On Election Day, many on the left were watching to see if progressive champions like Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Greg Casar in Texas — endorsed by Justice Democrats, Working Families Party and other influential national left electoral strategy formations — would continue to add to the growing national influence of the progressive group of House lawmakers known as “The Squad.” They’re part of a recent shift in left organizing energy towards winning elections that began in earnest following Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
But in Kansas City, a different and much older movement tradition was evident in the day’s election outcomes. Just a month before Election Day, tenant organizers had forced their City Council to place a question on the ballot asking voters if they would approve raising $50 million for a housing fund and rewrite the definition of “affordable” from units charging $1,200 a month, down to $750 a month.
The measure passed, and although it was the first time the local group KC Tenants had organized voters directly (through their just-launched 501c4, KC Tenants Power), it wasn’t at all the first time they influenced an election through direct action campaigns. The organization got its start in 2019, and immediately began waging campaigns targeting specific local landlords to change housing conditions and simultaneously demanding that candidates running in that year’s municipal election pledge to support their platform.
They so thoroughly changed the conversation about that election through their dramatic direct actions and disruptive presence in candidate forums that the newly-elected mayor followed through on a promise to spend his first night in office in one of their members’ apartments. He also set about championing the Tenant Bill of Rights the group drafted, which imposed new rules on landlords and created a municipal tenant protection agency.
They had used a traditional outside pressure campaign to influence an election outcome — the candidates who scored the highest on their scorecard won their races, without KC Tenants spending a dime on partisan ads or mailers — and used it to get a seat at the inside game, crafting policy with elected officials. During the onset of the pandemic, the group added to the strategies it used to improve conditions for tenants by starting a mutual aid fund. And it has continued to rotate between outside campaigns and inside game negotiations to win a right to counsel for all tenants in eviction court and a community-controlled city housing fund.
Their work reflects a long left movement tradition of using strategies “against the state,” “from the state” and “without the state” to build power and transform conditions for working-class people, that goes back over a hundred years in the U.S. We explore several examples from this rich history in a podcast called “Craft of Campaigns” I host for left organizers, which launched this week. Some see these as distinct tracks, but there is a long history of movements using both simultaneously to great effect.
Many have heard of the Highlander Center’s role in training Black freedom movement organizers to wage outside pressure campaigns on the Jim Crow status quo. But the group’s founders experimented with strategies well outside their core role as movement educators. In 1938, the center’s staff — who often worked as labor organizers when they weren’t leading workshops — helped people building bridges and highways with the Works Progress Administration to form unions to advocate for higher wages. (At the time they were the country’s lowest-paid federal workers.)
But when workplace actions weren’t enough to achieve their goals, and stymied by the corrupt local Democrats, they formed their own party, the Labor’s Political Conference, with two dozen unions in Grundy and Marion counties, and successfully elected new road commissioners and a labor-friendly sheriff. Labor unions in particular have a long history of openness to using both outside pressure campaigns, as well as electing their own champions and members to all levels of the ballot.
As another example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, famously organized parallel “Freedom Registration” voter drives and “Freedom Vote” mock elections as part of their outside pressure campaigns on Mississippi’s Jim Crow power structure. And in 1964, they started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to force a confrontation at the coming Democratic National Convention over the national party’s acceptance of segregationist Democrats.
At the same time, many of the same organizers also ran actual voter registration drives across the South, training 10,000 teachers to lead Citizenship Schools from 1961-1965, which helped register over 700,000 voters by the time the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Another million Southern Black voters registered in the following five years, in part due to the 897 Citizenship Schools with over 100,000 participants. Many of those same organizers with the Voting Rights Project (a collaboration between CORE, SNCC, the Urban League and the NAACP) then helped elect the region’s first Black congressional representative in 1972.
There were certainly different orientations to wielding state power among Black freedom movement organizations, but there was and remains a tradition of openness to using strategies that are in tension with each other towards transforming real-world conditions.
And some modern left organizations associated with the post-Bernie 2016 shift to electoral strategies, like Mijente — whose affiliates just helped elect Casar and other Democrats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia and other states — had begun pivoting well before Sanders’ near-victory against Hillary Clinton. Galvanized by the fight against Arizona’s SB 1070 anti-immigrant bill, community organizations and labor unions first worked to oust Sheriff Joe Arpaio with their Adiós Arpaio effort in 2012, falling 80,000 votes short of victory.
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Four years later, organizers with Mijente’s #Not1More campaign supported direct actions against federal and local targets across the country. Inspired in part by Chicago’s #ByeAnita campaign, which combined direct action and electoral mobilization to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Mijente launched a new effort called Bazta Arpaio that successfully mobilized thousands of newly registered Latines and voted the sheriff out of office. (The organization also resources its Latine members who are using “without the state” mutual aid strategies, drawing on the legacy of the Young Lords and Black Panthers, offering small grants and coaching for “sin el estado” collective projects.)
It goes without saying: Both campaigning to get candidates elected and holding elected officials accountable present tensions and contradictions for left organizers whose ultimate goals are to transform our society and create a true multiracial democracy. And we have hundreds of real-world examples from which to draw insights about how to navigate those tensions. Indeed, it’s vital for us as organizers to know our history of strategic convergence, which has resulted in numerous movement victories that have changed our material conditions, than it is to understand the ideological roots of the debate over using one strategy to the exclusion of another.
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