Missing the point of what we wrote

March 17, 2015

THE ARTICLE we wrote about the Chicago mayoral election ("An alternative to Mayor 1 Percent?") has been the subject of criticism in three submissions to Readers' Views. We think a reply is in order.

One contribution, from Ben in Chicago ("Be critical, but be for Chuy"), argues that we should back challenger Jesús "Chuy" García against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a national leader of the neoliberal Democrats. Another view, from Anthony Cappetta ("Clearly no alternative to austerity"), contends that we weren't hard enough on García. The most recent response, from Dana Blanchard, Jenna Woloshyn and Jessie Muldoon ("Putting its energy into the wrong fight"), claims that our article "does not adequately address the larger question of an alternative to labor's stubborn reliance on the Democratic Party to bring change."

Let's start with Dana, Jenna and Jessie's case. They write that "the article does not stress enough how dangerous it is to put the hopes of that progressive consciousness into another Democrat. While the authors do critique García's record and show that he is not the progressive hope that voters might think he is, one could read the article and conclude that he just isn't the right 'progressive' Democrat."

Image from SocialistWorker.org

They add: "The fact is that even with a better record, without a break from the Democratic Party, even the most progressive candidate serves to prop up a party which answers to its corporate backers, while only paying lip service to the needs of its working-class voters."

In his contribution, Anthony Capetta also suggests that we have avoided or downplayed the argument about the importance of political independence from the Democrats: "Any lip service to this idea that there are some 'corporate' Democrats distorts our argument that a third party must be built independently of any Republicans and all Democrats, including those who pose as progressive."

In fact, our article--which systematically, and at some length, criticizes García for being a pro-cop, austerity politician, eager to collaborate with big business--explicitly rejects the idea that "progressive" Democrats are an alternative to the party's corporate, neoliberal wing. For example, we write: "Yet a look at García's record--and close attention to what he's saying on the campaign trail--makes it clear that even if he ousts Emanuel, García will continue to administer the type of austerity policies that triggered the electoral backlash against Emanuel."

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

Later, we write: "In the 30 years since [the liberal Harold Washington administration in Chicago], the Democrats have administered neoliberal policies from the White House to City Halls around the U.S. Progressives like García, in order to advance within the party, have adapted to those policies, even if they seek to moderate them to build an electoral base. Without a political organization that is independent of the Democrats, this is inevitable." We emphasize that last line, since Dana, Jenna and Jessie seem to have missed it the first time around.

Much of the focus for Dana, Jenna and Jessie contribution is on criticizing the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for its endorsement of, and big campaign contributions to, Chuy García. In so doing, they imply that our article was deficient for not doing the same.

We spent some time singling out the CTU endorsement of García, though we didn't intend the article to be the final word on a runoff election that will play out for another month. Still, if what we wrote wasn't enough, we'd like to point out that there are plenty of other SW articles by us and others that criticized the CTU's embrace of the Democrats on numerous occasions.

A few examples: Two of us wrote a lengthy article for Jacobin and SW that criticized the CTU for endorsing pension-shredding former Gov. Pat Quinn for re-election--and arguing for CTU President Karen Lewis to run for mayor as a labor candidate outside the Democratic Party as "a step towards independent political action that would have national implications." Another SW piece last October criticized the CTU and other unions for endorsing Quinn, arguing that labor, after turning its back on a promising Green Party effort in Illinois, "again opted for the lesser evil--only to lay the groundwork for more evil in the future." Yet another article criticized the CTU's rush to endorse García, not just because of his record of pushing austerity, but because "the CTU, like labor unions everywhere, will be far better served by endorsing genuinely independent campaigns that fight for the interests of working people."

Surely Dana, Jenna and Jessie, as longtime readers of and contributors to Socialist Worker, are familiar with at least some of these articles. It's hard to square their alarm about what we wrote with SW's long and established record on the question of the Democrats and labor in general, and the CTU in particular.

ANOTHER ASPECT of Dana, Jenna and Jessie's contribution, their characterization of the CTU and class struggle unionism, while not directly related to their criticisms of our article, nevertheless warrants a comment here. They contrast the CTU's 2012 strike with the union's role in the 2015 municipal elections, stating that "the CTU is still operating as a political heavyweight in Chicago politics, but this time in a very different fashion."

We agree that the CTU strike of 2012 showed the potential for class struggle unionism. But contrary to what Dana, Jenna and Jessie suggest, the CTU leadership under the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators leadership never broke from the Democratic Party, even during the strike period. On the contrary, the CTU has moved much deeper into Democratic politics at the local level, in an attempt to bolster what it considers to be progressive candidates. While the union has experimented with giving support to a handful of candidates, including teachers, who ran for City Council as independents to the left of the Democrats, the union's intervention in the Democratic Party has received far greater weight.

The question for socialists is how to make their arguments among CTU activists who were both key strike activists in 2012 and are leading organizers for the Chuy García campaign today.

In his contribution, Anthony says he was "somewhat perplexed on how much time" our article "spent pondering the chances of a Chuy García win, Rahm's absurd fundraising ability among his rich friends and the race to see who could win the African American vote in Chicago."

We understand why Anthony, a socialist in the CTU, might be impatient to get to the critique of Chuy García. But we believe that an article on the mayoral runoff can and should also show what we have in common with the militants in the CTU and beyond who are supporting García--above all, a determined opposition to Rahm Emanuel and everything he represents.

Emanuel is a national standard-bearer for neoliberalism and part of the Democratic Party power center that includes the White House. The prospect of his downfall has caused consternation among Democratic bigwigs and hedge fund managers across the land--and delight among people who want an alternative to the political status quo, even if they haven't reached the conclusion that such an alternative must be fully independent of the two mainstream parties. We would be remiss if we didn't note why these people are feeling a pull towards García--and supporting a candidate who clearly doesn't have a platform that supports the best interests of working-class Chicagoans, as we noted over and over.

We agree with Anthony that a defeat for Emanuel won't bring relief from neoliberalism if that defeat means García's victory. The Democratic Party has been around for more than 200 years, and it certainly has the capacity to turn former community organizers like García into reliable administrators of the system--as the career of one Barack Obama makes clear.

THE REALITY of the "progressive" Democrats' record in office is why the critique of Ben from Chicago falls flat. He takes us and the International Socialist Organization to task for criticizing Garcia's failure to "perfectly reach your ideal of an independent left alternative."

Ben shrugs off García's record of austerity--easy to say if you're not concerned about modestly paid Cook County workers losing their jobs to balance the budget while those still employed face cuts to their pensions. Rather than seriously examine García's record as a pro-austerity politician, Ben huffs that "Marxism is not sitting back with your hands crossed and pooh-poohing everything that does not reach your ideal" and derides "Trotskyist sects" which are, in any case, "largely irrelevant."

As three of those Trotskyists whom Ben deems to be irrelevant, perhaps we should be flattered that he nevertheless took the time to try and set us straight. In fact, however, it's Ben's strategy--of criticizing García while supporting him at the same time--that leads directly to irrelevance for the left. If we are to reflexively sign up, whatever our criticisms, with the lesser evil within the Democratic Party, then why not support any Democrat against any Republican, no matter how conservative? It's an approach that has had a devastating impact on the left, even as the Democratic Party moves further to the right.

It's important to remember, as the Emanuel-García race comes to a head, that the Chicago election season did open a window for genuinely independent politics in several City Council races, including Chicago Socialist Campaign candidate Jorge Mujica and teachers Tammie Vinson and Tim Meegan. Meegan, who campaigned as the candidate of the 99 Percent, missed a runoff election by just 17 votes.

It is campaigns like these that show the potential for forging ahead along an independent path. If it is "purism" to want an independent electoral alternative that is for ending austerity and against flooding the streets with cops, then we have set our sights low enough already. There is an opening for these kinds of politics--however modest it may be--because of the teachers' strike and the discontent against Rahm, and we as socialists must point toward it.

This is another point that Dana, Jenna and Jessie miss in their article. Toward the end of their article, they pose the question: "How do we avoid the trap of the 'progressive' Democrat?" We, of course, agree that the efforts they suggest, like building the struggle on the shop floor and in the streets, are the duty of socialist militants. But they neglect to mention another arena for socialists: We should also argue that we must to raise the need for independent politics--and ultimately a genuine political party to represent working people. We must fight the boss and austerity as well as argue for an independent political alternative.

Many of the activists and voters who supported the independent campaigns in the Chicago elections in February have now been drawn toward the García campaign, some looking for what they call "harm reduction" in comparison to Emanuel, some with the hope that García will bring real change.

The task of socialists is to engage with those people in a discussion about the need for independent working-class politics, while we work alongside them in struggles against racism, to build our unions, to organize for women's rights and LGBTQ equality, and many other fights. Our article was a contribution to that effort.
Brian Bean, Melissa Rakestraw and Lee Sustar, Chicago

Further Reading

From the archives