Type III: Inside Game
Inside game resistance requires using the established system of elections, the legal system and the current bureaucracy. We can advance the inside game by ousting vulnerable Republicans and by running and supporting Democratic candidates who put pressure on the Democratic Party to represent the aims of the movement rather than those of the establishment.
Game-changing protest can generate enough active popular support to change the political weather. Outside game resistance can stop seemingly unstoppable opponents in their tracks. But we have to do more.
We need to put new people in power, and we need to pressure purported allies to step up. Our current system has been corrupted by corporate lobbyists, Wall Street money and a billionaire class that employs politicians to divide us through racial fear-mongering.
But we can change that by running candidates who share social movement values. Even winning a few races can put establishment politicians on notice and change the dynamics of current politics.
What’s so corrupt about the Democratic Party?
The Democratic Party is flooded with Wall Street and billionaire money. Democratic candidates court wealthy donors in order to fund their campaigns, and those donors don’t disappear after Election Day. They exert disproportionate influence on elected officials, making it harder for popular movements—movements made up of ordinary people—to have a voice.
Wall Street and the billionaire class dominate the Republican and Democratic parties alike. Often, the same wealthy donors contribute to both parties—even to opposing candidates in the same election. Once they are elected, politicians reward their donors with policies and regulations that favor their industries.
This system often puts Democratic politicians at odds with their constituents. They try to gain support from the working and middle classes, from immigrants and people of color with promises to raise minimum wages and worker protections, dismantle institutional racism, pass immigration reform, improve health care, and protect the environment. But their debts to their financial backers often leave them following the path of least resistance. They might make symbolic progressive gestures to win votes, but avoid significant action that could get in the way of collecting campaign funds.
Racism has left Democrats off balance
Since the late 1960s, the Republican Party has appealed to White voters’ racial resentment in an effort to peel them away from the Democratic Party. This is often called the “Southern strategy.” The Democratic Party has never managed to unify around a powerful response.
The Southern strategy was developed in response to the Civil Rights Movement. As the movement won concessions for people of color from federal government programs, Republicans developed coded racial messages—what has been called dog whistle politics—that played on fears of rising crime and resentment about welfare. When Southern politicians claimed to advocate for “states’ rights,” for example, they were really advocating against federal civil rights protections that overstepped a state’s right to enforce Jim Crow.
After many decades of Republican exploitation of racial resentment, Donald Trump’s declarations concerning immigration, Islam and inner-city “American carnage” transformed the dog whistle into a full-on bullhorn.
One of the worst triangulations undertaken by the Democratic establishment in the 1990s was its attempt to neutralize the Southern strategy by adopting similar messages, leading to short-term gains but leaving the Democrats in a strategic quagmire. The Democratic-led, bipartisan welfare reform and crime laws of the 1990s accepted the racist framing that Republicans had developed over the previous decades. Ultimately, they offered no alternative to the strategy that continued encouraging working-class whites to align with conservative billionaires and blame people of color for their misfortunes. As President Harry S. Truman put it as far back as 1952, “If it's a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time.” The reactionary agenda made possible by dog-whistle politics continues to impede multiracial solidarity and devalue communities of color today.
Corruption is at the heart of Democratic losses
When both establishment Democrats and Republicans play this game, it’s no wonder that voters doubt the ability of government to take their side against economic elites. A crisis of legitimacy has ensued, as the vast majority of voters come to find that neither party truly represents their interests against the powerful. Watching a Democratic establishment cater to the billionaire class, people become disillusioned and stop participating.
The failure of the Democratic Party to push back against the billionaire class gave Trump a path to victory. Throughout the eight years of the Obama presidency, wealth continued to concentrate in the hands of the one percent. Obama’s accomplishments did not affect the balance of power in a society that had seen rising inequality for decades. Voters understood that the Democratic Party would not seriously challenge the status quo, and despite Obama’s personal popularity, Democrats lost more than 1,000 state and federal seats during the eight years he served as president.
By the time Hillary Clinton ran for president, she was seen as the representative of a failed establishment. This allowed Trump to run against that establishment. Many of his supporters felt they were casting their votes less for Trump than against the status quo.
Now, Trump has ditched the populist fig leaf he campaigned with. Working with the congressional GOP on dismantling health care protections to promote tax cuts and stacking his cabinet with representatives of the finance industry, he has promoted the interests of the billionaire class with naked determination.
Even as his administration is rocked by allegations of corruption and abuses of power, the Democratic Party has failed to make the case that, if it regains control of government, it won’t once more sell out its base of voters, appease its donor class, and put us right back where we started.
A fighting movement party will win elections
A Democratic Party that either ignores the people or responds only to fierce protest is bad for social movements. Getting the brush-off from politicians is demobilizing. It can prevent passive support from turning into active support. Even passionate supporters feel that their time has been wasted when elected officials don’t respond to them. Without evidence that elected officials will be responsive, even a movement with millions of participants will have a hard time translating its numbers into real power and change. Discouraged by lack of action from their own party, activists and voters will once again stay home.
But our movements will win when we elect officials who will passionately advocate for our issues. At the federal level, it will be slow going so long as Democrats remain in the minority—not even the most progressive Democratic Party will secure many real victories under Trump and the GOP. But a reinvigorated party will slow down the worst abuses of conservatives. And there’s plenty of room for gains at the state and local level. Look at how Tea Party-affiliated movements transformed Wisconsin and North Carolina during the Obama years, gutting labor protections and stacking the deck for permanent Republican power. They did this by eschewing compromise in favor of inside game tactics as part of a movement strategy.
The only way back to power—the only way to defend the hard-earned protections we’ve gained for civil rights the and environment, and the only way to win new gains for working people—is to build a Democratic Party that is not held captive by billionaire donors and that stands strongly against racism. And the only way to build such a party is to pour the same energy we have for marches, rallies and calling elected officials into holding house parties for movement candidates, knocking on doors and getting out the vote on election day. That’s the way to build a party that legitimately represents the people and our social movements.
What is a movement candidate?
A movement candidate is more than a “liberal” or “progressive” Democrat. A movement candidate is a candidate at any level of government who is not beholden to Wall Street funders and who recognizes the critical role of social movements in pushing for solutions. These candidates can energize people and give them hope for change—not only by saying the right things, but by demonstrating that they are not compromised by debts to the billionaire class. Establishment candidates, on the other hand, funded by many of the same Wall Street interests that control the Trump administration, might object to Trump’s policies here and there but cannot convincingly stand against the interests that back him.
The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders (see sidebar) relied on small donations and engaged with social movements across the spectrum, from Black Lives Matter to the little-known Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Sanders emerged as a movement politician years ago as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
Movement candidates can make huge strides even at the local level, restoring faith in the ability of government to defend rights and improve lives. At the national level, movement candidates are essential in facing down the ruling GOP’s destructive agenda. Even when movement candidates lose, their campaigns can pull the party in a better direction. Recall that many Tea Party candidates who attracted derision when they lost in general elections nonetheless succeeded, by winning the primary, in shifting the center of gravity in the GOP to the right.
Running movement candidates is vital to taking back power through the state. If establishment candidates are the only option, voters may still reject the more extreme manifestations of the GOP agenda. But that's simply not enough. We need to build a movement strong enough to change the Democratic Party while also returning it to power. Once it is back in power, we need the movement to demand that government work as a force for good. For that to happen, we need the kind of active and sustained popular support that will both draw movement candidates to run for office and carry them to victory.
Imagine if the energy, numbers and uncompromising attitude that filled the streets and pressured our representatives was turned on electoral politics? In the 2018 election cycle, it would bring the broad sense of urgency produced by the presidential election to a traditionally low-turnout primary and midterm election. Up and down the ticket, corporate Democrats would face challenges from movement candidates, shifting the center of gravity in the Democratic Party. And those movement candidates would have the support they need when the establishment turns full force against them. The House of Representatives—historically known as “the people’s house”—would be returned to the people.
HOW TO ACT
To do this, we all need to get involved in electoral campaigns, and especially get out the vote operations. At minimum, show up to make phone calls or knock on doors the last week before election day. If inside game activity becomes your area of focus, you can join movement-focused candidate campaigns or electioneering organizations (see sidebar) more than a year in advance of the election. Throw a house party or a grassroots fundraiser. Become a block captain.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
- How can we identify movement candidates? Look for endorsements from social movement organizations that focus both on resisting Trump and transforming the Democratic Party at the same time. Locally, look for candidates who partner with the labor movement, housing rights champions, immigration advocates, racial justice organizations and groups fighting for issues affecting your community. Back candidates who don’t take corporate money and who ally themselves with other movement candidates, and recruit from your own organizations.
- How can we have a chance at winning? Get involved in elections early, in the primaries, when a small group of activists can shift the balance of power in the party. By the time the general election campaign begins, it’s much harder to make a difference within the Democratic Party.
- How will we know if we’re winning? A successful inside game strategy will allow politicians who work with social movements to advance our agenda. It will also pressure establishment Democrats to change their votes because they fear a challenge from a movement candidate. As this happens, we’ll see the center of gravity shift in the party, as it did when Hillary Clinton moved towards progressive positions in the 2016 Democratic primary. We’re already seeing this progress on minimum wages, single-payer health care and tuition-free college. We may also see heightened tension as our progress loosens the political stranglehold of Wall Street and the billionaire class.
Remember that the media will downplay your importance and mock your efforts. Resist! Value your impact, claim victories, and educate others about your strategy.
Game change, inside game and outside game: we need it all
Working together, these three strategies create cascading virtuous circles, each making the next more powerful. Game changing actions can inspire hundreds of thousands of people to become active popular supporters of movements. Outside game tactics put those people in direct confrontation with the powers that be, polarizing issues and forcing cowardly elected officials to take stands. Matching that energy with a strong inside game will lead to wave elections and social movement politicians taking power.
And—critically—if the movement can sustain active popular support once its candidates are elected, they can stand up to Wall Street and the billionaire class and create truly transformative change.
Many organizations and activists find themselves drawn to one type of resistance more than another. Our movement is stronger when we work from complementary strengths. What weakens us is privileging one of these strategies over another. We all know people who believe that street protest is irrelevant compared to electoral politics, while others claim that electoral politics is a distraction from real issues or that there are no good politicians.
These are dead-end debates. Social movements need to master every one of these three strategies if they are to win power and create change.
As a minimum commitment, everyone should make some contribution to all three types of action, even those who are drawn primarily to one or the other. Our recommended minimum commitment looks like this:
- Once a month, show up to either a trigger event protest with game change potential or a small, group-led action.
- Once a week, put pressure on decision makers with phone calls or at town halls.
- Vote for and do get out the vote work for movement candidates in local, state and federal elections.
An energetic social movement based in any one of these three strategies can win individual victories. But a movement using all three together can be downright revolutionary.