Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries
The Democratic Party is deeply flawed and repellent to left challenges—but it still offers the easiest path for socialists to win elections and build power now.
There are currently 7,383 state legislators in the United States. Nine of them are affiliated with the Vermont Progressive Party. One of them is an independent from Alaska who caucuses with the Democrats.
This is the grand sum of the left presence in American state legislatures outside the Democratic Party. There has been a single instance of federal-level victory in my lifetime — Bernie Sanders’s election as an independent to the U.S. House, then Senate, in Vermont. No one else has even come close. And Sanders, after thirty years as an Independent, elected to seek the presidency through the Democratic primary.
In my state of Pennsylvania, many talented candidates have attempted to make a go of it running for office through the Green Party. Fifty-one of them have run for state office since 2000. Their vote totals ranged from 1.39% up to 19.26% — very impressive for a Green but still lower than what even the more worthless Democratic challengers regularly pull in a primary. For comparison, less than a quarter of Democratic primary challengers for these state legislative offices in Pennsylvania failed to achieve 20% of the vote in 2014.
On the other side of the ledger, we have the recent record of left challenges within the Democratic Party. We can look at the bottom, where the California state party has seen a Sanders sweep in delegate elections. We can look in the middle, where Working Families Party (WFP)-backed challengers swept a slate of incumbents out of office in Rhode Island legislative elections in September. Or we can look at the top, where 22 statewide elections were won by Sanders, an open democratic socialist, including hotly contested primaries in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Having proven that we can win statewide elections both at the bottom and top of the ticket, as open democratic socialists, the Left should be salivating at the opportunities presented by the 2018 primaries, barely a year away. But this would involve strategically participating in Democratic primaries, which, despite the Sanders experience, remains a bridge too far for some.
The experience of the candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America in the 2016 cycle reflects this. I worked on the campaign of Debbie Medina, who, despite facing a major scandal in the middle of her campaign, won 40.56% of the vote in an election where 6,000 votes were needed to win. Had she run as a third-party candidate in the general, victory would have required convincing roughly 40,000 people to vote against a Democrat in deep-blue Brooklyn — a herculean task.
Compare this to Ian Schlakman who ran for Baltimore City Council on the Green Party line. He ran a solid campaign, with support in the community, but still ended up with just 13% of the vote. Three thousand votes would have won the primary handily, whereas the general was won with over 9,000.
These are stark numbers, and point to a reality for anyone in a Democratic area: Primary campaigns provide real opportunities for leftists to compete and win. Campaigns off the party line, in all but the rarest cases, do not.
Longtime labor writer and Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody’s recent piece in Jacobin, “From Realignment to Reinforcement,” argues against engaging in Democratic primaries, centering largely around an extensive taxonomy of the monied forces that control the Democratic Party. One cannot argue with Moody’s contention that those currently in control of the party are rich, powerful and odious. They are also, as Moody points out, firmly determined to repel left challenges within the party. These same interests poured millions into the Hillary Clinton campaign, and pour millions more into incumbency protection every cycle. These arguments are being amplified in the wake of Keith Ellison’s defeat in his run for DNC chair.
Fair enough. And yet Moody fails to make a strong case for why third party activity holds any more promise, or to actually gauge the short-term prospects for left victory in Democratic primaries. Much of the piece skirts this central consideration altogether.
“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.”
But as Adolph Reed argued thirty years ago, “no popular base currently exists within the black community for wide-scale political organization independent of the Democratic party.” Since then, nothing has happened to prove him wrong. Conjecturing “millions of working-class African-Americans and Latinos” (and worker centers) as some sort of nascent base for a third-party is based on nothing more than a wish, and one cannot build a winning electoral campaign around a wish.
This is, ultimately, the weakest aspect with Moody’s piece and others like it. It returns to the Left’s vision of itself as starting completely from scratch, hoping to go from zero to hero, to ignite a “mass base” of millions that is currently completely inchoate. We don’t have to follow this script. We have the benchmark of the Sanders campaign. We have hard numbers, a solid gauge of our strength. It is much more plausible to build an electoral force from that than from nothing.
A time to win
The 2018 election cycle is an enormous opportunity. The millions who have marched against President Trump are looking to those elections as the next great opportunity to stop him. Those on the Left, by taking a lead role in pushing our candidates, can seize and direct this energy. Choosing this moment to adopt electoral strategies that have virtually no prospect of winning elections in 2018 would squander the opportunity at hand.
At this point in discussion around the Democratic primary, advocates of a new party generally assert that, while isolated successes may be possible, the party itself, to use Moody’s word, is “impregnable.” In this vision, the party establishment is a membrane. It may allow isolated victories (such as that of Sanders backers in California) but will simply flood the arena with overwhelming resources should there be any real possibility of realignment. Given this, goes the argument, let’s not waste time putting resources into a party that will never be ours. Let’s build our own formation, so at least we have a banner for the long, long march ahead. In this formulation, participation in the primaries simply delays this long march.
Let’s assume that they are right and that wholesale realignment is indeed impossible — an assertion that may well be true. This is irrelevant to the immediate tactical question, given that an independent force can be built and nurtured while continuing to engage in Democratic primaries.
Seth Ackerman’s Jacobin piece “The Party We Need” rightly calls for a new mass party on the Left in which “decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds.” This model is the best of both worlds.
A strategy of using Democratic primaries to win power does not preclude other organizing outside the Democratic Party in non-partisan races at more local levels. Kshama Sawant’s success in Seattle as a Socialist Alternative-backed city council member is instructive for running in these types of races.
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.