To vote or not to vote? To run or not to run? Those are the questions —whether it is nobler (and more effective) for the left to (a) venture into an antiquated, gerrymandered, bought-off, computer-rigged American electoral maze, where progressive third parties get lost and disappear, (b) just avoid the whole thing and organize by other means, or (c) perhaps just hunker down with Netflix, a remote, and a cabinet of Jack Daniel’s to await the apocalypse.
The British comedian-actor Russell Brand, who has recently outed himself as a radical leftist, chooses (b), the default anarchist position on elections, and with brio: “Billy Connolly said: ‘Don’t vote, it encourages them.’ . . . I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.” 
Then there is the traditional Marxist approach, which views elections, however compromised, as a potentially fruitful arena of “propaganda work” to complement organizing efforts. In 1972, when huge swaths of the left were stampeding to the Democratic presidential campaign of the putatively antiwar George McGovern, I spent countless hours touting the presidential candidacy of Linda Jenness, the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party (then a vital, creative force on the left, now a sadly shriveled cult). I figured that if election campaigns were good enough for hard-ass revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky, they were good enough for me, a mere aspiring hard-ass revolutionary.
Much older now but scarcely any wiser, I still can’t shake the voting/electioneering habit, although I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a choice for in independent left candidate. I’ve petitioned and campaigned for all four of Nader’s presidential bids. But Nader, alas, even at his peak in 2000, never made more than a small dent in the election tallies; the various Green and socialist presidential candidates never muster more than a flea bite (although Greens have won numerous small local offices around the country).
Unchastened by these decades of futility, every time a general election rolls around—even the off-year mayoral / city council / dog-catcher election—my wife and I make our evening trudge to the grandly lit public school auditorium around the corner, queue up dutifully for the check-in by the brusque retirees at their ancient battered classroom desks, self-importantly flipping the oversize pages of registration rolls and then, our identities safely confirmed, briskly shunting us to yet another ghastly long line for the actual vote. My eyes glaze over as I mark my SAT-style ballot for the Greens, socialists, and any other available malcontents. I cautiously slide the sheet into what resembles a cheap inkjet printer. The machine whirs and burps back my ballot; I hand it off to yet another election worker bee. The deed is done. I walk out into the chill autumn night, a faint glow of civic accomplishment mingled with nagging feelings of resentment and demoralization at the sheer preposterousness of the whole show, as though I’d just been dragooned into carrying a spear in the chorus of the local amateur grand opera. And compared to the people who wait in line for four hours only to be told that the dog ate the voting machines, I had it easy.
My ambivalence is symptomatic of an American pandemic of wariness about voting. This country has the lowest rate of voter turnout of any industrial country (barely 50 percent even for presidential elections) because nearly everyone senses that nothing important hinges on the outcome. Left, right, or center, we all sense the primal truth of Chris Rock’s observation: “What have I got to do tomorrow that I can’t do because of who’s elected president?” And how much truer for senator, congressperson, mayor, judge, etc. The two major parties both play the same corporate-funded game, and outsiders don’t stand a chance. What is remarkable, then, is not that so many Americans don’t vote but that so many of them still do, by the tens of millions, even though they rightly sense that their trip to the polling station will likely have as much influence on government policy as not walking under ladders or not stepping on the cracks in the pavement.
And herein lies the buried potential of elections for the left: people still want to believe, contrary to the promptings of reason, that their vote can make a difference, that somewhere beyond the confines of the SUV and the local Walmart, beyond the desolation of food stamps and underwater mortgages and unemployment offices, there persists a summons to collective civic duty, no matter how atrophied or corrupted—an inexplicable refusal to disbelieve all those grade-school lessons about the glories of American democracy. It is during election campaigns that Americans’ rusted antennae of political attention are most fully extended, and thus it is the most opportune time to penetrate the media-narcotized minds of working-class and poor America—the vast majority of the increasingly besieged 99 percent who know little and care less about the grandiose proclamations and posturings of this country’s microscopic left, who wouldn’t know Jill Stein from Gertrude Stein from Ben Stein. Perhaps vigorous independent election campaigns can help to open up a narrow pathway into that heart of darkness and indifference and despair, notwithstanding the obstacles of mainstream media blackouts, corporate financing of the duopoly bad guys, and suspect computerized voting systems. And for an American left that remains trapped in a cul de sac of insularity and impotence—notwithstanding the fragile fleeting spring of Occupy—any pathway at all, no matter how perilous and booby-trapped, could make a difference.
And that’s exactly what’s happening, mirabile dictu, in two large American cities, Seattle and Minneapolis, where socialists—not maybe sorta kinda half-assed speechifying Bernie Sanders-style socialists, but militant on-the-ground revolutionary socialists—have a good chance of winning city council seats.  Yes, I said revolutionary socialists right here in the belly of the beast, within hailing distance of winning an election: not the presidency, to be sure, but not the local school board either, and not in one-horse towns. Is this for real, and if so, what does it say about the prospects of the American left in general and elections as an organizing tool in particular?
These two socialist city-council candidates–Kshama Sawant of Seattle and Ty Moore of Minneapolis—are both members of the Trotskyist Socialist Alternative (SA), the U.S. section of the London-based Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which claims affiliated parties in more than fifty countries on all continents. Many of those parties, like the SA, could not fill a modest auditorium with their members, some not even a modest walk-in closet: the U.S. section claims only about 200 members.  Although it follows a variant of the Leninist formula of vanguard party building (members cannot publicly dissent from the official party line), the SA’s public posture is refreshingly unencumbered by the stale Marxoid cant and sectarian spite that afflict some other “Trot” organizations: SA has supported Nader’s last two presidential bids, endorsed Jill Stein’s 2012 Green Party campaign, and works readily in activist united fronts and independent left electoral coalitions with a broad range of activist groups on a series of important, practical, achievable demands, such as living wage; affordable housing; expanded, cheaper mass transit; and so on.
Notwithstanding the potential authoritarian hazards of SA’s Leninist modus operandi, the group’s focused, disciplined approach to activism offers a potentially fruitful and effective alternative to an American left mired in the sentimental goo of consensus up-twinkling and down-twinkling and endless self-indulgent palavering of the kind that paralyzed and sucked the energy out of Occupy. Whatever the reason, the same small group with the same demands and approach has managed to galvanize an unexpectedly enthusiastic and wide response among large numbers of voters in two major U.S. cities—numbers large enough to vault self-described revolutionaries within a stone’s throw of significant political offices there.
Both SA candidates were active in their cities’ Occupy movements; both have put their bodies on the line in civil disobedience to defend the foreclosed homeowners against bank-ordered evictions; both have made a $15-per-hour minimum wage the centerpiece of their campaigns; both have pledged to accept only as much salary as the average worker makes, donating the rest to activist causes. Sawant (http://www.votesawant.org/ ), a forty-year-old Indian-American economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, has garnered more mainstream media attention, including a front-page feature-story endorsement by The Stranger, one of Seattle’s two large alternative weekly newspapers, with a circulation of nearly 90,000. In its endorsement The Stranger wrote,
Sawant is the real deal. She kicks ass. And she could actually win in November. . . . An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, . . . Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction. She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on noneconomic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.
Sawant, who is also calling for rent control and a millionaire’s tax to raise money for social services, is benefiting from a powerful groundswell of volunteer support that has most observers judging the race too close to call despite a four-to-one spending advantage by her opponent, the Democratic incumbent Richard Conlin (no scientific polling results have been made public in the race). The liberal commentariat in Seattle has not failed to take notice. The left-liberal blogger Tom Barnard wrote, “[Sawant] didn’t just ignore the Democrats, she openly challenged them as servants of the 1%. . . . It’s nothing short of an earthquake. If nothing else, Kshama has shown a new path for independent candidates who directly advance working people’s interests and issues. It opens the way for candidates to challenge the status quo.” 
Ty Moore’s Minneapolis city council campaign (http://www.tymoore.org/ ) has not made as big a splash in the mainstream media, but he is running just as strong a race. Although no reliable polls have been published, indications that he might be the front runner have sent tremors into the state’s political establishment. He, like Sawant, has tapped into a vein of voter unrest that has brought his campaign dozens of zealous volunteers and an expected $55,000 in contributions.
Moore, 37, has been a socialist activist since high school. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in political science from Oberlin College—where he co-founded a branch of Socialist Alternative—Moore made his way to Minneapolis, where he worked as a city-transit bus driver for seven years before becoming a full-time organizer for SA. In that capacity he emerged as a major leader of the Twin Cities Occupy Homes movement. With mixed success, he and a dedicated band of activists repeatedly barred the way of sheriffs attempting to evict families from foreclosed homes.
Moore recounts what he calls the Occupy Home’s turning point, in May 2012, when they repeatedly rebuffed sheriffs seeking to evict the siblings David and Alejandra Cruz, local activists and college students living in the house with the owners, their Mexican immigrant parents. “We prevented four attempts by police to evict them. We locked arms to repel police, we took the down concrete barrels they put up to impede our interventions. A number of people got arrested. The city spent more than forty-five thousand dollars to have this family evicted on behalf of the banks. We marched through the city carrying the broken-down front door of the Cruz home, demanding no police resources for evictions. So foreclosures have become big issue. Police shouldn’t function as the bank’s private police force. There was a huge public outcry over that incident, and my and SA’s role in the defense of the Cruzes has helped us to build an activist base that has made a big difference in this campaign.” As Moore told me, “The upshot is that they lost, but following that struggle we had our biggest string of victories—many barely a fight—because the banks and city officials didn’t want to see a repeat of the Cruz fight and so agreed to renegotiate.”
In addition to relying on the activist base born of Occupy Homes, Moore’s campaign has garnered endorsements from the Green Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as a wide array of organizations not normally associated with the far left, including the Minnesota State Council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where pressure from an increasingly restive rank and file prodded the normally Democratic leadership to support an avowed socialist.
I asked Moore why he thought his openly socialist campaign was catching fire in a way that few expected. He told me, “Five years into economic crisis there is no meaningful recovery. People are fed up. There’s a rising level of anger and frustration against all mainstream institutions—big business, media, two major parties, disappointment in Obama. Particularly in cities like Minneapolis, where the Democratic Party has ruled unchallenged for decades, there’s a level of frustration that can be cut with a bold left challenge. If we weren’t running that frustration would remain untapped. The boldness and clarity of our initiative has given voice to voiceless anger.”
I asked him how his campaign was tapping into that anger. “What we’re doing is unique,” he said. “We have really tried to be really unabashedly working-class candidates, using Occupy ninety-nine percent slogans against big business in a way that others on the left like the local Green Party have been too timid to advance. An openly socialist candidate working with Occupy Homes has excited people and created a level of energy. People are really taking notice.”
And not only working people are taking notice. The popularity of Moore’s campaign has set off alarms among the nation’s financial and real-estate elites. Determined to prevent this radical left brushfire from spreading any further, the National Association of Realtors—which in the past has donated PAC money to Tea Party rightists like Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz—has spent thousands of dollars on a mailing in support of Moore’s leading opponent, the Democrat Alondra Cano.
So . . . to borrow from Buffalo Springfield: There’s something happening here . . . but what it is ain’t exactly clear: a flash in the pan or a harbinger of the fire next time? One thing is clear: People are hurting, and the pain is increasing every day: people were promised healthcare reform, and many have lousier, more expensive “insurance” than before, if any at all, and the vaunted exchanges are an unworkable sham; the “official” unemployment rate is going down only because millions are exiting the workforce (the official method of “disappearing” them from the statistics), while more and more people can’t find decent jobs to support their families and pay their rent or mortgage. The air is dense with the nausea of lies and frustration and uncertainty and suffering, and people are sick of it—enough so that radical socialists who cut through the mass-media treacle of reassurance with blunt talk and bold actions are being treated as contenders, not cranks—a circumstance that would have been unthinkable just five years ago, before the onset of the economic crisis.
But this is no ordinary time of crisis. We face not only global economic collapse but also an environmental/climate emergency so grave that some of the world’s great cities—New York, London, Paris, may not be habitable in just forty-five years, according to a recent study from the University of Hawaii. Occasional flares of hope cannot dispel the pervasive gloom of demoralization and despair in a massively depoliticized population laid low by a contracting economy, abandoned by confused and complicit liberal class, and largely oblivious to a tiny and impotent left. So where are the likely sources of resistance? Marx’s historic agent of revolution, the industrial proletariat, has been decimated in the United States by systematic deindustrialization, outsourcing, and the wholesale retrenchment of the union movement. Chris Hedges argues, therefore, that the “dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement.” 
But in the absence of traditional vehicles of mass organization, how to unite and galvanize these disparate, demoralized victims of the status quo? There is no single magic formula, but no conceivable arena of communication and resistance can be written off to self-indulgent sanctimony. Avenues of thought and action remain open—if barely open—and independent electoral action is one of them—even though, like the rest of our hard-won rights, it is under siege on multiple fronts. But until the day arrives when Congress or the president, under yet another emergency pretext, cancels elections altogether, the left cannot afford to spurn the slender opening they provide. Independently of the corporate parties, we must thrust our foot in that crack in the door and push back, as hard as we can, just as we push back on every other front: in the streets, online, at the police barricades. As Occupy showed, it is impossible to anticipate the spark that will inspire wider, bolder forms of struggle.
A long shot is infinitely preferable to no shot. And sitting on our hands on any front gives us no shot. As Ty Moore told me, “Even if we don’t win this election, we’ve already won because we’ve given hope to those who don’t think there’s a chance to push back against the system. We’ve shown that it can be done.”
The SA city council campaigns and other scattered activist initiatives have yet to cohere into a potent mass movement for change. But they are precious rations of hope—nothing more, but nothing less—in a time of gathering darkness for this country and this planet. That might not seem like much, but even if that’s all we have for now, we would do well to recall Shelley’s revolutionary credo: “To defy Power, which seems omnipotent; . . . / to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”
In times as dire as ours, with the human prospect on this planet possibly measured in mere decades, even the frailest reeds of hope—the mushrooming of Occupy, a socialist winning or almost winning a major city council election, a thousand anonymous scattered souls standing up to housing cops or an oil pipeline—might serve as tinder for the next great firestorms of resistance. We must hoard all these slivers of possibility, lest we mindlessly discard the one that might make all the difference.
In another dark time, as the night of fascism descended on Europe in the 1930s, the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote,
Nur um der Hoffnungslosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben.
It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.
William Kaufman is an educational writer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.
NOTES Russell Brand, “Russell Brand on Revolution: ‘We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition,’” New Statesman, October 24, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/