If the past year in politics has proved anything, it is these two contradicting facts: the Democrats are a feckless, failing party that cannot live up to our needs; and the Democrats are in many ways, for the time being, the only game in town.
Many on the left, myself included, are eager to begin building institutions that represent our politics fully. It is time to take seriously the task of “working outside of the Democratic Party,” of laying the foundation for a true party of the left that can put forward a vision of how America will shed itself of capitalist exploitation, racial injustice, and sexist domination.
Currently, though, a war is being waged for the heart of the Democrats themselves. The two main candidates to be chair of the Democratic National Committee are Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a firm progressive who backed Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential primaries, and Thomas Perez, Barack Obama’s labor secretary, whose frequently touted leftist bona fides are shaky, given his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
What’s clear is that Perez is a bone thrown by the Democratic establishment to the party’s left-wing base. Perez is meant to distract us from the real problem afflicting the party – each election sinks it deeper and deeper into the pockets of Wall Street.
Ellison, an African-American and the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Congress, has a strong track record of standing up for working people and oppressed communities. In his campaign for the DNC top post, he has promised to pursue a “3,153-county strategy” that would welcome the participation of grassroots activists across the country.
If the Democrats want to start winning more elections, they need to retool towards the Ellison-Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and away from the Obama-Clinton “New Democrats” who built their careers ample generous support from powerful corporate interests.
While Obama served as president, the Democrats quietly lost 949 state legislature seats, 13 governorships, 63 House seats, and 11 Senate seats — one of the single greatest transfers of power from one party to another in modern American politics. The chief reason this happened is that the Democrats couldn’t connect with voters in any meaningful way.
An Ellison-run Democratic Party could very well be a boon for the progressive policies leftists have been championing for quite some time — universal health care, card-check union voting, real police reform —which hopefully would result in clawing back some of the political power we’ve lost to the far right over the past decade.
Of course, most Democrats won’t have a say in whether Ellison gets the chance to lead the party. Despite 650,000 people signing a petition endorsing him, the decision will be made by 447 party insiders when they meet in Atlanta on February 25.
If Ellison is successful, though, it opens a window, through which left-of-liberal candidates could take advantage of the resources the Democratic Party has to offer, inject their own politics into races where they have a real shot to win, and take back some ground from the Republicans.
While many on the left will understandably bemoan any effort of trying to work within the Democratic Party, the situation we find ourselves in means that every minute spent arguing over sullying the left’s good name is lives lost, dreams deferred, hope abandoned. The impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act drives home that politics is a life-or-death contest for millions of people. Politics is being able to see a doctor, afford a home, get birth control, go to school, and put food on the table. It’s Medicare for All and the Fight for $15. We don’t have time to waste.
What some can do in the short-term, using the Democrats’ platform, is popularize a vision one candidate at a time, win real elections, take back power and fight the right. Meanwhile, in other corners of the left, comrades are already working hard on the long-term project of building on electoral victories by tying elected officials to our movements and establishing mass organizations that one day will overtake the Democrats and win on their own.
This is not a call to work within the Democratic Party, but to make the Democratic Party work for us. I understand if critics can’t see the difference; sometimes I don’t either. But what if we could use the Democratic Party like a cheap loaner, while our Cadillac — the progressive party currently only of our dreams — is still being designed? If this clunky lemon can get us from point A to point B, what is the harm?
Brett Vetterlein is Brooklyn-based writer, activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The Trump administration is a freight train barreling toward us, threatening to destroy everything in its path and we’d better develop a strategy to get out of harm’s way and, ultimately, stop it. Grasping onto the Democratic Party, the very institution that laid the tracks and fueled the Trump train, is not a realistic strategy for survival. The Democrats’ decades-long embrace of policies that have eviscerated public institutions and enriched a powerful few at the expense of the majority earned them the abandonment of millions of working class Blacks, Latinos, whites, women and youth in the 2016 election.
To win over many of the Clinton and Jill Stein voters, as well as those who voted with their feet and abstained, the U.S. left must advance a united front strategy on the basis of class solidarity across all ethnic, gender, racial, national, sexuality and ability lines.
Instead of working within a political party that represents the interests of our opponents, we need left-wing independent political organizations that are democratically run, supported by and accountable to their members, willing to link arms in struggle with all progressive forces and pose an alternative to the racist and pro-corporate policies of both parties of capital.
Attempts to repackage the Democratic Party into a vehicle for resistance to Trump’s agenda may succeed at corralling activists but will fail to defend targeted communities and advance progressive goals.
Take the issue of immigration. First, we have to ask why did President Obama deport more immigrants than any other president in history? And why do Democrats like Obama, Hillary Clinton and even Bernie Sanders consistently couple calls for immigration reform with enhanced surveillance and funding for more border agents and fencing (one might call it a wall)? As representatives of a political party that is unabashedly pro-capitalist, they accept the logic of borders to control the flow of labor, the very purpose of immigration control.
The goal of the Democratic Party is to run the American capitalist empire. In order to do so, the Democrats must offer, at least rhetorically, some limited reforms and policies that speak to the interests of the popular majority who are working class, women, LGBTQ, Black, Latino, Muslim. Though it’s notable that even the reforms we have won under Democrats — from voting rights for Blacks to expanded LGBTQ rights — have been in response to mammoth social movements.
Each time these reforms are won by struggle and then codified into law by politicians, Democrats in office have chiseled away at, blunted, or gutted the reforms — from abortion to union rights. Working within the Democratic Party doesn’t offer a more tranquil approach to defending our interests and winning reforms, but instead poses a threat to even the meager reforms we win. The structural pressures of a system based on profit consistently lead the Democrats to accommodate the needs of business.
Illustration: Gino Barzizza
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio came to office on the basis of an openly progressive agenda; decrying the “tale of two cities.” Yet his policies have left New York’s working class and poor, especially Black and Latino New Yorkers, worse off during a period of record Wall Street profits, on which he has refused to raise taxes. From appointing top cop Bill Bratton, architect of the Giuliani era’s “broken windows” policy to expanding private charter schools that undermine public education, de Blasio’s administration has failed to deliver relief for those most in need. Many of his policies mirror those of his billionaire predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
This is not a unique example. Mayor David Dinkins, a former member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was elected to office in 1989 and led a crackdown on the city’s homeless population and presided over horrible austerity and a police force that tormented the city’s Black and Latino population.
There are no simple formulas or easy answers to the multiple and intersecting crises we all face in the coming Trump era. None of us in the U.S. left have lived through a comparable period in this country. But we must begin now to discuss and engage in comradely debate about what the true lessons of previous failures are in order to create the solidarity, organization and struggle needed to survive and even advance in the years to come.
Sherry Wolf is author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation and is a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization.
Every national election, there’s another attempt to launch an independent left (or left-leaning) campaign. There’s also a huge mobilization of lefties to support the Democratic candidate. Every time this happens, an old debate rekindles over the relative merits of the two positions.
One side is convinced that the party itself is a trap, that once it is supported, the supporters are compromised and hamstrung until they see the light. The “independents only” advocates think those on the other side are either working for party bosses, or are too simple to see that the Democrats push bad policies.
The other side feels silly that they even have to point out that the popular base for change has been attached to the Democrats since 1932, that the two-party system is not threatened by independent campaigns for president, and that the results of Republican wins are obviously worse for working people than those of Democratic wins.
The ‘third party now’ side often argues that even if these factors are true, principles and/or morality demand that working with, in, or through the party be abandoned right away. “Don’t vote for what you don’t want” is the logical-sounding mantra. And the Democrats themselves, who are ‘the second party of capital’, have made so many concessions to the right that they have squandered their own base of support.
The ‘inside/outside’ position recognizes this, but sees nothing inherent in the party’s role or structure that would automatically taint building a left presence in it. Shit happens, but not automatically or inevitably. As for the party’s politics, local races are often influenced by local social movements who push local electeds from the center to the left, either by political pressure or electing their own candidates.
‘Inside/outside’ supports independent slates and parties when they have a chance of strengthening the left’s hand and pushing through progressive policies. They oppose independent runs that act as spoilers for the right, or avoid reaching out to the Democrats’ popular base.
Those who seek out a Euro-style Green or far left niche in the American electoral system maintain that ‘inside/outside’ is a repeatedly failed compromise with centrists, who are often framed as no better than, or even no different from, the GOP right and center-right.
But the only time the left had any appreciable success in a national election outside either major party was in 1912, when Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party won 6% in a four-way race, scoring 900,000 votes. In 1948, Henry Wallace, a popular New Deal leader, broke from Harry Truman to run independently. He received 2.4%, matching the percentage of Dixiecrat breakaway Strom Thurmond.
Bernie Sanders broke hearts in the ‘independent only’ camp when he ran in the Democratic primaries last year. Yet running as a democratic socialist, he far exceeded Debs with more than 13 million primary votes.
What is even more significant is that by employing an inside/outside strategy, Sanders gave the American left a new lease on life. He brought it out of the margins for a fleeting moment, and unlike Obama, left the door open. He brought hundreds of thousands of new actors into the electoral process, not just out of self defense against an insurgent right, but in response to demands that directly challenged neoliberalism and xenophobia.
Under the circumstances of the Trump non-popular election, the best that can be said about the Jill Stein campaign is they failed to get more votes, which would have conclusively stained them as spoilers for the right.
Sanders chose to run as a Democrat and won enough influence to give the party a more pronounced left voice. He was also a diligent campaigner for Clinton, but could not get through to the Democratic leadership that Trump was picking up their base among rural and suburban workers who had supported Bill Clinton and Obama. Now the fight has shifted to the direction of the party itself. But for the Stein supporters, whether Green or socialist, this is strictly off-limits by definition.
The US has a share of left electoral activists in every state. They are fringe, fragmented and uncoordinated, like the rest of the left. But if the goal is breaking out of that quagmire, then an inside/outside strategy has proven potential. This is also the direction most left voters choose, even though it means going head-to-head against entrenched power brokers and money handlers.
The alternative is eternal glory in our own implacability, which is its own — and only — reward.
Charles Lenchner is the co-founder of People for Bernie Sanders.