In Defense of Failure
Electoralism isn't dead, but it's not particularly healthy either, and none of the organizations dedicated to it are especially interested in rejuvenating it.
As a result, a common take from hard leftists to softer lefties alike is to ask: what's the point of running a campaign if the odds of success are so slim?
Immediately after Lee Carter's recent loss in Virginia's Gubernatorial primary, so-called leftists have been quick to turn on the former delegate, flooding Twitter with reactions that range from celebratory, to contemptuous, to flippant and mocking. But of all the initial wave, one tweet stood out to me and has been stuck in my head:
Text reads: "Losing is pretty bad for the movement and is a black eye for all of us."
The immediate question to me is: why?
This kind of framing over defeat cedes a lot of ground to hierarchical narratives about winners and losers that infect the entire American identity.
You can take issue with Carter's decision to move from the legislature and pursue the Governor's office, but at the end of the day, it's ultimately his choice as to how he wants to direct his political action.
Do I wish Carter was still an elected official for the people of Virginia? Sure. Do I resent him for trying to broaden the power available to him for furthering the cause? Not really.
There's an unexamined bias about the impacts of defeat versus the effectiveness of victory that runs deep in the American psyche. It's the same mentality by which liberals and conservatives cut loose the losers and exalt the winners, and it has it's roots in the mythologies we are taught about individualism.
While we may love an underdog, the loser in such a story is never broadly venerated or given the space in which their defeat can be explored.
Electoral organizations are especially guilty of this. Carter-- who won major victories on the death penalty, capping the price of insulin, Marijuana legalization, and mainstreaming the discussion of reparations in Virginia-- can go, overnight, from a shining example of a socialism to a pariah and a 'loser' in the eyes of electoral-focused groups.
Their previous appreciation is flipped like a switch into resentment, mockery, and ridicule. Once you stop being a winner, there's nothing left to be said.
Electoral defeats do, however, present a multitude of opportunities for growth, learning, humility, inspiration, and rededication, but only when we dispense with the binary language of hierarchies which designate the loser and the victor.
On the one hand, it is understandable to embrace that binary when your organization functions off dues and donations. Doubly so when your dues and donations depend upon your success rate.
A mistake being made in these cases is to think that because your revenue stream depends on success rates, that it is good.
Is capitalism good because you depend upon it? Obviously not. In cases where someone fails under capitalism, we are rightly appalled at the system for it, not at the person who has failed. At least, as leftists and anticapitalists, we should be.
Why is our critique of capitalism not extended to situations in which failure occurs within electoralism? In cases like the Joshua Collins campaigns, where many mistakes were made, but the candidate was a clear improvement who had honest motivations to help others, we allow the narrative to paint his defeat as something emblematic of him, and not the system-- which requires mastery, money, and monopolized power to succeed in.
The fact that the system requires these things is the issue. Citizen governance can only happen in a setting where government is accessible and available to all, i.e. democracy.
Campaigns failing to garner sufficient, or even impressive support, should be cause to reflect on the ways in which the system is weaponized against us. It is not a cause to deride the people struggling to navigate it and bring about positive change.
Criticism of this sort is important to carry out based on it's strategic or tactical merit, not whether someone is a failure.
In part because it shows a lack of seriousness about solidarity, but also because failed runs do accomplish things in pursuit of the cause.
They divide the attention of the established powers. If there are twelve races and only a single socialist in one of them, the petite bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie itself can focus their efforts on the one socialist. If there are twelve, that effort is divided. It costs them money, costs them time, stress, and effectiveness.
It increases the likelihood that failures will not be the result of a singular opposition, and increases the chances for success on our end.
Failed runs platform ideas, and popularize issues that the established powers fight to keep suppressed. They offer a window into class consciousness for those who might otherwise never have one.
In turn, failed runs can be used to leverage action on important issues. Especially in cases where a strong community exists behind the failed campaign, and can continue exerting pressure.
Failed runs broadcast to the oppressed that people are out there, and out there fighting for them. Learning the name of a person you can seek out and trust to be safe around is not insignificant, and no one should dismiss the power that has in growing community power.
A failed run broadcasts to entrenched powers that there is an actual opposition, and that they won't be freely given the reigns to do whatever they want. They can expect a fight. When you work in the office of a neoliberal, they spend extra money, manpower, time, and resources to anticipating known opponents. At the very least, this can have a stalling effect, and at it's best, it opens the table to the disenfranchised to weigh in and disrupt the plans of capital.
Being able to buy time on being gentrification out of your neighborhood can literally be the difference between homelessness and housing security. Being able to buy time on it can skyrocket the costs to capitalist investors. It is literally buying time for organizers to establish effective opposition.
None of which is guaranteed, but neither of which is possible when the powers that be have no cause to account for resistance.
Failed runs are educational and instructive, both to onlookers doing autopsies, but especially to those involved with the campaign. Better informed, better prepared groups are more capable of branching out into effective direct action, bringing their experience to bear on communal problems, and bringing their resources to other fights. In this way, failed runs re-enfranchise people to methods of organizing and acting, both in and out of electoral pursuits.
Campaign teams can exit the race with a far more concrete vision of their platform, and which policies to prioritize and pursue in their communities. Organizational clarity, like buying time, or having the space, is not to be downplayed in how important it can be. These same people are also building name recognition at the same time they are building competence in their understanding of how to run a campaign, organize an initiative, and facilitate cross-community action.
Failed runs bring in new community members. "I was sick of not being able to do anything, while seeing what is happening around me." is one of the most common refrains when new people turn up at a campaign office, or respond to an email, or fill out a volunteer form. That refrain is never made if the campaign doesn't exist.
Failed campaigns are only humiliating if you agree they need to be.
Yes, they can drain resources and funds from communities, but only when those campaigns are outsourcing work from their communities. Strong communities that platform their own candidates will keep those funds and resources local to them. It's only when non-local, non-community organizations come in that those resources disappear. Even so, communities are gaining insight, knowledge, and operational know-how for future efforts.
This underlines the importance of dual-or-multi-power approaches to the cause. Resilient communities bounce back from defeats, minimize their losses, and increase their ability to act in all spheres. Failed campaigns can play into all of this, but the more we encourage narratives in which the defeated are losers the more we instruct people to treat themselves and one another as such.
Failure is powerful, which is why individualism seeks to characterize it as irredeemable, as much as it can.
The more we learn from failure, our own and each other's, the more we know and understand, going forward. The more we take from our failures, the more empowered we become.
The more we denigrate ourselves for failure, the more we forfeit back to capitalism, which is happy to employ in the service of our exploitation.
Mourn defeats, and find solace in one another. When you lash out at the defeated, you are training yourself to expect the same, and that training underlies the widespread reticence of leftists to try at anything.
In my hometown, three city council seats were extremely vulnerable, and those districts sit in areas of the city where rent control and anti-gentrification is sorely needed.
I tried talking 24 people into running, even just as crash and burn campaigns that singularly platformed the issues.
Every one of them, by one variation or another, were too scared of what would happen if they lost.
And that's on all of us.
If you want to dismantle these cycles and learn more about community organizing, multi-power approaches, I'll be expanding on them in subsequent OpEds