In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Mayor Bill Hampton. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Bill Hampton, you were born in 1997. You became highly active in immigration and anti racist politics and then in RPS. You focused on issues of city life, transportation, and urban planning. You became a prominent inner city activist and candidate, and then a Mayoral candidate and finally Mayor of New York City. So here in the Mayor’s office, I thank you for participating in this oral history project and I wonder, do you remember first becoming radical?
Growing up black certainly had many profound effects on me. Even under Obama, much as I was inspired when he first won, I had grown horrified at the racist resurgence that in turn produced Black Lives Matter and sensitized many to Islamaphobia and immigration politics. Joining the campaign for sanctuary in my own town and local church greatly affected me. Feeling the need for those efforts to connect with other emerging efforts primed me for RPS. And the rest seemed to flow inexorably. I never sat down and said to myself I want to be radical. I want to be revolutionary. Instead, something inside took over, and that was that.
Can you tell us what RPS events or campaigns most personally moved and inspired you, during its first 20 years?
The first thing that comes to mind was very early, arguably during the precursor times. It was at a sanctuary for immigrants who were slated to be deported. The site was a church in Texas, with an incredibly courageous pastor, choir, and congregation. I was there, supporting and trying to learn. Police came and the sheriff in charge announced they were going to take the immigrant families who were receiving sanctuary away for processing and deportation. They had their vans and were set to do what they said was their duty.
The officials were arrayed outside, facing the church entrance. The Pastor was at the top of the Church steps, and maybe 50 congregants, and the full choir was there with him, myself as well.
The Pastor told the officials that to take the families, the police will have to go through the church’s friends, the church’s extended family. He said, and I will never forget it, “You will have to assault us. You may even have to kill us. We will not be moved in our minds. We will only be moved in our bodies and only then if you brutalize our limbs and torsos into physical silence and shove our trembling husks aside. If you feel that is warranted, come ahead.” And at that moment everyone locked arms. Then, before the police could even process that much, and it was about fifty people, the doors of the Church opened and there were rows and rows of congregants also with locked arms. You could see the families, in the distance at the pulpit. To reach them would require carnage if folks stuck to their stated intent.
This was Selma, the Pettus bridge. It was Birmingham. The sheriff was a Trump supporter and may as well have been Bull Connor reincarnated. Likely most or all of the police that had accompanied him had hoped, when thinking about it on the way to church, that they would get in on some action. They were mostly Trump supporters too. But not all the deputies. Two of them sat down with us, right at that point. Welcomed. Crying. They must have thought they would be unemployed by days’ end, if not worse, but they sat.
The sheriff knew that to try to breach the human barrier would only succeed if we crumbled and ran. The Pastor said, no, we won’t. Not even close. But the sheriff, like Trump, had so little regard for anyone who could side with immigrants that he felt, that of course we would fold. A few big swings of their overlong batons and we would scurry off leaving a clear path to the families. So the sheriff gave a two minute warning. The choir began singing. The two minutes passed.
The Sheriff and his deputies began to march into our human barrier. They waved and then used their very long and admittedly quite scary batons. But the singing continued. People in the front were bloodied, physically bowed, but nothing more. As the officials tromped on us, literally, and battered us, there were grunts and moans, but few screams. And then, incredibly, with the choir singing, and with more folks from within the church coming out, and with the onlookers clearly horrified, the defenders, including myself, actually reached up and embraced our tormentors. Our bear hugs diminished their capacity for brutal swings. And there was an intimacy about it. It wasn’t begging. It was offering a degree of understanding. We didn’t fight fire with fire, but with water. We didn’t fight racism with racism, but with solidarity.
After a moment, some deputies simply relented. And then the sheriff did too. He had to. They could have physically demolished us, yes, leaving a battlefield of blasted souls in their wake, but nothing less would succeed in taking the families, and that was simply too much.
A retreat began, and then, incredibly, the Pastor, bent but not beaten, calmly invited the sheriff and his key deputies, if they wished, to come into the church. They just had to leave their batons and guns with their fellows outside. If they did that, they were welcome to talk to the immigrant families and the Pastor, and others. Tears were flowing, medics were aiding people, and in what I will never know, but suspect was a shock for the Pastor like for the rest of us, after what seemed like an eternity of him just standing there staring at the bloodied Pastor, the Sheriff took off his gun, and walked with the Pastor into the Church.
I don’t know what their talk was about, but the next day the Sheriff said he would no longer recognize federal orders, or any orders at all, to deport immigrants. It was the beginning of the end, not just in Texas and the U.S., but around the world, of the anti-immigrant, blame the immigrant, expel the immigrant, mindset. When those who are paid to impose rule say no to their employers and break bread with the presumed violators, the end of rule is at hand.
For me this was such an incredible sight, such an incredible event, so meaningful in so many ways, that, I have to name it in answer to your question.
What about RPS program itself? How did that begin to emerge?
I think with all the above happening, program became a natural focus. It started in earnest, I think, against the backdrop of the Sanders campaign and the then pretty recent Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in the U.S., plus the similar efforts elsewhere, like the huge popular surges and electoral follow up in Greece, Spain, and the UK and then the huge women’s demonstrations against Trump. I had myself been hugely affected by Occupy and very involved in it, and then there was also the Venezuela experience, and the Greek and Spanish uprisings.
But then came Trump’s victory and it was truly traumatic. In a very short time he was appointing climate deniers, vicious racists and misogynists, even overt fascists. It was an orgy of right wing excess, incredibly depressing because so many feared the country wanted it, but time revealed the country did not want it.
After Trump won, there was a major surge of resistance. But the larger task, very difficult in those tumultuous times, was to not only ward off reaction but also move toward winning a better future. This meant learning and acting on many lessons of the recent period.
When millions of people are in motion because of austerity, racism, war, and global warming, and then a vile lunatic trying to turn back time seizes power, the ensuing surge could either fizzle for want of positive focus and wide solidarity, or it could move toward encompassing program and associated organization. The latter needed to happen, and it finally did, though it wasn’t a quick and easy path.
First, there was already program proposed by the Sanders campaign. Almost simultaneously Black Lives Matter rebounded from largely ignoring program to very seriously offering it. And yet, if you look back, you will see that most people, even on the left, were still pretty unimpressed with issues of program, whether that of Sanders or BLM. The same happened when the massive women’s marches against Trump offered program. If you look at the articles of the times you will see there were dozens of essays, even on the left, about Trump’s insanities for every one that was about the BLM or Women’s program or even program at all.
A crucial step was therefore starting to get the resistance to Trump to have a more substantive, forward looking orientation. It wasn’t that people weren’t asking what’s next, how do we persist. Lots were. It is that the discussion rarely was about program, substance, and especially encompassing organization.
In response to Trump trying to hugely escalate or even just maintain current rates of deportation, for example, the most forward thinking activists moved to organize sanctuaries at the city or state level in places such as Los Angeles and California. Perhaps earliest were the demonstrations at airports when Trump began his vile efforts. Then I remember a mosque burning in Texas followed by a temple handing over keys to the Moslem who lost the Mosque. Incredible things like that happened over and over, but tying together the sentiment into lasting structure, with overarching positive aims, was more difficult.
To continue the reaction to Trumps’ anti immigrant efforts, activists created sanctuaries more locally in churches and in some universities and even in some private homes where people offered to harbor deportees to protect them. One solidarity slogan was, “if you take our friends, you have to take us, and neither they nor we are going without a fight.”
Venues like churches or campus centers provided housing and protection and when deportation authorities even sneezed, such venues were guarded by masses of supporters to block entry. During the days and nights of the sanctuaries, we held teach ins and cultural events, and otherwise used the experiences to build support, develop trust, and even enjoy the experience.
This kept building until groups of major athletes welcomed immigrants into sports arenas the same way the New Orleans Saints arena was used to house Hurricane Katrina victims, only providing more cultural and educational events accompanying the activity. This, unsurprisingly, stopped Trump’s deportation schemes dead. But it also built trust and sincere solidarity. It created a mutual aid mindset that had been absent, and, honestly, was absent in some other anti Trump activism.
Another good step was that in response to white supremacist Cabinet appointees, activists exposed their vile views, proposed progressives who would be better in their posts, and said clearly why they would be better. We used creative tactics including demonstrating where the appointees worked, lived, and came from to demand they go home and we get better appointments.
Perhaps the most effective project, for its long run implications, was when in response to enlarged budget proposals for military and police, activists positively pointed out better ways to spend the funds, and aggressively demanded positive changes in police budgeting, structure, policy, and community oversight and control, and in the use of military bases, including using them to build low income housing funded by military budgets, rather than to eat up their budgeted funds in deadly pursuits. We fought to earmark the first houses built to soldiers who worked on them and wanted them.
We also invited and welcomed police into neighborhood and even household meetings to discuss how to create safer communities and avoid racist policing. We went to military bases and yes, to police stations too, and organized. Of course this all took time. But I think it saved the anti-Trump resistance from accomplishing only restraining him and instead helped it contribute to RPS type activism to follow.
The point we came to understand was that we had to find worthy things to demand and also effective ways to win demands which together appealed to every crucial constituency, and which polarized no worthy constituency away from progressive participation, even as we also steadfastly opposed Trump’s every racist, sexist, and classist move.
Of course, later, after Trump was beaten by Warren in 2020, once momentum had grown and a degree of coherence and clarity had emerged, we began to build grassroots neighborhood and workplace assemblies, though first steps had to come first.
And of course on top of demands and actions there was need for organization. I remember thinking when Trump won, would it be desirable that for the next four years we only have disparate, sometimes linked sometimes disconnected movements about all manner of separate issues but overwhelmingly aimed only at preventing reaction? Or would it be more desirable to have at least one overarching, multi issue, multi tactic organization emphasizing not only fighting against reaction but also proposing, organizing for, and trying to win elements of positive program and vision?
And I also wondered, would it be better for a new visionary organization to look like those we have had in the past, or to conceive and implement powerful new means to welcome and enhance diversity, to celebrate and practice collective self management, and to chastise and structurally guard against sectarian, apocalyptic, and also too narrow organizing?
The answers obviously fed into the channels of thought and deed that led to RPS. Still, I don’t want to suggest it was all simple or quick. There was so much incredible passionate anger, so much defensiveness, so much chaos, it was very hard to get coherent results.
Indeed, one odd aspect of those times, after Trump won, and actually before as well, was that there was a whole lot of resistance to arriving at program which had virtually nothing to do with the specifics of program per se. It had to do, instead, with a kind of self defense by those manifesting anti programmatic inclinations. People were afraid that highlighting program, vision, or anything intellectually substantive, would lead to the most verbal, confident, and well educated, not to mention less time pressured people, dominating discussions and winding up governing what transpired.
In retrospect we understood the multiple implications of structure and policy that elevated what in time we called the coordinator class, but back then it wasn’t so easy, and resistance to that possibility often deteriorated into resistance to careful thought itself which obstructed dealing with the substance of movement goals and structure.
There was nothing good about this distancing from careful evaluation and exploration, but the sentiment driving it to occur was not actually anti intellectualism, but anti subordination to people who were in position to monopolize conceptual and decision making advantages. That sentiment, even if not how it was manifested, was highly warranted.
I remember incredible arguments where the polished advocates of reason – but somehow it was often only their reason and their dominance of reasoning that they advocated – would encounter opposition that for all the world looked to be rejecting reason itself, and even rejecting thinking itself, rather than only rejecting what people saw to be a perversion of reason to advance only the interests of a few.
What finally made the underlying truth pretty clear was to hear the undercurrents of sentiment and see who lined up where. It wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t resolve quickly, but, over a period of years major progress was made, though this is even now still resolving. The gain for RPS’s future from analyzing the Trump phenomenon was RPS deciding early on that this “anti intellectual” dynamic was about class interests, not about rejecting thought.
And program? What became of seeking program?
As calls for program grew, certain programmatic ideas gained traction. For example, on the national scale, there was momentum to reduce inequality by raising the minimum wage. People sought increased taxes on the rich. There was massive popular desire for shortening the work day and the work week to attain full employment and generate more leisure.
Similarly, people wanted to improve quality of life by implementing health care for all, wanted to build desirable housing for all, wanted enriched schooling for all including cancelling student debt and making higher education free, wanted to dramatically reorient government spending from war and social control to rebuilding infrastructure and enlarging social services, and wanted to implement free day care for all.
This wasn’t a set of coherent demands for new basic underlying institutions but some of those involved already had desires for basic change. More important, in practice these pursuits led inexorably to discussions that propelled such desires.
Initially, however, most peoples’ responses to queries about program were vague and disjointed. Some folks would discuss one programmatic idea, some folks another idea. It was do we like this, or do we like that. One project or organization would latch onto one aim with gusto. Another project or organization would attach to a different aim. Neither would deviate much, actually, from earlier priorities.
Few were yet meaningfully adopting broad and shared program. What we still lacked was precisely what we most needed: an encompassing shared coherence.
A case can be made that an unsung exemplary step came from an organization called Greenpeace that addressed mainly ecological concerns but adopted the Black Lives Matter program. It went almost unnoticed at the time but I think it foreshadowed the kind of cross constituency and multi focus solidarity that was imminent.
Of course the Trump election stalled the process of positive program, causing most to focus only on fighting reaction, but it didn’t end it. An example was the massive women’s rallies at the time of Trump’s inauguration, in DC and around the country. Left Liberals and even more mainstream democrats were incredibly prominent which they needed to be. The danger was they alone would define directions. But lots of women who rightly wanted massive participation also understood the need to develop broad and deep program and that too was exemplary. The trick was to seek both dimensions, scale and content, without becoming dismissive toward either.
At any rate, that was the state of things when some people began to pursue what would become RPS. We wanted to arrive at shared program and shared vision and establish an organization able to pursue and refine it all as needed.
We hoped was that while single issue movements (about a particular war, immigration, or global warming), or highly focussed organizations, (Greenpeace was an example) would each and all persist and retain their priorities, they would also sign on to an overarching agenda and lend their support to all its components.
This was the missing aspect of seeking change. It wasn’t just that we wanted good programmatic ideas or demands. Those existed. It was that we needed to meaningfully share good program by all of us supporting campaigns not only for the one or two aspects that were immediately most meaningful to us due to our own personal past priorities or current ties, but by supporting all aspects so as to foster real mutual aid and solidarity and make each aspect stronger than it could be alone. Those who focused most on war would aid those who focused most on immigration would aid those who focused most on global warming, and so on, in a web of emerging mutual aid.
Bill, I know you were a particularly strong advocate of a feminist stance. Can you remember what gave you a sense that a powerful feminist component was essential?
Regarding society, it was still true that women earned way less than men for the same work. It was true that violence against women persisted and was even escalating. It was true that women’s health was often subject to manipulation, and that sexist assumptions about parenting persisted. But I think the even more troubling aspect, at least for me, was the situation of women in the movement because the movement was where I had my hopes for the future.
Gender in the movement was a mixed bag. Everyone talked about how much women’s leadership there was – but was there? If you looked at organizations, movement institutions, and projects, there were certainly way more women exerting influence than fifty years earlier, but there was also way less than half. If you looked at what was written and published, in many instances women were less visible on the left than in the mainstream, as writers or as focus. These were symptoms, to be sure, but symptoms of what?
In my own experience I knew women were still afraid at night on the streets. I knew they were being hounded online. I knew they were often not really being heard. It certainly wasn’t remotely as bad as what women had endured five decades earlier, but the battle wasn’t yet fully won.
RPS felt the key problem was deep in the structure of family life as well as in many other institutions that had been pushed by kinship pressures into conformity with sexism. In the movement there had long been verbal agreement on the need for feminist advance and female leadership, but what was there in the form of actual structural changes in left organizations to generate such outcomes?
What was to be done within RPS and the movement writ larger?
Inside RPS a number of innovations were enacted. The first was day care at all organizational meetings and events with a proviso, however, that while to ensure quality the day care should be, at least for a time, under the guidance of women, day care staffing should immediately be at least half male. That was innovative. To have daycare but reinforce the idea that it was women’s work would have been one step forward but two steps back. We got beyond that.
The second innovation was that public speaking at events, marches, teach ins, and meetings always had to be at least fifty percent female. I still remember men whining about how we were sacrificing quality for some kind of mechanical quota system. For these critics apparently we weren’t sacrificing quality by having men who were out of touch with the needs of half of humanity do all the talking and women waste away their talents in submissive acquiescence.
Likewise, when there was need for some kind of leadership group for an event, again, it had to be at least fifty percent female. When women were not available or were not felt to be prepared by prior experience to accomplish the tasks, the requirement was to redress that imbalance with training and practice before the talk could be given or the group formed. New norms were simple. Deal with gender imbalance or don’t proceed.
Movement women organized themselves. They didn’t care about happy smiles and promises. They weren’t appeased by someone saying “have a nice day.” They demanded structural action on penalty of disruption of offending events. And, when need be, the threat of disruption was carried out.
I remember being at a meeting where there were perhaps sixty women and a hundred men. Suddenly the door opened and 20 more women came in, all together, a few minutes late. They told the chair to sit down, and I did. They then told all those present that from now on all meetings would have at least 50% women handling organization, chairing, etc., and likewise, at least 50% women addressing topics raised. If those in the room didn’t want to comply, fine, they would have to hold their meeting over the disruption.There was no good argument for denying the demands. These types of engagement were very effective, albeit at first hard to endure.
The then rising tally of rapes on campuses spurred a sense of urgency – although I suspected at the time that it was less that there was a lot more rape and more that there was a lot more attention to it. In any case, when a rape occurred after a radical conference in Los Angeles, and a male movement leader was the rapist, all hesitancy dissipated. Women were going to win change.
Many, but far from all men, argued that to hold back events to fulfill gender norms was harmful. They didn’t see dealing with gender balance as particularly positive and essential, though no one on the left would admit that. Sometimes even some women agreed with not interfering. We are going too fast was their logic. We are demanding more than can be readily accomplished. Worse, if we disrupt the left we abet reaction. But most women and many men no longer bought that kind of rejection of sober careful efforts. They knew that to forego basic change inside the left was to consign the left to perpetual hypocrisy and weakness. Their militant approach, always careful and seeking solidarity, always blaming structures and not individuals, set standards on everyone. Their militance said if we aren’t able to do some things in a feminist manner now, then those things must be delayed until we get ourselves ready to do them right. The desire to have such and such talks, or to do so and so projects would have to become attached to prior desires for a proper feminist achievement. If not, nothing would proceed.
The opposition to these womens’ demands always claimed to be merely trying to accomplish important ends now and not trying to prevent feminist innovation. And while that was no doubt the sincere actual motive for some opponents, fifty years of postponing solidifying feminist gains for next time had to stop sometime, and this was the time.
The main point, ultimately, was that the assault on sexism by RPS women wasn’t seeking personal verbal commitments to being feminist. It wasn’t even seeking personal changes from male leftists in accord with feminist values. No apologies were needed or wanted. No personal blame was asserted. The movement sought structural changes that would make overcoming sexism part and parcel of functioning at all.
What was most innovative – since these type demands had existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a very similar form – was not the demands themselves, or the militance, but the tone and surrounding actions. Earlier anti sexist efforts had been hostile toward and polarized men in a way that entrenched opposition. This time anti sexist efforts were hostile to structures and empathetic toward men, seeking alliance and solidarity.
A last internal step, at first almost unnoticed by most, was far more subtle. The thinking went like this. RPS had agreed that to avoid class division and classism we had to change our own division of labor to include job complexes balanced for empowerment effects. By similar reasoning, some RPS women began to wonder, do we have to change the kinship division of tasks to avoid gender division and sexism? We knew we became, to a considerable degree, who our roles required us to be. We asked, what changes in our roles would prevent men dominating women, and, for that matter, women accepting being dominated?
Of course some required changes were familiar and obvious. If men worked and earned more, then they would have means to dominate. If in dating, courting, etc., men and women have different roles, then we would wind up with different dispositions. But was there something like empowerment that had to be balanced among men and women lest the difference in proximity to whatever that something was produced a kinship hierarchy?
RPS members came to a broad agreement that the answer might well be yes. If women do most of the nurturing and caring activity whereas men are constantly competing and bossing but rarely empathizing, perhaps men are made perverse and thuggish and women are made empathetic, but also self denying.
The upshot was the idea that men needed to do a fair share of daycare and other nurturing tasks inside the movement, and in society and families as well. And this too was pursued with a tone of solidarity and mutual support, not denigrating hostility.
Bill, the broad idea behind the RPS Shadow Government initiated at the second convention wasn’t limited to government. What was the general approach and how was it pursued?
The Shadow/Alternative idea was to create models for future institutions as well as worthy projects for the present. Being Shadow/Alternative meant these projects did functions that were in some degree done by existing institutions, but did them in parallel, and in new ways.
The “be worthy” aspect was that we should create projects whose operations would contribute to on going activism, people’s well being, or both. A media or organizing project would do mostly the former. A health clinic or day care center would do mostly the latter.
The “model” aspect was that we should create projects that evidenced how things would be different in a better future and that revealed – or discovered – new ways of operating that were suitable for future relations. You can see that the Shadow Government fit all the criteria.
Shadow/Alternative projects were initiated as you would imagine. Sometimes young people just getting out of school or otherwise entering adult life would look for a positive project to pursue and decide to create media project, a clinic, a restaurant, a law firm, a food distribution center, or whatever in accord with RPS values and commitments.
Another path was when older folks with a history in some field decided to move toward doing things in new ways, sometimes by transforming their old institution or sometimes by leaving their old venue and creating a new one. Over time, we saw some health clinics, day care centers, restaurants, food stores, and a few law firms transform. We also saw various teachers, health workers, day care workers, and lawyers leave their existing establishments and group together to form alternatives.
One difference, maybe even a category difference, was whether a project was literally shadowing an institution in society, or whether it was simply functioning on its own as an alternative. Maybe only the former should be called “Shadow” and the latter should be called Alternative. So the Shadow Government was literally shadowing the real government – not only not operating in the same way but expressing views and advocating for them. In contrast, a health clinic, magazine, or day care center wasn’t shadowing a mainstream institution. It was doing similar functions but in its own alternative way. It was a fine line, though. For example, the shadow government was continually redefining itself to have alternative features.
Bill, I know you have to go very soon, but before you do, what have your various campaigns and holding office as a Mayor in New York taught you about the pitfalls and benefits of elections and even electoral office?
Personal desires aside, someone seeking to renovate society runs for office for one or more of three reasons:
1. To win and use the power of the office for change,
2. To educate in order to improve prospects for winning change,
3. To pressure other candidates in positive ways.
I think all those motives are okay and I think the benefits from the first two can be quite large. Running for office can provide massive public access for communications and also open many paths for instituting changes. My Senate campaigns in Massachusetts, for example, did quite a lot to help RPS gain visibility and to help its ideas gain acceptance and my time in office has been similar. In the case of a Senator, unlike an executive position, you can’t enact changes yourself, but you can sponsor bills, fight for them, and use your visibility to support and aid movement pressures, all of which can be highly valuable.
But what about the debits?
These are more subtle, but also very important. And there are many.
It is all too easy to get caught up in the tallying aspect of elections and to then lose track of larger educational and organizing issues and possibilities. This can even happen to excellent left candidates who start with an overarching agenda they initially see the election as just a part of – but then under the pressure of campaigning start to see winning votes as the only virtue. Pressures are so strong that can even happen to people who are literally, while it is happening, decrying the same tendency as it has affected other people.
A second deadly dynamic is for a candidate to become too enamored with him or herself and, again, to lose track of larger forces at play. This typically causes a candidate to start feeling his or her will needs to be followed without dissent. Say whatever might assist that. Do whatever might assist that.
Next, because of the dynamic between a candidate and all those supporting the candidate, you often get a situation where advisors and campaign workers bend their words to suit what the candidate wants to hear rather than to convey accurate assessments. Just as the candidate starts to feel him or herself to be more important and brilliant than is true, the people around the candidate start to feel a kind of junior version of the same thing, and want to preserve their access and sense of importance. They then often function more to do that than to pursue broader agendas. Or sometimes the dynamic beyond the candidate is just as bad in its effects, but more benign in its causes, as when people around a candidate try to maintain access only to have a good effect – yet the effects are sacrificed, in practice, to maintaining the access.
So, suppose you are in a group of ten who have the ear of a candidate. He is personally reeling a bit, morally and politically, under all the pressures. And he is getting very pushy in the group of ten, chairing every session, scowling at news he doesn’t like, praising news he does like, and then finally, kicking someone out of the inner circle for bearing bad news or being critical. You are in the circle. You feel he is moving backward from worthy political priorities toward unworthy self aggrandizement and elite habits of one sort of another. You feel you should try to reverse that trend. But you know that you will lose your seat in the inner circle if you go too far. So you curb your inclinations out of the perfectly sensible desire to have a positive effect at all, not out of some junior elitist or self serving pursuit. Your motivations are sincere, but the result is the same. The candidate drifts toward elitist self exaltation and the inner circle slides into abetting the pattern.
Of course, the fixation at fault in such trends need not be on vote tallying per se, or on expanding the candidate’s authority, it can also be on money. Elections in the U.S. Are expensive affairs and an incredible percentage of the effort expended in any election, and even in any term of office, turns out to be nothing but pursuit of dollars. You can imagine what that can lead to when those delivering the bigger dollars have their own agendas. Candidates or officials wind up bought off. But even when the fund raising is from a base of supporters making small donations, the perpetual need to get money, the kinds of pressure one feels to write letters and make appeals geared to succeed by saying whatever getting money requires and not whatever is the full truth, is again overwhelming and can lead to devolution of the benefits of running.
All in all I think RPS has approached the whole thing wisely. We have welcomed excellent candidates running, educating, winning, and using office. But as an organization we have taken no direct part in the electoral process, focusing, instead, always on grassroots organizing, movement building, and on pressuring elites of all kinds, including elected politicians, to make desired changes.
Often many in RPS will work hard on a campaign. Certainly my own campaigns were staffed overwhelmingly by RPS members. But the organization never collectively and officially engages and thus never gets caught up in the dynamics. Soon, I think we will be in position to have an RPS member as President, where everyone knows just exactly what that means, and what they are getting. But even in that case, while I would imagine virtually every RPS member will to some degree aid the campaign, often with incredible outlays of time and effort, I think the organization as a collective entity will steer clear.
But what about the problem of focusing on electing one person, and missing that a single person alone is effectively powerless?
I think we should certainly be aware of the fact that an electoral approach, like any other approach, requires numbers to be most effective, but that is different from saying that a lone victory is worthless. It just says that the more truly desirable folks we have in office and the more those folks have mass grass roots activist connection and support, the better.
Suppose we go back to the time of Sanders’ attempt to become President. What if he had gotten the Democratic Party nomination and then beaten Trump? Some would suggest, and did at the time, that it would make no difference. They weren’t denying that Sanders was honest and sincere or even arguing his agenda wasn’t maximal and nothing short of maximal matters. Oh some were doing both, but most not. Most with this view were saying something more subtle, and to some degree echoing Sanders who was himself saying pretty much the same thing.
If Sanders had won, he would have been President, yes, but nearly all the governors, Senators, Congress people, police chiefs and officers, military command, and on and on, would still have been wedded to existing social relations. So, said these analysts, Sanders could have done nothing fundamental. Now, if like Sanders, they had said that to accomplish much he would need massive popular support, that would have been true. With such support, even if he built lots of it while in office, of course he could have improved the life conditions of diverse constituencies in the present while also warding off continuing slides toward hell by combatting global warming. He could work to create more support, awareness, and commitment at the grassroots and to galvanize that into campaigns for critical reforms helping people and also paving the way for further actions. He could have sped up RPS.
Consider Chavez years earlier winning the Presidency in Venezuela. It is not an exact analogy, but not too far off for the point we are discussing. He had Miraflores, Venezuela’s White House, but he had no governors, a few mayors out of hundreds and very few legislators, as well as nearly no local police. And yet he did a ton, which could have gone much further, but for various mistakes, I believe, as well as outside factors, but that is for another time.
The point is, a sensible approach to electoral work should focus on a wide array of offices, many local, fewer statewide, and fewer still national – just as we have been doing for the past twenty years, but if you manage to win the more encompassing positions, or even just one of them, and you don’t succumb to the various pitfalls of the process, then holding that office can be very helpful indeed.