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US Politics: A Brief Guide for Organizers

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Photograph that shows an american flag with a donkey figurine and an elephant figurine

Organizers are building the power to win elections. But what is the terrain we’re fighting on? A look at the US electoral system, political parties, and more.

Today, left organizers recognize that fighting for transformative change requires building power to win elections. But how do we do that? And what is the terrain we’re fighting on? These questions are at the top of many organizers’ minds given that over the last decade both major political parties have seen significant internal divisions. In the wake of a presidential primary that once again foregrounded the split among progressive and the left and more corporate centrists, they take on even greater importance.

In a three part series for Organizing Upgrade, historian and organizer Van Gosse lays out some of the fundamental things organizers need to know about the U.S. electoral system, the mechanics and history of political parties, and the strategic implications for organizers today. The editors at Organizing Upgrade have collected these pieces here as a primer for use by individuals, organizations, and teachers.

Part 1: The Mechanics of Power

In part one of his series, Van Gosse lays out the fundamental features that make the U.S. electoral system unique, with particular attention to the role of states in shaping the rules to the peculiar nature of political parties in this country. (Hint: Unlike in many other countries, U.S. political parties are much broader, more unwieldy coalitions.)

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Part 2: Coalitions of Convenience, Periods of Polarization

In part two, Van takes a deep look at the history of the U.S. party system, focusing on the Democratic Party and it’s relationship to progressives and the left in four different period: from the founding of party in 1790 through to the civil war, from the reconstruction period through to the Great Depression, in the New Deal Era, and from Carter to Clinton.

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Read all of part 2 >

Part 3: Where Do We Go From Here?

In the final part of this series, Van Gosse draws out the key lessons he sees for organizers from his look at the U.S. electoral framework and history of U.S. political parties. What can we learn from past moments when there have been major shifts in party alignments? What are the opportunities for organizers in such periods and how can we take advantage of them?

Read all of part 3 >


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