Nov 14, 2008

New Modes of Organizing the Left

I went to a panel recently in DC in which different folks were asking critical questions about what the election results mean for the Left in the United States. I thought it was an interesting dialogue with new and respected voices from the Left - all of them people of color - responding to the question of what this could mean. There were some very different takes on what direction we should go in, or even what support of Barack Obama in the recent election means.

One of the folks spoke about how he supported the Green ticket, and it was now up to the people who supported Obama to make sure to hold him to the promises he made and change people believed he would bring. Another, longtime labor organizer Bill Fletcher, said that it was not practical to support a third party candidate in American democracy, where the system is one of the least democratic of any so-called democracy. He argued, instead, that there needed to be a massive Left project that brought together hundreds of thousands of people into a viable block that could and should move the Democrats leftward. He stated that "without a hard Left, the middle always collapses."

Fletcher's other point was that we had to drop some of our purist attitudes about the "Left." That to bring about some of the change that we actually want, we may have to work with people who we don't fully agree with. The Right did that well for Bush, with fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, who aren't very similar actually, but who came together to get their endgame to work. That's since kind of fallen apart because Bush ended up spending and expanding government more than the fiscal conservatives could stomach (witness the Ron Paul revolution).

Finally, Fletcher said that traditional organizations may not be the way to go. But he also said that a new political party may not be where to start either. He suggested 501(c)(4) organizations, which could get "politically engaged" were the way that people were starting to get organized, and used an example from Northern Virginia: Virginia New Majority, which was created by a (c)(3) organization to get out there and take a more aggressive electoral/political role.  It was very effective at registering working people of color and immigrants and getting them out to vote.

I would argue that (c)(4) organizations are still too limited. They get the federal tax exemption, but at the cost of having to report to the Feds a lot more than other organizations, and still being limited in their ability to really support candidates or ballot initiatives. I think the aggressive ground game for the Left is in political organizations - which include Federal, State, and other kinds of Political Action Committees (PACs), as well as the well-known but misunderstood 527 groups (which is actually a misnomer because the 527 group that people talk about: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth kind of groups, are only one kind of 527 organization - all PACs are another). PACs are usually organized solely to channel money to candidates and campaigns. But there's a way to create a PAC in some jurisdictions that can be involved in electoral politics, particularly locally, in ways other than dumping money at someone. PACs can call whoever they want and support whatever or whoever they want: they don't have the detailed rules governing them that the IRS imposes on tax exempt organizations. You can go to town.

I would argue that for the immigrant Left, engagement of this kind can create longer-term empowerment for individuals involved than just bundling money, getting photo opportunities, and not really seeing the influence on politicians or their policies. PACs that don't focus solely on money but rather on messaging and influence by people power and issues that are important to working people and immigrants can be a game changer. And because the level of reporting and hoops to jump is not as crazy as 501(c) organizations, maybe more regular people of color and immigrants can take this on than the very white "non-profit Left" that's still talking about how we should put socialism on the table this January.

Yes, as a long aside, that was a comment at this event from an audience member, which made me laugh out loud - these folks need to retire, move to Sedona, stop gumming up the new movement with old retreads - I believe in socialist ideals, but I think we need new ways of talking about them, particularly with immigrants who fled brutal, deadly regimes run under the guise of "socialism" that have forever embittered them to anything remotely similar in name, if not function. Yet another example of white and American privilege in our bizarre, out of touch Left.


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting.

I'm really feeling this idea of us folks of color on the left utilizing the advantages of PACs more. I also feel like it can get us to break away from the philanthropic fundraising model used by the non-profit industrial complex that plays a strong part in what issues get on the table and what ones are too "controversial."

I would definitely like to keep dialoguing with you about this.

Rage said...

KC - I would love to talk more about this - just exploring the ideas at this point, but I feel like we get so stuck in the old model of "incorporate, apply for 501(c) status, staff up, and then run to stand still, basically." I feel like if we think about guerrilla organizations that form and dissipate quickly, we can act faster - as long as we have discipline.

It's like we rely on corporate structure and the tax code to give us discipline (have to report here, can and can't do this and that) but why can't we get our own discipline together? Why can't we take our cue from the Panthers or other highly organized, disciplined organizations that didn't rely on their exempt status or the dollars coming in to guide what work can and can't happen... I know I'm simplifying, but it's time to think beyond the old models. Let's keep talking.