Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary run in 2016 saw 13 million people vote for a democratic socialist. Two years later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog, grassroots-driven victory against one of Congress’s most powerful Democrats shook the political establishment. Combined with the election of Donald Trump, these two campaigns reignited interest in something many on the left had shied away from for the better part of a century: electoral power.
But what is electoral power? Many political theorists distinguish between “state power” and “governing power.” The “state”—as described here—is not simply a series of apparatuses but instead the representation of the balance of class forces, with a hegemonic bloc—made up of institutions like the police, Congress, and the Federal Reserve—looking out for the long-term interests of the dominant class—in our case, the 1 percent. There are different fractions in the 1 percent with interests that sometimes diverge. They might receive differing degrees of support from the state and sometimes have stronger relationships with one party over another. Overall, the capitalist state looks out for the long-term interests of capital rather than the particular interests of any one capitalist.
“Seizing state power” is therefore a process of fundamentally altering the balance of class forces and creating a new hegemonic bloc that moves us away from capitalism. Winning state power involves the domination and, over time, deconstruction and replacement of capitalist institutions.
“Governing power” is something altogether different—effectively, progressives or leftists winning political office within the context of a capitalist state. They may be elected to positions of leadership, but they do not control the state apparatuses and do not have the mandate or strength to carry out a full and thoroughgoing process of social transformation.
This might look like winning a mayor’s or governor’s office. This is also the situation Sanders or any other left-leaning candidate is likely to walk into should they make it to the White House. More crucially, this is the situation that has faced countless left-leaning politicians in the United States and abroad who have tried to make inroads toward a consistent democracy, let alone democratic socialism, at the local, state, and even federal level.
That governing power has been so difficult to achieve and exercise has led many on the left in United States to fear it, and not without reason. Domestically and internationally, there have been many examples of significant challenges faced by a left that has gained governing power only to become corrupted or checkmated. But too many have taken the wrong lesson from this history and fallen back on empty rhetoric to articulate a path to power: first, describe a list of capitalism’s atrocities; second, say that socialism will resolve said atrocities—no intermediary steps required.
In such a context, recent optimism among socialists about the prospects for governing power is a welcome development. Yet there needs to be some middle ground between cynicism and naive optimism. Below are a few observations gleaned from history of what the left can expect should it attain governing power.
Don’t Underestimate Backlash
In his 1978 book State, Power, Socialism, Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas argued that power in a capitalist society is not contained forever and ever in specific state apparatuses. Rather, he suggests that power is fluid, and any institution that had historically seemed to contain a specific amount of power can almost magically appear to lose it under different political conditions.
Take the experience of the late mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington: Washington, a congressman from Chicago, was approached by representatives of a movement in the city that wanted a black progressive to run for mayor. His election was important nationally as an illustration of a black-led electoral upsurge. Locally it established a foundation for a new coalition in Chicago politics. But once he was elected, power seemed to drain from the mayor’s office and appear within the city council, undermining many of Washington’s initial reform efforts. A bloc of city council members blocked Washington on legislation and appointments, leading to a situation of near war between the pro-Washington forces and their reactionary opponents.
Power can shift in other ways, too. For decades, the GOP has coordinated efforts to shift decision-making authority away from cities and counties and toward state legislatures. In the 1970s, during a fiscal crisis, a state-controlled board took control of the finances of New York City—which has limited authority to raise taxes and revenue—and implemented a series of painful austerity measures intended to discipline the pro-Democratic city. In the more recent past, Republican-controlled state legislatures have blocked municipalities and counties from introducing living-wage increases and environmental reforms.
The right has no shortage of tools for undermining its enemies on the left. The United States has supported countless coups abroad, particularly in Latin American countries that flirted too openly with socialism or simply national sovereignty. This has happened on smaller scales as well. In the Wilmington, North Carolina, uprising of 1898, white supremacist forces carried out an armed uprising against a progressive, elected, and multiracial government. They succeeded and suffered no consequences. Uprisings of this sort—along with pogroms—are far from uncommon in U.S. history.
Always Expand the Base
The election of a left leader or a left-led governing coalition (I call this a “left-led bloc” throughout this essay) always raises the question as to the expectation and mandate of the base that supported them. Was this leadership supported because of their left politics, or despite them?
Any left-led bloc elected to office will have to make an immediate assessment as to why it is in office; in other words, what is its mandate? Using that as a starting point, the administration can construct a program of action. At the same time, the bloc must always be working to expand its base of support for that mandate, both among the public and within governing institutions. This will involve education combined with courting key leaders and organizations from among the so-called middle or center, which may have been, at best, ambivalent about the left’s rise to power.
A left-led bloc must be rooted in its constituency in order to be responsive. By understanding what’s on people’s minds, the administration can take up new policy pushes on issues from economic development to the environment to law enforcement. If that government is a coalition, it must recognize the existence of contradictions within the coalition itself and create a mechanism to solicit differences of opinion and resolve disputes through democratic processes.
Both the left-led bloc and its base must be prepared for a protracted battle. That necessitates having “marking posts,” so to speak: incremental targets to work toward in service of fulfilling its overall agenda. For morale alone, there must be quick and demonstrable action on key projects. At the same time, the base must be educated to understand that larger problems—climate change, for instance—will not be resolved all at once.
Relatedly, constituencies of the coalition partners must see themselves in the operation and public manifestation of the coalition itself. This is especially important in situations where there are differences of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity between the constituency and leadership. A left or left-led coalition can never afford to make the assumption that its collective, redistributive politics will automatically endear it to all base members of the coalition. In situations where populations have been taken for granted—for example, African Americans, Latinxs, Native Americans, Asians—the mere fact of representation in a coalition government is insufficient to build trust and support. There must be a sense of partnership reflected in terms of who is in what positions of power. David Dinkins’s tenure as mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, for instance, was possible because of a critical alliance between African-American and Puerto Rican communities. Once Dinkins was elected, however, a perception developed within the Puerto Rican community that Dinkins, a longtime Harlem Democrat, was looking out for “his” constituency and not for the coalition that elected him. Accordingly, the promise of the administration began to evaporate.
A second example can be found in the 2016 Sanders campaign. Though Sanders advanced the most progressive platform of the candidates, and despite the fact that Sanders had people of color who spoke on his behalf, he faced two major challenges. First, his platform and oratory evidenced little understanding of the centrality of race to U.S. capitalism. Sanders spoke about the injustices of the system but generally stayed away from analyzing and explaining the interconnections of race, class, and gender. This had a special impact on older voters of color, who constitute a sizable portion of Democratic primary voters. Second, there is a difference between having diverse spokespeople supporting one’s campaign and having real diversity among the strategists. The Sanders campaign lacked that diversity at its highest levels, instead relying mainly on the small team of advisers with whom the senator felt most comfortable.
Win the Middle
It’s no secret that the U.S. left has always been far too small to control the country or even a state or city on its own. As fast as the Democratic Socialists of America’s membership might grow, or that of any other left formation, democratic socialists specifically and the left more generally are not a plurality in any electoral precinct in the country. As a consequence, they’ll need to make friends—both to win office and, critically, to stay there.
The success of any movement almost always hinges on its ability to win over the so-called middle forces that may have been ambivalent or in some degree in opposition to a left-led bloc. To clarify, the notion of a “middle,” as with “left” and “right,” is relational; while there are forces that identify themselves as “left” and others that define themselves as “right,” the actual politics of such forces varies over time. Much of the domestic agenda of President Richard Nixon, for instance, was to the left of President Bill Clinton. In the case of United States today, the middle tends to be comprised of people and organizations that see problems with the system but have not concluded that it is the system itself that is toxic. They believe that reforms are all that is necessary in order to make the system operate as it should. A left or democratic socialist government will have to assume that the middle forces will be diverse by their very nature and not anti-capitalist, though potentially anti-corporate. They’ll hold contradictory views on the relative importance of fighting various forms of non-class-specific oppressions, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and religion.
The first task is to identify those organizations and representatives of the middle forces and find ways to work with them. A left-led bloc should expect protest and opposition, but it should remember that such protests, regardless of militancy, are not necessarily antagonistic to its program and existence. Middle forces will tend to assume that the left will move to repress dissent and will as a result use anything that approaches that as grounds to jump ship and join the opposition; we shouldn’t give them the excuse to do so. The tent must be broad enough to keep the middle forces engaged.
Move Fast and Decisively
There’s a lot to be learned from the first three years of Trump’s administration. After his election, Republicans seized every opportunity to advance their agenda at lightning speed. When they came up against opposition, they tended to either steamroll it or simply go around it, as with the tax bill and the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Regularly, the White House called upon its base to support its actions, for example with massive rallies.
Liberals and progressives rarely perform in such a manner. One need only look at the first few months of the Obama administration. Despite the electoral mandate he received in the 2008 elections, he moved cautiously and demobilized his base (officially turning “Obama for America” over to the Democratic Party). He refused to accept that the Republicans sought to destroy him as quickly as possible. Even when they controlled all three branches of government, Democrats failed to pass climate policy and the Employee Free Choice Act. The Affordable Care Act—a perilously watered-down compromise with the GOP—was the party’s sole legislative achievement before it lost control of Congress to the Tea Party Republicans.
What the left can do with governing power depends on a combination of timing, the level of organization and mobilization of its base, and objective constraints. As detailed earlier, it should also be clear that whatever the left-led bloc does, it will be met with opposition from the right, and quite possibly the center. It’s worth breaking these factors down:
New leadership has a limited window in which to introduce major changes. It is not that leadership cannot introduce change later in an administration. Rather, speedy action taken at the beginning of an administration both appeals to the base and frequently catches the opposition off guard.
2) Level of Organization
An elected left-led bloc must have an organized mass base. This might come in the form of a united front organization or a loose collection of existing organizations that make up the bloc, that is, political parties and mass organizations. Trump’s rallies may seem over the top. But they give his supporters a sense that they are part of a movement, even a sense that they are part of history. For the left the challenge will be one not simply of governing, but of engaging the base and finding means for all parts of it to be directly involved in the process of governing. This means, among other things, creating new institutions that allow many more people to actively participate in democratic processes in ways that go well beyond voting, and certainly well beyond attending rallies.
Organization and mobilization include the need for reinvigorated left organizations that push the envelope on the left government’s program; the strengthening and transformation of labor unions that push both the employer class and government; and the willingness to take bold actions—like seizing abandoned or speculative land, in order to forcefully raise questions about the social purpose of land.
In undertaking this work, there is no one organization that can be seen as the voice of the masses. Different groups should aim for “popular unity” or a “united front” approach, whereby there is recognition of the multitude of voices that need to be heard, ideally as a chorus rather than a screaming assemblage.
3) Objective Constraints
One of the biggest constraints on a left-led bloc—particularly at the state and local level, where deficit spending is all but impossible—will be resources. Any left-led bloc must further anticipate a blockade by capital. This may take any number of forms. The experience of Gary, Indiana, during the administration of Mayor Richard Hatcher is one case in point. Edward Greer’s Big Steel: Black Politics and Corporate Power in Gary, Indiana describes how the social democratic administration of Hatcher—a thirty-four-year-old African-American civil rights activist and attorney—overcame the Democratic Party machine backing his white Republican opponent to win the mayor’s office in 1967. White flight soon followed, and businesses like Sears began to flee as well, decamping to predominantly white enclaves outside of city limits. Perhaps most damaging was the backlash by U.S. Steel, the major employer in the area, which had founded Gary as a company town in 1906. The industrial giant shed thousands of jobs over the course of Hatcher’s four terms. The disinvestment and plummeting property values that ensued devastated the local economy and hollowed out the city’s downtown business district. Hatcher worked tirelessly to obtain federal grants for housing and job-training programs to redress the damage but was severely constrained in what he could do to build anything like the kind of social democracy he envisioned.
At a national level, any left government should consider placing controls on capital to prevent the sort of business and industrial flight that encumbered Hatcher’s administration at a much smaller scale. Should a left-leaning government take governing power federally, industry and finance may well try to undermine it through a capital blockade or divestment—moving their money elsewhere. If there are no capital controls, they can succeed.
But What about Socialism?
The term “democratic capitalism” is in many ways a contradiction in terms. Capitalism can only be so democratic, acting in more cases than not in contradiction to democracy. Its most fervent adherents have understood this well. Defending Augusto Pinochet’s coup in a letter to the London Times, Friedrich Hayek reasoned, “In modern times there have of course been many instances of authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under democracies.” The term “democratic capitalism,” rather, distinguishes that specific form of rule from these kinds of openly authoritarian variants of capitalism, whether military dictatorships or fascism.
Historically, the embrace of social democracy came from the belief that leftists occupying the heights of political power could lead, over time, to the construction of a new socialist society. The evolution would be slow and would not necessitate the clear and unadulterated gaining of state power by the working class and its allies. This strategy—along with social democratic parties’ widespread embrace of warmed-over neoliberalism, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis—proved to be a cul-de-sac.
Can “governing power” under capitalism lead to socialism? No one knows. We can, however, make certain assumptions based on history regarding this fundamental question.
The forces of capitalism will not voluntarily concede power simply because the masses demand it, or because the political representatives of capitalism lose at the polls. We should assume that the forces on the political right will use legal and extralegal means in order to retain power, disrupt efforts at social transformation, or both.
Embarking on a process of social transformation will necessitate a political alignment that embraces changes more ambitious than simple reforms. To borrow from the Marxist classics, there will need to be a critical mass of the population that has concluded that the capitalist system is toxic and must be rooted out. Further, they must be organized. There must be a party or some other organizational vehicle that can bring collective self-awareness to the dispossessed.
In occupying governing power, the left must anticipate backlash—and plenty of it, from all sides. There will be pressure from those on the left who want to push farther and faster, and from the right attempts to halt or stall transformational efforts. How any left-led government chooses to respond will depend on the context of the moment and the balance of forces.
The great numbers of people newly excited about the prospects of the left winning real power in the United States are boldly going where no movement has gone before—at least not successfully. What we can say with great assurance, however, is that any decision by the left to avoid the struggle for governing power condemns it to the margins, if not to history’s dustbin.
Regardless of how many victories leftists rack up in the struggle for governing power, they neglect the class struggle at their own peril. The forces grouped around capital and the political right will relentlessly try to undermine left and progressive political power. Simply holding an office is a poor guard against that. What’s more, reaching beyond governing power to make democratic socialism a reality will mean changing the balance of class forces.
In fighting for governing power, the left and its allies can begin to demonstrate a different set of assumptions regarding governance, political power, and the role of massive numbers of people as agents of change. Doing so can and must push the limits on democratic capitalism under the banner of fighting for consistent democracy—which, in the long run, must be democracy without capitalism.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the executive editor of www.globalafricanworker.com, the former president of TransAfrica Forum, and a long-time writer and activist who has spent most of his adult life in the left and the trade union movement.
This article is an abridged piece drawing from the author’s chapter in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style (New Press 2020). The author gives thanks to the ideas offered by Marta Harnecker, Manuel Pastor, Richard Healey, and William Robinson.
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