Do socialists belong in the Democratic primaries?
I recently read an article, published via Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), entitled “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries.” The article ends with a statement that “Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.” While such a statement is standard and a similar statement is made on The Socialist’s website somewhere below this piece, I think it is fair to say that Daniel Moraff’s article accurately describes DSA’s long-standing electoral strategy and the logic behind it.
The first line of the article is a clear example of the divide between independence from Democratic Party and codependency with the Democratic Party. He writes, “The Democratic Party is deeply flawed and repellent to left challenges — but it still offers the easiest path for socialists to win elections and build power now.” This is an example of the codependent viewpoint, which is capable of ignoring or defending the Democratic Party’s faults because the odds of being elected as a Democrat are greater than as an independent or alternative party candidate. A clarified version of this sentence would have read, “The Democratic Party is deeply flawed and repellent to left challenges — but it still offers the easiest path for Democrats to win elections and continue existing power structures.”
Moraff argues that running as a Democrat offers better odds at being elected and is free of the normal issues that third-party candidates face, such as blocked ballot access and a spoiler stigma. While that is entirely true, the price for that is to take on the banner of the Democratic Party as your own. It’s illogical to think that you can operate within the Democratic Party without associating yourself with it. A principled socialist would contend that the evils of the Democratic Party and the actions of its elected members dictate that we organize in absolute opposition to that party without compromise.
Of course, principle and opportunism don’t go well together.
The article further states, “But organizing for socialist politics and a left agenda should not be mutually exclusive from building power through winning Democratic primaries now. We can form our new mass party without a guiding principle that this party must always have its own ballot line — a strategy that has already served to build third parties like the WFP that by and large make their bones in the Democratic primary.” I can only assume Moraff is writing about the same Working Families Party that supported neoliberal Andrew Cuomo in New York twice and went out of its way to organize against the Green Party in Syracuse after it became clear that the Greens had a real chance of beating the Democrat candidate. I suppose when Working Families in New Jersey endorsed Goldman Sachs billionaire Phil Murphy for Governor, they were doing it to build power through winning Democratic primaries.
Despite Moraff’s claim that “We don’t have to put all our eggs in the realignment basket,” you actually do, if you want a coherent strategy that isn’t effectively based on organizing against yourself. You are either inside of the Democratic Party and committed to its electoral success, or you are outside, building what you hope will become a viable alternative. It is absurd to think that you can simultaneously legitimatize the Democratic Party by being involved in its primaries and challenge the actions of Democrat politicians.
The crucial point that Moraff leaves out, which is the critical flaw in the “inside-outside strategy,” is that DSA and Democrat-supporting groups like it were never going to do anything besides support the Democrats. This is articulated in a May 20th, 2016, statement from DSA’s National Policy Committee entitled “Talking Points for DSA’s Electoral Work between May and November 2016,” in which they make clear a game plan to support Sanders until the Democratic National Convention, support Clinton until the general election, and oppose a Clinton Administration once in office. In other words, support the progressive Democrat, switch to the right-wing Democrat even though her nomination was fraudulent, and then campaign against the Democrat President they helped to elect. This is furthered by the fact that, after the presidential election, DSA openly campaigned for Keith Ellison to be the Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Aside from the fact that this constitutes a circular motion that is incapable of moving forward, it fails to take into account one thing: if your support of the Democratic Party is guaranteed and inevitable, as it is with most progressive groups and labor unions, then they don’t have to move an inch to the left to win your support. They just have to not be a Republican.
What We Learned from the Sanders Campaign
Bernie Sanders voiced important concerns in the Democrat presidential primaries, and his 13 million votes was no easy feat against the Clinton machine. Credit where credit is due.
The secret, of course, is that against right-wing candidates like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it is really not that difficult to be better in comparison. Politics aside, simply being a decent human being would have gotten you there.
Surely at this juncture we can dispense with the idea that Bernie Sanders is an independent politician. The notion of his outsider status was recited countless times by organizations on the Left that supported Sanders, perhaps as a selling point to potential supporters, an attempt to make it more palatable to their own memberships, or a justification to themselves. The fact stands that Bernie Sanders has caucused with the Democratic Party in Congress, co-founded and chaired the Democrats’ Congressional Progressive Caucus, sought the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, and was a candidate — write-in or balloted — in the Democrat primary for ten of his past eleven elections since 1990. Surely that cannot all be whitewashed by a designation on a voter registration card.
What is interesting about the Sanders campaign is that it didn’t settle the debate of independence vs codependence; it entrenched the positions even further. Supporters of Democrat codependency argue that 13 million votes for Sanders in the Democrat primary, as well as other “Berniecrat” campaigns like Debbie Medina, in New York, and Alex Law, in New Jersey, proves there is progress to be made within the Democratic Party. Supporters of independence from the Democrats will point to an openly rigged presidential primary process and right-wing record of leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as proof that the Democratic Party is an enemy to the Left, not an ally or vehicle. I will simply point to the fact that we aren’t talking about President Sanders, State Senator Medina, and Congressman Law today, and that it is not because they didn’t get enough support from the Left. It is because the Democratic Party is a party of capitalism and a graveyard for progressive politics and movement building.
Perhaps Nancy Pelosi said it best when she responded to a question about the Democratic Party moving to the left by saying “We’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is.”
Why We Run
We cannot challenge Democrat codependency without putting forward independence from the Democrats as a viable alternative. Since that perspective is perfectly natural to me (and others on the Left), I think we often forget that it’s a concept that others do not readily accept. The U.S. Left stands as a testament to the time-tested fact that denouncing is easier than persuading, and it’s time we did something about that.
Let’s start by identifying the parts of the codependency argument that are true. It is obviously true that one stands a better chance of being elected as a Democrat than as an independent or alternative party candidate. Though not universally true, it is fair to say that obtaining ballot access as a Democrat is generally easier than running outside of the Democratic Party. We can also concede that running as a Democrat normally guarantees more media attention and fundraising support.
Especially in larger-scale races, we accept that the odds of our candidates winning are incredibly long and, as a result, we often make statements like “we aren’t running to be elected.” To people dedicated to or at least comfortable with supporting Democrats, statements like this cannot be reconciled with their electoral outlook. We might as well be speaking two different languages.
I am fascinated by the statement, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” Connected to that is the rationale by advocates of Democrat co-dependence that “if you don’t vote Democrat, you are responsible for the Republican being elected.” Hillary Clinton supporters wore that argument to shreds in the 2016 election. While the fact stands that Democrats are not entitled to the votes of everyone not voting Republican, from a purely numerical point of view, they do have a point. Voting has consequences, both for whom you vote and for whom who you don’t.
If the above is true — and I accept the charge that by voting for a Socialist Party candidate I am responsible for voting in a way that could end with the “greater evil” candidate winning — then surely in turn you take responsibility for the Democrat candidate you are supporting. To put it another way, you cannot shirk the responsibility of supporting the “lesser evil” candidate because your vote is based on strategy instead of ideological agreement. As an example, supporting Hillary Clinton must equate to an endorsement of her war-hawk tenure as a US Senator and Secretary of State, not because you necessarily agree with her positions but because you have given her your support in spite of them. In this respect the idea of a critical or strategic endorsement is false.
What if Clinton had been elected? If past actions are a precursor of future actions, then Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State and US Senator gave an idea of what a Clinton presidency would look like. Additionally, the actions of the Obama Administration should have given an idea of what a successor Democrat administration might continue. With all of this information at hand, I don’t think there was any illusion on the Left about what Clinton would do as president. As a result, it has to be a fair statement that DSA and others got behind Clinton knowing exactly who she was and what she would do in the White House. By extension, it is also fair to say that they would have been responsible for her actions as president.
Think about it. If I involve myself in a party with a clear track record of an imperialist foreign policy and anti-working class domestic policy, how hypocritical am I to denounce those policies? You cannot simultaneously organize against the Democratic Party and involve yourself in it by running in its primaries and supporting its candidates. That doesn’t make you a power-building socialist. It makes you a Democrat.
Let’s be perfectly clear: If your goal is to get Democrats elected because you think we would be better off with a Democrat president and Democrat-controlled Congress, then go with that but at least be honest about it. Don’t pretend there is some greater, radical goal that lies down the road — seemingly always after the next election.
You would be absolutely correct in thinking that building a viable party independent of the Democratic Party is a monumental task. Unless our aim is to pretend the Democrats can be pulled to the left, or to become a Democrat front like Working Families, however, there is no alternative. We can either build a political movement capable of challenging capitalism, with no guarantee of success, or we can prop up the political face of capitalism, which only has a record of capitulation and failure.
We cannot continue to tolerate failed strategies and watered-down politics in the name of Left unity. Socialism is a broad spectrum of ideas, and finding the platforms and campaigns that we can find common cause on is, in my opinion, what Left unity in its infancy will look like. The red line, so to speak, is that it must actually be socialist. Working with a party of capitalism is not socialist. It isn’t sectarian to be honest about that.
If you want to organize within the Democratic Party, go for it. If you want to build socialism, let’s talk. Either way, let’s stop pretending they are the same thing or can happen at the same time.
Let’s build socialism — not the Democratic Party.