Electoral Strategy After Bernie’s Campaign

Against the Current, No. 183, July-August 2016

Neal Meyer

THE MERITS OF Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president have been debated ad nauseam. Rather than rehash this debate, those who supported Sanders’s candidacy (including myself) can better contribute to debates on electoral strategy by assessing our own work and laying out the lessons we have learned.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders wagered that his campaign would be the most important event in the development of socialist politics in decades. There is at least some evidence to suggest that this prediction was correct.

Millions of left-leaning voters, especially young and working-class people, are now sympathetic to some notion of socialism. And after a nasty campaign by Hillary Clinton, a sizeable minority of Sanders’s supporters are disillusioned with the Democratic Party and interested in alternatives. These two aspects of the campaign have helped the Left to address two of its greatest challenges: the challenge of consciousness-raising — of winning millions to the need for radical change — and the challenge of organization.

Sanders has contributed substantially to the development of consciousness by popularizing a redistributive social-democratic program. The role of socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt) in contributing to this effort was small given their limited resources, but together with thousands of spontaneously-launched Bernie groups they helped popularize his message at the grassroots.

On the question of organization-building, Sanders’s contributions are more measurable, if also more limited. Organizations like DSA and SAlt experienced significant growth in supporters and activists. In just the last six months, DSA has rebuilt its New York City local on the tide brought in by Sanders (as a DSA member in Brooklyn I am closely involved in this project).

NYC-DSA brought in more than 100 new members, and about 50 of these members are now actively involved in building two new branches: in Brooklyn and among union activists. Similar progress has been made across the country; DSA has experienced a level of growth unprecedented since its founding in 1982.

But despite this expansion, socialists should be aware that our present level of organization and our strategies are still insufficient. Groups like DSA and SAlt were not strong enough to make a consequential impact on how Sanders ran his campaign. And greater clarity on the principles which should guide socialist engagement in insurgent Democratic Party campaigns — and the role these campaigns might play in the eventual formation of an independent party of the left — is desperately needed to strengthen the quality of our interventions.

Old Strategies Revisited

This lack of clarity on strategy has deep roots, going back to the failure at the end of the 20th century of two rival party-building strategies.

The first strategy sought to build, from scratch, independent left parties that could compete for office at all levels. This was the model followed by the Green Party, among others.

However, the barriers to building third parties in this manner — including restrictive ballot access laws, a first-past-the-post system that encourages the logic of lesser-evil voting, and prohibitively expensive all-consuming presidential elections — appear to be insurmountable. The Green Party has never sunk roots and has never come close to repeating its 2.7% showing in the 2000 presidential election.

The second strategy, similarly exhausted by the turn of the millennium, was realignment. Realignment, as championed by the late Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC, a predecessor of DSA), encouraged socialists to enter the various institutions of the Democratic Party and to beat the party’s elite on their own turf: its town and ward committees, its state and national conventions, and its campaign committees and coalitions.

But the compromises, alliances and behind-the-scenes wheeling-and-dealing took their toll. In the long struggle inside the institutions of the Democratic Party — all of which are either powerless or permanently controlled by a small group of elite party officials, consultants and politicians — many a socialist was chewed up, coopted, or driven out of political life. In this strict sense, it makes sense to call the institutions of the Democratic Party the “graveyard of social movements.”

Although some socialists still adhere to one of these two strategies, the retreat from left electoral politics in the 1990s and 2000s suggests that many lost faith in both approaches. As socialists have reengaged in electoral campaigns since 2010, we have mostly done so without a sense of what our interventions might add up to.

DSA, for example, no longer officially advocates realignment and endorses the goal of creating an independent left party in the future. But it has no strategy, even sketched out in broad strokes, for getting there.

Need for Strategic Flexibility

A moment like this demands that we embrace a great deal of strategic flexibility while clarifying our long-term goals and stipulating the limits to our flexibility.

This kind of strategic experimentation can take many forms. Obviously the most desirable, and perhaps the most fruitful, will be supporting independent socialist campaigns. Campaigns by Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Ty Moore in Minneapolis, and Jorge Mujica in Chicago show that independent socialists can win significant support and help to build a base in their neighborhoods for working-class platforms. When they win, as Sawant has shown in Seattle, they can use their office to act as tribunes for working-class issues.

With some hesitation — and this is where the strategic flexibility comes in — I think that the goal of building an independent left party can also be advanced through a strategic engagement with certain Democratic primary campaigns. The goal of this strategic engagement in Democratic primaries is to popularize a socialist program through the campaign and an elected official’s time in office.

It is also to contribute to the long-term project of shattering the Democratic Party — of cleaving the party’s base along class lines and winning over its leftmost activists in order to contribute to the construction of an independent left party.

It is in fact possible, as Sanders himself has shown, to run in a Democratic primary and maintain a principled hostility to (and to antagonize) the leading party institutions. The cumulative effect of more Sanders-style campaigns, combined with campaigns by independent socialists, can be to demonstrate the diametrically opposed interests of the party’s left-leaning and working-class base on the one hand and its leadership and the donor class that controls the party institutions on the other.

There are of course no guarantees that this strategy will succeed. As Sanders’ campaign has also demonstrated, these kinds of campaigns have the potential to pit grassroots activists against the machinations of the Democratic Party leadership, but they can also create illusions about activists’ opportunities to reform the party through projects like debating its platform at the Democratic National Convention.

The latter is a relapse into realignment fantasies. There is also a risk that ambitious career-oriented Democrats — seeing the audience Sanders has won — will try to position themselves rhetorically as “Sanders Democrats” without making any real commitment to Sanders’ social-democratic program.

The only way to guard against these dangers is to organize against them. Most importantly, socialists must work to build up independent institutions with their own networks of activists, programs, and technical capacity. These institutions must be used to hold left politicians accountable to the base that elected them.

Depending on the context, projects like the (New York) Working Families Party — which seems to be moving in a leftward direction following the exit of several more conservative unions — and Chicago’s United Working Families could serve this important role.

Getting from Here to There

An independent left party rooted in social movements and the working class is desperately needed. The emergence of the Sanders campaign and the unique opportunities it has presented have forced many of us to rethink our absolute opposition to engaging in Democratic Party primaries as one possible way to achieve this goal.

At the same time, the failed experiment with realigning the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s cannot be ignored.

The precondition for moving forward after Sanders’ campaign is for socialists to debate and develop a common strategic outlook for electoral work. But even if we can establish such an agreement among a broad layer of activists, the voluntarism of socialist organizers alone will not make a party of the left a reality.

Two further, formidable conditions must be met. First, support must be secured from a significant portion of the labor movement. Unions are the only forces in the United States with sufficient resources, experience, and activists to support a left party — although a great deal of work needs to be done first to transform the labor movement into a democratic and rank-and-file movement.

Second, there will likely need to be a significant social crisis that creates the opportunity for a third party to displace one of the two existing dominant parties.

The Republican Party, the only successful third party in American history, emerged out of such a crisis. It’s hard to see how, absent a crisis that allows a new party to displace one of the dominant parties, there is any hope of overcoming the barriers of the unique U.S. two-party system.

Those committed to the project of building a real independent party of the left must orient our work around meeting these conditions, towards winning the former and preparing for the latter. A more flexible approach towards electoral campaigns today can help us carry out this work. Only on these grounds can real unity be forged between a greater number of activists on the socialist left and the newly-radicalized Sanders supporters.

July-August 2016, ATC 183