by Anthony Thigpenn and Jon Liss
This piece is a response to “The Left Needs a Statewide Strategy” written by Eric Blanc and Puya Gerami and published in Jacobin. If you haven’t already, we encourage left organizers to read that excellent piece as well as this contribution to the ongoing conversation around state strategy from Anthony Thigpenn and Jon Liss.
For the last 35 years, state level elections, government and struggles have been the building block for the right wing white nationalist power grab that has become Trump and Trumpism. State’s in most cases dominate local governments through ‘preemption’ laws that preempt or overturn attempts at home rule or in some states through the Dillion Rule which reserves all power to the state. Most states control significant budgets while local budgets in all but the largest cities are too small for large scale change. Importantly, states draw the lines for Congressional seats. In states from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, Republican control of redistricting has resulted in the flipping of dozens of seats over the last decade (see the book RatF**ked for details on particularly egregious examples). Thus state power is critically important by itself and it is reflected and magnified at the national or federal electoral level.
Also, we should be clear that power, particularly power within different scales of government, is fluid. Capital and its minions can and often do move swiftly to shift power when we working people, people of color, and radical popular initiatives take control. For example, New York City power was subverted until recently by state level government which limited rent control. At other times, national initiatives (such as Obamacare) are challenged and restricted by state’s rights. Further back, there were Progressive era movements for municipal improvements – labeled ‘sewer socialism’ – were stymied as they fought for more transformative change. The point is that power is fluid and as interpreted by courts and administration has a class, race and gender character. Look at Trump’s creative (and destructive) usurpation of Federal executive power via tariffs, declared emergencies, and the arbitrary physical relocation of entire Federal departments.
For these reasons, we agree strongly with the strategic orientation laid out by Eric Blanc and Puya Gerami in their Jacobin article “The Left Needs a Statewide Strategy.” We need to hone in on state struggle and also acknowledge that the deck is stacked. At times, when we are most successful, it is even reshuffled.
Over the past 10 years or so there has been a growing movement of grassroots state power building independent political organizations (IPOs). These efforts have been led by people of color, women, and leftists who cut their teeth in local community organizing and early on recognized the strategic imperative of building left-oriented state-based power as a counter to both corporate and far-right agendas. For the most part these organizations grew in the vacuum created by the collapse of ACORN and the capture of the Democratic Party by neoliberals and campaign consultants, whose fixation on ‘triangulation’ led to a focus on a narrow sliver of the electorate: suburban swing voters.
To leverage the experience of this wing of the movement, we built the State Power Caucus as a peer-to-peer space for almost three dozen self-identified state power organizations, from states as diverse as New York, California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and Texas.
Drawing lessons directly from this experience, we argue that there are three specific state-based strategies that organizers and activists should pursue.
1. Build ‘Governing Power’
Building governing power is our most critical task. That means fighting for systemic change in the states, through building mass political bases, encompassing the need for inside-outside electoral strategies, the ability to hold state and local officials accountable to social justice demands, the ability to raise demands and win structural change across the spectrum of administrative, judicial, legislative, and institutional levers of power. The one-dimensional approach of electing more representative candidates is inadequate to contend with the forces of white supremacy and nationalism, xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants, and the growing social and economic inequality fueled by corporate greed. Serious justice-oriented state-based power building efforts require collaborative and multi-dimensional approaches toward governing power.
2. Build State-level United Fronts.
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Justice Democrats, Black Voters Matter, Mijente and many other Black and Brown led organizations have stepped into the electoral struggle. They are moving urban and rural voters and reaching the disenfranchised and ignored. State power organizations have systems, staff, access to data, offices, photocopiers, members or volunteers and state-based strategic intelligence. Most of us are women or person of color led. On a state by state basis there is a unique imperative to creatively build united fronts to take on Trumpism. Most state-power organizations are eager to create new forms and practices that best utilize our structured organizations and resources to build independent power. And there will be other regional or state spaces can be created that capture the dynamic energy of DSA, existing social movements, and state level institutional organizations. Let’s not recreate the wheel. Let’s not ride in the car with square neoliberal wheels. Let’s build creatively the respectful and reciprocal relationship and work that wins elections and builds state power.
3. Build Electoral Power.
In order to win elections, we have to invest ourselves fully in the struggle to expand voting rights. It has to be the key plank of any left electoral strategy, and it is central to the work of those groups linking grassroots organizing with electoral strategy. Electoral Power also means winning elections at multiple scales and building a pole of elected leaders who creatively move an agenda that is pro-new majority, centered in the demands of working-class women of color. Finally, it also means both acknowledging the importance of elections while also being aware of their limitations. Elections are a critical strategic terrain, and who sits in the seat of governance can determine many of the conditions under which we organize. But unless we build sustained grassroots strength that links to our existing movements and expands our reach, electoral strategies will fall flat on their own.
Collectively, our task is to move at least 40 million disengaged non-voters (out of the 108 million who didn’t vote in 2016) to conscious political engagement. We believe that building such bottom-up organization, infrastructure and mass bases is imperative for those looking to contest corporate power and the far-right at the national level.
Photo: Protestors gather on the stairs of the Wisconsin State Capitol during the February 2011 uprising (flickr).