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Futures of DSA

Independence or liquidation?

Hakan Yilmaz responds to debate in Democratic Socialists of America about the goal of an independent political party of the working class.

Some members of Democratic Socialists of America are criticizing both the goal of a break with the Democratic Party and the Bernie or Bust resolution adopted at the 2019 DSA convention. These arguments represent a departure from what was until recently a broadly shared goal within DSA, the building of an independent, democratic, broad-tent, membership-based socialist organization. Since any debate about strategy must start with agreement about goals—what are we trying to achieve, so we can discuss how to get there—these arguments should be evaluated in that light.

Brad Chester writes in The Organizer that the goal of a break with the Democratic Party should be abandoned entirely. While Peter Olney and Rand Wilson and David Duhalde write in Organizing Upgrade that the Bernie or Bust resolution prevented DSA from engaging with the Biden campaign against Trump, as well as down ballot races. All of these authors argue that socialists must use the Democratic Party ballot line.

For Duhalde, the goal is “returning [DSA] to its coalition roots” within the Democratic Party. For Olney and Wilson, immediate struggles are all that matter. They believe that DSA should focus on agreements with candidates on specific issues, and support those candidates, even when they are not socialists. Olney and Wilson conclude:

[n]ow it’s time to fight for two Senate seats in Georgia to create the most favorable playing field on which to challenge—and push—the neoliberal President-elect Joe Biden.

Chester makes a case for “utilizing the [Democratic Party] ballot line as a tool” while building independence “from [a] complex web of consultants, donors, lobbyists, and institutions that cooperatively constitute the ‘party establishment.’” It is an argument for reconstituting or realigning the Democratic Party, under the power of the socialist Left.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

Rightward drift

How has DSA “common sense” drifted away from the idea of a politically independent socialist organization? There are numerous reasons for it, but an important one is the rightward drift of some of those forces—around the Bread & Roses caucus—that have maintained the goal of organizational independence.

Eric Blanc has gone from contemplating a model for a party that can “lead mass struggle in workplaces and communities” to boosting the British Labor Party as a model in Jacobin even in the twilight of Corbynism. Neal Meyer writes in The Call that socialists will eventually need a party, but “that could mean we as socialists take over the Democratic line and corporate Democrats quit to form their own distinct party.” Chris Maisano is more unequivocal writing in Socialist Forum, “political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now.”

Maisano does acknowledge how his own position has changed over the last few years. This shift by some of the leading thinkers of Bread & Roses has been apparent to people paying attention to the debates about “dirty break” tactics. It is an important part of what has created the conditions for the current campaign against even the goal of political independence.

A party surrogate model?

All of the writers mentioned above build on the party surrogate model advanced by Dustin Guastella and Jared Abbott. They see the Sanders campaigns as paving a path to rally non-voters with a shared “egalitarian” outlook to build a party-proxy, working within the Democratic Party, that can “at the very least, [deliver] meaningful reforms.”

There are two premises which support Guastella and Abott’s model. First, that the role of the party surrogate is primarily to contest elections. Second, following from this, that the United States government and state apparatus can be converted to a vehicle for delivering significant social democratic reforms. However, Guastella and Abbot also allude to the reality that, absent the type of monumental social struggles last seen in the 1930s, there is little basis to believe this proposal would lead to the expected outcome.

Why this detour to discuss the party surrogate? All of the writers mentioned above build on this model. From Chester, Olney, Wilson, and Duhalde, to Blanc, Meyer, and Maisano—the baby to be birthed in surrogacy remains the same. They are all discussing a ‘progressive’ electoral vehicle that the U.S. government, state apparatus, and broader capitalist order would be constitutionally incapable of allowing to survive, let alone thrive.

Part of the explanation why Chester, Olney, Wilson, and Duhalde are able to argue so forcefully—essentially for a return to Harringtonite, “coalition politics”—is that Bread & Roses writers use the same party surrogate model. The central organizing principle for socialists of the last 150 years, that of the necessity of political independence, increasingly looks like an appendage, an easily jettisoned add-on.

Eugene Debs was a five-time Socialist Party candidate for president

More than a ballot line

One problem with arguments against a break, and in favor of dropping the commitment to political independence, is the idea that the Democratic Party is simply a ballot line that can be used by socialists. The experiences of recent years should be sufficient to prove that the Democrats are an actual party.

Throughout the 2020 primaries, the Democratic Party establishment—representatives of capitalist interests—mobilized an immense war chest, media apparatuses, union bureaucrats, NGOs, and marketing firms to narrow the political horizon and force the Left to concede ground.

Bernie Sanders was forced to spend months explaining how to pay for Medicare for All, refuting bogus allegations of sexism, and talking about his decades-old statements on Cuba. In the immediate aftermath of the primaries, both parties united to pursue the largest upward transfer of wealth in U.S. history. The fact that Biden beat Sanders with the meaningless notion of ‘electability’ should give socialists pause about the power of the ideological apparatuses of the Democratic Party.

The Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses in a way that prevented voters from hearing about the results until weeks later. We saw how Jim Clyburn’s party machine won South Carolina for Biden, how Obama made a few calls and the party apparatchiks immediately fell in line behind Biden. In 2019, in the aftermath of the victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the squad, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threatened to blacklist firms that backed opponents of incumbents. At the state level, Daniel Biss dropped Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as his candidate for lieutenant governor because of Ramirez-Rosa’s criticisms of Israel. House Democrats voted to condemn Ilhan Omar for her criticism of Israel. At the local level, the campaign of Tiffany Caban showed how Democrats can use the courts to their aid when they are short of a few votes.

These examples show the not-so-invisible hand of the party establishment disciplining leftists and obstructing their access to the ballot line. Without aiming for independence from the Democratic Party, our candidates will be trapped in a party that has utilized every dirty trick to prevent us from promoting our politics. Our candidates will be forced to concede ground as they continue to rely on an increasingly restrictive party that is designed to stop them from accessing the ballot line and from pursuing a socialist program.

We must also be wary of the changes in the Democratic Party base towards a wealthier and increasingly suburbanized demographic, as this poses another problem for an electoral strategy oriented towards Democratic primaries. It is difficult to imagine how DSA can mobilize enough working class voters into the primaries of a capitalist party that has imposed austerity, racialized policing, and neoliberal state management.

We saw this dynamic play out in the 2020 primaries as an increasing number of wealthier voters flooded the Democratic primaries and ended the Sanders campaign when it failed to mobilize enough working class voters. The realignment of the Democratic Party will limit what policies socialists can run on in the primaries, since most candidates will not want to alienate the party base of wealthy and upper middle class people.

Socialists not liberals

In the absence of an independent political horizon we have also seen the lines between elected socialists and liberal Democrats become increasingly blurred. It is important to highlight the rightward drift of Sanders and other DSA-endorsed candidates since his defeat in the primaries. Sanders dismantled his campaign apparatus and backed Biden, as he said he would. Sanders fought for $2,000 a month relief checks when he was still a candidate, but he has rationalized the one-time $1400 check despite the Democrats winning the presidency and both houses of the Congress. Medicare for all has essentially disappeared from his rhetoric. Ocasio-Cortez, who was leading the charge for the Green New Deal in Congress, said she was ‘extraordinarily encouraged’ by Biden’s climate actions that simply rewound the clock to U.S. climate policy in 2016.

While it is unfair to expect Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez to will their programs into existence in a period of historic defeat for the working class, their legitimation of Democratic Party establishment policies is disappointing. It blurs the lines between socialists and Democrats in general. This shift in rhetoric among socialist officials is not arbitrary but a consequence of the discipline mechanisms that make the Democratic Party a real party with hard political boundaries. Those who do not follow the line will be marginalized in the media, shunned by party leadership, losing endorsements, snubbed from committee appointments, and facing contested primaries so long as they remain within the party.

Another immediate limitation posed by the Democratic ballot line is the overwhelming pressure for leftist candidates to endorse their opponents if they are defeated. The most obvious example for this is the questioning Sanders faced about whether or not he would endorse his opponents, even before he lost the primary. Many DSA members also capitulated to this pressure despite the Bernie or Bust resolution that was passed at the 2019 convention. Sanders and other leftist elected officials displayed unity with neoliberal Democrats, and have often softened their rhetoric against the leadership since Biden’s inauguration. Finding mechanisms to maintain our independence in the face of such pressures will be a major factor in our ability to build working class organization.

The structure of Democratic primaries also impose major constraints on the ability of campaigns to relate to political movements on the ground. We have witnessed mass street protests and uprisings that popularized demands like abolishing ICE and defunding the police in recent years. Nevertheless, promoting left-wing positions on immigration or defunding the police have faced major backlash in the capitalist media and among party leaders. Left-wing candidates have to decide between supporting the movements and risking defeat in party primaries that are dominated by whiter and wealthier voters. Levels of pressure from the party will continue to vary between national, statewide and local elections. However, we have already seen DSA-endorsed candidates ally with the Democrats over socialists, even those that hold non-partisan seats.

We must discuss our positions on these questions and fight to prevent our candidates from being outflanked by movements on the streets. This requires that socialists take some steps towards political independence. Otherwise, how can we prevent our candidates becoming indistinguishable from liberals as the Democratic Party continues to squeeze them in that direction? How can we believe a complete transformation of society is possible if we do not even believe working class people can build their own party to challenge both of the capitalist parties openly? Why are some in DSA leadership so enthusiastic about abandoning a strategy that has not even been attempted and risking the liquidation of our movement into an increasingly hostile Democratic Party in doing so? These are some of the questions comrades critical of breaking must answer.

A party building model?

So far, nearly all of the DSA-endorsed candidates ran campaigns critical of establishment Democrats while still arguing that a better Democratic Party is possible. Only a tiny-handful of the DSA-endorsed candidates have so far openly called for, or even implicitly supported, the ultimate goal of an independent socialist party. Though these campaigns helped DSA become the largest socialist organization in the U.S. in nearly a century, it is difficult to imagine current DSA-endorsed elected officials leading the charge for an independent socialist party.

Since no candidates at the national level took up the goal of political independence, the real effect of argument against a break is to prevent the DSA (and future candidates endorsed by DSA) from pursuing it. Chester argues that proponents of a break fetishize the ballot line while not really elaborating the strategic benefit of it. Hence, it is important to outline why socialists should aim to have an independent ballot line and support independent candidates where it is possible.

I joined DSA because I believe it is the organization best positioned to help build an independent socialist party in the medium to long term. A sweeping majority of young people like myself support an independent third party, which would explain why so many of them also joined DSA hoping to fight for this party. Recently, 62 percent of U.S. adults and 67 percent of Biden voters said a third party is needed in the U.S. While some comrades might be confused, for most working class people the need for an independent party is self-evident. Both Republicans and Democrats represent the interests of the wealthy and efforts to reform the Democratic Party have failed as much as the efforts to break from it.

Chester argues that a break is unrealistic:

The vast majority of non-voters, who are young, disengaged, and disproportionately Latino, would have to be convinced by a third party not only to vote for the first time, but to vote for a party they’ve never heard of.

It is true that this is no easy task. However, it is unclear why Chester thinks it is easier for non-voters to become socialists if our candidates endorse bosses and landlords every time they lose a primary. Running as Democrats, and then failing to win reforms but rationalizing the policies of the party due to dependence on the ballot line is a major risk that will discredit socialist representatives.

Opponents of a break tend to frame all forces outside of the two parties as marginal. However, this framing is inaccurate. Bernie Sanders himself was an independent for decades until he became a Democrat to contest the national primaries. This was one of the reasons he was able to mobilize a larger number of independent voters in the 2016 primaries. This framing also ignores the successes of Ralph Nader campaigns and the Sawant campaign as predecessors of the success of the Sanders campaigns. Both Nader and Sawant campaigned on many of the same issues and were able to mobilize a significant number of working class people. We must not write off all independent campaigns as being marginal since independent campaigns often force the transformation of the two parties in the U.S.

Socialists will always face the threat of marginalization in the mainstream of U.S. politics in the absence of mass activity on the streets and in workplaces. Blanc and Meyer are equally aware of this threat as Chester and others. While arguments against breaking cite the need to not alienate key institutions like organized labor, ‘insurgent Democrats’ have not fared that much better in winning over these groups while remaining in the party. Even the Sanders 2020 campaign was not supported by most unions, as these unions themselves have often become bureaucratic shells in the period of ongoing defeat they have experienced in the past forty years. Sanders was endorsed by unions that either have a left-wing tradition—United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), or those that have significant rank and file reform movements—United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Beyond labor organizations, does the support of progressive NGOs or liberal politicians have more relevance to our project than the workers we are yet to reach outside the Democratic Party?

There is no way to overcome marginalization without forming an independent presence among rank and file workers, reforming existing unions and building new ones, and building structural leverage to fight for reforms and support movements. There is no way to overcome marginalization without taking up the fights against oppression—racism, sexism, the criminalization of migrancy—which define the lived experience as workers of a majority of working people. The Sanders campaigns popularized socialism as an idea, but without independent working class politics and mass activity this idea can be hollowed down to liberal reforms as our elected officials are forced to concede ground.

Indefinitely postponing, or permanently abandoning the project of a break from the Democratic Party will open the door for a rightward drift within DSA. Our candidates will be forced to self-discipline to become viable contenders within an increasingly conservative and restricted Democratic Party. This may not mean that we should end tactical use of the Democratic Party ballot line this instant, but we will be forced to dilute our program if we give up on an independent horizon. Breaking will not solve all of our problems if we are incapable of building mass activity in the workplaces and streets. However, if socialists abandon even the possibility of working class independence to remain relevant in a capitalist party, how can we expect working class people to join us? And how do we propose to win socialism?

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Hakan Yilmaz View All

Hakan Yilmaz is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Professional Staff Congress.