Inside/outside strategy: Left should learn from far right

A group of left activists and movement leaders have collaborated to produce a new curriculum on 2016 electoral strategy that can help organizers step up their game. Published at Organizing Upgrade, the curriculum is designed for use in workshops and training sessions.

It provides guideposts for tackling issues such as the GOP’s factional divisions and Trump’s rise, building independent political capacity while also ensuring a Clinton victory, and harnessing the energy of the Sanders campaign and movements like Black Lives Matter into durable forces for progress.

The curriculum was put together by a collective including long-time movement leaders Max Elbaum, Linda Burnham, Harmony Goldberg, Jason Negron-Gonzales, Tarso Ramos, and Bob Wing. It consists of three PowerPoint presentations paired with facilitator’s guides and an extensive list of additional resources and articles. They are each designed as a two-hour class and can be grouped as a series or used as standalone educationals.

Max Elbaum told People’s World that those who collaborated on the curriculum “shared a common view on the election, the urgency of defeating Trump, and the need to do that in a way that simultaneously strengthened the left for the difficult challenges that will face us post-November.”

The six collaborators, who as Elbaum said, come “from different generations and political backgrounds,” are trying to go beyond just articles and polemics. What they’ve produced are practical education materials that link economic and demographic changes to questions of strategy and long-term planning.

Shifting terrain

With polarization and re-alignment defining the 2016 election, the first component of the curriculum deals with America’s shifting demographics and diverging ideological commitments. The ongoing crisis of neoliberalism and the soaring levels of inequality discussed here serve as the backdrop for the analysis that follows in the other components.

The neoliberal program of cutbacks and crackdowns, which continues to dominate the platform of today’s GOP, is outlined along with trends showing that the share of income and wealth going to its supporters in the top 1 percent keeps climbing.

The curriculum demonstrates, however, that the “rising American electorate” of single women, Millennials, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans is opening greater possibilities for majoritarian coalition-building on the progressive side. Showing 55 percent growth since 2000, the number of vote-eligible women of color is perhaps the single biggest indicator of these changes. Racial anxiety among some over these developments is an important explanatory factor, the curriculum argues, when examining the forces that make up Trump’s base of support.

Internationally, meanwhile, the growing profile of the BRIC countries vis-à-vis the advanced G7 economies is unsettling established patterns of global power. U.S. politicians must think anew about how they operate on the world stage and how they speak to voters about the country’s role in the world.

Who is the right?

In the second component of the curriculum, the authors dig deep into the factional fissures that characterize today’s Republican coalition.

In the “elite right” faction, the most reactionary sectors of big capital are to be found: the oil industry, the military-industrial complex, real estate, and low-end retail. Their focus has always been corporate power and militarism. Figures such as Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, McCain, and Mitt Romney have been their avatars.

Then there are the elements of what the authors call the “populist far right” faction, including evangelicals, the tea party, libertarian groups, the increasingly prominent white supremacists of the alt-right, and, at the most extreme end, armed militia groups.

The populist far right has become more assertive and, with Trump as the nominee, it now sets the national narrative of the party with racism, nativism, and authoritarianism as its anchors. As the curriculum highlights, they’ve pursued an “inside/outside” strategy for years, being both in alliance and contention with the elite faction.

This divide has not, so far, kept the right-wing coalition from winning elections, however. As the presentation shows, the GOP controls 60 percent of state legislatures and governorships, a share that has increased during the Obama years. Their coalition is characterized by internal bickering, but it remains a formidable power.

A left inside/outside strategy

The third component of the curriculum considers the perennial question of left political strategy and the challenge of participating in an electoral context dominated by the two-party system.

Starting off pragmatically, the curriculum acknowledges that governmental power is the most concentrated form of power in the country, that elections are the primary way that most people engage in politics, and that if the left wants to be part of the public conversation on the big issues of the day, it has to participate.

The authors do not just advocate a vote for Clinton, however. They look at both political parties as coalitions rather than as monolithic campaigns. This coalition characteristic, which defines American political parties, means engagement with the electoral system is a necessary avenue for developing progressive political power.

As the presentation says, “the two dominant parties are broad, chaotic and loose enough to be subject to insurgencies. To mount a challenge, insurgents must have enough money to fund their own ventures (e.g. Perot, Trump) or be popular enough to be funded and supported by millions of regular voters (e.g. Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders).”

In the Republican coalition, the populist far right has managed to pull off such an insurgency. Operating inside and outside the party proper, they have seized the initiative and now control the GOP.

The left, however, has not been nearly as successful.

The Sanders campaign was the closest the left has come to a tangible inside/outside orientation since the days of the Popular Front in the 1930s/40s or Jesse Jackson’s 1980s presidential attempts. Sanders’ insurgent left populist campaign challenged the Democratic elite for the hearts and minds of voters and emerged from the primaries with greater influence over the party as a whole, but it did not succeed in capturing the nomination.

The time is ripe, the authors argue, for a successful strategy that unites the organized power of movements outside the official bounds of the Democratic Party with efforts to push the party toward the left from within. The task now, in the face of the Trump danger, is to bridge the divides among the various groups that supported either Clinton or Sanders in the primaries and lay the basis for a continued growth of progressive power well past Election Day.

Neither abstaining from electoral politics nor third-party efforts offer realistic paths forward, they argue. And passively following the lead of centrist Democrats will also fail to provide a path for sustainable left advance.

The curriculum concludes with key points for a long-term left electoral strategy. They include the building of a mass progressive political base independent of the Democratic Party, the development of a stronger left capacity to engage with the technical details of electoral politics such as communications and messaging, building up progressive candidacies and independent organizations within the party, and maintaining a focus on the unity of the Democratic coalition as a whole.

The authors say that what is needed is a “tea party of the left.” It’s a long-term fight, but they give more precise tactical pointers on what these bigger questions might look like on the local and state level. But for those, you’ll have to check out the full curriculum.

Solid research, solid strategy

Drawing on the latest data from outfits such as the Pew Research Institute, the Congressional Budget Office, and others, the curriculum rests on a foundation of solid research and reliable data. It is up-to-date with the most current demographic and socioeconomic developments.

Apart from its research value, however, the curriculum is important for the contribution it makes to the debate about how to unite the democratic movements into a durable coalition with the capacity to create transformational change in the social, economic, and political life of our country.

Though he goes unmentioned, the curriculum’s analytical approach to strategy takes much from early twentieth century Italian leftist Antonio Gramsci. The far right fought what Gramsci called a “war of position” for decades, gathering influence and power in their factional competition with the Republican elite. They succeeded and are now hegemonic over the right-wing side of the American political spectrum.

It’s time for the left to reclaim the time-honored strategy bequeathed to us by Gramsci and put it to use in building a broad progressive coalition that has staying power. This curriculum is a move in that direction and activists would do well to put it to use.

The full curriculum, including PowerPoint presentations and facilitator’s guides, can be downloaded here.

Photo: Demonstrators protest Donald Trump’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in New York on November 7, 2015. | AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.