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.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.