The activities of the Socialist Party USA/Partido Socialista de los Estados Unidos have taken many forms over the years including labor organizing on behalf of unions such as the IWW and CIO and within and outside of the AFL-CIO, direct action in the form of protests, marches, and organizing work. The SPUSA has prioritized educational work to advance its principles. And, it is important to note, the Socialist Party also engages in electoral action.
The Socialist Party is a political party, as was its predecessor, the Socialist Party of America (SPA). That means that SPUSA nominates candidates for elected office as part of its stance “for the abolition of every form of domination and exploitation.” Socialists running for office have met with varied success, with SPA officials elected to every level of government and a handful of famous presidential candidates. The most successful Socialist Party candidate for president was Eugene V. Debs, who received over 900,000 votes in 1912 and 1920. Norman Thomas received 884,885 votes in 1932, his highest tally out of many campaigns. Progressive Republican Robert LaFollette received the endorsement of the SPA in 1924, accepted the Socialist ballot line in some parts of the country where his Progressive Party could not achieve ballot access, and received 4,831,706 votes. The modern SPUSA has had much more modest success at presidential politics, with Walt Brown in 2004 receiving the most votes in recent attempts with 10,822. In 2016, Mimi Soltysik and Angela Walker ran a national campaign that provided a rallying point for those interested in an alternative to the two-party system, giving voice to rising interest in independent socialist politics and continues with ongoing organizing around the country.
Today, as in the 1900s, socialists have found most their success is in local elections. The SP-USA boasts a number of local officials, including Iowa City council member Karen Kubby, Detroit Downtown Citizens’ District Council member Matt Erard and, most recently, Red Bank New Jersey School Board member Pat Noble. National Secretary of the SP-USA Greg Pason has run for New Jersey Senator several times, where many of my Democratic friends would look forward to his campaigns for advancing progressive politics while providing an outlet to protest corrupt or conservative Democrats.
These campaigns serve many purposes that advance socialist politics. First, they educate voters about the existence of the SP-USA and its values. Running electoral candidates serves the SPUSA by showing that we are not a nonprofit issue-based organization, but a legitimate political party. Second, electoral campaigns serve as an organizing tool by taking advantage of the added awareness of public issues during campaigns to reach out to people inclined to support our values. Third, Socialist Party candidates can provide more choices at the ballot for voters exhausted by the current system. And, finally, socialists can spread their ideas and influence the major parties into adopting Socialist Party programs. And sometimes socialists even get elected. Socialist candidates can heighten the contradictions of the capitalist system, providing much needed criticism and accountability in politics.
Even though the party has a strong history of being a leading advocate for socialism and is one of the major progressive sources of popular policies in the country, it remains unknown to many, or as a dirty word stigmatized by mainstream politicians. For most of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency, he was mislabeled a socialist by conservatives as a pejorative insult. If many people have heard the word “socialism,” they have heard it as a term that is spit, not spoken. In fact, most people may not even be aware that there are socialists in the United States living in their area. They may have heard of different socialist parties and organizations, but may not be clear on the differences among them. Others may have learned of the Socialist Party of America’s storied history, but not know of the current party’s existence and its activities in their area. Elections are the best time to mobilize public interest in politics, and they provide excellent opportunities to publicize and expand the party’s presence and its activities.
Elections provide a major platform for third parties because the public gives politics and policy heightened attention, providing organizers with a terrific opportunity to publicize the party’s issues, and values. Socialist Party members can take advantage of this focus to draw attention to current ongoing campaigns, seeking support from sympathetic working people who might feel too busy at other times to get involved. At a more general level, socialists can use electoral opportunities to communicate the party’s values and to demonstrate systemic and collective alternatives to current crises. Most critically, socialists must use the ballot as a tool to illustrate the differences between us and other socialist organizations. 2016 provided an increase in interest to the SPUSA and other socialist groups thanks to the term being repeated in a positive light by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. As seen in 2016, the increased interest in what socialism really means, economic justice and anti-war politics, attracts new members curious in an issue. Elections in which socialism is a salient issue can be very powerful membership building tools for the party.
Socialist Party candidates are necessary because they provide clear alternatives for voters tired of the current two-party system.
In non-competitive districts, where candidates of a party are so powerful that others do not even bother to run, any pretense of democracy has been undermined. This means that there are many opportunities for Socialist Party candidates to join the process and provide an outlet for protest votes, statements of principle, an authentic non-capitalist choice and, in many cases, the only alternative to the incumbent.
Socialists can spread their ideas and influence the major parties into adopting anti-capitalist programs.
The most popular government programs in existence today all have a socialist lineage. For example, the national policy of providing free and reduced lunch for all public-school students began with the Black Panther Party in California, which boasted many socialist members. Social Security and Medicare were both socialist ideas implemented by Democratic presidents. During the Great Depression, socialists threatened the system, leading even establishment figures to predict the coming collapse of capitalism. The Democratic Party had to respond with a hard-left turn, drawing an entire generation of voters with socialist values into the party, while actual former Socialist Party members helped lead and implement some of the most popular reforms in US history. This was made possible through Democratic co-op of the Socialist Party to maintain the viability of their party and the system.
Socialists do a good job once they are elected.
There are advantages to holding office. The famed Milwaukee Sewer Socialists from 1892 to 1960 delivered clean, effective, and efficient government that won over even ideological opponents by doing a better job delivering the goods in the form of well-maintained public services like the city’s sewers. There is evidence that socialists do a better job of managing capitalist economies in the short term by supporting the bottom and broadening the base of participation in the system.
Socialists can heighten the contradictions of the capitalist system.
Bourgeois democracy offers limited ability for working class participation as it becomes easier for corporate “persons” and the wealthy to practice First Amendment-protected speech through the medium of unlimited campaign spending. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United effectively silenced working class interest in politics, guaranteeing corporations would outspend their competitors to influence politicians. One of the most glaring contradictions of the American political system is how difficult it is to participate in “free and fair” elections. Capitalist politicians in the two-party system are divided over how to restrict the working class from participating. Democrats favor restriction through cumbersome voter registration requirements and Tuesday voting during working hours, and Republicans place even greater restrictions in the form of strict Voter ID laws that disproportionately impact working class voters of color. Socialists can use this division to appeal to voters who demand elections to be truly free and fair for all who want to participate.
 Socialist Party-USA. Socialist Party-USA 2015 – 2017 National Platform. Can be found at: http://socialistparty-usa.net/platform.html
Stay tuned for Part II!