Should Democratic Socialists Be Democrats?

Democratic Socialists of America members debate how—and to what extent—socialists should engage with electoral politics.

Chris Maisano and Jessie Mannisto

Eugene V. Debs ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Bernie Sanders was inspired by Debs but ran as a Democrat. (Steve Liss / The Life Images Collection / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders’ his­toric cam­paign for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion, accom­pa­nied by his unabashed embrace of the S‑word, has pro­pelled the con­cept of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism into the mainstream.

We on the Left have no choice but to build something new—as difficult as that will be.

As a result, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), the only thriv­ing descen­dant of the Social­ist Par­ty of Eugene V. Debs, is being reju­ve­nat­ed. Since 2015, DSA mem­ber­ship has increased by more than 200 per­cent and now stands at more than 20,000. The num­ber of chap­ters has increased from 43 to more than 120 in 42 states. In the remain­ing eight states, local DSA groups are work­ing toward chap­ter sta­tus. The biggest change, how­ev­er, has been demo­graph­ic. In 2015, only a third of DSA’s mem­bers were in their twen­ties or thir­ties. Today, thanks to the influx of young Bernie sup­port­ers, peo­ple under 40 are the vast majority.

DSA will hold its bien­ni­al con­ven­tion in Chica­go on August 3 – 6. At the top of the agen­da: What is a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist strat­e­gy in the Trump era? And what does that look like in the elec­toral arena?

After the fail­ure of Rep. Kei­th Ellison’s (D‑Minn.) bid to chair the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC), some DSA mem­bers have become dis­en­chant­ed with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and the orga­ni­za­tion is divid­ed on how — even whether — to work with the Democrats.

In These Times asked Jessie Man­nis­to, a 34-year-old librar­i­an and DSA mem­ber in D.C. who was active in Sanders’ cam­paign, and Chris Maisano, a 34-year-old union staffer and Brook­lyn mem­ber of DSA’s Left Cau­cus, a group that doubts the wis­dom of align­ing with the Democ­rats, to weigh in.

CHRIS: The biggest prob­lem with this debate is that the antag­o­nists typ­i­cal­ly skip over the most inter­est­ing (and most impor­tant) ques­tions in a rush to recite for­mu­las or invoke the arcana of Amer­i­can elec­toral struc­tures. More often than not, they don’t even both­er to ask why (or whether) social­ists should par­tic­i­pate in elec­toral pol­i­tics in the first place. So why par­tic­i­pate, espe­cial­ly when the bar­ri­ers we face are so high? How does elec­toral activ­i­ty fit into our larg­er project? How does it help us achieve our ulti­mate goal? What are the dan­gers and lim­i­ta­tions of elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion (whether in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty or out­side of it), and how do they affect our movement?

The Left focus­es on two main rea­sons for elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion. The first is ame­lio­ra­tion. Here, the pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion is to gain a foothold in gov­ern­ment, push reforms and block rightwing ini­tia­tives. Suc­cess is mea­sured large­ly by win­ning elec­tions and keep­ing con­ser­v­a­tives out of office. It is ori­ent­ed toward the short term, and its log­ic leads direct­ly into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The sec­ond is oppo­si­tion. In this case, the pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion is to spread polit­i­cal ideas, agi­tate the peo­ple and mea­sure the polit­i­cal strength of the con­tend­ing social forces. Suc­cess is mea­sured large­ly by whether con­stituen­cy for social­ism is grow­ing out­side the elec­toral sys­tem, rather than by win­ning elec­tions. It is ori­ent­ed toward a longer term, and its log­ic leads pri­mar­i­ly (though not exclu­sive­ly) into polit­i­cal activ­i­ty inde­pen­dent from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

It should be said that the rel­a­tive weight of these two ori­en­ta­tions is not equiv­a­lent. Ame­lio­ra­tion is the dom­i­nant approach to elec­toral pol­i­tics on the broad Left (and with­in DSA), and has been since the New Deal and the Pop­u­lar Front. Nei­ther of these ori­en­ta­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry. Reformism doesn’t reform, and it has not suc­ceed­ed in fight­ing the Right, either. At the same time, an oppo­si­tion­al approach to elec­toral pol­i­tics seems like a recipe for marginalization.

Many will point to Bernie Sanders as evi­dence for a third option — what we might call the dung heap” strat­e­gy, after the Irish rev­o­lu­tion­ary James Con­nol­ly. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty may be a pile of crap, but per­haps one can climb on top of it to address the mass­es, as Bernie did dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries. The trick, as Con­nol­ly rec­og­nized, is not to get cov­ered in dung.

But falling into the dung is inevitable, and we on the Left have no choice but to build some­thing new — as dif­fi­cult as that will be. I don’t think that will begin to hap­pen until these lat­est attempts to climb the dung heap (e.g., the cam­paign to elect Kei­th Elli­son chair of the DNC) end up in a mess.

JESSIE: What makes this debate inter­est­ing is the enthu­si­asm around demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism today. The Sanders cam­paign has cre­at­ed a fac­tion with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that is ready to fight for and embrace not only our ideals, but also the label demo­c­ra­t­ic socialist.”

The best rea­son to par­tic­i­pate in elec­toral pol­i­tics is that we’ve got a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to climb that dung heap and use it to fer­til­ize some seeds. By that I mean, of course, the local, state and nation­al lead­ers who will begin the long, chal­leng­ing work of devel­op­ing poli­cies to sup­port our goals.

More­over, as demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists, we’re pre­sum­ably sup­port­ers of democ­ra­cy — so we’d bet­ter be ready to fight for the integri­ty of elec­tions. By going head to head against cor­po­rate Democ­rats, we can con­front their lack of mean­ing­ful plans to help ordi­nary Amer­i­cans and at the same time shine a light on the cor­rupt and unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic nature of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. That’s a nar­ra­tive that res­onates, and we can use it to our advan­tage as we fight for jus­tice and free­dom under the two-par­ty system.

The pri­maries also give us a chance to reach those who agree with our cri­tiques and our pro­pos­als but who aren’t inclined to see them­selves as rad­i­cals” or activists” — those who only tune in when it’s time to vote. Our mes­sage has to res­onate out­side our base if we ever want to build mean­ing­ful social­ist insti­tu­tions. Mak­ing that case despite the system’s flaws demon­strates that we’re com­mit­ted, and that we’re not going away just because the estab­lish­ment bribes the refs and tries to move the goal posts.

It’s excit­ing and encour­ag­ing to hear the demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist mes­sage in the elec­toral are­na. Look at South Ful­ton, Ga., where DSA’s khalid kamau (spelled in the Yoru­ba African tra­di­tion) just won his first-round city coun­cil elec­tion, thanks in part to the DSA mem­bers who worked
to ampli­fy his mes­sage and turn out the vote for him. The fact that we’re excit­ed about a first-round vic­to­ry in a city coun­cil elec­tion could be said to show how far we have to go, but we have to start where we are. We didn’t sign up as social­ists because we thought it would be easy, and we know that pow­er con­cedes noth­ing with­out a fight. But why claim that we’re doomed to fail already?

Even as I call for step­ping up the elec­toral fight against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, how­ev­er, I’d love to hear a good Plan B. If we were to build some­thing new, what would it look like? Must we wait until our hopes blow up in such a fiery fash­ion that a mean­ing­ful­ly mas­sive con­tin­gent opts for #DemEx­it? Is that even desir­able? Or does this Plan B exist whol­ly out­side elec­toral pol­i­tics? If there is some­thing new to be built, is it pos­si­ble to start now while chan­nel­ing the post-Bernie elec­toral energy?

CHRIS: The suc­cess of Bernie Sanders should be a source of hope for social­ists in the Unit­ed States today, but it is also impor­tant to keep that in per­spec­tive. It’s a stretch to argue that, in the wake of his pres­i­den­tial run, there is now a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist fac­tion of any sig­nif­i­cance inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Nan­cy Pelosi’s infa­mous town hall dec­la­ra­tion, We’re cap­i­tal­ist, and that’s just the way it is,” is more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the par­ty and the views of its lead­ers than Bernie’s salvoes against the bil­lion­aire class.

The dif­fer­ence between us, as far 
as I can tell, is our respec­tive views on the place of elec­toral pol­i­tics in the broad­er social­ist project. You argue that elec­tions and par­ty pol­i­tics are the best are­nas for us to spread our ideas, chal­lenge the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment and devel­op a new gen­er­a­tion of social­ist lead­ers. I don’t agree that par­tic­i­pa­tion in the elec­toral process — whether as Democ­rats or inde­pen­dents — is the most effec­tive way for us to attain the goals we both share.

We should not reject elec­toral pol­i­tics entire­ly. The con­di­tions of bour­geois democ­ra­cy we live under require that we win some degree of elec­toral sup­port for our project. But it is very dif­fi­cult to use elec­toral cam­paigns as a vehi­cle for orga­niz­ing mass move­ments. To be suc­cess­ful, strikes and oth­er forms of social strug­gle require direct chal­lenges to the pow­er of an employ­er or the state, and under these con­di­tions social­ists can often play a lead­ing role.

Elec­tion cam­paigns, by con­trast, oper­ate accord­ing to a dif­fer­ent log­ic — unless you’re will­ing to lose con­sis­tent­ly. Since elec­tions are all about win­ning a major­i­ty of the vote and get­ting sup­port­ers out to the polls, all oth­er con­cerns are secondary.

While most peo­ple only tune in to offi­cial pol­i­tics at elec­tion time (if they even tune in at all), they have no choice but to go to work, deal with their land­lords and raise their fam­i­lies every day of their lives. These are the are­nas where peo­ple direct­ly expe­ri­ence exploita­tion and oppres­sion, and they are where social­ists can work to orga­nize move­ments with the pow­er to win con­ces­sions and change people’s consciousness.

The elec­tion of indi­vid­ual social­ists to offices scat­tered around the coun­try is not a bad thing. But in the absence of a larg­er extra-elec­toral move­ment capa­ble of bring­ing irre­sistible pres­sure to bear on the gov­ern­ment, it’s more like­ly that the sys­tem will change them more than they will change the system.

Elec­toral pol­i­tics can play a con­struc­tive role in our project only if we are will­ing to take the long view and embed our­selves in work­places and com­mu­ni­ties to re-orga­nize the work­ing class. The state and the two main­stream par­ties are not neu­tral insti­tu­tions. We can’t sim­ply enter them and hope to wield them for our own pur­pos­es, espe­cial­ly when the Left and social move­ments are so weak. With­out an inde­pen­dent source of social pow­er, our abil­i­ty to make gains through the elec­toral are­na will be severe­ly limited.

JESSIE: Let’s frame the ques­tion care­ful­ly: Should we work with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? I’d say yes. Is it enough to work with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? Def­i­nite­ly not. I’m ener­gized by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this polit­i­cal moment, but I still see elec­toral work as one com­po­nent of broad­er move­ment build­ing. It seems our main dif­fer­ence is our degree of optimism.

That points to the ever-present under­ly­ing ques­tion: How can we best allo­cate our lim­it­ed resources? When we spend time on elec­toral cam­paigns, we’ve got to think strate­gi­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly about how this work can help build our move­ment. Is it through the ideas the can­di­date is spread­ing? The allies we’re mak­ing? Or the races we win?

One hur­dle stands in the way of such strate­gic think­ing: Many demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist activists don’t know what a mean­ing­ful extra-elec­toral effort looks like. Bernie’s cam­paign gave us a con­crete, vivid exam­ple of how our mes­sage could res­onate and spread. It’s impor­tant for our expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers to edu­cate our new mem­bers about oth­er means of move­ment build­ing, includ­ing con­crete details of suc­cess­ful cam­paigns that pro­vide a vision to emu­late. That, in turn, would get new recruits and long-time mem­bers alike think­ing about how our elec­toral work can build upon these efforts and cre­ate some­thing that lasts after the cam­paign ends. Indeed, I joined DSA because I thought elec­tions weren’t near­ly enough, and though I had an abstract sense that there was more that could be done, I had no idea what that was or how to go about doing it.

Elec­toral work isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the best way to spread our mes­sage, but it’s a way that’s proven pow­er­ful of late. I’ve felt frus­trat­ed to the point of con­tem­plat­ing can­cel­ing my Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty reg­is­tra­tion for the sec­ond time (I signed back up to vote for Bernie), but then I remind­ed myself how much eas­i­er my giv­ing up would make it for all those cor­po­rate super-del­e­gates. They’d love it if we sat at home and let them run their pri­maries with no alter­na­tive vision to stir things up (even as they’d sure­ly blame us for any loss­es if we did the same in Novem­ber). But Nan­cy Pelosi’s defi­ant dec­la­ra­tion that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is cap­i­tal­ist — indeed, that she even had to say this! — shows that this posi­tion is now some­thing that requires their defense.

Let’s keep this pres­sure up — in every place that those who are sym­pa­thet­ic to our ideas will see it. Let’s shine a spot­light on what it means to be a cap­i­tal­ist apol­o­gist in an age of ris­ing inequal­i­ty and eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ty. Pre­sum­ably, we all joined DSA because we believe it’s pos­si­ble for avowed­ly social­ist ideas to res­onate with the Amer­i­can peo­ple. For that rea­son, I hope we don’t exit the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty; I hope we infil­trate it. 

Chris Maisano is a writer and activist based in Brook­lyn, N.Y. He has writ­ten for Demo­c­ra­t­ic Left and and is the edi­tor of The Activist.Jessie Man­nis­to is a librar­i­an and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca mem­ber who was active in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial campaign.
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