Beyond the election: How do we hold officials accountable?
In theory, your elected officials work for you. Unfortunately, a politician that is truly accountable to their constituents is rare, particularly when it comes to the most marginalized people in their base.
Incredible efforts to turn out voters (led in many cases by Black organizers) delivered a presidential victory to Joe Biden as well as other significant Democrat wins. While the defeat of Donald Trump is worth celebrating, getting an undesired candidate out of office is just the first step. In a two-party system where corporate influence runs rampant, the policies politicians are willing to deliver often clash with the needs of their constituents, regardless of party.
Post-election, lots of discussions are occurring in regards to how politicians should be held accountable when they are beholden to corporate interests, police, and one of two generally conservative political parties. In this article, we look at effective strategies to hold elected officials accountable on the local, state, and federal levels in order to advance progressive agendas.
Demonstrations and protests have historically played an important role in drawing attention to issues and forcing the hand of politicians. While the spontaneous protest is a key component to mobilization and demonstrating the sentiment of the people, a strategically organized demonstration sustained over a long period of time can yield incredible tangible results.
One recent example of a successful prolonged demonstration was a series of homeless encampments set up by Philadelphia Housing Action. Organizers and demonstrators made up of a group of Philadelphians experiencing homelessness remained in encampments for over five months in 2020, with a list of demands that included disbanding the police and redistribution of housing to communities. The organizers negotiated deals with the City government that included the transfer of properties to a land trust controlled by encampment residents, increased permanent housing opportunities, and home repair training programs.
The territories occupied in Philadelphia were distinct from other similar encampment demonstrations because they created a specific list of demands, and maintained themselves as no-cop autonomous zones. The determination of the demonstrators coupled with carefully maneuvered tactics is what led to victory for people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, and is just one possible blueprint for improving material conditions through an organization.
Striking and labor movements:
Workers in the United States hold immense power, and a strike is one way to get politicians and corporations to concede to demands. One way for workers to organize is through forming unions, which have the potential to wield political influence and advance the rights of workers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, unions have been a crucial tool for gaining workers proper health benefits and workplace protection, but mass-movements of workers can also play a huge role in shaping national and local policy. In Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Juan Gonzales discusses the role of immigrant workers in fighting back against post-9/11 federal immigration policies.
In 2006, a massive protest movement was sparked from a bill called the Border Protection Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, which sought to upgrade entering the country unlawfully from a civil violation to a felony offense. The first phase of action was marches, which turned out a total of well over a million people across over 70 cities in the U.S. over the course of two days.
The next phase took place on International Workers Day, May 1st, in an event called “The Great American Boycott” by some and “A Day Without Immigrants” by others. As the day approached, the Democratic Party and other moderates warned against a strike, but across the country, immigrants stayed home creating some of the largest work-stoppages the country has ever seen. The power the workers and organizers demonstrated caused the Border Protection Bill to be shelved.
In Harvest of Empire, Gonzales credits a multigenerational coalition of Latinx grassroots organizers for the victory. A generation from the 1860s who came from radical Latinx labor movement backgrounds, a generation from the 1980s composed of organizers from Central American Sanctuary movements, and Latinx college students all worked with one another and contributed various experiences. Gonzales also attributes the mobilization of large crowds to the Spanish-language press, radio DJs, and Spanish Language public-affairs shows.
Much is to be learned from the work that was done by these groups, from the power of immigrant workers to coalition building. The refusal of local organizers to bow to centrist ideals of respectability is of particular relevance now in a time where the Democratic Party is especially concerned with Republican attacks.
Primary the centrists and build viable third-party options:
Recently, progressive candidates have made great strides, from the high profile of Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential primaries to the election of congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and others. Ocasio-Cortez showed that powerful Democrat incumbents can be defeated without the use of corporate campaign donations and thanks to a number of progressive wins, we now know that with proper strategy, a victory for progressive candidates is often in reach.
Additionally, the growing coalition of progressives in mainstream politics also demonstrates how the threat of a progressive challenger can cause centrist candidates to adopt progressive policies into their platforms. In races where a progressive candidate is unlikely to win, it can still be productive for a candidate on the left to run in order to apply pressure to a centrist opposition.
Unfortunately, despite the popularity of progressive candidates and policies, centrist Democrats have demonstrated their commitment to catering to a conservative white voting bloc rather than the diverse, more progressive constituency that forms much of their base. House Democrats blamed down-ballot losses on the “defund the police” movement and socialism rather than taking responsibility for inadequate campaign strategies and lack of vision beyond opposition to Trump, a problem that will only become magnified in his defeat.
In order to advance progressive agendas, it is worth considering the potential effectiveness of organizing viable third-party options rather than attempting to reform the Democratic party from within. While on a national scale this will be difficult to achieve, there have been third-party successes on the local level that have proven to be fruitful.
In Seattle, Kshama Sawant has served as a member of the council since 2013, where she was elected as a member of the Socialist Alternative Party. One of her goals in running for office was to show how a new party can be built “of the working class, accountable to the working class.” Notably, Sawant ran on a platform of raising the fifteen-dollar-per-hour minimum wage and achieved it through creating a ballot initiative. Sawant’s win in Seattle helped to bring the Fight for 15 into the national spotlight during the 2016 presidential election. While the somewhat uniquely progressive conditions in Seattle may cause Sawant’s third-party viability to be dismissed as a fluke, her tenure is an example of what a politician will stand for when they are truly accountable to their constituents.
A better world is possible, but there is no denying that it takes a lot of work to build it. While this article gives just a few examples of how goals can be met within the realm of electoral politics, it also important to continue organizing independently of these structures, both for the sake of meeting people’s immediate needs and for a future divested from white supremacist, capitalist institutions.
All of the examples described above have two key things in common: they are led by the communities they are serving, and they are the product of years of organizing. As the United States has a new president-elect, the way forward continues to be through mass movements that center Black, Indigenous, and working-class people of color.