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by John Halle
Former Green Party Alderman
New Haven, CT
first published by The Progressive Review
While many of us will shy away from the conversation, a lot of us would probably acknowledge that there needs to be discussion on the effectiveness of the strategies associated with anti-corporate politics. In a recent essay, Naomi Klein came close to broaching the subject in alluding to the limitations of single issue, protest based activism, the best known form of which she calls “meeting stalking.” The ultimate result of protest politics, she suggests, is a one step forward, two step backward pas de deux where a victory on one front – shutting down a WTO meeting, closing a sweatshop, preventing the opening of a toxic waste incinerator, or preventing the extinction of a species is inevitably accompanied by losses on a whole range of issues where the corporate agenda moves forwarded unimpeded by public pressure and with the active collusion of elected officials.
The protest model marks a sharp break with a long tradition of political engagement. Radical politics has generally taken as its explicit objective not influencing actors within government, but replacing them with those who would take control of state power for the purpose of implementing a comprehensive populist, egalitarian agenda. That means, to be blunt, building a party, and competing and winning in elections.
So my intention in running as a Green for the New Haven Board of Aldermen was to contribute a brick in the wall for the development of this kind of politics. The way you insert your brick is by winning and then serving in office.
It might come as surprise that the first part of this – winning- was easy but in fact it was. I won twice, both times by landslides. Furthermore, I am far from an ideal candidate, so my victory should not be seen as any indication of my strength as a candidate but rather of the weakness of the Democratic opposition. And this raises a more general point which needs to be better understood and that is that the grassroots base of the Democratic Party is in an advanced state of decay. This is attributable, in part, to the Democrats being, as my constituent Adoph Reed trenchantly remarked in a recent forum, “useless.” But it is also attributable to two structural factors. The first is that the old model of locally based politics beautifully rendered in William Kennedy’s novel “Roscoe”, one presided over by ward heelers, precinct captains and which involved active participation on the community level has been replaced by a top down, media driven politics which primarily involves obtaining large contributions and using these to purchase air time. The second is that neo-liberal cuts in the size of government have seriously reduced the financial means by which machines purchase loyalty. For everyone who was cut into the action through a patronage position, there is now someone else who has been laId off from the typing pool, been cut from his position as a school janitor or food service worker. The combinations of all these factors make local Democratic organizations extremely vulnerable to insurgent candidacies like mine. The Gonzalez campaign in San Francisco may have woken the national party up to this but it may be too late.
That being said, machine politics in its dotage continues its old ways of doing business in places like New Haven. Primary among these is the selection of “approved” candidates by ward committees on the basis of loyalty to the machine. This is, of course, a guarantee of political mediocrity and here my own campaign provides a relevant case study. My opponent was fairly typical of what the machine can be expected to offer up: a part owner of a local bar and a site developer for Walgreens Drugs, his motivation for seeking local office was transparently to achieve “access” which he would use to advance his own business interests and those of his friends and family members. “Access,” i.e. having a seat on the board would put him in a position to intercede with the city traffic commission to remove residential parking zones and bus stops on the streets adjacent to his bar, freeing up additional parking for the bar patrons. He could lobby the zoning board to allow for variances for the expansion of his bar and for special exceptions to local noise ordinances. A seat on the board would also allow him to pursue favorable consideration for a Walgreen’s strip mall development, something which, in fact, was already in the works before the city planning board, though I didn’t know this.
More or less the same story can be told for most members of the board. Most receive indirect financial compensation for their service, sometimes through the private sector, as would have been the case had my opponent won. More often, the compensation comes in the form of patronage jobs for themselves or family members in one or another city department, or in some cases through salaried positions in non-profit service organizations which receive funding through community development block grants administered through the city. Add into this a small but influential cadre of Yale technocrats-in-training who are using their positions in local government as a stepping stone to positions in the national ranks of the Democratic Party and you have a snapshot of how one big city machine operates and sustains itself.
These quid pro quo arrangements are usually not technically illegal but they are pretty obviously corrupt and it doesn’t take a highly sophisticated voter to recognize this: all that’s required to make these into a winning political issue on a ward level is access to a Xerox machine. That, as well as a decent organization which the Green Party has built up here since economist Rick Wolfe first ran as a Green mayoral candidate in 1988 (on the platform “Tax Yale, Not Us”) was enough to get me in.
The upshot is that I won not in spite of the fact that I was a Green running against an entrenched machine, I won because I was a Green running against an entrenched Democratic machine. And it wasn’t only me; following my first win in July of 2001, in the general election in November we elected a second Green in a predominantly African American ward. A third missed winning by 15 votes. A fourth and fifth garnered 42 and 25 percent respectively. All this was sufficient to create a panic in the Democratic ranks who are, unlike most political activists and political observers, acutely aware of the tenuousness of their hold on power.
The Democrat’s response to our success should have been predictable: rather than triangulating to the right as they have become accustomed to, they were forced to triangulate to the left. This trajectory was charted by the New Haven Advocate’s Paul Bass:
Two years ago, a left-wing Yale music professor made history in New Haven. He won an election as a third-party candidate, the first such victory in generations. He and his party, the Greens, called for publicly funded elections, bike lanes, cleaner air, support for Yale unions–all positions on which Democratic City Hall was either opposed or silent. The Yale prof rode his bike on his new rounds as a city alderman. He was dubbed “Alderman Bike.” The city’s Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, drove around town in his taxpayer-paid Lincoln Navigator SUV.
Fast-forward to fall 2003. Democrat DeStefano has proposed the state’s first municipal public financing (“clean elections”) law. He led a successful fight to block the restarting of the English Station power plant–and broadened it to take on other polluters. He joined forces with Yale’s unions and took on Yale. After Alderman Bike complained, the city hired a cop to chase illegal dumpers full-time and arrest them. City Hall has retrieved and dusted off an old bikeable-city plan; the first of many promised bike lanes has appeared, in Alderman Bike’s neighborhood. And the mayor, running for re-election, aired a commercial showing him riding his bike to work and lampooning mayors who drive luxury gas-guzzlers instead.
While the focus is local, Bass’s observations can be generalized to other cities and to other levels of government. The basic lesson is that the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.
The historical precedents for this view are well known. Bismarck’s acceptance of national health insurance is generally understood to be a concession in the face of the revolutions of 1848. The success of West German labor unions in the Cold War period is understood to have resulted from the silent presence of a third negotiator at the table-the eastern bloc. The threat posed by organized leftist politics, both domestic and foreign, is what created the climate for the passage of New Deal legislation. The ideological threat posed by the artistic and cultural achievements of the Soviet Union is what led to the network of subsidies for musicians, artists and writers, documented in Francis Stonor Saunder’s Cultural Cold War.
And conversely, the waning of serious, organized oppositional politics is certain to result in the dismantling of the gains which have been achieved in period of progressive ferment – in increasing concentration of wealth, assaults on civil and human rights, inferior working conditions etc. It should not come as news to anyone that we are suffering through one of these periods now. While this is partly due to the increased organizational effectiveness of the right, it is also a consequence of the failure of a generation which is usually given credit for their political engagement, and this returns me to the discussion I alluded to at the outset.
The drugs and sex of the of the sixties were undoubtedly, I would imagine, a lot of fun, and some of the music, while overrated, is actually pretty good. And on a more serious note, the new left’s critique of the patriarchical authoritarianism of the old left was more than a little overdue. At the same time, much of what passed for “liberation” in the sixties needs now to be seen as a hollowing out of the organized core of oppositional politics – one which had, to be fair, already been devastated by the McCarthy era. It was this vacuum which allowed for the DLC takeover of the Democratic Party and to the subsequent imposition of neo-liberalist austerity presided over by Republican and Democrat administrations.
The single issue protest model which we are saddled with should be seen as the legacy of counter-cultural politics, one which, in its most extreme, adolescent form takes for granted that that elites (read adults) should take responsibility for the provision of goods and services, public safety and the distribution of wealth and privilege. Our role is relegated to spectators standing on the outside protesting capital’s worst excesses and dreaming up visionary schemes for an unachievable future utopia.
In getting my hands dirty in New Haven politics, I wanted to issue a challenge, not, as is generally assumed, to the Democratic Party, but to other progressives, by showing that effective radical politics is necessarily oriented not towards protesting state power but towards participation within it. This means competing for office and serving at whatever level possible. I certainly didn’t expect that my example would, in isolation, make much of a difference outside of New Haven. I recognize that the chances of a broader reorientation of left priorities materializing is slim in the immediate or even mid term future. And while there have been a few encouraging signs in the years since, the most notable being the Gonzalez campaign in San Francisco, it does not appear that my serving functioned as a brick in the wall, as I had hoped. It was this recognition which led me not to run for re-election in November.
The response to the current presidential campaign is consistent with skepticism along these lines. The climate of hysteria among leftists at the Bush administration is understandable. But it is also dangerous and demobilizing in that it reinforces precisely those tendencies which we need to combat in the anti-corporate movement. Building an alternative politics outside of the control of the two corporate parties requires a sustained commitment. And while the corporate parties would like nothing better, it cannot be abandoned every time the greater evil assumes office. A pragmatic and effective left recognizes that it needs to keep its eye on two objectives – rolling back the worst excesses of the right while building a foundation for a long-term insurgency. That it is failing to do so is consistent with a left still mired in a prolonged adolescence. Having said all that, I have no regrets about having served. I would recommend it to anyone.