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Socialists and Electoral Politics


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It seems amazing that we have to have this conversation after an election where we just placed a fascist in the White House, but many socialists still oppose electoral politics. You see, the Democratic Party is the greatest evil in known history because a left-liberal who calls himself a socialist launched a late campaign that had zero connections to the black and Latino populations that make up the base of the party and had a completely nonexistent foreign policy and thus did not defeat the establishment candidate who had been running for the past four years. This is effectively what the labor writer Kim Moody argued in Jacobin soon after Trump’s inauguration. It’s really remarkable that the left part of the labor movement engages in these ideas seriously, but not only does it today, it has basically forever, with the occasional quixotic attempt to launch a Labor Party wasting everyone’s time.

At In These Times, Daniel Moraff eviscerates Moody, noting that the only alternative for socialists is to take over the Democratic Party from the inside.

“In general,” writes Moody, “because they are already well-known, incumbents at all levels are able to gain important endorsements, union backing, and support from party activists; attract what media attention there is; and raise several times what most challengers can muster.” Moody fails to mention that these challenges also apply to a third party run, where they are even more pronounced. Unions, media attention, money and endorsements may be in short supply for left primary challengers but it can be even harder to find them as a third partier.

This basic fallacy sits at the core of American third party advocacy. Endless ink is spilled on the strength and resilience of the Democratic establishment. But why would that tremendously strong establishment be any more vulnerable to a third party challenge?

The track record laid out above is simple, it’s stark and there’s no way around it. The Democratic Party establishment is vulnerable—to primary challenges. The recent record of third party competition in partisan races in the United States is one of unmitigated failure at nearly every level. Thanks to the Sanders campaign, the case for left challenges within the Democratic Party has never been stronger.

Bizarrely, Moody points to the Sanders campaign as a case arguing against engaging with the Democratic Party. “Of the 3,170 Democratic state legislators,” writes Moody, “Sanders won the endorsement of 91, less than 3 percent.” True—and yet he received over 43% of the total primary vote. It would seem that the institutional Democratic Party has relatively little clout among its own base.

The idea that the Sanders campaign proved that we need to abandon the Democratic primary is among the most confusing on the Left. We all just participated in the most interesting (and certainly the biggest) socialist electoral project ever to take place in the United States. But that project took place within the Democratic Party, and a vocal segment of the American Left seems to believe that we should never do it again.

We need to take this strategic gap between Democratic and third-party challenges very seriously. Thousands of local left-to-progressive formations are springing up or growing, from DSA to Indivisible to the Working Families Party. Many of them will, in 2018, have the ability to draft and run candidates for office. They will have two choices: one, run a candidate in the Democratic primary, with a far lower win number than the general, no spoiler issue, no third-party stigma, and a chance to win—joining the long list of leftists elected as Democrats. Two, go the independent route and hope that where hundreds upon hundreds of left third-party challengers have failed, they will succeed.

These local campaigns are useful as pathways for left formations to build coalitions and recruit allies. The first question of any potential ally regarding a local election run is one of viability. A socialist running in a Democratic primary can point to Bernie Sanders’ result in their district, or to any number of recent progressive challengers. Should a candidate outside the primary point to Jill Stein’s 1%? Nader’s 3%? The Labor Party?

Outside of extraordinary cases, a good left third-party candidate gets 15-20% of the vote in a partisan race without a Democrat whereas they attain 3-5% in a race with one. A Democratic primary challenger can sleepwalk to 20%. Local activists need to understand this, and take a hard look at what can and cannot be done outside the primary.

These numbers are nowhere to be found in Moody’s piece. “It’s time for socialists to build an alternative,” Moody argues instead. “The base is there in cities of all sizes. It is there among thousands of Sanderistas with no place to go. It is there in militant unions and among union insurgents fighting to change their unions—many of whom supported Sanders—as well as among activists from Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, immigrants’ rights groups, and workers centers. It is there among the millions of working-class African Americans and Latinos who have seen both major parties let their neighborhoods deteriorate. And it is even to be found among those ‘left behind’ white workers who voted for Trump.”

Leftists have a choice. They can be serious about making change through American electoral politics or be irrelevant in this field. There are other types of organizing, yes, but if American labor history tells you anything, it should be that the fate of workers rests not primarily on how radical or democratic their unions are, but what the position of various levels of government are toward workers’ rights. If they are serious about electoral politics, the Democratic Party, for all its massive faults, is the only answer. The Sanders campaign should tell us how EASY it is to take over the Democratic Party, not how hard. Remember, Bernie Sanders was not a good presidential primary candidate. And yet he came really close to winning. Imagine if a candidate started today for an openly left-liberal-socialist campaign. Imagine if said candidate reached out to communities of color. Imagine if said candidate started challenging party structures at every level, getting volunteers out to staff positions. That candidate would probably do really, really well in the primary. That candidate would likely win the nomination in 2020.

But the problem on the left right now is the emotionalism and performance of politics. Central to huge swaths of the left, and this is very much one of the biggest problems with what has happened to Jacobin in the last 18 months, is that anger toward the Democratic Party establishment is actually the point of the left, not something to build on toward a better policy or better party. I see this over and over again from the Bernieites who comment here at LGM. Even though both Dan and Rob actually worked for the Sanders campaign and even though I and Paul and Steve endorsed Bernie on the blog while not a single writer endorsed Hillary, we are seen as a pro-Hillary establishment blog because we don’t have time for the emotionalism of the left. We didn’t denounce Hillary enough and so voting for Bernie means nothing!

This is absurd. The point of politics from the left should be using the tools we have to promote the power we can muster for policy goals. That means recognizing what works and what doesn’t work within the American system of government. It means accepting some losses while moving toward some victories while recognizing that losses can actually be partial victories. The DNC Chair is an example of this. Yes, Keith Ellison should have been our preferred candidate. But if you have created a situation where Tom Perez, a man filibustered by Republicans for being Che Guevara in the flesh, is your establishment, centrist candidate, you have already won a lot! It also means playing a long game. Change does not happen overnight. Taking our balls and going home because our candidate doesn’t win a largely ceremonial internal Democratic Party position is a silly, ridiculous strategy that allows corporate forces to rule the Democrats without challenge. Talking to no one but ourselves, hanging out with other Brooklyn socialists at parties in Connor Kilpatrick’s apartment sneering at sellouts who engage the two-party system, accomplishes nothing at all except making us feel good about ourselves within our own internal bubble. This behavior is to be avoided and replaced with a smart short, medium, and long-term strategy. Bernie himself is an antidote to this sort of behavior, with a career predicated on a smart electoral strategy and working hard toward better legislation and moving American politics to the left. How Bernie can be the hero and yet the lesson of his life is missed by so many of his followers is astounding, but explainable when we go back to the emotionalism that rules the left.

By no means are all socialists making this mistake. DSA folks are highly involved in a lot of electoral actions. The rapid growth of the Working Families Party in Rhode Island is already having a major impact on state politics. Daniel Moraff gets this too, so let’s close by quoting his excellent piece once again:

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.

We don’t have to put all our eggs in the realignment basket. We can adopt a strategy that takes advantage of the low barrier to entry of the Democratic primary, and use those victories to build our own forces—forces that, once strong enough, could plausibly break from the party. Let’s choose that strategy, and start electing socialists.

Yes indeed.

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