Opening Democratic Discourse: Socialist Activism as an Antidote to Alienation in a Two-Party System by Sarah Stradling @ Ohio State University
What started out as a few young students setting up a ring of church folding chairs slowly turned into a crowded circle of Columbus community members. They were all there to attend a weekly International Socialist Organization event. Despite Bernie Sanders’ partial normalization of the term, “Socialism” has strong connotations within today’s polarized political climate. But individuals united under this label in a church multipurpose room cared not primarily about overthrowing capitalism – although that rhetoric was certainly present. Instead, they cared about making their community and country a more equitable and fair place for the working class and those often left behind.
Witnessing how the Columbus branch of the International Socialist Organization included people of a variety of backgrounds and encouraged open sharing, collaborated with other local activist groups, proposed alternative solutions to mainstream political dialogue, and encouraged peaceful protest indicate a more varied and open democratic discourse in the future – most likely by alleviating alienation of those left outside the current debate. As far as I can tell, this “outsider” label is actually their main selling point. They are “building a socialist alternative” in the United States, a country where it often feels like there are only two real options: Democrat or Republican. There are branches around the country that focus on social justice issues, which is what I witnessed during the two-hour political discussion on gun control I attended.
Participants spanned a diverse range of age groups and racial identities, and represented many parts of the Columbus community. Several attendees addressed the group as “comrades”. And they all subscribed to a prescribed set of “rules” for running the meeting. A moderator took down names of those who wished to talk or ask questions in order to make sure everyone could contribute to the conversation. Everything ran smoothly, and the speakers respected each other – even in disagreement. This rigid, no-exceptions structure makes it clear that the group values inclusion, something often missing in an era when politicians can throw protestors out of their events and be met with cheers.
Furthermore, it was clear to me that they were far from an isolated group of radicals. Harkening back to their main talking point, an end to isolation and alienation, they are very well-connected to other Columbus groups. For example, they do a lot of organizing with Black Queer and Intersectional Columbus (BQIC), including for an upcoming protest to do with arrests during the BlackPride4 event. This kind of interaction with other organizing members of the community, who represent different groups of people and have different end goals, was inspiring to me. Because while I doubt that BQIC members call each other “comrades,” one of the ISO chapter’s main initiatives is to support them and other local groups who they feel some connection to. This kind of alliance and cooperation makes it possible for small groups to really have an impact on government action and people’s votes, and broaden the democratic discourse.
This collaboration points to another reason the International Socialist Organization is good for improving democratic dialogue – they stand outside of the two main political voices in the news media with their policy standpoints. I witnessed this clearly, with the in depth discussion on gun control. Much of the dialogue was against any increasing of surveillance (think metal detectors or armed police in schools) that would turn them into “prisons” and inevitably target minorities or the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Instead, they focused on targeting the producers and implementing buy-back systems, as well as focusing on the number of gun deaths that are suicides (a shocking 2/3 of them). Most of all, the rhetoric centered on “wrestling hegemony” away from the Democrats, and emphasized pinpointing policy issues like gun control where people are likely to “radicalize” their standpoints. Even if the Socialists’ proposed solutions aren’t viable, causing the mainstream to re-examine their policies in light of public dissatisfaction is a hallmark of democracy and essential for a healthy public sphere.
Finally, the International Socialist Organization stands for something that is central to the prevention of democratic backsliding – nonviolent protest. One member told a story about how his daughter had just organized a walk out at her high school after the Parkland school shooting, an act of protest which everybody in the circle enthusiastically snapped for. And by the end of the meeting I attended, some of the members in attendance had already mobilized a group of volunteers to travel to West Virginia the next day to talk with teachers on strike in West Virginia. This kind of “bottom up” protest activity, which according to political science research by Stephan and Chenoweth is an extremely effective way of achieving democratic progress, is one of the central ways that having a third party who is willing to get out in the streets and make some noise can help prevent democratic erosion in the United States.
Politics in America can often feel two-sided, with both parties constantly lobbing insults across the political gulf. And looking at American politics and American democracy through another perspective, like through the lens of a Socialist group, serves as a more productive way to examine policy. When party politics become too polarized, a common result is sticking with your party no matter what policy initiatives they propose. As political scientist Milan Svolik explains, this blind party loyalty removes important checks on undemocratic rule. Having outside voices hopefully makes people question their own party’s policies, and ensures that politicians don’t get too comfortable or complacent. And during this International Socialist Organization meeting, I witnessed these outside voices yelling at full volume. Literally – they end every meeting with an all-out chant. The choice that evening? “Black trans lives matter.