Following Hillary Clinton’s long-heralded announcement Sunday that she’ll be “Getting Started” on a 2016 run, American progressives are facing a tough choice about who, if anyone, to support in the next presidential fracas. Thankfully, there are more choices available to today’s movements than might seem obvious. With relatively little federal electoral promise in our own backyards, those interested in contesting for power and an unapologetically left-leaning agenda can start looking abroad.
Certainly, a mass populist party along the lines of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain — each of which has already or is poised to take over their country’s top office — is not on track to appear here, in the United States, before 2016. That said, Americans grasping for a third way can learn important lessons from the recent successes of Syriza and Podemos — lessons that point to more than a totally marginal Green Party candidate or centrist Democrats that say but rarely do the right things. No, Syriza and Podemos show that it’s possible to mount a real, fighting challenge to the political establishment.
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of “first past the post” voting, whereby any candidate securing anything over 50 percent of the electorate wins it all, outside challengers face a tougher uphill battle to state power than their counterparts in the many countries worldwide with proportional representation. Syriza and Podemos, though, also dealt with entrenched political malaise. Most importantly, the popularity of each grew from the movements of 2011 — the Indignados in Spain and the broad-based, youth-drive antifascist and anti-austerity movements in Greece. Obviously, an American Syriza or Podemos would look quite a bit different than its Mediterranean inspiration. But, as Dan Cantor and Ted Fertik of the Working Families Party explained in an article for In These Times, “It would be political malpractice not to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe.”
Part of what made the parties in Greece and Spain so successful was their ability to tap into a positive vision of the future. While remaining clear about their common enemy (the “totalitarianism of the market” as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias puts it), popular opinion coalesced around vision rather than vitriol. Podemos, after all, translates to “we can” in English, while Syriza’s Thessaloniki Program promised such basic services as electricity and health care to the country’s poorest residents. In Greece, especially, part of the party’s popularity was built around the fact that they already had delivered such services for ordinary Greeks suffering through economic turmoil.
Although it remains consciously separate from the party, there is heavy overlap between Solidarty for All — the loose network of wide-ranging cooperative enterprises that cropped up as the economic crisis deepened post-2008— and Syriza itself. Nevertheless, all Syriza MPs currently donate 20 percent of their paychecks to support the network. The crisis and the solidarity economy that emerged from it, one Syriza supporter told the Guardian, “has made a lot of people very aware, not just what they face, but of what they can — and must — do.” For a near-outright majority, that has meant ousting Greece’s political establishment.
As liberal-left media jumps at the chance to lampoon Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, movements interested in engaging with a broader base might take inspiration from European populists’ commitment to meeting the needs of working people, and their ability to rally masses around it in the streets and at the polls.
Plenty of great articles have been written over the last several weeks — and many more over the past couple days — on the flaws of positing Clinton as a hopeful or even liberal candidate for Commander in Chief. In short, there’s plenty left to be desired: Her ties to Walmart and Wall Street, her not-so-secretly neoconservative foreign policy agenda, and concerted efforts to scale back welfare for the “working families” her campaign is now targeting. The debate over Clinton’s liberal credentials is already being had. A topic that has graced relatively few headlines, however, is how progressive movements can respond with a real alternative.
There’s a painful false opposition that’s created in U.S. elections, especially the country’s biggest. As the old script goes, movements here can throw their weight behind attempting to elect (and nurture a nasty case of Stockholm Syndrome for) the so-called “lesser evil” candidates likely to sell them down the river in a few months time. Alternately, they can pout in the corner, pumping out critiques and think-pieces as the majority of Americans get swept up in our own national version of the “Hunger Games.”
As Jeb Bush seeks out the Republican nomination, voters in 2016 might face the unprecedented dilemma of deciding between the heir apparents to two of America’s most powerful political dynasties, each directly related — by blood or marriage — to at least one former president. Even if the storied Bush vs. Clinton showdown doesn’t come to pass, the fact that it’s possible illustrates the simple, eerie reality that our country’s electoral process was not designed to represent the interests of its population.
So what is to be done short of half-hearted calls for “the revolution”?
As Syriza’s ongoing battle with the Troika has proven, according to Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, “It is essential that we understand that winning an election does not mean winning power.” There will be no revolution in November or in any ballot contest — only an opportunity to use the race to further a vision of real hope, from grassroots movements fighting for justice on a number of fronts. Therefore, movement practitioners who choose to throw their hands up at, or, alternately, get them entirely too dirty “Readying for Hillary” will be choosing options that cede too much ground to an elite political class who would like nothing better.
One thing’s for sure, though: Whether it’s radically transforming the Democratic Party into “small d” democrats, expropriating the boatloads of cash available to engage with our broken electoral process, organizing a general economic and electoral strike, or something else entirely, winning in 2016 — or sometime thereafter — will mean getting creative.