Skip to main content

Toward a Movement 40 Million Strong

The battle over ideas (both in form and content, and as measured by PAC, party, and candidate spending) is breeding cynicism and driving down voter turnout.

immigrant rights protest sign
, Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

Inspired by the disaster of Trump and Trumpism two years out most organizers are engaged in barroom or coffee shop speculation about the 2020 election.  

Among the two dozen announced Democratic candidates, many debate: will it be Sanders or Warren, with their attacks on corporate Democrats? Will it be one of Hilary’s heirs, with their cozy relationship with Wall Street?  Will Harris be the first Black woman nominated by a major party? If it’s Biden, do we sit it out?

All of it is idle speculation unless ‘we’ collectively organize tens of millions of the 108 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2016.  That’s right, one hundred and eight million eligible voters chose not to register or to vote in 2016. The non-voting block is disproportionately young, poor and people of color.  

This is by design.

The battle over ideas (both in form and content, and as measured by PAC, party, and candidate spending) is breeding cynicism and driving down voter turnout.

For the formerly incarcerated, people of color, and Black Southerners, rules and administrative practices are designed to prevent millions of potential voters from registering or voting.  In Virginia, for example, if you want to register other voters you need to collect each person’s full social security number. In Georgia, the Republican candidate for Governor kept his day job as Secretary of State long enough to hold up 53,000 voter registrations of which 70% were Black.  In Georgia, 1.4 million voters have been purged from the voter rolls since 2010.

Furthermore, in these places and more, the very structure of the electoral system is designed to disenfranchise voters in Presidential Elections due to the counting of votes on a state-by-state basis.  Unless you live in the 5-10 states that are electorally competitive, your vote for President is essentially of no value. If you are a Black voter in the Deep South, your vote for President doesn’t matter.  

Elections are neither fair nor democratic.  The playing field is tilted – and everyone knows it.  

However, despite, or perhaps because of this, dozens of state-based power building organizations have banded together to lead efforts to build a bottom up long term front against Trump and Trumpism.  Over the last twenty-five years, state power organizations have grown to fill the political space created by the decline of Democratic Party local organization, the breakup and collapse of ACORN, and low levels of voter turnout. This reflects a shift from narrow Alinskyism and its very limited political engagement.  

Building the State Power Caucus

Now, recall the 108 million people who were eligible but not voting?  They are largely our ‘core’ constituency, or in other terms, they are our unorganized social base. This 108 million when compared to the voting electorate is more Black, more immigrant, more working class and poor.

Many groups started locally and began building statewide over time. In part, the organizations realized the overdetermination of state-level power, which can be most aptly perceived in terms of local and state budgets, the Dillion Rule or pre-emption, the role of states in creating Federal House districts, and in the ways that state politics provides space for creative and innovative organizing-led progress.  

These organizations have deep strategic knowledge and practice in their particular states. Starting in the summer of 2017 many leading state-power organizations have come together as a caucus to support peer-to-peer learning and incubate innovate organizing practices. Included among the organizations that have been leading the State Power Caucus are New Virginia Majority, New Florida Majority, California Calls, Washington Community Action Network, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

All told, there are 22 organizations from 15 states involved in the Caucus. Importantly, these organizations recognized the need to develop a systematic and long-term alternative to Trumpism.

The State Power Caucus has worked to first analyze the collective reach of the national networks who engage in electoral and civic engagement work. This includes Community Change, People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy, among others.

We’ve also begun to assess the collective impact of state-based organizations. Looking at 2016, our rough estimate is that at most 4 million people were contacted and encouraged to vote. This is our high-water estimate. The actual number who actually voted is probably much lower still.

Now, recall the 108 million people who were eligible but not voting?  They are largely our ‘core’ constituency, or in other terms, they are our unorganized social base. This 108 million when compared to the voting electorate is more Black, more immigrant, more working class and poor.

If we initially target just half of the 108 million, and we acknowledge that some in that half are going to disagree with our values and politics, some aren’t going to vote no matter what, and some are in geographies that we just can’t reach, we believe our real voter mobilization target number is 40 million, and we’ve agreed as a caucus to that number as our target. That’s our natural constituency.  

These are the voters or potential voters who put AOC and Ilhan Omar into Congress. They are our friends and family, and they are the everyday members and supporters of our organizations that fight for racial justice at the state and local level.

The State Power Caucus is committed to working more effectively, efficiently and collaboratively with national social justice networks. Together, we look to take a big leap forward and move from mobilizing 4 million and organizing many less to mobilizing and organizing many times more.  

The long game to defeat white nationalism and move past neo-liberal corporatism is by building a bottom up movement of 40 million people.

At a minimum that is a movement where people vote consistently and consciously. Where people share our values for racial, gender and social justice and where people believe they have the capacity to rule.  

Jon Liss has organized for racial and social justice in Virginia for the last 30 years. Between 1979-1981, he organized for the creation of an African American Studies department as a student at the University of Virginia where he graduated with a B.A. in History, then went on to organize for U.S. divestment in the South African Apartheid regime. From 1983-1984, he served as an elected leader of a taxi drivers association. In 1986, Jon co-founded Tenants and Workers United (TWU), a low-income racial and gender justice organization based in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood. Jon served as the Executive Director of TWU until 2011. In 2007 he co-founded New Virginia Majority Education Fund and currently serves as both a board member and as the organization’s Co-Executive Director.​ Website: http://www.newvirginiamajority.org/
 
 

Seize the Moment: Paving the Road for a Mass Left

Jon Lliss, June 9, 2019

OrganizingUpgrade

I’m old, but a little too young to have lived through the New Communist Movement of the 1970’s and it’s battles to form revolutionary parties and pre-parties, that is, to build a disciplined band of professional revolutionaries to carry out a political line.  That’s another article for another author.  On the other hand, there is a unique, maybe even historic opportunity to build a political-strategic space to carry out electoral organizing.  This space could create the opportunity for a longer term more strategic relationship, but we need to start with where we are.

Increasingly there is a sector of radical organizations who believe that electoral work is a key area of struggle.  That is a huge shift from the last few decades: credit Bernie and his campaign for revitalizing the notion of socialism and the importance of elections, credit many immigrant rights, Occupy and Movement for Black Lives leaders for recognizing the need for mass action AND an electoral strategy. 

It’s time to create a ‘general command’ or a place where all organized groups of people who view elections as key area of struggle and who view growing a base of radical ‘new majority’ Democratic voters as a central task. To be explicit, new majority Democrats refers to women, especially women of color, Black and immigrant voters, and sectors of young and working-class voters.

For too long, left unity has been seen as the result of a process that begins and ends with an exchange of position papers on a wide range of issues.  Let’s start with one thing that many leftists in many organizations agree on at this point in history: the Democratic Party primary elections are an important place of struggle and we should be encouraging and building a base of participants within and around it.  Second, most of these same organizations would probably agree that a key task for leftists is to both build independent political organizations and organize a growing proportion of our natural constituency: the 108 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2016, some of the hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who didn’t register to vote, and some portion of the several million formerly incarcerated people who have had their voting rights stripped away. I addressed the issue of organizing our natural constituency elsewhere. Here I will focus on the independent political organization we need to build.

Our task is to build an organizational vehicle, what I call a “party-like space” (a term I will explain below), around the following points: a) build a stronger, larger base of voters of color, younger voters and women voters (in Virginia, for example, Black women voters have been the motor for all progressive change), b) support existing state power organizations that is ,some of the dozens of social movement organizations contending for state level governing power, or at least organizations that are outside of the Democratic Party structures c) agree to support the Democratic candidate who emerges to take on Trump in the general election. 

Why a party-like space and not a radical party or just throwing down with your favorite Democratic candidate?  Over the last thirty years there have been annual or at least regular efforts to either create a new party organized along Leninist lines, or if not an actual organization, then a “federation of the willing” who will operate along similar lines.  That’s not going to happen. Standard left practice has been to try to start forming an organization with unity around a set broad of ideas and then move on to figuring out what to do.  I propose the opposite.  For a wide range of reasons many organizations and individuals agree on the importance of building a left pole of work within the Democratic Party. Instead of starting with where we disagree let’s start with what we agree on.  Let’s create a dynamic which builds trust and collaborative practice.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and let’s humbly acknowledge our weakness.  And let’s also acknowledge the power of uniting our leading organizations and individuals around a singular strategy.  If we act in principal and unity we can have a disproportionate impact and move portions of the millions of missing voters.

What would this party-like structure do? Let’s start with the tactical and practical.  Even on their own terms, this would be a valuable step toward a coherent approach for building a socialist movement.

On a strategic level, this party-like space would exist in order to build the foundations for a mass left organization capable of challenging elites in the two dominant parties, leveraging the strengths and demands of multiple movements, and making possible a struggle for life beyond Trump and Trumpism. Practical next steps should include:

  1. Agree to these or similar points of unity (can’t get away from the exchange of papers)
  2. Coordinate electoral plans.
  3. Do real world work both together and apart, regularly and collectively assess progress, learn lessons and adjust strategies.
  4. Recruit other projects and organizations to join this political space. 
  5. Develop working relationships to funnel members and volunteers to state power organizations, DSA, or the Working Families Party who are building independently of the Democratic Party while also expanding the electorate and building the broadest front against Trump and Trumpism.

There may be additional more strategic benefits to this kind of effort.  There is likely to be some intergenerational relationship building and learning.  There will be back and forth conversation and struggle with groups who have difference.  This will be hard.  Yet our current moment of resurgent white nationalism and international belligerence puts the lives of many and in fact the planet at risk.

We can look around the world and see numerous examples where left organizations have found ways to work together despite differences because of the threats and opportunities they faced.  In El Salvador, 5 organizations under life-threatening duress managed to unite to create the FMLN.  They started with very different strategic positions but created a process for collaboration and coordination.  Over time, many of the differences were not nearly as important as the need to work together.  Again, while longer term strategic considerations may develop over time, getting this real work started for 2020 is the way to start. 

Conveniently, there are three current projects that fit will with this orientation.

First, under Maurice Mitchell’s leadership the Working Families Party is working to expand its geography, move beyond an exclusively union base to bring together racial and gender justice organizations and innovate to create a relevant people’s party.  

Second, the Inside-Outside Project brings together representatives from the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Left Roots, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and Liberation Road.  Together they have created a space for discussion and strategizing.  We are still a year and a half out from the next Presidential election.  Usually these kinds of efforts come together in the last couple of months of a campaign.  Leaning into this path, it is possible to imagine a shared party­-like space actually leading to joint work in the streets. 

Third, over twenty organizations from 15 states have come together to form the State-Power Caucus.  These organizations come from a variety of traditions: there are former ACORN groups, and groups that grew out of the workers center movement or the Right to the City Alliance.  They are generally left: pro-Black, pro-immigrant, pro-women and pro-worker.  Most work on voter mobilization and deep community organizing.  Most would welcome dozens of members of left organizations supporting their work.  Most are creating a constituency that often votes for Democrats but is also committed to radical democracy and deep transformational change.  There are, of course other ways this can be done.  The important thing is to get it done.  Bringing together left organizations has value and begins to move the needle.  Moving cadre into a positive role of building state power organizations brings together a left that is often isolated and aloof from popular organizations into relationship with organizations that have real capacity, but suffer from the absence of the conscious left. 

Jon Liss has organized for racial and social justice in Virginia for the last 30 years. Between 1979-1981, he organized for the creation of an African American Studies department as a student at the University of Virginia where he graduated with a B.A. in History, then went on to organize for U.S. divestment in the South African Apartheid regime. From 1983-1984, he served as an elected leader of a taxi drivers association. In 1986, Jon co-founded Tenants and Workers United (TWU), a low-income racial and gender justice organization based in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood. Jon served as the Executive Director of TWU until 2011. In 2007 he co-founded New Virginia Majority Education Fund and currently serves as both a board member and as the organization’s Co-Executive Director.​ Website: http://www.newvirginiamajority.org/