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The Left, Politics, and the Democratic Party

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Dissent’s new issue is titled “Arguments on the Left” and pairs authors together to argue a point. One of the questions is the relationship of the left to the Democratic Party. This is a case however where both sides are essentially correct because they aren’t really arguing with each other. First, Michael Kazin argues that the left must also be Democrats:

It would be wonderful to belong to and vote for a party that stood unambiguously for democratic socialist principles, articulated them to diverse constituencies in fresh and thrilling ways, and had the ability to compete for every office from mayor to legislator to governor to senator to president. But not many Americans speak Norwegian.

In the United States, there are innumerable obstacles to starting and sustaining a serious new party on the left: the electoral laws work against it, most of the media would ignore it, the expenses of building the infrastructure are prohibitive, and the constituency for such a party doesn’t currently exist. A majority of Americans do say they would like to have a third party to vote for. But at least as many of those people stand on the right as on the left, and many others just despise “politics as usual” and seldom, if ever, vote. In the meantime, a tiny, existing left-wing party can run a famous individual for president who manages to win enough votes to tip a critical state to the Republican nominee. In 2000, if just one percent of the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had, instead, chosen Al Gore, George W. Bush would have remained in Texas. And the United States would probably not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Bernie Sanders knows all this—which is why he decided to run for president as a Democrat.

For Americans on the left, whether to vote and canvass for Democrats, and perhaps run for office as one, ought not to be a matter of principle. It’s a pragmatic question: can one do more to make the United States a more just and humane society and help people in other societies by working inside, as well as outside, the party, or by ignoring or denouncing it? Of course, leftists in the United States should continue to do what they have always done: stage protests, build movements, educate people, lobby politicians, and create institutions that try to improve the lives of the people whom they serve. But political parties are essential to a healthy democracy. And right now, the Democrats are the only party we have.

Right. There is no question that any serious discussion of how left-leaning change will happen must include running through the Democratic Party. There are no third-party alternatives in the United States, moreover THERE NEVER HAS BEEN. Third parties at best can be advocacy groups to promote a cause that eventually gets taken up by one or both of the two dominant parties. But it’s usually an awfully ineffective way to raise the issue because the amount of work it takes to build the party detracts from working on the actual issue. The only possible exception is the Populists, but as I have stated many times before, the Populists only gained traction in states that did not have a functional second party and totally failed in any state that was competitive. And then when it did try to go national, it was easily co-opted by the Democrats and completely collapsed. This one example, 120 years ago, is the best example third party activists have. So that’s not good.

But at the same time, it’s not like all leftist activity should go through the Democratic Party. That would also be a terrible idea. Tons of organizing needs to happen on every issue outside the 2-party system in hopes that the necessary policy changes to enact those agendas becomes part of the legislative conversation. David Marcus:

It has often been said that citizen activism alone is not enough—that real political action begins after the street marches and sit-ins. This is when the tough and necessary compromises of politics happen, the so-called “sausage making” required to turn a movement’s demands into policies and legislation. And the point is well taken. In a liberal democracy, elected representatives will almost always be the main agents of social change and the democratic left—no matter how committed it is to a citizen politics—will never entirely be released from its obligation to engage with the Democratic Party.

But the left’s strength, and its power, will always lie outside formal politics. From the abolitionists and the suffragists to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, our advantage has always been the result of our outsider status. By working outside formal bodies of power, we can demand what appears to be impossible to those within; our acts of organized dissent—our pressure and publicity campaigns—can insist on a set of political alternatives. Michael Harrington was right to see the democratic left as a core element of the “left wing of the possible,” those working within the Democratic Party to help elect and empower its liberal and progressive factions. But we must also remain just left of the possible, reminding those in power not only of what is achievable within the limits of the political system but what ought to be achievable.

This is a politics of protest and public persuasion, the work of citizen activists and amateur politicians organizing and persuading neighbors and co-workers. It will almost certainly take too many evenings, as Oscar Wilde once complained. But this is also the steady work that has always been the purview of a left committed to democratic opposition. “Socialism is done from below,” a Cuban activist recently told one of our writers. Our hope is that one day it will also trickle up.

That’s fine too. In fact, I don’t even think they really disagree. Kazin doesn’t say to avoid non-party politics and Marcus doesn’t seem to support pointless third party runs. Rather, he’s saying that organizing should take place on the ground and in the streets. Which is absolutely correct. Labor should work to elect Democrats but it should also promote grassroots activism outside the political realm, like the Fight for $15. Environmentalists should work to promote Obama’s EPA coal-fired power plant restrictions and get arrested over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Etc. There’s plenty of room to create change both inside and outside the Democratic Party. What I hope we can unite around is that third parties are a pointless waste of time and resources that rarely if ever serve a good for anyone. But as for outside or inside the political system, both please.

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