privileging the city’s elites” and investing in projects outside of the participatory process, which technically still functioned. Meanwhile, over a thousand projects chosen through the participatory process remain on a long to-do list. A former participatory budgeting councilwoman from Porto Alegre who resigned in 2006 has deemed the process “co-opted, clientalistic, and in exchange for favors.”
In order to have a real impact on democratic governance, PB needs to involve people traditionally excluded from politics, provide information and training on budgets and governance, and have real stakes. We are excited and eager to learn more about the process in New York City, especially since it is grounded in community organizing groups that are based in poor and working-class communities.
Other experiments include ways to bring together government staff with citizen groups or associations, to more effectively implement public programs or enforce laws. Some examples of this include Living Wage Advisory Boards to enforce city living wage laws and community-driven regulation of environmental problems related to economic development. The New York Department of Labor has deputized worker center members and staff to help monitor wage enforcement violations. The idea is that implementing public programs will always be too big a task to put in the hands of government employees. Instead, we need to rely on “secondary associations” – unions, neighborhood councils, parent groups, and others – to work with government employees. The associations are likely to have greater access to information (for example, a union will be better placed to know if employers are complying with health and safety regulations), and greater incentive for seeing through successful implementation. Yet associations on their own do not have the power of law, and do not always have access to policy makers.
When British Colombia, Canada decided to reform their electoral system they created a Citizens’ Assembly of 160 people, who spent a year studying and discussing the issue and developing a proposal. That proposal was then put out to a popular vote. This is a model of “deliberative democracy” that has been promoted by some scholars and activists as a way to make governance less about a yes/no vote, and more focused on engaged and broader dialogue amongst citizens and policymakers.
In Argentina, the unemployed and informal sector workers have been mobilizing not only for protests, but to build local organizations and national-level federations to push for policies and programs dealing with their issues. The unemployed and informal sector workers are traditionally marginalized in political arenas, but in Argentina the existence of a national workfare program may have enabled these workers to better organize and then develop into a political force. This suggests that we do not necessarily have to choose between “outside” or “inside” politics, but that a complex intersection of policy and protest could expand the boundaries of who is included and who is excluded from democratic participation.
The participatory budgeting example shows that nothing can be treated merely as a technical fix. Even the best ideas can be co-opted, and applied from above, changing nothing in terms of who holds power and makes decisions. But we agree with Bob and Bill that if the left is serious about governance, it also needs to think more broadly and creatively than we have in the US about expanding the practice of democracy to more people.
Bob Wing makes a