April 27, 2019

Show Me What Democracy Looks Like: Philadelphia City Council and the Question of ‘Accountability’

Show Me What Democracy Looks Like: Philadelphia City Council and the Question of ‘Accountability’

Nearly three years after Bernie Sanders wrapped up his groundbreaking 2016 presidential campaign and two years after Donald Trump’s inauguration sparked the largest scale “resistance” we’ve seen this century, the progressive agenda has gained real influence in the battle of ideas. Kamala Harris claims support for Medicare For All. Cory Booker wants a Green New Deal. For candidates lining up for Democratic primaries this year, if you’re not a progressive, you’re not a contender.

In Philadelphia, this has translated to a mind-bogglingly crowded field of at-large city council candidates, most of whom identify as progressives. Many are talking about a $15 minimum wage, rent control, repeal of the 10-year tax abatement, full funding for the School District and CCP through taxing the rich, a police accountability board, and a green jobs program.

Changing the boundaries of the political conversation is a necessary first step on the path to changing conditions. But it can’t stop there. Candidates must spell out concrete plans to actually win the demands they are running on. And the movements supporting them must discuss and cohere strategies to hold those elected to account. Too many candidates, even the best intentioned, have made sweet promises on the campaign trail, only to do nothing effective to win them once in office.

What Is Accountability?

Ironically, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) gave us an example of what accountability looks like when they created a rule blacklisting political consulting firms who provide services to progressive Democratic primary challengers. Progressives have rightly denounced this approach, but are grappling with what accountability could look like in our organizations and with our candidates.

In Philadelphia, a broad coalition of organizations under the banner of Alliance for a Just Philadelphia recently created a People’s Platform of progressive demands on incoming elected officials. At a March Peoples’ Forum event, nearly the entire stage of at-large council candidates voted “Yes,” up and down this list of demands, effectively putting them on verbal record with their agreement to fight for rent control legislation, investment in the school district and full funding for CCP, ending the 10-year tax abatement, expansion of affordable housing, ending stop-and-frisk, cutting parole, and many other admirable progressive items.

If any of these candidates should be elected and fail to push hard on these issues in City Hall, there will be calls to lobby their offices or to elect someone new next time. In this case, the program may be more progressive, but the process has not fundamentally changed.

On one hand, progressives in Philadelphia have rightly identified the need for accountability and put forward a collaborative and meaningful effort to solve that problem. But putting dozens of candidates on a stage and asking them to hold up a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is simply another version - albeit a grander one - of the same ‘accountability’ process that opponents of status quo politics have advocated every election cycle.

Ultimately, this process is ineffective. It doesn’t ensure candidates’ adherence to a platform once in office, nor does it sufficiently support elected officials in using legislative reforms for working class people in ways that build movements and create demands for greater change. The Democratic Party, historically and today, is a bureaucratic, capitalist organization and is incredibly unlikely to become a vehicle in which these processes can develop with collaborative, democratic input from the working class. For effective accountability processes, we should look to progressive and socialist organizations with clear democratic structures.

Membership organizations

True accountability means real mechanisms to accomplish two key tasks: 1) To support elected officials when they fight for meaningful reforms, and 2) to create consequences and withdraw support if they cause harm to working class people by failing to stand up for the demands they were elected on.

For Socialist Alternative, membership is a critical element in accountability. Only organizations with an active and engaged membership can formally bind their candidates to a political platform and revoke membership and support should these members renege once in office. This calls the question of building a new, independent political party. This party, rather than attempting to drag the Democrats to the left from the outside, would have a solidified membership process with members paying dues according to their means and a clear working-class platform. The platform would be created through democratic discussions and debates open to all members, and any elected official would agree to support this platform in office.

These elected officials would have the support of the party membership behind them in office - this is crucial in a period where progressives face backlash and threats from corporate capitalist Republicans and Democrats alike. Like a spine, the party would help the elected official hold strong against the immense pressures of office. The physical, mental, and financial resources of the party would be available to that person. With an ear firmly to the ground in working-class and activist movements, party membership would help its elected officials make decisions around difficult issues, and provide strength in numbers when mass movements or protests were necessitated. This is how Socialist Alternative and our Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant have been successful in building movements for a $15/hour minimum wage, taxing the rich, and affordable housing, despite Sawant having often been opposed by a much less progressive city government around her.

Strong, progressive membership organizations like Reclaim Philadelphia, 215 People’s Alliance, and DSA have grown in Philadelphia over the last several years. Rather than endorsing candidates from the outside, these very organizations could move toward running their own candidates who are members and whom they can hold to account. Within the Philadelphia progressive left, it is clear that the social forces exist to form a new political party!

Once elected, Socialist Alternative candidates take it one step further and only accept a portion of their official salaries, the average worker’s wage in their location. They donate the remainder to solidarity funds which support campaigns to win the programmatic demands (Just as big business will readily dig into its deep pockets to oppose us, we need a fighting fund to mount a serious struggle). In this way, elected officials from our organization live on working class incomes, maintain working class lifestyles and share working class struggles to make ends meet. When we look across the country, we see that people with genuine working class backgrounds are elected to office all the time. But years spent in the halls of power can change anyone’s perspective.

Who pays the bills?

Funding is another basic element of accountability. Corporations have been very effective in funding candidates in order to hold them accountable to their own interests. For our candidates and elected officials to be accountable to a working class agenda, it must be the working class who is funding their campaigns.

Only one at-large City Council candidate at the People’s Forum, Erika Almiron, expressed her pledge to accept no corporate donations. The recent Philly Power Research study “Who Runs Philly” shows that several of the new progressives in the race, including Justin DiBerardinis and Isaiah Thomas, are taking developer money, in some cases significant amounts. They both have won the support of progressive organizations like 215 PA or Reclaim Philadelphia, whose excellent platform includes rent control and ending the 10-year tax abatement. When it comes time to cast a vote in City Council, how far will they go to confront the forces which have funded their victorious campaigns?

Rather than endorsing candidates who are funded by corporations and developers, working class people must fund our own candidates through our own organizations. Only in this way can an elected official fight uncompromisingly on the side of the working class and independently of the limits imposed by corporate donors.

Building Movements To Win

As socialists, we believe the fight doesn’t end with the election night victory party. If we want to win the reforms in the campaign platform, the methods we use to fight are crucial.

A socialist officeholder would use their seat as a bully pulpit to grow, agitate, and organize with the movement. This is what Bernie Sanders means when he says that he alone, even as president, would be unable to carry out his campaign promises. An effective fighter for Philadelphia’s working class must not be afraid to call for large scale public demonstrations and strikes when the social forces exist to support it.

Historically, all important wins for the working class - from the 8-hour day to Civil Rights reforms - were won by mass movements in the streets and strikes in workplaces. Across the country today, working people are experiencing this power in a way not seen in decades. Teachers’ strikes, first in Republican controlled states and now in Democratic controlled cities, have won improvements in their working conditions and for education in their communities not by compromise with stubborn reactionaries or liberal elites, but by flexing their own collective muscle.

We need to bring these methods to the fights for a working class set of demands in City Hall. Our power lies not in any one or two elected seats, but in organizing a movement of working class people - inside and outside the existing labor movement - to make it politically impossible for City Hall to continue serving the wealthy.