Warren, 2020, and the Road to Structural Change
Recently, Organizing Upgrade’s Rishi Awatramani sat down with Maurice (Moe) Mitchell, the National Director of the Working Families Party (WFP), to talk about their recent endorsement of Elizabeth Warren, what the WFP will being doing between now and election day, and the path toward structural change. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Rishi: We’re several weeks out from the Working Families Party (WFP) endorsement of Elizabeth Warren. There was a good deal of discussion around the endorsement process, but I’d like to talk about the politics of the endorsement and the road to 2020 and beyond. What work will the Working Families Party be doing to get Elizabeth Warren elected? What are the practical implications of the endorsement for the WFP?
Maurice: Our organizing work adds something complementary to the Warren campaign’s operation. Most presidential campaigns are focused on “early states,” so we’re putting our grassroots members and volunteers to work in states we think will be important once the race gains momentum. Nobody thinks this race is gonna be over after Super Tuesday. So, states like Wisconsin and New York will be key.
Our early organizing is also going to build a base that’s connected to the local realities in those places. We have committed volunteers around the country that do local organizing work and use peer-to-peer text and other technology that allows them to have meaningful conversations with voters. So, those are just two things, between now and whenever ultimately we have a nominee.
We see our job in the presidential election as lifting up the central role that multiracial working class folks and their particular issues will play in the election. So, we’re leaning into an intersectional set of issues and we are committed to advancing a broad left agenda for structural change. Absent our involvement in 2020, it might not be not highlighted in the same way.
So, we’re looking forward to collaborating with the Warren campaign. It’s going to be a partnership. And, as a result, we’re going to be struggling with them around some of these key questions.
Rishi: Will you talk a bit about your personal organizing and social movement background? How does it inform your assessment of this political moment and the tasks facing organizers and the left today?
Maurice: One lesson I’ve learned again and again is that you can’t cut corners when it comes to organizing. Any shortcuts prove insufficient for the task of building durable power. The ability to mobilize is critical, but you can’t replace your organizing capacity with mobilizing.
I’ve also learned that, if we are going to build a base that will be durable, of people who are progressively maturing in their politics and in their acumen and decision-making, then internal democracy is vital. There is no way that a movement could last and grow without internal democracy that is constantly improving.
Deepening internal democracy also means meaningful leadership development so that as people participate in movement, they are growing in their skills and their ability to organize. It also means political education, so that people actually have a sharp ideological framework so they understand the value of the work they’re doing and have a North Star about where we’re going.
Whenever we skimp on any of those pieces, there are costs. Simply achieving scale can sometimes look like we’re building a long-term movement. But if we haven’t done those other pieces, then oftentimes we have an explosive movement moment that eventually busts and doesn’t lead to sustained change. In that boom-bust cycle, we often lack the capacity to benefit from the opening our movement has created, and we create an opportunity for capital to step in. So, our movements sometimes pose questions that they aren’t set up to answer. We can’t answer those questions unless we build the capacity needed to sustain it.
One of the reasons why I decided to get involved with the Working Families Party is to figure out how a successful mass movement can govern.
If we’re able to reclaim the governance capacities of the state and align those actors from our movements that are already in positions to govern, then movements could pose the question [of left governance], answer that question by demonstrating the capacity and readiness of movements to govern, and be able to block capital’s attempt at answering those questions for us.
The best example I can give from my own experience is that, in the Movement for Black Lives, when questions around state violence against Black people reached a fever pitch between 2014 and 2016, the solution that was provided by organized capital and the neoliberal forces in government was body cameras. That wasn’t satisfying and wasn’t a meaningful solution to the movements that posed the question of ending state violence. But the movements that posed those questions didn’t have access to the capacities to actually fill that gap.
Rishi: What are the ‘questions’ that we should be posing for capital and the state in this period?
Maurice: My assessment is that Trump’s ascendancy in the 2016 election created an opening for left movements because the Democratic Party establishment and the neoliberal forces that had led it were in disarray. They were out of strategic direction and looking for answers. That creates an opening for folks who have strategy and momentum. But I think that that opening will close the minute those neoliberal Democrats get momentum back. In the event that Democrats regain both houses of Congress and the Presidency, but left labor, grassroots organizations, and social movements have not aligned behind a top line vision, then we’ll miss this opportunity. This window will close and Democrats and neoliberals will regain power without us making a strategic intervention.
I think this is an interesting moment where a lot of everyday people are in the conversation about the contradictions of capital that are so present and clear. There is a popular conversation around the fact that capitalism doesn’t work and there are particular families at the top that we can point to. We can point to Betsy DeVos and her family. We can point to the Sackler family and the opioid crisis. We can point to the elite mediocrity that is exposed through the scandal with Ivy League schools.
All of this creates a populist moment where everyday people recognize that fundamentally the system is rigged. So, there is an interesting convergence of everyday people, leftists, and even some folks who are traditional free-market people, all questioning neoliberal capitalism. This opening will not last forever, but it is an opening for us to organize. Not simply to throw up polemics or to theorize. We actually have to organize in order to drive a wedge and to advance our politics. It’s a moment of opportunity for us to actually reclaim governance and transform how we utilize the state in order to advance our agenda.
There is a real crisis of capitalism that’s happening, and it’s being talked about in the public square. This is “go time” for us to provide meaningful answers for everyday people. One of the reasons why the economic nationalism of Donald Trump has been so popular – on top of its driving force, which is white supremacy – is that they are attempting to, in a very warped way, call into question the excesses of neoliberal capitalism and identify who the enemies are. Of course, their enemy is the racialized other. We have an opportunity to tell the actual story of what’s happening and who is to blame.
Rishi: Let’s talk about Sanders and Warren in terms of the alternatives that are available in the moment. What do you and WFP think the main differences are between Sanders and Warren. Why in the end does WFP view Warren the better candidate, given the opportunities to call into question the transformation of capitalism?
Maurice: One of the reasons we felt enthusiastic about engaging in this process was that there are clearly two structural change candidates in the race. We think having both of them in the race and flanking each other in the way they’ve done on the debate stage makes it even more likely that our structural change ideas make it through into governance.
We don’t see the differences between the two candidates as the fundamental question that’s in front of us. We’re focused on the role of movements in pushing past the election towards governance in 2021 and actually delivering on a structural change agenda.
We knew there was a lot of momentum in our base for both Sanders and Warren and that we would endorse one of them in the end. We knew that folks who supported Warren overwhelmingly supported Sanders and folks who supported Sanders overwhelmingly supported Warren. So, what our base was saying was: we’re excited about both of these structural change candidates and we’re excited about the agenda.
There are clearly differences between them, but those differences pale in relationship to differences with Biden, for example. Biden is currently the front-runner in many polls. We can only get to a 2021 scenario that involves a president pushing for structural change by defeating the so-called Third Way’s corporate agenda, and following that, defeating Trump. We wanted to engage in a process that allows our coalition, base, and grassroots leaders to come out of the struggle in a way that leaves our party strengthened and united around a shared agenda that we can advance through a candidate.
Warren has a unique ability to articulate and demystify how our economy and democracy got rigged over decades, who did the rigging, and how we can unrig it in a way that is broadly appealing and can move large majorities. Ultimately, we need to win majorities to make sure we win a General Election.
In fact, the WFP was one of the first institutions to try to recruit Warren to run for President many years ago in 2015 before Bernie ran. The WFP wanted to recruit her because of her consistent record against capital, winning concessions like the CFPB, for example, in an environment where the leadership of the Democratic Party was not enthusiastic and blocked her every step of the way. She actually delivered on that. And when there were efforts to make sure she didn’t see it through into implementation, she was able to buck all of the attempts to prevent her from implementing and she did. That was before Bernie ran, and a lot of her intellectual work paved the foundation for Occupy.
So, many folks in the Party have had a long, ongoing relationship with Warren as a pretty consistent intellectual and then elected official focusing like a laser on these questions of challenging capital and how that relates to everyday people’s lives. Those are some of the reasons folks have been enthusiastic about her: her track record, her consistency, and her ability to operationalize it.
Rishi: Earlier, you said there’s an opportunity for us to push a particular kind of politics in this period, specifically that there’s an opening to transform capitalism. What’s the specific political intervention you think the left should be trying to make? Is it to build socialism, constrain capitalism, enlarge the state’s role in guaranteeing social welfare, increase popular control, or something else entirely?
Maurice: If we are to seriously achieve socialism, there needs to be some transitional step between where we are in neoliberal capitalism and socialism.
First of all, both of the structural change candidates are talking about a social democracy. Is that possible? Can we achieve a social democracy in the US that could set us up for socialism?
If so, what is most essential on that road is workers’ democracy, which will be based on our ability to reverse diminishing ability to organize workers into unions and that might be very different from the unions that we understand today. The state could play a crucial role in supporting and accelerating that.
Second, there’s the basic rules of our democracy, which over 40 years have been highly compromised and tilted so far toward the fever dreams of the anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers, there needs to be aggressive repair to fix the harm that’s been done and to make possible a functioning popular democracy and economy.
Those are just steps, but important ones, towards achieving the type of true radical democracy and the radical economy many of us have been dreaming about. I think of the next 5-10 years as being about that aggressive work to undo a 40-year, one-sided class war perpetrated by right-wing revolutionaries that had almost endless resources and capacities to advance their very niche ideological agenda. If we’re successful, we can use that as a springboard for a radical democratizing of the economy and the relationship between the state and the individual, toward a kind of socialism. There are many kinds of socialism, but that would be one kind of socialism if we’re able to achieve that.
Rishi: What advice do you have for other groups that have yet to make an endorsement?
Maurice: There are a lot of lessons, and not just from our endorsement. The National Union of Healthcare Workers made a dual endorsement. In contrast to WFP, they had internal rules that made provision for a rank-and-file vote that showed overwhelming support for Warren, and then a final decision by the executive board to issue a dual endorsement.
I fully respect their internal democracy and their rules. As long as their base and the constituent parts of their union understand and accept the rules and accept the outcome, that’s all we could ask of any organization, any union, any party. I think it’s up to all of us to respect those organizations and their processes. Respect could mean critique, but ultimately respect the fact that their base ultimately needs to decide if that’s a form of internal democracy that works for them.
Our assessment was that it was critical for people to get involved. Because it’s clear that white supremacists and far-right capital have their candidate. And it’s also clear that the neoliberal forces, many of which are aligned in the Democratic Party (and also in the Republican Party), have their preferred candidates.
It’s critical that folks on the left aren’t simply observing how this race shakes out, but are participating. Our participation determines whether or not a candidate we choose wins.
So, if we’re nervous about a Biden candidacy, for example, we have a responsibility to get involved, and to get involved early. It’s a form of political cowardice not to get involved because you’ll be critiqued or create tension with organizations that endorse other candidates. The reason to get involved is to prevent neo-fascism.
If you have a base that you are accountable to, then create a process where you struggle around these fundamental questions: Should we endorse? Should we have a dual or sole endorsement? When should we endorse? How should we endorse? What should the process look like?
These are the questions we’ve engaged with our base since last year. We’ve discussed the relative value of an endorsement, the relative value of an endorsement sooner rather than later, the relative value of endorsing multiple candidates versus one candidate.
The later you come in, the less impact your organization has on an election that is historically critical to our movements. It’s a very clear choice: Are we moving towards a social democracy in this country? Are we doubling down or going backwards towards the neoliberal left alignment of the Obama years? Or are we doubling down to fight neofascism? It’s so stark.
Our presence in the field is not singularly determinative. We shouldn’t overstate our impact. But it’s a critical factor in a very dynamic field. And so, to remain off the field because of your concerns around scrutiny is to me an untenable position.
Rishi: Some see in the Warren endorsement an erratic endorsement history, tending towards support for Democrats that are more acceptable to the party’s mainstream, including Crowley, and now Warren. How do you respond?
Maurice: I understand how people could take those data points and make that narrative out of it, but again, each one of those endorsements had a whole set of factors and a whole set of conditions that aren’t generalizable to our entire recent history.
Having become National Director after much of that history, a lot of the work I’ve done has been specifically about democratizing the Working Families Party and making the party a hybrid mass-coalition party. I wanted to create an environment where it wouldn’t appear to those on the outside of the party that a set of actors who look very institutional could subvert the will of a set of actors who many people view as the party’s grassroots. We’ve done a lot of work so that members who are building organizations have an equal stake within the party as individual members who we connect with primarily online.
When we endorsed Bernie last cycle, individual members accounted for just a fraction of the vote. We dramatically shifted that, so 50 percent of our vote are folks who are a mix of paid members, and those that recently joined from our email list by clicking a button online that they aligned with the values of the party. And we value those people. Those are fully legitimate members whose input we value.
We’re trying to create a hybrid party that matches the nature of left movements currently, where there’s people who do a lot of their activism and organizing online, people committed to building organization, people coming in through social movements, and individuals unorganized by any other means who also need a political home.
This vote reflects that new alignment. So, when people talk about “the Working Families Party,” I think they might be assuming there is a set of people who have always been the party through all of those decisions who are making these various endorsements. The party is evolving and the party that makes this decision is thousands and thousands of people both in the grassroots members that build organizations, and thousands and thousands of people in the online vote side, coming together to build one party.
Rishi: Is there something inherently about Working Families given its ties to traditional labor organizations that will necessarily pull it back to more cautious political positions? If so, how can WFP balance working with organized labor while trying to be visionary in its politics?
Maurice: This is a great question that I’m faced with every single day. Everything I just talked about — that structure — is in the service of dealing with just that. From organizing mass movements like the Movement for Black Lives, and doing local base-building work for years – knocking on thousands of doors working on local issue campaigns – and from my perch here at WFP, there is wisdom in people’s organizations that are building long-term power and wrestle with the contradictions of attempting to build left grassroots organizations.
There is also wisdom in individuals in movements, especially people who are newly politicized because they are not boxed in by the limitations of existing organizations or, frankly, they are so early in their development that they are not cynical about the possibilities of radical change.
Both of those wisdoms are essential in moving the left towards actually building socialism.
So, what we’re attempting to do with the WFP is to create a hybrid coalition-mass party. It’s true that organizations are small-c conservative because if you’re an organization, some of your resources are spent just conserving your livelihood as an organization. And that presents all types of contradictions when you’re trying to challenge status quo power.
At the same time, the long-term infrastructure to actually build a movement that runs well, that includes hundreds of thousands of people, that actually provides meaningful leadership development and political education — the wisdom of those same organizations is crucial for that.
Mass movements are designed in order to make sure that we choose the tactics that will truly be disruptive. Because there’s always a reason to not be disruptive, especially when you’re solely institutional.
Because we recognize there’s value in both, we want to retain both in our party. Every party is a tent. We think that the Democratic Party tent is really big because it includes people who identify as socialists, as well as folks representing organized capital. We want to build a tent that includes a number of forces including people that I don’t agree with 100 percent. There should be a lot of space for ideological struggle within the party. And that means folks win some and lose some. Sometimes folks might win some on the side that I personally identify with, and sometimes folks may lose some on the side that I personally identify with.
But if the party is robust and the internal democracy is genuine, you get up the next day and you organize for your position. So, the forces that are disappointed with any endorsement – and we endorsed thousands of people – I would invite them to organize their forces within the party because this is a space where your organizing actually will matter, in a much more meaningful way than in the Democratic Party. With all our contradictions (and we have many), organized capital is not one of the driving tendencies within our party, unlike the Democrats. And so, there is a contradiction movement groups will have to confront if folks who are disappointed with the decision and then decide to cancel us or not engage with us, and then turn around and decide to engage with the Democratic Party’s process, there’s a contradiction there. Especially when we’re opening the doors and providing all the opportunities for input for folks to struggle with us. And if we are an authentic party and we make more than 1,000 endorsements, it’s likely that everybody will not be satisfied.
Rishi: How should groups that fall on different sides of the Warren-Sanders divide work together moving forward? Can they? How will WFP relate to the Sanders campaign moving forward?
Maurice: It’s really important that independent forces on the left that are organizing under Warren or under Sanders seek to make sure that the left is unified. It’s critically important that we defeat the forces of triangulation and Third Way Democrats and neoliberal capital as they’re being manifested in the Biden campaign and elsewhere. If we’re to be successful, then there needs to be some left unity.
We should follow the non-aggression pact that Warren and Sanders have with one another. There are millions of people who have not been organized by either one of these campaigns, and our focus like a laser should be on those people and not each other. Essence magazine published a poll of Black women and the largest number, when they were asked who is your top candidate, were like, “We don’t know, we’re still figuring it out.” Those are the people who we should be engaging with. The role of the left has to be to organize working people. It’s our job to organize that 26 percent of Black women are still trying to figure it out, the millions of people that still haven’t been organized by Warren or Sanders.
The bottom line is that every four years people go crazy around presidential campaigns. But the day after the election, none of these campaigns will exist. Only our movements will.
We need one another in any scenario. If a neoliberal candidate wins, we need a strong left. If Warren or Sanders win, we need a strong left. If the forces of neofascism win we need a strong left. We need a left that is stronger and more unified than it is now.
I’ve been committed to our movements for decades. The thing that’s always held my commitment has not been candidates or candidate campaigns. I look at elections as opportunities for movement-building. I think it would be a shame if we’re a weakened left in November 2020, if folks on the left who have close if not the same politics do damage to their ability to collaborate because of the endorsements or this Presidential process. Because the world needs us to be a strong left in November 2020.
[Maurice Mitchell is a nationally-recognized social movement strategist and organizer for racial, social, and economic justice. Raised by Caribbean working-class parents in NY, Maurice began organizing as a teenager. After graduating from Howard University, he went on to work as an organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, downstate organizing director for Citizen Action of NY, and Director of the NY State Civic Engagement Table. After Mike Brown was killed by police in Missouri, Maurice relocated to Ferguson to support work on the ground. Seeing the need for an anchor organization to provide strategic support and guidance to Movement for Black Lives activists, Maurice co-founded and managed Blackbird. In 2015, he helped organize the Movement for Black Lives convention in Cleveland. In 2018, Maurice took the helm of Working Families Party as National Director where he is applying his passion and experience to make the WFP the political home for a multi-racial working class movement.]