The DSA and the Democratic Party

Read our latest blog post from member Bruce Nissen:

There’s been some controversy inside the DSA on a perennial question that has roiled the ranks of leftists in the U.S. for decades. Because the U.S. electoral system was created to prevent multiple parties or third parties from having any influence (through the “first past the gate winner takes all” method of electing political officials), attempts in this country to create a third party beyond the Republicans and Democrats in the past century have always failed to prosper. A third party almost inevitably ends up being a “spoiler” attracting votes away from the major party (Democrat or Republican) that is closer to its positions, thus helping to elect politicians who are most antagonistic to it.

For those on the left in the U.S. in recent times this has frequently meant that you are forced to either support and vote for the Democrat (even a “corporate Democrat” who takes campaign contributions from corporations, wealthy special interests, Super-PACs, etc. and therefore votes as they lobby him/her to vote), or else vote for some minor party candidate (Green Party, People’s Party, etc.) or abstain from voting and thus guarantee that you have no immediate or probably any influence on the ultimate outcome. Socialists and leftists have faced this dilemma for decades.

So individuals and organizations have chosen different paths. Some (probably a majority) end up perpetually voting Democratic, often having to hold their noses while pulling the lever for a corporate Democrat only willing to support progressive issues (usually non-economic) where the ruling capitalist class (popularly known as the 1%) don’t really have a clear interest (examples include abortion, gun control, gay marriage, those restricted environmental measures that don’t cost the corporations money, etc.) while slavishly following their corporate funders in all matters economic. In short, their class politics is strictly with the dominant capitalist class and against working class interests, but the followers of this strategy are hard pressed to avoid this dilemma.

Others choose to “stick with principles” and vote (or refrain from voting) strictly according to their purest principles. This position has the drawback of not influencing actual outcomes in most cases, but it has the advantage of being (and feeling) principled; it won’t degenerate into apologetics for a fundamentally unjust unequal class society based on exploitation, racism, imperialism, etc.

That’s the way it has typically worked in the recent past. But then the 2016 Democratic presidential primary produced something new (for modern times): a totally different kind of politician named Bernie Sanders. Sanders forcefully raised class issues, referred to himself as a Democratic Socialist, and constantly highlighted and forced to the center of attention the ways in which the wealthy capitalist class rigs the economic system, controls our political system, and creates such extreme inequality that the vast majority are deprived of many of the good things in life. Sanders received massive support and opened up a whole new space for Democratic Socialist and Social Democratic politics. Since then, numerous DSA candidates have run for office at all levels from Congress down to school boards or city councils. And many of them have won.

A few DSA candidates have run as independents or on a third-party line, but most have run on the Democratic Party line just as Sanders did. This has opened up a debate within DSA about the relationship of DSA to the Democratic Party. The far left (or “hard” left) of the DSA has denounced DSAers running on the Democratic Party ballot line as sell-outs to the socialist cause. They portray competing in Democratic primaries as support for a capitalist party that may “play” for working class votes but which will never stand for the interests of workers due to its “ownership” by wealthy donors. Citing the history of the Democrats in the U.S. and similar liberal parties around the world, these critics portray participating in this party as the “graveyard” for radical and transformative politics since the usual pressures of our political process pull candidates and political platforms ever further to the right in the name of realism.

An opposite position held by some in the DSA argues that a strategic orientation toward the Democratic Party is the only realistic posture for leftists and socialists to take. Pointing to the deep isolation and utter failure of third parties to make headway in the U.S. in the past, they argue that DSA and fellow socialists of a democratic persuasion should devote major efforts to transform the Democratic Party into a workers’ party and ultimately a socialist one. If I understand his positions properly when he was alive, this was the perspective of Michael Harrington, founder of the DSA in 1982. Harrington argued for a politics focused on “the left wing of the possible” which for him meant allegiance to the Democratic Party and an attempt to move it left over time.

There’s room for both positions in the DSA, but my own personal opinion is that both have serious flaws. They are both right in their accusations against each other. The hard left position dooms one to isolation and irrelevance with no clear path to ever participating meaningfully in the electoral arena (which is, after all, one important way to reach and influence people, even if movement building is even more important.) And the strategic orientation to integrate into and attempt to transform the Democratic Party has been attempted for decades with absolutely no success in wresting control of the party (at least nationally and almost always at the state level also) away from the capitalists who control the party’s funding and through that control the policies.

So, what’s the answer? How to break out of the dilemma of being either isolated and irrelevant or coopted and absorbed into bland liberalism controlled by capitalist overseers? I think the answer is to stop seeing the Democratic Party as a key strategic organization in our deliberations about what to do in the electoral arena. In other words, it’s not something that we have to either refuse to have anything to do with or devote oneself to participating in or building. In fact, it’s not even a party in any real sense of the word as the Europeans would refer to a political party. It has no dues, no membership requirements, no set platform that members or even candidates must adhere to, and no real discipline over its elected officials (note Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia as an extreme example). It lacks political coherence, and anybody can run on the Democratic Party platform, whatever their political viewpoints (even KKK leader David Duke ran for president as a Democrat in 1988).

So, any decision to run or not run on the Democratic Party line for an elected position is merely a tactical one, not a matter of principle. The Democratic Party line can be seen as an instrument to be used or not used, depending on how well it helps us influence large numbers of people and hopefully win office. Sometimes it can be a useful instrument; sometimes it is not useful. If we find it useful, use it. If not, don’t. But if we use it, that doesn’t have to imply any allegiance to it in the broader political sphere. The main thing is to avoid the lure of corporate and Wall Street funding, and to run an independently financed campaign built on a working class platform and a grassroots “people’s power” apparatus.

I think that nationally known U.S. Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) have done exactly the right thing on this issue. They have run on the Democratic Party line because it gets mass exposure and credibility, but they have exhibited no real allegiance to it. Bernie has famously maintained his independent party status, and AOC joined a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on environmental matters shortly after being elected. They believe in “using” the Democratic Party if it works as an instrument to achieve their positions and policies, but that’s it. I think they’ve transcended the debate over shunning the Dems or allegiance to the Dems and avoided the pitfalls of both positions.

Does this solve all of problems in relationship to the Democratic Party? No, of course not. Some DSA elected officials may get coopted into becoming corporate Dems after being in office for some time, and the official (corporate) Dems will definitely try to oust Democratic Socialists once they attain office (Pelosi and crew have already done that to DSA Congresswomen AOC and Rashida Tlaib for example). And maybe over time the Democratic Party will panic and take drastic measures against Democratic Socialists who are winning ever more victories on the Dem party line. We can face those issues as they arise. But the main point stands: in all these potential dilemmas and conflicts, the Democratic Party is nothing more than an instrument to be tactically used or not used to advance the cause of Democratic Socialism in our electoral work. The Democratic Party is just not principled enough, or coherent enough, to be fundamentally either shunned or embraced under all circumstances. Let’s degrade its importance to just one potential tool among many as we build a mass movement and an electoral presence capable of building power for the working class.

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America