Toward Class Struggle Electoral Politics

Against the Current No. 208, September/October 2020

Barry Eidlin interviews Micah Uetricht & Meagan Day

LABOR SOCIOLOGIST BARRY Eidlin interviewed Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activists Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day, authors of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso Books, 2020) for Against the Current. Eidlin is the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and a professor of sociology at McGill University in Montreal.

Barry Eidlin: Obviously the context has changed beyond what anyone could imagine since your book Bigger than Bernie. What initially drove you to write it?

Micah Uetricht: Clearly, there has been a sea change in U.S. politics since Bernie’s first primary run in 2016. Surprisingly, not many books had taken stock of that sea change. We wanted to talk about both the lessons that have been learned from Bernie’s two campaigns, but also this newly reborn socialist movement, to break down some of its most important constituent parts.

We highlight DSA’s electoral activity with a case studies chapter. We also advance a theory of “class struggle elections” as a general orientation towards how DSA, and socialists in the 21st century, should approach electoral politics.

Then we provide a roadmap for how to organize outside of the electoral realm. As important as electoral wins are, the vast majority of DSA members see socialist politics as going way beyond just running good socialists in elections — things like rebuilding the U.S. labor movement and particularly building fighting, democratic unions.

We wanted to write a book that could speak to both people who are part of that newly reborn socialist movement, as well as Berniecrat types who like the idea of Medicare for All or free college for everybody but haven’t had much engagement with socialism beyond that. We wanted to invite them into this newly reborn socialist movement, to encourage them to join DSA as the next logical step in their political activity.

Meagan Day: Writing the book was somewhat difficult because we didn’t know how Bernie’s 2019-20 campaign was going to turn out. We started writing this last summer, not knowing if his campaign would take flight.

We needed to write a book that would be serviceable if Bernie lost badly. It had to work if Bernie Sanders won the primary but lost the general election, or if he won. And it had to cover the scenario that actually occurred, where Bernie made a strong challenge but was ultimately defeated by the Democratic Party establishment.

This was actually a helpful set of constraints, forcing us to boil down our perspective for how socialists should be engaging in politics to a core set of principles, which would apply in a wide variety of political circumstances. Even though the political situation has changed in ways that we could not possibly have foreseen, the book holds up, because we’re really talking about a core set of principles for political engagement.

Seismic Shifts

BE: Since you wrote the book, not only has the Sanders campaign come to an end, but we have had these seismic, social, political and economic shifts: the coronavirus, the accompanying financial crisis, and the massive eruption and revival of Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality mobilizations. Then, of course, this is all unfolding alongside the ongoing global climate catastrophe. How has that living reality shifted, challenged or confirmed your thinking about the current U.S. political terrain?

MD: Now that the Bernie Sanders campaign has come to an end, some on the left say that electoral politics is a dead end: we tried it, and we failed, so we need to turn our energy elsewhere. And of course, there are exciting developments in the streets with Black Lives Matter revived — developments that have opened up all kinds of new political possibilities and questions.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to contest elections, particularly for class struggle-oriented, socialist candidates. And it certainly doesn’t conflict with anything we argue for in the book.

I think Bigger than Bernie is useful in this moment in that we’re actually laying out a set of criteria for how to engage in elections that isn’t simply “electoralist,” meaning the reductive notion that socialists can elect our way to transformative social and economic change.

We refute that thoroughly. We’re arguing that there’s a particular way of engaging in electoral politics that strengthens movements. That is, the purpose of electoral politics for socialists is the symbiotic relationship between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political activity. It is more important than governing or legislating, although these are obviously critical.

MU: Obviously, anybody who examines our political moment and the largest protest movement in American history must be shocked and surprised. Nobody could have predicted that things would pop off in quite the way that it did, and the fact that they have is incredibly encouraging and inspiring.

But there’s never been a lack of public political upsurge in the United States. Just over the last couple of decades we’ve seen anti-globalization movements, the anti-Iraq War movements, the Wisconsin capitol occupation, Occupy Wall Street, the first round of Black Lives Matter in 2014-15 with Michael Brown’s murder.

The problem is that each explodes and then the energy dissipates into the air. It never finds an institutional or organizational form that can go from upsurge to an organization or tangible legislative change.

BE: You’ve got the steam but not the piston.

MU: Exactly, as a wise man once said. DSA’s hope is not that we’d be doing something different or better than the social movement upsurge we see in the George Floyd uprising. The hope is that we can serve as a box to capture some of the steam, and get some people elected who can be champions of the demands emerging from the streets.

We’ve seen that with this current moment. In Chicago where I live, the six socialist aldermen are championing the demand to defund the police. They are the loudest and most consistent voices on the city council, which is pushing back against the neoliberal politics of our mayor. (By the way, we profiled them in Bigger than Bernie.)

As I mentioned before, some people on the left are saying, “Now we see that engaging in the Bernie campaign was a waste of time.” I don’t think that is an accurate read of the moment. In fact, this moment is perfectly of a piece with the “not me, us” message that Bernie articulated.

BE: Given the stranglehold of the two-party system in U.S. politics, traditionally the debate within the left has been about the role of the Democratic Party. Whether it’s Sanders’ campaigns now or Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow campaign in the 1980s, the question is whether the end result just channels activism into the Democratic Party. Is the Democratic Party the graveyard of social movements? Or is there a possibility of energizing a potential alternative political movement?

That debate has now resurfaced. What’s your take on whether the dynamic is to head into the graveyard once again or to energize something beyond that might break out of the Democratic Party trap?

MD: DSA exploded in membership after Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton, even though he’d spent his career as an independent.

I’m one of those who joined DSA during that wave. In the context of DSA, and as a direct result of the Bernie Sanders campaign, I’ve been able along with thousands of other people to develop political independence from the Democratic Party. That’s critical to understand.

Sometimes in these debates, we talk about it in the abstract. What concretely occurred is that Bernie Sanders’ candidacies in the Democratic Party have heightened the contradictions between the party’s leadership and its base.

His run and his platform highlighted the extremely politically reactionary and economically conservative nature of that party; it helped create new political groupings of people who are extraordinarily skeptical, even antagonistic toward that party.

I don’t think it’s necessarily true that because you’re running on the Democratic Party ballot line, you’re strengthening confidence in the Democratic Party. In fact, a lot of people’s confidence in the Democratic Party has been shaken since Bernie Sanders started his first campaign using its ballot line.

MU: Being stuck with the Democratic Party and not having a party of our own is a major barrier to the left in the United States, historically and contemporarily.

We make the case that the road beyond the Democratic Party must go through the Democratic Party in the form of the “dirty break” strategy. What political figures like Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have done over the last couple of years has successfully heightened the contradictions that Meagan mentioned within the party.

There are millions of people who just got a very intimate education about what happens when you run within the Democratic Party. According to the conventional wisdom, the Democratic Party is the left party, and yet when Bernie Sanders was saying that we could have some really basic social democratic programs — Medicare for All and free college — the party did everything they could to destroy him.

What better political education about the nature of the Democratic Party could you get on national stage than those kinds of attacks? Now it’s up to socialists to make the case to make the next step to say, yes, this party really sucks, and in the long term we need one of our own.

It’s impossible to say that Bernie’s campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination has played into the hands of the Democratic Party. On the contrary, the party establishment is very worried about what Bernie and candidates like him are doing. They’re worried about the power that the Democratic Socialists of America is building in states and cities around the country where we are running socialist candidates on their ballot line.

If we’re ever going to be able to break with the Democratic Party, we are moving in a good direction and are doing some of the things that we need to do in order to engineer that.

Class Struggle Elections

BE: Can you lay out more explicitly the theory of “class-struggle elections”?

MD: Our theory consists of essentially three criteria for how to distinguish between electoral politics which would help build socialism.

The first criterion is that the campaign — or if the campaign is successful, the time in elected office — needs to be focused on raising the expectations of the working class which have been so curtailed by neoliberalism. One of the hallmarks of neoliberalism is the foreclosure on the imagination of political alternatives, summarized famously by Margaret Thatcher: “there is no alternative.”

With class-struggle elections we want to break the spell of managed expectations and give people a sense that another world is genuinely possible through collective political struggle, that things don’t have to be as they are, that this is not “natural.”

Then we need to select demands that are two steps ahead of where people are, but not 20. There’s a perimeter around what’s considered possible in “normal” political discourse. We need to reach beyond that perimeter when we’re selecting demands. We can’t overreach or else we’re going to lose credibility.

I think that’s a balancing act that is critical for socialists to consider when we’re engaging in electoral politics. A good example of this is Bernie Sanders’ flagship policy proposal in 2016: Medicare for All.

The second criterion is to engage in a process of both polarization and unity that only socialists are capable of — we can unite the working class while we oppose the capitalist class.

For their part Republicans are masters at division and polarization. They divide up the working class along lines of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, culture, geography. Democrats, on the other hand, call for unity, but a false form of unity. It’s an impossible harmony between interests in society that are diametrically opposed to one another — the capitalist class and the working class.

The Democrats are essentially saying we all need to get along. That includes Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and people whose medical claims are being denied by Blue Cross Blue Shield. We reject that form of unity and instead want class polarization.

You can see how the socialist combination of unity and polarization is very distinct from what’s on offer from both the right and center. It’s necessary for us to keep that in mind in everything that our candidates and elected officials do.

The third criterion is quite simple. It’s the golden rule that socialist electoral campaigns need to leave movements stronger than they found them. This means not merely being in “dialogue” with movements, which I think progressives often are capable of doing. We’re talking about an enhanced relationship to movements.

We want to use the candidacy and the office to build movements that already exist and create new movements or new sources of extra-parliamentary pressure. The theory isn’t that we can elect our way to socialism. We’re going to need to exert pressure from below to force change. Building that pressure is a primary task of socialist politicians.

BE: Recently we’ve seen state primaries where there have been some important victories for socialists broadly defined, running in the Democratic Party primaries. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and four other DSA candidates won their New York state primaries. Also, in New York you’ve just had Jamaal Bowman beating out Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent backed by the DP establishment.

Rashida Tlaib easily won her Michigan primary and Cori Bush has won a big victory in St. Louis. There were some recent victories in Texas and near misses in Kentucky.

Do you see this as an emerging insurgency against the Democratic Party establishment? How far do you think it can go? How far do you think the party leadership will go trying to squash it?

MD: I see this as an insurgency against the Democratic Party establishment. How far it can go depends on the organizational capacity that we build to support it. We need to make sure that it doesn’t go off the rails, that it is tied to social movements.

How far will the Democratic Party establishment go to squash it? I think as far as they possibly can: that’s a matter of power. It’s not a matter of their interest or intent. The Democratic Party establishment has no interest in relinquishing power to people of our political persuasion.

It comes down to whether they are capable of undermining and crushing us. It seems to be true in some cases and not others. The open question is whether the Democratic establishment is an emperor wearing no clothes or a semi-state institution with some of the world’s greatest power players and the vast access to resources to crush us. It looks different in different cases.

We’re getting mixed messages so it’s a bit confusing. For example, the Democratic establishment seemed to be floundering throughout the primary and was not able to consolidate around a candidate. They spent a lot of time kicking and screaming about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy but they weren’t able to elevate one of their own.

Was it through sheer incompetence that they were going to allow Sanders to squeak through — someone who represented the opposite of the Democratic Party agenda, a neoliberal agenda hammered out over the latter part of the 20th century?

Ultimately they managed to put a stop to the Sanders insurgency, demonstrating that they’re still quite strong despite their incompetence. But we see cracks in the facade all over the place. For example, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted Joe Crowley, it was clear that Crowley was asleep at the wheel. Powerful Democratic incumbents like him lost interest in grassroots campaigns if they ever had to begin with. They just didn’t have the skills to fend off an insurgency like AOC’s.

Then there are other races where we thought we would be able to replicate that success. We felt we had learned through watching that we could beat them through the sheer power of organizing, of pounding the pavement. Then they managed to outspend us six to one and kicked our asses.

I think the dynamics are different in every race but they’ll try to crush us no matter what. They’re not going to give us a pat on the back and welcome us in the door. The question is whether in each instance we can marshal the capacity to overcome them, whether our power is stronger than theirs.

MU: It’s not like there was a window accidentally left open and now it’s been shut. After AOC won, lots of people including many on the left said, “Oh, the establishment was caught sleeping but they won’t get caught like that again.” Two years later, you have Jamaal Bowman winning his congressional seat against another hapless incumbent.

BE: Hapless but well-entrenched.

MU: The movement against the Democratic Party establishment is obviously still going; it’s still racking up victories. And the movement is much larger than DSA.

Jamaal Bowman is a member of DSA, but he was fundamentally Justice Democrats’ candidate. Socialists are playing key roles as part of a broad anti-Democratic Party establishment campaign.

Who’s Runing?

BE: While AOC or Jamaal Bowman may personally identify as socialists and have nominal membership in DSA, they are not DSA activists. Then you have someone like NY State Senator Julia Salazar who was.

Regardless, how and to what extent can these candidates be held accountable? How can they advance the socialist agenda? Getting elected is just the first part. Now actually they’re incredibly constrained by all the many obstacles that the capitalist state and the parties throw up in their faces. How do we as a socialist movement navigate that terrain?

MD: That’s an important and huge question. First, I will say that it’s important to be running our own people. By our own people, I mean, democratic socialists who cut their teeth in movements. Ideally, the gold standard for DSA is to run people who developed politically in the context of DSA itself and consider DSA their political home.

When someone like that is not forthcoming, we should be turning toward people who cut their teeth in other social movements, other organizations that we consider good, strong working-class organizations that share our political values, instead of DSA existing to rubberstamp whoever the most progressive person is in any given race.

If we don’t do that we’re going to quickly liquidate our political identity. We’d end up with a bunch of people representing DSA who don’t have the political perspective or the personal relationships or the backbone to resist the conservatizing pressures that bear down on them when they’re in office.

The ideal situation is to be running as DSA. We have skilled organizers who’ve gone through years of political development including working on campaigns that allow them to get their hands dirty in politics.

They’ve been engaged in a multi-tendency democratic organization that allows them to learn political skills such as persuading people to listen to their ideas. They know when to enter a coalition with people who might not necessarily agree with them, and when to push back.

Those who have developed these skills in the context of DSA are the best people to be running for office. Of course, a lot of them have never thought about running for office. That’s the best type of person.

If you have to pull teeth to get someone who you know is a fantastic DSA organizer, and a dedicated and committed socialist, to consider running for office, that’s much better than having a progressive who wants DSA’s field operation.

We need to run candidates who have their own moral and political compass that they’re going to be following once elected. That’s also one of the main reasons why I think it’s essential to run our own people. Ultimately, we need a DSA apparatus to stiffen people’s spines once they get in office.

BE: Speaking of developing infrastructure and backbone, I think an impressive feature of the Sanders campaign was its ability to develop independent organizations. What will happen now? Will these be a lasting ongoing force, or will they fade away like Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition after the 1988 primary?

MU: This is a good question. I think that the answer is that it will not fade away, precisely because many former staffers for the Sanders campaign were already DSA members. Those who were not joined DSA afterwards because they saw it as their political home. That’s essential to making sure that the steam does not just dissipate, that these people have a socialist political organization that has become their home.

There’s a sizable minority of Bernie’s former staff who are DSA members with a distinct set of campaign skills. Another interesting facet of the Sanders’ campaign was that it brought in people who came from unions where there was more bottom-up, one-to-one organizing. All these skills take time to develop. Many radicals have never felt there were any opportunities to use them. I think that having these skills as part of DSA’s organizing toolbox will be important.

BE: Where is DSA’s energy directed now?

MU: With the end of the Sanders campaign, people who got involved and really believed in what Bernie was saying drew the conclusion that the natural thing to do wasn’t to try to get somebody else good elected, but rather to go build broader working-class forces, whether in the labor movement, joining DSA or affordable housing struggles.

Those kinds of struggles were exactly what Bernie was talking about being necessary to build the world we want. Here are a bunch of people who see social change happening not solely through elections. I think they’re poised to continue to make huge contributions to social change going forward.

BE: Given the current quadruple crises of the pandemic, economic oppression, police brutality and the looming climate catastrophe, will the developing insurgencies having staying power beyond the election season? Even in this moment where traditional electoral politics takes up considerable bandwidth, do you have thoughts about the role DSA can play through November and beyond?

MD: I’m not sure that each particular expression of radical politics is going to survive the month, much less the election. Things are unfolding very quickly. I would also venture to say that it appears to me that while a few stalwart organizers are continuing to press on the demands to defund the police, the current protest momentum is declining, which is completely natural.

I can’t predict the future, but the next flashpoint might be around the question of whether or not schools reopen and how. It seems we’re gearing up for a big conflict that has the potential to mobilize working-class people. That is, the form of the movement and its demands may change.

I personally have a strong feeling that we’re going to continue to see a lot of militancy, particularly among the working class because the pressures bearing down are so strong. As we know, that does not automatically translate into resistance. There have been lots of times when the American working class has been kept under the boot of the capitalist class and unable to organize or resist.

A missing ingredient, of course, is this sense of expanded political possibility. We are in a radical moment. I would say that the turning point was probably the first Black Lives Matter uprising, but concretized by the first Bernie Sanders campaign.

Since then, it has felt like we’re living in a moment of ever-increasing radicalism. You even saw in the period between the two Bernie campaigns, with the Red for Ed Movement [teachers’ strikes] constituting the largest U.S. strike wave in four decades.

It feels like things are continuing to reach a fever pitch. I don’t see that slowing down. I don’t think that this beginning radicalization is a consequence of the Trump presidency, but I think the Trump presidency has exacerbated it.

Therefore I don’t think that’s going to stop if Joe Biden wins the election; I think it’ll continue. It’s our job as socialists to try to figure out where we fit in to each of those organic expressions of working-class militancy, and how to enhance and, to the best of our ability, direct them.

November and Beyond

BE: With the end of the Bernie campaign, we ended up in this situation where socialists are faced with this horrible choice in November of Trump versus Biden. What is the task for socialists between now and November? To the extent that we are engaging in the electoral realm, or thinking about the outcome of the November election, what should we be planning to do in November and beyond?

MU: DSA voted at the 2019 convention in Atlanta not to endorse any other presidential candidate besides Bernie. That was the right thing to do.

I don’t think there’s anything socialists can do in the realm of presidential politics for the immediate future. DSA’s path forward is correct: DSA members are extremely involved in several down-ballot races and hopefully, we will win some.

There are also important projects like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). There aren’t as many racial justice protests as there were initially but, certainly, that whole moment has not run its course. Socialists should be participating in those movements, as good-faith participants rather than in an attempt to capture them and insert our own agenda.

We argue in the book that DSA so far has managed to do both good class-struggle electoral work and non-electoral organizing at the same time. Those are our principal tasks going forward.

MD: If individual DSA members feel that they need to make votes for Biden in the battleground states, then that’s understandable and it’s up to each person. I think DSA as an organization made the correct choice to withhold our incredible volunteer capacity from the upcoming presidential election. I think it’s more important for us to maintain a strong political identity.

There are other issues besides Trump versus Biden in the November election. Aside from important down-ballot races to keep an eye on, there are crucial ballot initiatives. In California there is a big push on a referendum called Schools and Communities First, which is an attempt to tax the rich to fund public education.
I just got off the phone with some people in Portland DSA, who have gathered enough signatures, in the middle of the pandemic, to get a universal pre-k ballot measure on the ballot. DSA chapters, even in the middle of this pandemic, even when everybody is only organizing over Zoom, are developing campaigns!

This is incredible to see. I’ve been consistently very impressed by the dedication that socialist organizers continue to have to organizing when it’s impossible to do so in person. DSA chapters across the country are doing cross-organization, coalition building, and volunteer organizing — all completely digitally right now. It’s a marvel of organizing. I’m very impressed. We’re busy.

Since we’ve decided not to endorse Joe Biden and that we will not be orchestrating phone banks on behalf of the Joe Biden campaign, liberals accuse us of taking our ball and going home.

They accuse us of being sore losers and dropping out of politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am astonished at how busy DSA members are in waging all kinds of campaigns right now.

BE: One of the big things that loom throughout Bigger than Bernie is the fact that there is no working-class political representation today in the U.S. political landscape. Most glaringly, we lack a workers’ party of some sort. As I’ve argued in my book Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, this lack is not an inevitable feature, but rather the result of political struggles in the 1930s and 1940s.

If we build on that argument, do you foresee a possibility for this new emerging movement coming out of 2020 to reshape the political landscape and create the conditions for that kind of working-class party, or do you have other ideas about how that would come about?

MU: Rather than trying to make a prediction, I would say that many people within DSA understand that the Democratic Party is not their friend. The Democratic Party is a fundamentally capitalist party that does not represent the interests of the working class in this country. What they do with that, obviously, is a question, both for individuals and DSA. We have some ideas in the book about how to act based on that analysis.

Right now, DSA is building a bench of people to run as candidates, people who understand that it is a problem that we are stuck with this Democratic Party. If we’re ever going to get beyond the Democratic Party, this will have to deepen and expand.

Many things would have to change for us to create that mass working-class party that we all know that we need.

Who knows, we might see a 21st-century red scare where we all end up in jail before we can end up creating such a party. Yet I feel extremely optimistic about the general direction in which the newly reborn socialist movement in the United States is moving, toward a party of our own.

September-October 2020, ATC 208