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Capturing state power… through parliaments… July 31, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left, US Politics.
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There’s an excellent point, made about US politics, but entirely applicable to our own, here. Dave Weigel of Slate.com writes about the [predictable] failure of the third party candidate movement, Americans Elect. AE decided to establish a process to nominate a bipartisan candidate who would draw independent support and build on what they hope is a centrist but unarticulated majority (or significant minority).

But as Weigel notes that latter is arguably entirely illusory. Though not necessarily for the reasons Weigel argues. He suggests that there is no centre, that people are more partisan than they claim in polls. Very likely, up to a point. But I’d go a bit further. Look at the Democratic and Republican platforms in 2012 and compare and contrast with the 1980s or earlier and it seems fairly clear that the centre of gravity of US politics has shifted rightwards. If that is the case then Obama is the ‘centrist’ candidate, for what that is worth.

But Weigel makes a much more useful point when he writes the following:

Sometimes a wealthy person says something that makes you wonder how people ever trusted him with money. Obama had “control” of the Senate—the 60 votes needed to beat a filibuster—from September 2009 to January 2010. If you don’t realize how the delayed seating of Al Franken or the illness of Ted Kennedy or the victory of Scott Brown changed things, you don’t know how the government works. You don’t break the power of the parties by running in a presidential election. You start with Congress. That’s what the conservative movement has done over 20-odd years, making it untenable to face primary voters if you cast moderate votes.

And there you have it. There’s far far too much emphasis, both in US politics and our own on personality (and in the US on Presidential politics). It’s not that it doesn’t matter. It certainly does, not least in terms of tone. But the long term effectiveness of a political project is built on much more banal and everyday work at representational levels. And that requires concentration on Congress etc. One of the most striking aspects of US politics recently has been how the Gingrich wave of the early 1990s was, at this remove, simply not radical (radical right) enough for the Tea Party, with one after another of that intake falling to harder-line TP candidates. Of course, by 1990s standards those original reps were well to the right of their predecessors (and it’s telling how even staunch Reaganites elected before the Gingrich crew have also been insufficiently right wing for the TP). But it was those successive waves of candidates who were elected who pushed the needle to the right. Perhaps in some sunnier time ahead there will be movement in the other direction – perhaps if (and it remains an if) the Democrats win the next Presidential election and if the Republican vote is in some way diminished this may institute a rethink – though I’d be very doubtful, it seems to me the TP needs to burn out over time.

But to be honest I suspect that the next wave within the Republican party will be even more right wing again.

Anyway, Weigel continues, why not take the $35 million that Americans Elect raised and go after House seats? Why not? Because that’s hard work, it requires dedication and focus across not the year or so of a Presidential campaign, but the four, eight and twelve years that precede House elections. And hard work requires an organisational structure (however diffuse or coherent) and that requires something more than good wishes and good intentions. And realistically it isn’t going to happen – one need only look at the way the Reform party, which catapulted Ross Perot to the closest run third party candidate in modern times, again back in the 1990s, swung between centre/populism and fairly hard right positions, to see that there’s no guarantee that a third party, adopting centre positions will function as its founders intend.

Now a party to the left of the Democrats? Again, it would take years, decades, perhaps more. One would be looking at something not unlike the journey of the NDP in Canada, and with no guarantee of success. But if you’re in this to gain state power at state or federal level then the only way is to look at the conservative movement, and start small building big.

Interestingly this is the very model which we’ve seen adopted in our own state by parts of the left of Labour. And it has worked to some degree, though it would be a brave woman or man who suggested that the SP or even SF is close to state power or that there’s an absolute inevitability as to that outcome. But as always it simply points to the fact that the only way for movements to win is to work on the ground. As true for left as right.

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1. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - July 31, 2012

Great analysis and I quite agree. The way to lasting electoral power in a democracy is the long slow slog from the bottom-up via the legislatures, whether national or regional. In the US the fundamentalist right-wing started with the school boards back in the early 1990s and worked their way from there to the state legislatures. Now their influence in the Congress has become quite out of proportion to their true support in the nation. And that is because they put in the groundwork while the Democrats and centrist Republicans spent more time worrying about the optics (and feathering their own nests) in Washington than counter-acting what was happening back home on the ground.

That said you can’t discount being in the right place at the right time, the all important convergence of events. The Tea Party movement (rooted in the fundamentalist right-wing) came to fruition with the paranoia and imperialist impulses (“American exceptionalism”) of the post-9/11 United States, the election of Obama, the global depression and the rise of the plutocrats in US society (who are now the TP’s main backers).

In Canada the rise of the New Democratic Party (NDP) is somewhat similar, based upon years of hard work on the ground in the provincial assemblies, but with the warning that their successes in Québec may have been a one-off driven by the charisma of its late leader, Jack Layton, and the meltdown of the Bloc Québecois (BQ). The fact that one of their elected MPs had never even visited the constituency that she was standing in and was on holiday at the time of her election doesn’t bode well for long term electoral stability in Québec. With a possible resurgence of Québec nationalists in upcoming provincial elections I wouldn’t hold out much hope for NDP’s long term prospects in Québec. And without all those Québec MPs they are pretty much back to square one.

I think the Sinn Féin analogies are obvious in terms of creating the base first, taking electoral targets lower down the democratic food-scale and then working your way up. And of course putting everything in place to exploit that convergence of events if it should happen. As in the 2011 general election.

Though it can all go wrong. Look at Plaid Cymru in Wales. On the back-foot after years of building up support and no one is quite sure why.

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2. Jim Monaghan - July 31, 2012

Elections are part but not all of the struggle. My main point is that working in the USA Democratic Party is a fools errand.Think of Robert Redfords film The Candidate. By the time you get there whatever idealism drove you is forgotten.Here look at the cynical cutters in the Labour Party. There Obama kept fighting all of Bushes wars.There is a worry I have about too much of a focus on electoralism. part is the necessity to keep get elected becomes the be all and end all. The other is a collapse into populism. Think of the turf issue in the country. In fact my left TD supported and end to the pedestrian zone in Dun Laoghaire.
Back to America, as long as most of the left go along with lesser evilism. Then evil less or more is what they will get.

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3. WorldbyStorm - July 31, 2012

Thanks Séamus. Your thoughts on the contingency of all this are spot on. There’s no guarantees. Events may work in positive and negative ways. But, that said, plugging away at it should build a solid basis for progress. And your example of Plaid has to be of concern for those hoping to build progressive left movements.

Jim. That’s something I should have made more explicit but I’d hope was implicit in my last point about ‘work on the ground’. It’s only by linking into the concerns of working class people that progress can be made in electoral fora, but the latter doesn’t supercede the former.

There’s an interesting phenomenon occurring at the moment where some of the Irish LP’s high flyers of the past ten years (I’ll name no names but the Phoenix has stuff on it in the most recent issue) seem to me to be running out of steam because they’ve pivoted from oppositional politics to government politics with nary an hesitation and have used a model of political activity (high profile pronouncements etc) that was grand when broader economic activity was okey dokey but is now utterly decoupled from facts on the ground.

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Jim Monaghan - August 1, 2012

I would add a problem for a genuine left party. How to control an elected person. the problem of becoming part of the Leinster House gang as Ruari would put it. An early play by I hink Dennis Potter “Vote, vote vote for? here it is Stand Up, Nigel Barton! and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton. With UA we had the problem of friendships in the technical group. I would also add the personal. A few LP people were reaching a stage where it was now or never.Politics corrupts. Mitterand enticed quite a few into giving up and becoming SDs who had spent decades in the far Left.But such is life. the only way to preserve purity is to be in a real sect. Involvement in struggle opens the way to temptation.Get a school built now rather than wait for the socialist nirvana.Very enticing.

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eamonncork - August 1, 2012

Those Potter plays are brilliant, and often very funny. Trevor Griffiths’ Bill Brand, shown on ITV in the seventies, is even better.

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4. GypsyBhoy - August 1, 2012

Relevant article on the ISN website from 2007:

http://irishsocialist.net/publication_articledetail.php?aid=36

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5. Jim Monaghan - August 1, 2012
6. Tomboktu - August 2, 2012

I think that the USA Republican Party’s building from the ground up has a charateristic that sets it apart from other attempts to build from the ground up. The Republican Party used born-again and fundamentalist christians as a key group in building its support in the last few decades.

I don’t know if the left can tap into an existing network of groups with strong loyalties and beliefs in the same way. (Would Di Linke in Germany have something aproaching that with older East Germans who remember full employment before 1989?)

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maddurdu - August 2, 2012

Another aspect that might set the Republican Partys experience apart is the access it has to huge ammounts of capital, an already existing base etc

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