The DSA and a New Electoral Strategy

Position Paper 1

Author: Ben McLaren | Boston DSA

The 2017 Democratic Socialists of America Convention was a huge success. By far the largest convention in DSA’s history, hundreds of delegates from across the country came together to decide on the direction for our organization. Critically important votes on supporting the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions of Israel, leaving the Socialist International, calling for prison abolition, and supporting self-organization of socialist people of color within DSA, all passed. This sends a clear signal to the progressive left internationally and nationally about where we see our organization going and what we stand for.

But one topic area, arguably the most controversial issue for DSA, was not addressed to the same breadth and depth: what to do about our relationship to the Democratic Party? This is the criticism that DSA members get the most often from others on the left. While it is certainly unfair to label DSA as just an “appendage” of the Democratic Party, wrestling with this relationship is a fundamental question for us.

Now that the convention is over, it is time to dedicate a long-term, organization wide discussion on the question of what to do with the Democrats. We hope that this document will be the start of a longer conversation over the coming months, if not years, that can help point us on a new course.

What do we want?

For us, the goal of DSA is ultimately to build socialism by first building a mass working class party that can struggle in the streets, the workplaces, and the halls of government. Such a mass, independent socialist party can offer an inspiring alternative to the rotten politics of the two-party system, unite all the lost tribes of the socialist and progressive left in the US, and galvanize the thousands of newly joined DSA members around a common political project. Such a party can do this all while winning real lasting reforms, winning hard fought union battles, and winning game changer elections.

DSA’s intermediate goals for the next few years should be setting our sights on and building the foundations for a new democratic socialist party. The question then becomes how do we get there from here?

The new party and the old party

Some still argue that DSA’s focus should be on attempting to reform the Democratic Party. We believe such an effort is impossible, and that over a century of innumerable failed attempts to reform the Democrats have proven for good that it cannot be done. Some have argued that we should become the “Tea Party of the Left.” This completely ignores the class composition of the Tea Party which was largely a reactionary middle class movement funded by fossil fuel billionaires. What the Tea Party did was merely brush aside the moderate-right facade and expose the far-right, racist core at the heart of the Republican Party. In building a “Tea Party of the Left”, we would be trying to attack the neoliberal core at the heart of the Democratic Party from a position of weakness at the Party’s left-leaning facade like periphery, making co-optation of left movements even easier. This is an outright waste of our limited time and resources.

There is however an alternative strategy on offer being advocated: we run open Socialists and DSA members under the Democratic Party’s ballot line in local elections so as to circumvent structural issues with the two party system, while maintaining no illusions of potentially reforming the Party as a whole.

Running under the Democratic ballot line offers numerous practical advantages to running as independents. There is a high likelihood that we could get quite a few more DSA members in local elected positions all over the country by such a method, further increasing DSA’s rising prominence in mainstream political awareness.

But what do we hope to accomplish by such a strategy and what are the risks?

Will getting DSA members elected to local seats under the Democratic ballot line get us closer to the intermediate goal of building a new independent socialist party? Yes, of course, but only for a time. Any DSA, or other socialist, elected is a huge victory for it can offer a observable alternative to the ingrained apathy and hopelessness that is defining this political moment.

But as this strategy continues, as DSA continues to get more and more socialists elected, the effectiveness of this approach will more rapidly come to an end. The Democratic Party is not a lifeless block that we can hope to act on in this way or that. It is an active machine that will respond to any perceived threat to its power and privilege. The leadership of the Democratic Party has innumerable and powerful tools to crush, co-opt, undermine, slander, divert, or just outright neutralize any opposition. Despite its name, there is nothing “democratic” about this Party. The examples of this are legion, the experiences of the Sanders and Ellison campaigns are just the most recent. We cannot hope to carry out a revolution under their radar forever. Eventually the leadership will come for us, and by then we will need a strategy for what comes next.

There is also the image angle. What little “brand” the Democratic Party has is a garbage fire at the moment. Their systematic wishy-washiness, their infinite incompetence, their dyed in the wool elitism, their blood stained warmongering, these are the things that led to the most embarrassing and destructive presidential election loss in U.S. history. Nobody respects the Democratic Party any longer, nor should they ever again. Do we really want our good name tied to such unsavory folk? If we run under the Democratic ballot line, will we be painted in the same brush? Or worse, will our achievements and good politics only serve to give cover to this Party machine who at their core oppose all we hope for? These are real risks that must be understood ahead of time.

Independence now or later

Still, a cohort of DSA members elected to local offices, even under the Democratic ballot line, could just be the starting place we need to build a new mass democratic socialist political party. We can gain untold exposure and deep political experiences from such work. The DSA city council member under the Democratic ballot line today can be the 21st century Eugene Debs, gaining millions of votes for out, proud, and independent democratic socialism, of tomorrow.

It is for that reason we are not rejecting running under the Democratic ballot line strategy out of hand. We rather wish this strategy to be seen as at best a necessary, but certainly temporary, transitional stage in DSA’s strategic evolution.

Socialism is on the minds of millions today and we have the power to organize it. Young people by the thousands are not joining DSA to get more Democrats elected. If they wanted that they would have joined the Democrats. They are joining a socialist organization because they want a future not hamstrung by the restraints of either the neoliberalism of Clinton or the neofascism of Trump. We have a responsibility to that desire.

Running socialists as independents is both possible and necessary, either now or eventually. Look at Socialist Alternative, despite being a smaller organization than us, they have successfully gotten a fully independent socialist candidate elected to city council of a major city, winning re-election back in 2015. The only thing stopping us from electing dozens more Kshama Sawants across the country is our lack of will and ambition. It’s time to leave our fears and hang ups of the past behind, and dare to win!

Even Sanders has once again returned to his start as independent and he does not identify as a Democrat. There is no reason why we need to be more conservative than him.

Learning the hard lessons

Elections are difficult, and no one should pretend otherwise. The American political system is designed to maintain the two-party status quo at all costs. The two ruling parties have untold powers, both de jure and de facto, to destroy any third party attempts. While attempts to reform the Democratic Party from within have all failed, it is also true that left wing third parties have also historically been defeated.

It is for this reason we must be honest in our assessment of our fellow leftists’ independent election attempts. We have to learn the right lessons and not make the same mistakes.

One lesson in particular we should call out immediately is only fight battles you think you can win. Too often independent third parties waste massive amounts of time and resources on presidential election campaigns purely to elicit protest votes. These campaigns may draw some media attention, but they are as just as likely to draw significant amount of ire. Thus, when the election is over, these campaigns often have little to show for their effort beyond a few more tenths of a percentage in vote tallies, a lot of annoyed potential allies, and certainly no new election seats won.

It is for that reason we should avoid any race we think our odds of winning are next to nil. Local races such as city council and state representative seats should be our primary focus. It is at the grassroots level we can hope to gain a strong foothold. It is there that we can best meet people in our communities, grow connections, empower the normally non-voting majority into getting involved, pass legislation with tangible benefits for working people, and gain the respect of our neighbors. Furthermore it is at this level we are most likely to find the most uncontested races, which should be our first targets. We are here to build an actual alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, not get bogged down in futile debates of whether or not we are “splitting the vote.”

Endorse who?

There is also the question of endorsements. Many smaller or newer DSA chapters might not be in a position yet to run DSA electoral campaigns, whether on the Democratic ballot line or running a fully independent Socialist ballot line . Endorsing left leaning Democrats may offer a viable alternative. But again the question must be what do we hope to gain and what are we risking.

Despite DSA’s rapid growth, we still need to be realistic on our capacity. DSA alone will not tip the balance in any normal Republican vs Democrat race. So we should avoid endorsing any old centrist Democrat just because they are the “lesser of two evils” at all cost.

For one, such logic of lesser evilism has gotten this country to the point it is. The lesser evils pile up year after year until we have reached the point of maximum evil under Trump.

Secondly, we don’t gain much of anything from such efforts. A centrist Democratic politician isn’t likely to see the light and become a socialist anytime soon. At best we might get a condescending pat on the head, or worst, a phony “seat at the table” that doesn’t give DSA any power to affect things but opens the door to our cooptation.

And thirdly, an endorsement is not just an empty statement, it is a reflection of our politics. If we endorse a “progressive” Democrat who turns out to be anything but in office, we expose ourselves to many justified criticisms. We tie our credibility to that faux progressive. Never forget the lessons of Sanders endorsing the anti-choice “progressive” candidate Heath Mello. This was a real kick in the teeth to all of Sanders’ supporters who stand up for reproductive rights. We cannot make the same mistake.

Any endorsement by DSA should be reserved to only socialists and other independent leftists that pass stringent standards. Such a litmus test should include their positions on more typical “socialist” demands like universal healthcare and the $15 minimum wage, as well as the full gauntlet of other intersectional demands from reproduction rights, ending the new jim crow and police violence, support for trans rights, disability rights, native rights, climate justice, against colonialism and imperialism, and a whole host of other issues. If we are to build a truly mass socialist movement that embraces all oppressed and working people, and break out of the white male “berniebro” “brocialist” cul de sac, we cannot deviate from intersectional concerns even for an instant.

Cool, now what?

There is so much hope and potential right now. People are fed up with the political status quo, the rule of the bankers, bigots, bosses, and drone bombers that is sending us down the path of environmental armageddon. We can give these aspirations a voice and help to lead this country out of the darkness.

The proposal here and what was put forward for the first time at convention (which was tabled for the time being) is that the Democratic Socialists of America should affirm our goal to build a fully independent, mass democratic socialist party that aims to give voice to all the oppressed and exploited of the 99%. That in this work we aim to work with and help unite all forces and organizations of the progressive and socialist left in this common struggle for social justice and economic democracy. That together we can overcome the old sectarianism of the far left around the common project of ending the rule by the two-party system and capitalism as a whole.

Furthermore, in the work of achieving that goal, a prioritization should be assigned to the different electoral strategies on offer:

  1. Firstly, wherever the on the ground situation allows, priority will be given to running DSA or other socialist candidates on an independent socialist ballot line in local races. Cases of uncontested races with Republican or centrist Democrat incumbent candidates will be targeted in particular.
  2. Secondly, wherever such an approach proves impossible or otherwise non-advantageous, the Democratic Socialists of America will allow for running its members under the Democratic Party ballot line. Special emphasis during the campaign will be given to those candidates’ membership to DSA, their socialist politics, and their opposition to the Democratic Party’s neoliberal leadership. Whenever and wherever difficulty is met from the the Democratic Party machine that cannot be overcome, either during the election or once a candidate comes into office, DSA will shift that candidate’s present or future campaign to running as an independent.
  3. Thirdly, wherever situation or organizational capacity does not allow for running DSA as candidates, DSA will maintain its criteria for endorsements for candidates are open socialists, are running to win, and are nominated by a local DSA chapter under strict criteria. Endorsed candidates by locals will be held to high standards relative to intersectional working class demands on issues related to social equality, race, gender, and sexuality.

The above is not meant as a rigid set of rules that must be followed. Rather what the above aims to give is a ranking of preferred strategies that locals can implement as they see fit, or not, while maintaining maximum flexibility to local initiative. There will be no one size fits all approach to election strategies, rather the point is to establish clear goals of an independent socialist party with a menu of options for working towards those goals in the short term.

The path before us is a long and hard one. Building a new socialist party won’t be done tomorrow. It will take years of difficult work, involve recruiting many tens of thousands more members, electing dozens more DSA politicians to office, fusions with other left wing groups, and building deep roots into our local communities’ fights for justice and equality. But it can and needs to be done. The Democratic Socialists of America has been handed by fate the best opportunity to rebuild a fighting and effective socialist left in the United State in fifty years. All eyes are fixed on DSA and what it does next. Will it succeed where so many have failed or will its meteoric rise be remembered as another flash in the pan. The responsibility, as well as the potential, is immense.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close