Having worked on Eugene McCarthy's campaign in 1968, George McGovern's
in 1972, and several congressional races (including one for a
third-party candidate), I am aware of the old and continuing
debate on the relationship between social change and the
Some argue that we should work within the Democratic Party to
move it leftward; that we should support electable moderate candidates
who will reward our campaign efforts in their behalf by giving
a hearing to our views; that we should back progressive candidates
who will, at least, stimulate public discussion of the issues
we want to have raised.
Others contend that our electoral efforts ought to be confined
to radical or third-party slates; that we should ignore national
campaigns and work only for local candidates and referenda; that
we should limit our participation to the casting of ballots on
election day, or that we shouldn't even bother doing that.
Before we can decide the extent of our involvement, we should
determine what kind of difference electoral politics will make
in helping us reach our political goals. And to answer that question,
we must first ask how significant change is brought about in our
In a society like ours, which concentrates political power and
policy-making in large, deeply entrenched institutions, change
has historically come in response to pressure from movements that
began outside the mainstream and were initially dubbed "radical."
This is how progress was achieved in civil rights, women's suffrage,
workers' rights, and arms control.
Such movements rarely achieve their demands without long years
of struggle. They win no easy victories. Instead, they engage
in a drawn-out process with the elements of demands, education,
and negotiation. As this process goes forward, viewpoints shift
in the general population, positions previously dismissed as radical
become more acceptable, the character of the power base is transformed,
and institutions are compelled to accept change.
At some point, the outsiders pressing for change must decide
whether their cause is best served by remaining outside the system
or by trying to work within mainstream institutions.
My own experience suggests that progressive activists often overestimate
the gains they can achieve by devoting their scarce resources
to electoral politics. As soon as they are asked to help a candidate
who happens to have taken an enlightened stand on a few issues,
they drop their other political work and rush into the electoral
arena forgetting that it was usually their own pressure
from the outside that induced the candidate to take the enlightened
stand in the first place.
Political office-holders in this country, whether Democrats or
Republicans, do not take the lead in promoting change; rather,
they reflect the wishes of movements that make it safe for them
to favor change. If the activists who play a crucial role in building
and sustaining such movements allow themselves to be sidetracked
by electoral campaigns, they leave open the possibility that the
power base will shift in another direction.
It was the failure to recognize these dynamics of social change
that led many progressives to support Lyndon B. Johnson as a "peace
candidate" in 1964. Fearing that Johnson's Republican opponent,
Barry Goldwater, intended to start a war, the Left gave its full
support to the Democratic nominee, creating a temporary consensus
that allowed Johnson to do exactly what Goldwater was suspected
In the late 1960s, the demands and direct-action tactics of the
antiwar movement contributed significantly to the growing willingness
of some liberal politicians to challenge U.S. intervention in
Southeast Asia. But when these politicians began recruiting peace
activists to work in their electoral campaigns, they siphoned
off energy that could have helped increase the pressure generated
by the antiwar movement.
I've concluded that campaigns like Eugene McCarthy's, which attracted
many young antiwar activists like myself, actually made it possible
for Richard Nixon to prolong the war. George McGovern's campaign
skimmed off even more of the vitality of the grassroots antiwar
movement; when Nixon balked at signing a peace treaty, many of
us were too busy doing precinct work to organize the mass actions
that could have made a difference.
As many in the peace movement prepare to strike up another love
affair with the Democratic Party, they might recall that Jimmy
Carter faced relatively little dissent from the Left and, as a
result, gave us the rapid deployment force, the neutron bomb,
and draft registration. Later, the Democrats in Congress saddled
us with aid to the right-wing Nicaraguan contras and backed down
on an important resolution urging a nuclear testing moratorium.
It seems that progressives, in their eagerness to dismantle Republican
conservativism, are often ready to repeat the electoral mistakes
of the 1960s. They ignore the fact that liberal Democrats have
displayed at least as great a propensity for leading us into war
as have Republicans.
Involvement in local or congressional campaigns can present problems
that parallel those of national elections. In one 1984 example,
peace activists in the San Diego area rallied to the campaign
of a liberal Democrat who was challenging Republican Representative
Bill Lowery. Because the candidate favored a nuclear freeze, his
supporters overlooked his questionable position on U.S. intervention
in Central America. A major controversy arose among his supporters
when it came out that he favored draft registration. In the end,
valuable time and money were lost in this campaign time
and money that could have been used instead to build the local
I don't mean to argue that the electoral process is a total waste
in every situation. I would not rule out certain levels of electoral
activity as effective ways of bringing about change. There is
usefulness in citizen-initiated referenda, for example, and some
local elections extend the promise of governmental responsiveness.
And I do believe in casting ballots for national office.
However, until we have managed to affect the viewpoint of the
general population at a much deeper level than we have so far,
it would be a mistake to put too much of our confidence -- and
too many of our scarce resources into the electoral process.
There is no lack of people willing to run for political office
or work for candidates. There are far fewer who are willing to
do the agitating and organizing and movement-building that is
required to institute meaningful change.
As another election approaches, I hope those who are seriously
committed to the cause of peace and social justice will manage
to resist the temptation to surrender, even temporarily, their
essential role as agents of change.
This commentary originally appeared in slightly different
form in 1987 in Draft NOtices and was published in The
Progressive and excerpted in Utne Reader.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org)