The Case for a Democratic Socialist Caucus In the U.S. Congress

To make sure newly elected socialists don’t end up looking like corporate Democrats, we need a democratic socialist caucus in Congress.

Bhaskar Sunkara November 6, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib could be the start of a major socialist force in Congress. (Rashida Tlaib / Facebook)

Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s pri­ma­ry vic­to­ry in June took the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and media estab­lish­ment by sur­prise. Run­ning in New York’s four­teenth con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, she hand­i­ly defeat­ed one of the party’s most entrenched politi­cians and quick­ly became a nation­al figure.

Imagine it’s 2023 and we have democratic socialist caucuses in Congress and state legislatures, where like-minded electeds are organized.

But the ques­tion sud­den­ly became, What now?”

There’s every rea­son to believe that Ocasio-Cortez’s suc­cess in NY-14 can be repli­cat­ed. Pre­vi­ous­ly pow­er­ful Demo­c­ra­t­ic machines are sput­ter­ing. Vot­ers are stay­ing at home instead of turn­ing out for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee – favored can­di­dates. And as Oca­sio Cortez’s race shows, a small group of com­mit­ted activists with a pop­u­lar mes­sage can win in elec­tions even if they’re mas­sive­ly outspent.

Con­sid­er the role of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), whose mem­bers helped can­vass, phone bank, and fundraise for Oca­sio-Cortez. DSA now has over fifty thou­sand mem­bers — forty-five thou­sand more than it did a few years ago. Buoyed by the rise of Bernie Sanders, youth dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­ter, and out­rage at Trump’s elec­tion, DSA has gar­nered wide­spread atten­tion and its share of local victories.

Of course, fifty thou­sand mem­bers in a coun­try of 330 mil­lion peo­ple isn’t much. But with the mobi­liza­tion capac­i­ties of polit­i­cal par­ties, trade unions, and civic orga­ni­za­tions hol­lowed out, orga­ni­za­tions like DSA can help fill the void. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, if orga­nized in com­mon cam­paigns, if trained to speak and con­nect with peo­ple and assist them in their strug­gles, can have a nation­al impact. Many few­er than that can swing local races and bring new ideas and demands into the pop­u­lar consciousness.

Today, the elec­toral sphere seems to be the most promis­ing place for advanc­ing left pol­i­tics, at least in the short term. But for every inde­pen­dent social­ist run, there’s a broad­er pro­gres­sive effort to elect some­one like Oca­sio-Cortez through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries. Jus­tice Democ­rats, for instance, was cen­tral to Ocasio-Cortez’s vic­to­ry, push­ing her can­di­da­cy as part of a wider strat­e­gy of trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into a real vehi­cle of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. Though I’m skep­ti­cal about the prospects for turn­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into some­thing that can force durable con­ces­sions from busi­ness inter­ests, using the Demo­c­ra­t­ic bal­lot line often makes a lot more sense than third-par­ty efforts.

This type of strat­e­gy can get dozens of nation­al can­di­dates elect­ed in the near future. Yet the real chal­lenge is not just get­ting can­di­dates into office, but fig­ur­ing out how to hold them to pro­gres­sive posi­tions. While the Left is lucky enough to have a hand­ful of office­hold­ers who have shown a will­ing­ness to chal­lenge busi­ness inter­ests, we need to build an entire struc­ture around demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can­di­dates to make sure new­ly elect­ed fig­ures don’t end up even­tu­al­ly look­ing like cor­po­rate Democrats.

The polit­i­cal play­ing field isn’t lev­el — it’s tilt­ed fun­da­men­tal­ly against work­ing peo­ple. After all, polit­i­cal influ­ence requires resources, and the wealthy have more resources. We need to cre­ate insti­tu­tions in civ­il soci­ety that can help even the odds.

Now, imag­ine it’s 2023 and we have demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist cau­cus­es in Con­gress and state leg­is­la­tures, where like-mind­ed elect­eds are orga­nized. They agree to a broad set of prin­ci­ples, asso­ciate them­selves with a net­work of activist orga­ni­za­tions and labor unions, and only take mon­ey from work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­ual small donors. With­in indi­vid­ual leg­is­la­tures they main­tain a degree of coher­ence — free votes on many items, but bloc vot­ing on key pro­gram­mat­ic issues like oppos­ing wars or bud­get cuts.

While they relate con­struc­tive­ly to some lib­er­al for­ma­tions like the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, they retain a dis­tinct pro­file. And unlike most politi­cians — who are indif­fer­ent to or try to clamp down on mass orga­niz­ing — our office­hold­ers encour­age a wider class strug­gle, see­ing it as the source of their pow­er as they pur­sue poli­cies in the inter­ests of ordi­nary people.

Today, most politi­cians are drawn from the elite, they’re fund­ed by cor­po­ra­tions, and they pick up pol­i­cy ideas from busi­ness inter­est lob­by­ists. In the near future, we can elect work­ing-class politi­cians, cohere them togeth­er, find an alter­na­tive base to fund them, set up research insti­tutes to help them craft pol­i­cy, and build the pow­er in civ­il soci­ety to actu­al­ly make change. Even­tu­al­ly, it will be nec­es­sary to form an inde­pen­dent par­ty — root­ed in work­places and in the streets — able to threat­en cap­i­tal more fundamentally.

This might all seem like a far-fetched dream. But it’s the only way that we can take socialism’s revival in Amer­i­ca from a sur­pris­ing media event into a force that can end the suf­fer­ing and hope­less­ness that so many face today.

First pub­lished at Jacobin.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the found­ing edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @sunraysunray.
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