The Buckeye Socialist Alternative
— Micah O'Canain
THE DAN LA Botz Socialist for Senate campaign in Ohio represents an important success in the recent context of leftist third party initiatives. Running the first Socialist Party campaign for national office in Ohio since 1936, La Botz garnered 25,368 votes statewide, one of the more successful socialist electoral bids in decades. This experience provides some important lessons for how the left can engage the electoral arena in this period.
We talked to thousands of Ohio voters about socialist ideas, many for the first time. The campaign was also a catalyst for left unity in the state, bringing together activists from a number of social movements and organizations to work on a common project. We are following up with the formation of the Buckeye Socialist Network, whose first campaign “Defend Ohio” will focus on fighting cuts to public services and education, as well as protecting the collective bargaining rights of public employees under attack, by the incoming reactionary Republican governor John Kasich (see http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/3116).
Several factors, both in Ohio and at the national level, created favorable conditions for a socialist campaign. A court ruling overturning the state’s anti-democratic restrictions on third parties gave us an opening to gain ballot access with only 500 signatures.
The ongoing recession and its impact on working people’s lives — especially in Ohio, which was already hemorrhaging jobs before the crisis due to ongoing systematic deindustrialization — opened a layer of voters receptive to ideas and alternatives coming from outside the two capitalist parties.
Further, among progressive Democratic voters there is a deep disillusionment with the failure of the Obama administration to carry through any meaningful change in the country’s direction. This low enthusiasm meant that progressives’ loyalty to the Democrats was not as much of a barrier during this election cycle as it usually is to left third party campaigns.
The frustration of progressive Democrats was a significant factor in this Senate race in particular. Jennifer Brunner, the outgoing Secretary of State and the more liberal of the two Democratic Senate candidates, lost in the primary to establishment politician Lee Fisher.
The dissatisfaction with Fisher among progressives even prompted one former Brunner campaign organizer to join the La Botz team. And in the general election, as Fisher fell further and further behind the Republican, any fear of a left candidate being a “spoiler” became a non-issue.
Presenting An Alternative
The emergence of the Tea Party and the general rightward shift in political discourse created an urgent need to articulate a left alternative. Thus far, the left has largely been unable to capitalize on the widespread confusion and anger that working people feel.
Our efforts to respond to the Tea Party from the left intrigued many of the voters we met. Most had never heard anyone talk about socialist solutions before.
The resurgence of the right opened up a debate around the word “socialism,” as accusations of Obama secretly being a “socialist” created the space for a discussion about what socialism really means. In fact, Dan noted that young people, if they weren’t particularly interested when first approached, often became receptive upon hearing the “S” word.
In presenting the campaign message at candidates’ forums, door-to-door canvassing, campus and community meetings and in the media, we tried to talk to people in a down-to-earth way that gave voice to the concerns and struggles that working people in Ohio face. We wanted not to talk abstractly about the evils of capitalism, but instead relate to people’s lived experience.
The campaign platform focused on three central problems: the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the brewing environmental catastrophe. Throughout the campaign we also emphasized how the Democrats have failed to address any of these issues in any meaningful way. We always highlighted the importance of political action independent of the Democratic Party and the need to begin forging a movement that can give voice to the interests of working-class people.
When Dan La Botz, a longtime member of Solidarity, was approached by members of the Ohio Socialist Party to be the SP’s Senate candidate, the party had only a few members and lacked statewide infrastructure. The campaign began in Spring 2010 with a handful of activists collecting the necessary petition signatures for ballot access.
We essentially then had to build a campaign organization from scratch, starting with the small group of supporters we had pulled together during the petitioning phase. These activists organized house meetings, where they invited fellow activists, friends and family into their homes to hear Dan speak about the campaign. These clusters of supporters became the basis for campaign committees in Ohio’s four largest cities, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo.
Establishing these committees enabled us to reach nearly every region of the state. These local supporters organized speaking events, distributed literature at neighborhood markets, festivals, and community events, and also helped us build ties with progressive organizations in the cities, creating a small statewide network.
The campaign also reached out to progressive and radical student groups on campuses across the state. The organizations and individuals spread the campaign message to students through hosting La Botz to speak on campus, as well as through leafleting at their schools and in the surrounding communities. At Oberlin College, for example, La Botz received 20% of the student vote.
Given the level of youth mobilization around the campaign, students from across the state took the opportunity to have a one-day conference of student activists, with panels on the areas of work they are involved in, including the environmental movement, student/labor solidarity, and LGBTQ rights.
Participants were enthusiastic and optimistic about the prospects for working together beyond the election. Tyler Barton of Young Democratic Socialists said of the gathering, “It’s great to see how this campaign has brought together student activists from so many different backgrounds and led to the creation of an organization that will last beyond election day.”
Attendees at the conference’s closing plenary created the Ohio Young Progressives network and committed to engaging in more coordinated work together, with the goal of holding a similar conference in 2011.
An exciting aspect of the campaign was that a number of socialist organizations came together to work on it as a common project. Members of the Socialist Party, Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, and Young Democratic Socialists all collaborated. For example, in Toledo members from three different socialist groups, as well as unaffiliated activists, canvassed nearly 500 houses together one Sunday afternoon.
Seeing left organizations working together so closely at the ground level was encouraging, and hopefully the relationships forged during the campaign will be a basis for more shared work.
In the buildup to the October 2nd rally in Washington D.C., the campaign announced that we would be mobilizing our supporters to go to the rally as a “Socialist Contingent.” The ISO and other groups responded to this call, expanding it into a broader, national contingent. Subsequently, nearly 500 members from half a dozen socialist organizations marched together in D.C. Following the rally, we met at a pub where a packed audience listened to a panel discussion featuring Dan La Botz. All the organizations involved are eager to continue the “Socialist Contingent” project
We certainly do not want to lose the momentum stirred up by the campaign. For those who are unaffiliated, we are encouraging them to join the socialist organization that best fits them. We also aim to create an umbrella network which includes all of these organizations and individuals, continuing to deepen left unity in Ohio.
But while promoting left unity is certainly important, the more crucial task for us is to reach out to the millions of working Americans who are not part of the left. On a small scale, our campaign succeeded in talking to thousands of Ohioans about socialism, many for the first time. and the response was surprisingly positive.
Gary Hunter of Cleveland said of his experience leafleting, “I was stunned at how receptive people were to our openly socialist platform of jobs for all, ending the wars, and single-payer health care. People seemed genuinely interested in solutions coming from left of the Democrats.”
We made an effort to engage African Americans and Latinos in particular. Although unfortunately we were not able to cultivate a base in these communities, when leafleting some of the most enthusiastic responses and conversations were from people of color.
Dan did speak at three NAACP meetings. Campaign supporters also distributed leaflets at African-American cultural events such as the Black Family Reunion, an annual festival in Cincinnati.
The campaign was also not able to sink roots into the labor movement. While many of our most active supporters were union members, labor officialdom’s relationship to the Democratic Party was a barrier to connecting with unions. Our weaknesses in drawing in these essential constituencies highlight the need to continue to find ways to make and deepen such connections.
We have learned that socialists need not be so reluctant to engage the public with our ideas in an explicit way. While the forces of the anti-capitalist left are clearly meager and marginal, more people in this country share our values than we recognize and an increasing number are receptive to an alternative from the left.
In summing up the campaign, La Botz said, “The principal lesson of this campaign is that socialists can go out into American society and talk about their values, their principles, and their program. We have an opportunity to educate about socialism and to build the socialist movement.”
The economic crisis has thus far not provoked significant resistance to the renewed offensive against the working class, but it has created an ideological opening, and we on the left need to take advantage
ATC 150, January-February 2011