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Building Electoral Power from the Bottom Up

If an independent left party can only be organized from the bottom up, it can also only build power in elections from the bottom up, focusing on local elections to establish a base for later effective forays into state and national level elections.

Most local elections are on a small enough scale that a grassroots door-to-door campaign can reach the voters without a large budget for direct mail and paid advertising. Broadcast advertising is often an irrelevant waste of money because most viewers and listeners will not reside in the district covered. Many incumbents run unopposed in local elections because most districts are one-party districts in our winner-take-all system and the major party that is the minority in a district often does not run a candidate. That means a third-party candidate will often be the second candidate in a local election, eliminating the incentives for lesser-
evil voting in a three-candidate race in a winner-take-all election.

In the absence of a commitment to independent working-class politics as a principle on the American left, it is not surprising to see the drift away from independent politics by the Vermont Progressive Party and the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Their electoral coalitions with Democrats is consistent with the majority of post-1960s New Left progressive electoral activity, which has mostly been directed through the Democratic Party. These efforts have won some local reforms but have failed to move the national Democratic Party to the left. To the contrary, since the 1960s, the national Democratic Party has replaced the leadership of liberal New Deal Democrats with the leadership of corporate New Democrats. The national Democratic Party can tolerate a few liberal local bases like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York, and even use them as examples to lure progressives back into what remains a conservative pro-corporate political party at the top.

With over 39,000 municipal governments, nearly 13,000 independent school districts, and over 500,000 elected positions in those governments, there is no shortage of opportunities for an independent left party to run candidates. Indeed, a significant proportion of local officeholders are reelected with no opposition. The typical situation is that the local elite, usually embedded in the real estate and development industry, runs these municipal governments in a self-serving if not outright corrupt fashion. They hold on to power because local governments within the federalism of the American political system have real powers.

Few local governments around the world have the autonomy and powers of America’s municipal governments to tax, borrow, spend, invest, contract, purchase, hire, zone, regulate, lobby, police, amend their charters, start businesses as public enterprises, and even expropriate private property for public purposes through the power of eminent domain. These powers provide plenty of scope for an independent left party to advance its program. A longtime advocate for a bottom-up strategy, Gar Alperovitz, has called this the “checkerboard strategy.”

As an independent left party takes power in localities and demonstrates its competence to the public, the door opens for winnable races at the state and federal level. District races for state legislatures and the US House of Representatives are local races, the next step up from municipal district and at-large races. While money for advertising and direct mail plays a far bigger role than in most municipal elections, a well-organized third party can compensate with a strong field operation for direct voter contact.

Howie Hawkins 2020

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