Of the 1,000 delegates, volunteers and staff at the recent national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — an organization of over 25,000 thousand dues-paying socialists — one would be hard-pressed to find 50 opposed to electoral politics. On display at the convention was a broad consensus that electoral politics had a key role to play in the U.S. socialist movement.
The question of whether or not to run candidates in Democratic primaries was hardly a question. A resolution to “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party” was overwhelmingly voted down. The national organization has endorsed six candidates currently running in 2017, three of whom are running as Democrats (including New York’s Khader El-Yateem), two of whom are running in nonpartisan races and one of whom is a Green (Jabari Brisport, also of New York). The list of DSA members in office is growing; most of them are Democrats. None of this is particularly controversial.
The explosive growth of DSA, which remains committed to supporting candidates running as Democrats, is an extraordinary and very hopeful development for the U.S. left.
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Once upon a time, revolutionaries were a fixture of American electoral politics. The 1860s and 1870s saw a wave of left-wing black abolitionists elected to federal, state and local offices. The Populists of the 1890s railed against industry and capital; they elected governors and senators. The Socialist Party followed suit in the 1900s and 1910s. A slate of candidates in California ran in the 1930s on a platform of converting private industry to worker cooperatives, instituting a massive income tax and transitioning California toward a socialist economy. They swept races across the state, utterly transforming California’s politics, and they did so through the Democratic primary. Huge victories around wages, labor protections and rent control can be traced directly to the victories of these movements and, critically, their electoral arms. Like the modern DSA, they were committed to organizing everywhere — in the workplace, in schools, where people live. Like the modern DSA, they unapologetically pursued electoral politics.
This tradition withered. Many of those participating in the uprisings of the ’60s and early ’70s declared themselves fervently opposed to electoral politics, and scorned those who sought to run in the Democratic Party. Some radicals forsook elections altogether, as did foundation-backed organizers inspired by Saul Alinsky. The hopes of those seeking to “realign” the Democratic Party were dashed, their coalition shattered by the AFL-CIO-backed Vietnam War.
Between then and the Sanders campaign, there were three significant electoral moments on a nationwide scale on the American left:
-Ralph Nader’s run for president in 2000 ignited huge rallies and a grassroots groundswell. Sadly, by running as a Green Party candidate, he doomed his campaign from the beginning and finished with under 3 percent of the vote.
-A broad coalition of unions formed the Labor Party in 1996, which promptly discovered that third-party runs are a dead end in the vast majority of American elections. Within 10 years, the party was gone.
-Jesse Jackson’s runs for president in 1984 and 1988 spawned large mobilizations and built promising multiracial coalitions across the country. Instead of producing any sort of democratic organization, it produced a publicity mill for Jackson, who promptly ran the coalition into the ground.
This points to an obvious question: what if someone were to do what Jackson did, but do it better? What if they spawned not a personal machine, but instead incited massive growth of a bottom-up, democratic organization? What if this organization was openly socialist? What if this organization was part of a broad progressive coalition that sought to merge social movements with radical electoral politics? And what if the organization got over the left’s hang-ups about the Democratic ballot line? What would happen then?
It is a critical question — and in the wake of the Sanders campaign, DSA is part of a broad coalition on the left that is going to answer it.
Many socialist organizations — Socialist Alternative, the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity — condemned Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat. DSA, which has always advocated a strategic orientation toward the Democratic line, supported Sanders’s strategy from the beginning. In doing so, DSA recognized a fundamental truth in American politics: it is virtually impossible to win almost any major election on a third-party line. If we want to gain the support of a large number of working-class voters, we will find them in the Democratic primary.
The organization has been proven right. Its membership has tripled in the past year. Its longtime members, who toiled in relative obscurity for decades, have been vindicated. Elections are a useful tactic for the left. We can run candidates as socialists and win. We must be willing to use the Democratic primary if we want to get anywhere.
For too long, the pursuit of revolution and the pursuit of practical electoral politics have been separated. This has robbed progressive electoral politics of critical energy and leadership, and it has robbed the left of realistic paths to power. The Sanders campaign and the rise of DSA represent a small but critical step.
Daniel Moraff is a member of the National Electoral Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he is managing an (independent) judicial campaign.
Photo: The Democratic Socialists of America at the national convention in Chicago in August. Source: Medium.