The path to a workers’ party
The United States is staring down the barrel of four years of neoliberal coalition government as Republicans and Democrats collude to ensure that no substantial legislation passes the Senate. With the working class shut out of the political process, the steady degradation of workers’ economic position will continue under the stage-managed alternation in power between the two wings of America’s hegemonic party of capital.
The emerging democratic socialist tendency had largely pinned our hopes on Bernie Sanders winning the White House in 2020. Class Unity was no exception. The hypothesis that Bernie’s demands for popular universalist policies could win over and energize millions of new voters into an unstoppable tidal wave that would carry him (and by extension the DSA) into power was sadly not borne out. In the wake of Bernie’s defeat, the diverse coalition that he brought together has not radicalized and consolidated but has instead largely melted away.
Without a Bernie Sanders campaign to rally around, the Democratic Socialists of America finds itself casting about for a way forward. Some in the DSA have returned to the organization’s roots and argued for entering the Democratic Party in order to “pull Biden left.” This “neo-Harringtonism” is a recipe for demobilization and co-optation, appealing principally to those with a career interest in ingratiating themselves with the progressive wing of the Democratic party and nonprofit ecosystem.
At the same time, we must also reject the usual calls to immediately run candidates exclusively on our own ballot line: this strategy has failed for every third party, of the left or the right, that has tried it for almost a century. Recognition of the inadequacy of Democratic Party entrism should not blind us to the fact that the structural impediments to third party politics in the United States are just as severe today as they have ever been. What we need is not merely a ballot line but a true party.
Only a socialist workers’ party can create the basic structures of democratic accountability that any radical movement needs to function. Such a party is necessary to turn dissent into focused political action, to agitate and direct public anger over issues such as police brutality, to weave isolated demands into a clear political program, and to create structures that ensure that electoral efforts are in pursuit of implementing that program. It would also serve to connect middle-class radicals to a broader, radicalized working-class base. The DSA has no excuse for continuing subordinating itself to the Democratic Party, whose class interests and goals are antithetical to socialism, and so we must begin thinking and acting as an independent party.
But what would a socialist party’s electoral efforts look like given the tremendous obstacles to third-party politics in the American electoral system? How would it differ from other socialist organizations today, and how should we set about building such a party? Most importantly of all: how do we ensure that our candidates and elected officials are not simply captured once more by the Democrats? It is by addressing this last point in particular that we seek to differentiate our proposal from others circulating within the DSA.
The party surrogate model
The primary issue we seek to address in this article is not the exact means by which electing DSA members to office would be used to help a socialist party take power and commence the transition from capitalism to socialism. That is a broader strategic question whose answer must be developed through a process of intensive planning, open debate, and collaboration far beyond the scale of a single caucus. Rather, we argue that any strategies that depend upon running candidates for office will be dead in the water if the DSA cannot exercise control over its own elected officials.
If we are to pursue an electoral strategy that serves the goals of socialism and radicalizing the working class an abstract commitment to independence from the Democrats will not be enough. We will need to develop structures capable of resisting the gravitational pull of the major parties while opportunistically exploiting their ballot lines. In addition, we will need to prioritize reforms to the electoral system that will allow socialists to run on our own ballot line – not at some unspecified point in the ever-receding future, but as soon as specific reforms have been achieved in a given jurisdiction.
The most valuable recent attempt to chart a path towards a socialist party’s electoral strategy in the American context has been the “party surrogate” model advocated by Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella in their article “A Socialist Party in Our Time?”. This model has largely superseded the “inside-outside strategy” laid out by Seth Ackerman in A Blueprint for a New Party, which proposes running on the Democratic Party ballot line as a method of strengthening the socialist movement. The “inside-outside strategy” has circulated in various forms in New Left milieux for quite some time, and it has always been conspicuously more inside than outside.
Abbott and Guastella, on the other hand, call for a new party formation modeled on “the mass parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” which they describe as
Highly organized membership associations [in which] members were not only expected to pay dues, but they also had party responsibilities and were expected to participate in the daily life of the organization.
This might sound a lot like the DSA, but with certain key differences: the party surrogate would act like a party because it would have a democratically decided party platform, work to elect only candidates that are members of the organization, and create movements rather than follow after them. This is the common structure of most political parties around the world and would constitute a major step forward for the DSA.
It is on the question of the relationship to the Democratic Party and its ballot line that the party surrogate model has proven most vulnerable to misinterpretation. This is less to do with what Abbott and Guastella say in their article and more to do with what they don’t. The party surrogate model is clearly compatible with a stance that prioritizes independence from the Democratic Party, but it is also compatible with a stance that minimizes or outright rejects the importance of such independence. This ambiguity has allowed actors in the DSA to take up the standard of the party surrogate while in effect watering down the proposal until it offers no real alternative to straightforward Democratic Party realignment.
Abbott and Guastella, for their part, reject a “voluntaristic approach to the questions of ‘realignment’ or ‘break’ with the Democratic Party.” Proponents of realignment of the Democratic Party believe that using the party’s ballot line to elect candidates could lead to the transformation of the Democratic Party into a real working-class party. Proponents of a “dirty break” believe that the Democratic Party line should be used tactically to elect a body of socialist legislators that could then break off to form the nucleus of a new party. Abbott and Guastella argue that this simple division of “realignment” or “break” itself assumes that socialists can choose which path to take, when serious structural obstacles prevent the choice of either.
These structural obstacles must not be understated. America has perhaps the most convoluted, restrictive, and undemocratic political system among first world democracies. The US Constitution is fundamentally designed to thwart democracy through institutions such as the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the Electoral College. Beyond this, the two major parties in the American political system are not structured like parties in most countries, where activists can climb the ranks and change the direction of the party.
They function on a decentralized neoliberal model where a federation of state parties rely on fundraising from highly-bureaucratic national bodies such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Democratic National Committee (DNC) for the Democrats and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) for the Republicans. These federal bodies are run by existing elected officials and party insiders who cultivate their political party’s ecosystem to exclude radicals as much as possible, as can be seen most recently with the DNC coordination against the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns as well as the animosity and indifference displayed towards Donald Trump and his legislative priorities by what was ostensibly his own party, which remained in favor of a typical conservative legislative agenda throughout his term in office.
Furthermore, both major parties are to a large extent integrated into the state. Election processes often exempt the Democrats and Republicans from onerous ballot access requirements other parties must fulfill. Electoral districts themselves are almost always decided by, at best, a “bipartisan” committee of Republicans and Democrats that draws districts according to the interests of only the major parties – when they are not drawn unilaterally by only one of the major parties. In most political parties around the world one joins by formally applying for membership, agreeing to abide by the party program, being vetted, then if accepted receiving a party membership card and becoming an official dues paying party member. But to become a registered Democrat or Republican voter, one must contact a state entity such as the DMV or county Board of Elections to change party affiliation rather than contacting the parties themselves.
Election practices are not standardized across the United States, and there is a long history of state and local authorities imposing a dizzying array of burdensome requirements whenever new parties, candidates, and voters threaten their power. In the aftermath of the American Civil War white supremacist-controlled governments took extreme measures to disenfranchise black and poor white voters and suppress solidarity across racial lines. The surge in popularity of socialism and new state-level parties in the early 20th century saw a wave of additional restrictions to thwart access to the ballot by independents and third parties. Many of these ballot access laws are still in force and voter suppression remains rampant through roll purges, restricted or unavailable absentee ballots, gerrymandering, and mass closure of polling locations. The bipartisan neoliberal consensus on trade, labor, immigration, and foreign policy has resulted in an underclass of undocumented immigrants with few rights and no political representation. We must be prepared for additional ballot and voter suppression attempts by the major parties and structure our electoral efforts to survive such attacks.
If the party surrogate model is to differ meaningfully from the DSA’s failed realignment strategy or from the failed third partyist strategies undertaken by innumerable left sectlets, we will need to resolve the dilemma of the party surrogate’s relationship to the Democratic Party in a way that confronts the structural realities of the contemporary United States. This means it must balance opportunistic use of the Democratic ballot line with a clear strategy to avoid dependence on it and co-optation by it. This strategy cannot simply amount to a voluntarist drive to avoid co-optation by sheer force of will, and it cannot postpone indefinitely the moment at which the party surrogate will discard the Democratic ballot line.
The party surrogate model as enunciated by Abbott and Guastella lays out certain essential steps on the path to a socialist workers’ party. To these we must add several more, however: the adoption of a genuinely opportunistic stance on the question of the ballot line, a concrete strategy to discipline endorsed and elected politicians, and the aim of abolishing first past the post and dispensing with the use of capitalist party ballot lines once and for all.
Beyond the Democratic ballot line
Abbott and Guastella primarily discuss the use of the Democratic ballot line in their formulation of the party surrogate model. This is all well and good: the Democratic line is the obvious choice from a tactical perspective in most parts of the country due to existing links to the working class and to unions. But it is precisely for this reason that we must take special care to avoid overreliance on it. The party surrogate must commit itself to running on a third-party line, as an independent, or even on the Republican line where local circumstances warrant it.
This last point will no doubt prove controversial, but it is unavoidable if we are serious in our desire to opportunistically exploit the American primary system, rather than becoming yet another impotent leftwards appendage of the Democrats. In many districts that are thoroughly Republican-controlled only the GOP primary is even worth contesting, and there are already examples of socialists experimenting with this strategy. The Republican Party is also much weaker at coordinating to block candidates making openly hostile use of its ballot line than the Democratic Party. This is indeed what Trump accomplished in 2016 and what the Tea Party did almost a decade before, running against the Republican establishment with the promise of rebuilding the party. Finally, this tactic has precedent: the Nonpartisan League employed it with considerable success in the upper Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s, giving rise to state-level third parties that briefly broke the two-party duopoly in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Let us be clear at the outset that we are not proposing that most or even a large proportion of our candidates should run on the Republican ballot line. Rather, we are arguing that ballot lines should be decided by the socialist party at the state and local level. Such a tactic would prove beneficial even if employed in moderation, as willingness to run on the Republican ballot line if it serves socialist goals would clearly delineate how our socialist project differs from more traditional attempts to work “within” the Democratic Party. This combined with running independents would create a real “outside” to the inside-outside strategy. Running candidates on the Republican line would establish an unambiguously antagonistic relationship to both the Democratic and Republican Parties as interchangeable capitalist parties. On the outside, this will be crucial for persuading and mobilizing the working class. On the inside, it lends friction to the revolving door between us and the Democratic Party’s consultant class. We cannot illustrate this antagonism with slogans about compassion, community, or grassroots ideals. If we are unwilling to antagonize our opponents, why should we be trusted? And who really is the opponent? Not only will running candidates on all ballot lines where politically expedient bring our political message to an essential section of the working class, but it will illustrate that we are actually doing something different, not just saying something different. This may be our only option to reach those who were understandably so disaffected after voting for Obama that they gave up on the Democratic Party for good, and in some cases even voted for Trump.
The alternative to making full use of all available ballot lines is a so-called “party surrogate” joined at the hip to the Democratic Party. Indeed, some elements within the DSA are already hard at work evacuating the party surrogate model of any points of differentiation from standard Harringtonite realignment. The Collective Power Network, for instance, explicitly rejects even the long-term goal of an independent socialist workers’ party, and seeks instead to redefine the party surrogate model as yet another strategy for realigning the Democrats:
This leads to the final point on this matter: even if you grant that the dirty break does not necessitate a split from the Democratic Party ballot line now, in 2030, or even for 50 years, it’s a red herring. A loyal mass base large enough to allow for a dirty break while avoiding electoral marginalization will necessarily require a majority of Democratic voters and be powerful enough to dominate in Democratic primaries. By the time a dirty break could be successful the debate over realignment of the Democratic Party versus the dirty break would be irrelevant. At that point, it doesn’t matter what ballot line we use, we’d already be delivering all the material results for the working class that we can through electoral organizing and a parliamentary strategy.
The argument put forward here makes no sense. The party surrogate could very well amass a loyal base large enough to allow for it to contest elections on a non-Democratic ballot line without that base’s constituting a majority of Democratic primary voters. In fact, it is quite likely that the party surrogate would cross the first threshold before the second in many regions of the country. This is due to two related features of the American political system: first, that the working class participates in primary elections at much lower rates than it participates in general elections and at much lower rates than other “classes” or strata participate in primary elections, and second, that those members of the working class who do vote in primary elections are divided between the primaries of the two major parties.
The mass base of a strong socialist party is drawn principally from the ranks of the working class, whereas the base of a liberal party like the Democrats is drawn principally from the professional stratum, the upper middle social class, and the capitalist class – particularly in primaries. This means that our socialist party surrogate is likely to underperform in Democratic primaries compared to general elections in which its candidates are perceived as viable by the broader electorate. One need only look at the example of Bernie Sanders, who lost two Democratic primaries despite being the most popular politician in the country due to the fact that a large share of predominantly working-class voters who would have happily voted for him in a general election did not vote in the Democratic primaries that he contested – because they didn’t vote in the primary at all, voted in the Republican primary, or were disenfranchised.
Furthermore, the Democratic Party establishment has embarked on a long-term effort to jettison even lip service to class and popular left economics, instead embracing austerity and pivoting to consolidate the support of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Through gutting labor unions and encouraging communitarian patronage politics in lieu of mass politics, the working class sectors of its voter base amenable to socialism are being marginalized while the party woos neoconservatives and the formerly Republican wealthy suburbs of major cities. The Democratic primary electorate is therefore becoming increasingly hostile to socialist politics relative to the population as a whole, which has been moving to the left on economic issues.
The realignment strategy proposed by CPN leaves us at the mercy of the very Democratic establishment that we would like to see overthrown. Not only is this establishment more than capable of stealing primary elections, as we saw in Iowa, it has considerable latitude to intentionally drive our preferred voters out of its own primaries by adopting and publicizing stances that they find loathsome or obnoxious. This has the potential to leave us in the unenviable position of trying to corral working class voters back into the primaries of a party that clearly doesn’t want them, or of making concessions to appeal to the Democrats’ disproportionately anti-socialist, upper middle class primary electorate and liquidating our political project in the process.
In addition, the DSA’s candidates and electoral campaigns currently rely upon software and resources that are privately owned by the Democratic Party, such as NGP VAN. When DSA members knock on doors to canvass voters they almost always record the results using the NGP VAN app MiniVAN, which shares this data with the Democratic Party. Campaigns use NGP VAN VoteBuilder software to keep track of voter interactions and practically every aspect of campaign field operations. ActBlue is ubiquitous in DSA fundraising.
Democratic Party leadership from the federal to the municipal level has a history of blocking access to this software suite in order to sabotage the campaigns of left Democrat incumbents and primary challengers who displease party leadership. Already, elements within the Democratic establishment have floated proposals to ban candidates associated with the DSA from having access to this vital canvassing software and campaign infrastructure. If socialists begin to pose a serious threat in Democratic primaries we can be sure that the party establishment will exploit every avenue available to it to foreclose our ability to compete on a level playing field. The DSA needs to create its own equivalent campaign software and resources to resolve this dangerous vulnerability.
Finally, we must recall that socialist parties have been successfully established and organized independently under conditions far more inhospitable than what the DSA faces. After the German Empire’s Anti-Socialist Laws outlawed socialist groups and meetings, socialist publications, all labor unions, and socialist symbols, socialists in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) were quite literally hunted by law enforcement and the secret police. In the following ten years as a criminalized organization, the SPD successfully organized German workers and intelligentsia to the point of forcing the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws and becoming a powerful faction in German politics. Confining ourselves to Democratic primaries over the long term is simply incompatible with a properly socialist electoral strategy.
The “dirty break”: realignment rebranded
CPN is not alone in interpreting the party surrogate model to functionally mean realignment. One of the most telling examples of DSA neo-Harringtonism is the “dirty break” promoted by an element of the Bread & Roses (B&R) caucus. This strategy proposes that socialists should infiltrate the Democratic Party until the time is ripe to secede and form our own independent party. The key feature of the “dirty break” in practice, however, is that there are no concrete intermediate steps to take between now and that far-off moment of rupture. The break is a fiction, the utility of which for its proponents is precisely that it will never occur. It serves to misdirect activist energies back into the Democratic Party, all the while claiming to do the opposite.
This phenomenon is on clear display in an article published by B&R, the central proposal of which can be found towards the end:
Second, we need to run class-struggle candidates, who will be effectively independent of the Democratic Party even if they use its ballot line for now. These campaigns can continue the work of the Sanders campaign in raising workers’ expectations and bringing ever more workers into struggle. They can also help socialists develop the organizing skills and infrastructure that an independent working-class party will rely on. Movement-oriented, class-struggle elections in places like New York City, Chicago, and Austin have built local organizations and given DSA members crucial campaign experience. Like Sanders, candidates should run on comprehensive-yet-simple programs of racial, environmental, and economic justice. More importantly, the campaigns need to be explicit about class politics and the need for independent organization. Running such campaigns will help to further cohere the various working-class movements that the Sanders campaign began to bring together.
Campaigns like these could lay the groundwork for the creation of what Dustin Guastella and Jared Abbott call a “party-surrogate,” or a proto-party organization. Bringing together the groups that supported the Sanders campaign for a convention or series of meetings could be a good start. These gatherings could include groups such as National Nurses United, Sunrise Movement, and DSA at the national level, but such meetings could happen at the local and state levels too. Coalitions between socialists, unions, and progressive organizations should agree on a shared platform based on Bernie’s, and push leftwing politicians and groups to sign on. Adopting this platform would be one condition of receiving an endorsement from these post-Sanders coalitions. Endorsed candidates could then rely on the public support, and perhaps the organizational and financial backing, of the local proto-party.
Much of this reads as a branding exercise rather than a political strategy. Consider that the core of the proposal is that we run “class-struggle candidates,” yet we are left with no criteria for what that concretely means. The vast majority of Democratic Party politicians claim to stand for programs of “racial, environmental and economic justice.” Similarly, we are informed that these “class-struggle candidates” will be “effectively independent of the Democratic Party,” but no plausible mechanisms to enforce this are given, and the importance of candidates’ commitment to socialism is omitted. The article calls for reuniting the coalition behind the Sanders campaign, but that campaign revolved around Sanders himself and lacked an underlying organization with a socialist platform to carry on the torch if Sanders himself faltered. When Sanders lost, the forces drawn together by his campaign ultimately scattered to the winds or liquidated into the Democratic Party. Reconstituting the Sanders coalition in the wake of his abdication is a dead end. A lodestone for socialists needs to be created anew, centered around a strong organization less dependent on a single man.
The article next states that “raising workers’ expectations” is a primary function of a “class struggle candidate.” These terms are again undefined: neither have concrete meaning and the resulting standard is so nebulous that essentially any vaguely left-of-center candidate could be deemed by suitably-motivated thinkers to have “raised expectations.” Vague standards and an absence of required ideological allegiance will do little to fix the status quo where DSA electoral work is often unprincipled and frequently exploited by bad faith actors.
This proposal attempts to syncretize its own strategy with the party surrogate model. But what is being described here bears no resemblance to the party surrogate: rather than the party surrogate’s membership-based organization, the authors propose a coalition of various left-of-center organizations with their own varied membership standards and goals. Many of these organizations have no interest whatsoever in any form of independence from the Democratic Party – let alone achieving socialism – and exist wholly within the Democratic Party’s orbit. This is a straightforward example of a popular front: a class-collaborationist coalition of socialists and liberals in which socialists are a clear and subordinate minority who have no capacity to advance an independent agenda. The inevitable result is the abandonment of the socialist critique and loss of the opportunity for class struggle.
Whatever the intentions of those who originally coined it, in practice the “dirty break” has been an attempt to amalgamate a notional commitment to a socialist third party with a strategy that will actively prevent such a party from developing. With no set of objective criteria by which to determine when the time will be ripe for the break and an interim strategy of DSA leaders enmeshing the socialist movement in a popular front with a variety of “progressive” capitalists with no desire for political independence, the break itself has been indefinitely postponed in the same manner as the return of the twelfth Imam. This has allowed elements of the DSA’s current leadership stratum to cultivate friendly and lucrative relations with all manner of Democratic-aligned “class-struggle,” “consciousness-raising” politicians and “movement-oriented” allies. They do this as they assure more radical elements of the DSA that a dirty break is coming, while taking none of the actions necessary for the creation of an independent party that would alienate the “progressive” capitalist benefactors this leadership stratum seeks to court.
Discipline and conflict of interest
An essential function of the party surrogate is holding politicians and candidates to its chosen platform. If it is not clear what a “class-struggle candidate” is, let us propose a different standard: a socialist politician must be subject to the discipline of a socialist organization. The single greatest threat to the socialist movement in the United States is its ongoing co-optation by the Democratic Party, including its progressive wing, which can apply tremendous pressure on politicians and activists alike. Certain exceptional individuals are capable of resisting this pressure over the course of their careers. The vast majority, however, are not. A socialist party that intends to run dozens or hundreds of candidates for public office around the country cannot afford to operate under a model where politicians are simply taken at their word to be good and earnest socialists, or evaluated according to vague criteria such as “raising expectations.”
A necessary step towards building a socialist workers’ party must be to establish norms and procedures that would allow the socialist party surrogate to exercise direct control over its elected politicians. This may seem like a tall order for an organization as notoriously decentralized and politically incoherent as the DSA, and it is. But by formulating specific procedures that would allow us to exercise this level of control we may begin the task of transforming the DSA into an organization worthy of its claims to be organizing the working class for socialism. We have no time to lose: discontent with the two-party system is at an all time high, and the neoliberal Biden administration can be expected to provoke a significant popular backlash. Let us set ourselves to the task of building a true socialist workers’ party, step by step.
What would it mean for the DSA to control its politicians in concrete terms? First, candidates would be drawn from the ranks of the DSA and allied socialist organizations. The candidate must pledge to abide by and implement a comprehensive minimum-maximum party program. All political staffing positions would be approved by the party surrogate, as would decisions on votes and proposed legislation. Elected officials should forfeit a portion of their salary to the DSA and allied socialist organizations, giving up all money in excess of what a skilled worker earns in their district with waivers provided for extenuating circumstances. In any situation where multiple DSA members are elected to a legislative body they must be required to form a caucus and vote as a bloc. In other words, the party surrogate must adopt a policy of accountability and collective decision making equivalent to democratic centralism for its elected officials.
This may at first seem a radical proposal, but it has in fact been the norm in socialist and even social democratic parties worldwide at a variety of historical junctures. Even ordinary liberal political parties in many parliamentary systems exercise such strong levels of control over their elected officials. In the United States, the Trotskyist party Socialist Alternative exercises just this sort of control over Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant. Not coincidentally, Sawant is by far the most effective socialist elected official in the country, and her admirable allegiance to Socialist Alternative over her personal career interests is unmatched by any DSA elected anywhere. The DSA must seek to replicate what Socialist Alternative has achieved in Seattle in cities and towns across the country.
In exchange for meeting these standards, recruited DSA candidates should be provided with the best of support from our organization, especially in races identified as of key strategic importance. The DSA should seriously invest in fundraising for its candidates, connect fledging campaigns with experienced socialist staffers, provide help with public relations and dispatch motivated canvassers to get out the vote. As mentioned previously, the DSA must invest resources into ensuring that in-house replacements are made for vital campaign canvassing, fundraising and outreach software. Veteran canvassing teams should be established and flown in to reinforce local efforts along the lines of the volunteer canvasser teams organized by Philly DSA during the 2020 DSA for Bernie campaign.
Access to this support, however, would be contingent upon allegiance to the DSA and its political program. Candidates and elected officials who work against the DSA’s directives would be held accountable and face consequences, as Chicago DSA demonstrated by censuring Alderman Andre Vasquez after he voted for an austerity budget against direct orders from DSA. It is critical that DSA members support resolutions and constitutional changes that would enable this both in their chapters and at upcoming national conventions.
Just as a workers’ party must impose discipline on its politicians, it must discipline the careerism of its leadership stratum. The proportion of DSA leaders who work for or aspire to work for politicians, Democratic-aligned nonprofits, and consulting firms is staggering. This phenomenon reverses the disciplinary dynamic that a socialist workers’ party should aspire to: rather than the party disciplining its politicians, the political establishment disciplines the “party” by means of paid agents in its leadership structure. It is absolutely imperative that the DSA recognize the damaging effects of conflict of interest and respond by forbidding elected politicians, candidates for public office, and political and campaign staffers from holding leadership positions at any level within the organization. By ensuring that the DSA’s elected officials are not synonymous with party leadership, we can increase the broader organization’s ability to exercise control and make decisions that might be costly to an individual politician but be necessary for the health of the DSA as a whole. While the risk to organizing that police officers pose is already recognized within DSA, similar boundaries need to be established around residential landlords, labor-management consultants, human resources managers, and other positions with an opposing class interest to that of workers.
Running candidates is not an end in itself, it is a means to accomplish higher objectives. After establishing a party program that outlines our minimum demands socialists must develop plans and legislation to implement them and take power. To this end think tanks and workers’ organizations dedicated to developing political strategies and refining economic planning should be established and integrated into our efforts. Furthermore, chapters should develop and adopt local minimum programs tailored to their circumstances. As mentioned previously, the DSA must invest resources into ensuring that in-house replacements are made for vital campaign canvassing, fundraising and outreach software.
The DSA’s current approach to elections is overwhelmingly centered around outside endorsements and individual members’ deciding to run for office of their own initiative, a model which has inherent limitations. Local efforts tend to operate in a vacuum from those of other chapters and the status quo method of supplying candidates depends upon members’ independently concluding that they should run for office. DSA-backed candidates widely differ in their campaign priorities and political perspectives, creating confusion as to what the socialist movement wants.
The DSA should instead shift to a model where state and national organs identify districts key to implementing programmatic demands and proactively recruit members to contest them. It is likely that many individuals who would make excellent elected officials will not consider running for office unless they are personally asked to, and continuing to passively wait for candidates to come to us will cost winnable seats. Members recruited to be candidates must be provided with comprehensive training, access to resources and standardized political education instilling a firm grasp of socialist principles – both to ensure comprehension of their purpose in the broader socialist project and to arm them with the tools to advance our ideological positions with the public.
DSA members should push for widespread political education throughout the organization on the nature of left parties historically and globally, whether it be the wide-ranging community programs of Second International mass parties like the SPD, the abstentionism from Westminster of Sinn Féin, or the “socialist battalions” of the PSUV. Without a proper understanding of the necessary organizational and programmatic character of left parties our attempts to instrumentally use ballot lines as outlined in the party surrogate model will result in the continued absorption of challengers to the capitalist parties.
While there are many legal and structural obstacles to third-party ballot viability in the United States, by far the most serious is the first past the post electoral system. This and other similar plurality systems give rise to a “spoiler effect” such that voting for a third party can inadvertently swing an election towards a voter’s least-preferred major party. Voters are conscious of this fact and so engage in large-scale tactical voting for “lesser evil” candidates rather than voting their true preferences.
If we are to shake off our reliance on the Democratic ballot line we must orient ourselves towards electoral reform at all levels of government. Fortunately, this is both a popular issue and one that is feasible to achieve by way of local- and state-level campaigns and ballot initiatives. The states of Maine and Alaska have already implemented the most plausible alternative electoral system, ranked choice voting, for most elections. Similar efforts are underway in many other states and socialists should lend them our full support – and help to initiate them ourselves where necessary.
The DSA has conspicuously failed to implement any sort of nationwide electoral reform campaign or strategy. Opponents of an electoral reform priority within the organization frequently cite the example of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom to argue that socialist or social democratic parties can indeed flourish under first past the post voting systems and that our goal should be to overtake or capture the Democrats under the present electoral system. The example of Labour is both exceptional and misleading. Of the four longstanding developed democracies that use plurality voting, the United Kingdom is the only one to have seen the emergence of a successful social democratic or socialist party. The Socialist Party of America is long gone as a major force and won only a handful of seats in Congress at its apogee. The New Democratic Party in Canada has had some success at the provincial level but has never formed a government at the national level, and the Japanese Communist Party (under a marginally more favorable electoral system) has likewise never won a substantial number of seats in the Diet. By comparison, all longstanding developed democracies that use proportional electoral systems have seen the rise of social democratic, socialist, or communist major parties. Furthermore, UK Labour was only able to effectuate its sorpasso of the Liberal Party due to the chaotic aftermath of the first World War. We cannot adopt a strategy that depends on the occurrence of such tremendous social and economic upheaval to succeed.
Let us also recognize that the Labour Party’s particular internal dysfunction is exacerbated by first past the post. It is clear by now that the Labour right has successfully sabotaged the party and crushed its socialist wing by means of a fake antisemitism smear campaign. But the Labour left is disincentivized to simply secede and start a new party because such a party would face tremendous headwinds under first past the post. This dynamic abets the capture of socialist and social democratic parties by liberal wreckers who know that the party’s captive electorate cannot readily defect at the polls.
Winning electoral reform at the local and state level is therefore of crucial importance to the party surrogate model. Due to the nature of the US Constitution the most plausible method of proportional representation is Single Transferable Vote (STV) ranked choice voting, which can be implemented on a state by state basis (unlike other forms of proportional representation). This is the system used in Ireland, where the democratic socialist Sinn Féin is currently the largest party in the Dáil. Instant runoff voting (IRV), STV’s single-member district counterpart, will serve as an achievable waypoint on the path to true proportional representation.
Once STV or IRV has been achieved in a given jurisdiction, either by legislative action or ballot initiative, socialists should begin to run candidates on our own ballot line in the same races where we are running candidates in Democratic or Republican primaries. If our primary challengers fail, we can simply transfer their campaign operations to the socialist ballot line candidate in the general election. This will allow us to reach sectors of the electorate that are not activated during major party primaries, and eventually to win elections on our own ballot line – and rid ourselves of our reliance on the Democrats.
The process of developing DSA into a socialist party will require the combined efforts of thousands of members in a struggle waged from our local chapters to the highest levels of the DSA. We urge you to fight for measures that implement higher standards and organizational independence at the 2021 National Convention and beyond. We must prevail if the socialist movement that arose in the 2010s is to avoid a sunset in the 2020s.