Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary run in 2016 saw 13 million people vote for a democratic socialist. Two years later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s underdog, grassroots-driven victory against one of Congress’s most powerful Democrats shook the political establishment. Combined with the election of Donald Trump, these two campaigns reignited interest in something many on the left had shied away from for the better part of a century: electoral power.
But what is electoral power? Many political theorists distinguish between “state power” and “governing power.” The “state”—as described here—is not simply a series of apparatuses but instead the representation of the balance of class forces, with a hegemonic bloc—made up of institutions like the police, Congress, and the Federal Reserve—looking out for the long-term interests of the dominant class—in our case, the 1 percent. There are different fractions in the 1 percent with interests that sometimes diverge. They might receive differing degrees of support from the state and sometimes have stronger relationships with one party over another. Overall, the capitalist state looks out for the long-term interests of capital rather than the particular interests of any one capitalist.
“Seizing state power” is therefore a process of fundamentally altering the balance of class forces and creating a new hegemonic bloc that moves us away from capitalism. Winning state power involves the domination and, over time, deconstruction and replacement of capitalist institutions.
“Governing power” is something altogether different—effectively, progressives or leftists winning political office within the context of a capitalist state. They may be elected to positions of leadership, but they do not control the state apparatuses and do not have the mandate or strength to carry out a full and thoroughgoing process of social transformation.
This might look like winning a mayor’s or governor’s office. This is also the situation Sanders or any other left-leaning candidate is likely to walk into should they make it to the White House. More crucially, this is the situation that has faced countless left-leaning politicians in the United States and abroad who have tried to make inroads toward a consistent democracy, let alone democratic socialism, at the local, state, and even federal level.
That governing power has been so difficult to achieve and exercise has led many on the left in United States to fear it, and not without reason. Domestically and internationally, there have been many examples of significant challenges faced by a left that has gained governing power only to become corrupted or checkmated. But too many have taken the wrong lesson from this history and fallen back on empty rhetoric to articulate a path to power: first, describe a list of capitalism’s atrocities; ...
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