Questions about endorsing we needed to ask

November 8, 2018

Sofia Arias adds her view to a discussion about endorsing two Green Party candidates.

IN HIS Readers’ View “We can critically support independent candidates,” Lance Selfa gives the impression that the question of the Howie Hawkins/Jia Lee endorsement by the New York City district was a straightforward debate between critical support and ultimatums, and that the correct and appropriate method should have been a return to the example of the 2004 position on endorsing independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

I can only speak for myself, but I do not believe that this begins to address the difficulties that the New York City district of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) faced these past few months — which, I believe, were about a breakdown of democratic debate and decision-making that compounded the difficulties of clarifying the stakes of this particular endorsement.

The reality is that the debate on endorsement took all of 15 minutes. There was no space to have an assessment of the previous endorsement and campaign for Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones in 2014, and what to expect this year; no space to discuss the problems of the Green Party and the question of Assadism; no space to discuss how this would help the ISO grow and make the case for independent politics; and no space to consider postponing the endorsement vote until there was more time to have this kind of discussion.

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One member who asked if we could compare our process to the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) — which included having candidates make their case to the whole membership before an endorsement decision — was not even considered. All these suggestions and concerns were largely jettisoned because the overarching concern was that this vote could resolve the problem of the Democratic Party ballot line debate within our organization.

Several issues were collapsed into this endorsement debate, which was supposed to temporarily have an answer to the question of independent electoral campaigns. Despite the fact that there were many new members who didn’t know who Howie Hawkins or Jia Lee were, the vote went through, with a high abstention rate.

Rather than resolving anything, this produced distrust and a fall in morale. We lost members as a result of this process. Therefore, we had neither full democratic debate, nor the ability to move collectively into action.

Under any other circumstances, we would have opposed such a process. In our unions, comrades would have voted down any effort to put forward a contract that members hadn’t read or discussed fully, and would have argued for others to do so as well. This is what makes it so difficult to even consider what a critical support endorsement would even have looked like.

DESPITE THIS, some of us tried to ameliorate the problems of this first vote. Some of us in the Brooklyn branch compiled and suggested readings from Socialist Worker, the International Socialist Review and elsewhere that could be sent to the whole membership and could include an assessment of our previous work in the Hawkins/Jones campaign, so the whole membership, new and experienced, could have a shared understanding and move forward on the right approach to the Hawkins/Lee campaign.

Readers’ Views 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.

And some of us — believing that Howie Hawkins would fully support it — still held out hope that this campaign could be a space to issue a statement in support of Syrians against the Assad regime.

Initially, this was considered after Assad moved toward a military offensive against Idlib, the last stronghold of the revolution, and a territory of 3 million Syrians. After Idlib broke out in inspiring protests, we thought this was an even more opportune moment to issue a statement, because Idlib showed that the revolution was still alive.

I still believe that had we had a second district meeting right after the failure of the first, we could have arrived at a better perspective.

This might have meant critical support with a principled statement, and a clear lead that could equip those comrades most involved in Middle East solidarity work with a way to argue on confident and principled grounds for voting Hawkins/Lee. This might have meant inviting Hawkins and Lee to a district meeting to put forward our concerns and ideas, and possibly change Howie’s opinion in the process.

We know people’s ideas shift in the course of debating and discussing with one another. Had Howie met with the whole membership in the process of seeking our endorsement, including Muslim members who could convey the stakes of this position, this might have helped him take a different approach. After all, the process of organizing an electoral campaign for governor should theoretically mean an exposure to a base or constituency that one attempts to answer to.

None of this came to pass. Instead, the decision was made to hold meetings at the branch level, discussing among ourselves the 2014 campaign, and an informal bar night with the candidates, which unintentionally served to downgrade the importance and formality of an endorsement process. And there are only so many hours in a day to prioritize a debate that was already deeply demoralizing and draining, while trying to relate to other events and questions in the world.

THE REVELATION of Jimmy Dore’s endorsement came after all these failed attempts to shape the campaign and open up debate. It is still hard to believe that Howie Hawkins would refuse to even produce a mild statement disassociating himself from Dore’s Islamophobia.

This is where the one-to-one comparison with Nader in 2004 really fails. Howie is a comrade and a committed socialist. We’d worked with him before, we’d helped contribute to the 2014 campaign’s position condemning Israel’s war on Gaza, and we knew he was no Assadist. The space to shape this campaign should have theoretically been greater, precisely because Howie is not Nader.

I hope the internal debate around the Nader 2004 endorsement was thorough. But at least the public statement around this in Socialist Worker provided a lead for members on how to navigate these waters, including criticisms of Nader’s acceptance of Pat Buchanan’s endorsement, which flows into a recommendation about what ballot lines to vote on and not vote on.

Lance doesn’t consider the possibility of what a larger ISO rooted in more struggles might mean for also evaluating the ramifications of a critical support endorsement. That is, the ISO has grown since 2004, and the world has also changed since then.

If a Green Party candidate today accepted the endorsement of Pat Buchanan, who has called on Trump to stop the caravan of Honduran migrants at the border and called it a “Third World invasion of the West,” would our position be basically the same as it was in 2004?

In 2018, when “Abolish ICE” has become a mainstream demand, and we have members rooted in immigrant rights struggles and the migrant caravan faces the violence of the U.S. military and fascist vigilantes, would we still be able to also call for critical support at the ballot box?

This example seems completely implausible, because the U.S. left has advanced so much on the question of immigrant rights and anti-racism that there is no way to even imagine this scenario.

I believe it would be impossible for any Green Party candidate today to do what Nader did in 2004, not because the far right has become less right wing (the exact opposite is true), and not because the Green Party has become more left wing (the exact opposite is true), but because the immigrant working class has, since the historic “Day without an Immigrant” strike in 2006, changed this generation of the U.S. left forever.

We have been transformed because of the struggle of immigrants in this country, and this is why we can take up the fight against Gestapo raids, detention centers, borders and the good immigrant/bad immigrant ideological offensive. Lance’s argument about turning back to the lessons of 2004 forces us into an abstraction that isn’t useful.

WHEN WEIGHING whether critical support is an option, the organization is tasked with several considerations, because the endorsement should mean something real for the work we carry out in our movements.

The burden of carrying out a controversial critical support position isn’t distributed evenly among all members. It is hardest on those comrades who are most closely connected to the issue being debated. It is therefore incumbent upon the entire membership to set a lead that prepares those comrades for making the most difficult arguments with allies in order to win them to voting on the basis of a broader class independence vision.

So assuming this hypothetical works, if Howie had received the endorsement of Pat Buchanan today, would we expect our comrades organizing most closely in immigrant rights work to vote and accept it without any debate?

Just imagine you were asked to accept this, without any debate over a figure like Buchanan, who has called for Trump to stop the caravan with U.S. troops, without any opportunity to have a meeting with these close collaborators and allies on the New York socialist left to make the case for a change in their campaign?

You wouldn’t simply accept that, right? You would argue hard for something different. You would push for something else because you couldn’t carry out a lead on these terms, and you would vote with your feet for something different.

You would refuse to organize an event with the campaign, you would increasingly feel discouraged and sometimes bitter, you might even consider leaving the organization itself because it felt like an impossible choice. No comrade should have to get to the point where something like that has to happen.

It is not a coincidence that the burden was felt most by those comrades who were involved in our Palestine work, and especially those who were Arab and Muslim. Critical support is more than a rhetorical statement we hammer out to fly the flag of class independence.

The more the ISO grows, the more rooted it becomes in struggles, the more deliberate our arguments have to become and the more careful our considerations, because the stakes become higher. We are trying to win other people to voting the same way, and all our painstaking work, history of struggle and politics are put on the line in that moment. You might lose seven years of political credibility on Syria solidarity work. You might lose some members. All for a campaign that would end in two months.

I was not present for the second vote to rescind. I had taken a leave of absence shortly after the Jimmy Dore endorsement revelation. I do not share Lance’s pessimism that this vote did a disservice to the cause of building a new party of the left.

I would like to thank the comrades of the New York City ISO for making a much more difficult, sober and clear-eyed decision: that of opting to revisit a vote taken without the fullest input and informed participation of what should be the highest decision-making body in the district. And for working toward someday being able to “march in a compact group, along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand.”

The vote may have helped advance that much more important project that continues after November, and I think the organization owes its thanks to those comrades.

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