Out of the Two-Party Trap

Against the Current, No. 222, January/February 2023

Marsha Rummel

Breaking the Impasse.
Electoral Politics, Mass Action & The New Socialist Movement in the United States
By Kim Moody
Haymarket Books, 2022, 250 pages, $19.95 paper.

IN THIS THOUGHT-PROVOKING book, Kim Moody offers new insights about the old debate on the left regarding the role of electoral politics and orientation to the Democratic Party. Moody traces U.S. history from the Progressive Era of the 1890s through today’s increasing popular interest in socialism and the “spectacular growth of DSA” (2) since Bernie Sanders launched his 2016 presidential campaign.

Breaking the Impasse challenges the strategies proposed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and others who argue for socialists running on the Democratic Party ballot line. Moody analyzes the blindness to the structural and political limitations of this strategy and argues that the left needs to build class-based organizations that run independent electoral campaigns to build popular power.

Moody was a founder and staff member of Labor Notes, a leading proponent of rank-and-file labor organizing and activism, and a veteran activist in the revolutionary socialist movement. The author of 10 books on labor and the class struggle, his analysis is informed by U.S. working-class history, the power of worker self-organization, and the recurrent crises and periodic restructuring of capitalism.

Breaking the Impasse “proposes an alternative analysis of the roots of today’s electoral impasse.” (3)

Moody traces how the blockage of the U.S. political system has deepened since the “stagflation” of the 1970s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, shifting bourgeois politics to the right. Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has been the global response to the crisis of capitalism.

“This impasse is not unique to the U.S. It is found around the world where the traditional parties of the left have moved toward the center, while new forces on the right push politics toward more irrational, often authoritarian, frequently racist, but always deeply pro-capitalist policies and trends.” (7)

The result is described as “a clash between organized sectors of finance and production, new industries and old, corporate giants and upstart privateers, and the largely disorganized mass of the population and electorate that finds itself more and more removed from any influence over the political process.” (7)

Neither U.S. capitalist party, in their neoliberal form, have been able to effectively deal with the crisis or the needs and demands of the majority. Today the left and social movements are faced with the deep instability of the ruling neoliberal institutions.

Reform and Elite Dominance

Moody shows how the uneven conditions of political class struggle fought over 100 years ago continue to shape the current period.

Among the book’s strengths is the analysis of the Progressive electoral reforms of the 1890s-1920s, responding to the threats to capital posed by the earlier successes of the Populist movement in the 1892 elections.

Elites in both parties “reformed” the party system — to reduce mass participation. They instituted anti-Black and anti-immigrant efforts to reduce voter turnout through registration, literacy and citizenship requirements. (17)

These reforms fundamentally changed the winner-take-all system in the United States, compared to other countries’ multi-party models where dues-paying members select the party’s candidates. Primary elections were presented by upper-class reformers as a form of direct democracy; Moody argues that the opposite was true.

The reforms of this Progressive period forged a barrier against dissident insurgencies using the primary system and distorted the voting base by overrepresenting wealthy, educated and older voters. Party memberships became meaningless as voters are only mobilized during elections, and membership control of nominations through state and local party assemblies has been eliminated in favor of the state-run primary election.

“Between 1896 and 1924, by which time the ‘reformed’ electoral system was largely in place, voter turnout in presidential elections fell from 79 to 49 percent nationally, while only 31 percent of the electorate voted in mid-term congressional elections by 1926…. This marked the end of mass working-class and agrarian partisan participation that had characterized pre-1896 elections.” (18)

These reforms solidified the elite dominance of the two-party system, “composed … of embedded layers of elected officials and party functionaries, while at the same time making third-party challenges more difficult.” (24)

The electoral system has evolved further since the 1980s to benefit incumbents, early money, and the interests of party leaders. Elected office holders, party committees, party functionaries and party-connected consultants manage elections, not party members. Moody examines the difficulty of reforming or influencing the Democratic Party via primary challenges.

Since the 1980s, furthermore, the Democratic Party leadership has abandoned New Deal and Great Society type programs. The party has turned its back on its urban core.

Multi-racial and working-class voters living in gerrymandered ‘single party’ urban districts are taken for granted by the party establishment. The Democratic Party establishment prefers to focus on wooing moderate suburban Republicans. (70) The party increasingly relies on wealthy donors and represents the interests of the wealthiest voters in urban and suburban districts.

“The self-styled ‘Party of the People’ has shifted to become increasingly the ‘Party of the Prosperous.’” (39) The progressive wing of the Democratic Party downplays this reality.

Failures of Strategy

Moody challenges what he calls the backward-looking social democratic trend within the new socialist movement that fails to understand the bourgeois nature of the 1960s civil rights multi-class coalition politics of liberals, the labor bureaucracy, and African Americans promoted by Michael Harrington,  Bayard Rustin and others.

The “lib-lab” strategy relied on broad, quasi-social-democratic  economic policies and coalition politics to resolve racial injustice, instead of looking to the self-activity of the Black freedom struggle as manifested throughout U.S. history.

The strategy “… was a politics that downplayed the significance of race as a dividing line in working-class life and American society precisely in order to hold together a contradictory alliance in which many of the key actors did not see race or racism as a priority, feared alienating the white vote, accommodated racism in their own constituency, or believed simple economic improvements would deal with the problem.” (89-90)

This notion also involved a “realignment” strategy to work inside the Democratic Party to move it away from southern racist “Dixiecrats.” The details are too intricate to trace here, but Moody sees a present-day echo in the strategies proposed by some DSA activists who support creating a surrogate organization within the Democratic Party to facilitate a “dirty break.”

He reviews the argument made in Jared Abbot and Dustin Guastell’s “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” (Catalyst 3, no. 2, Summer 2019) with its medium-term call for building a party-surrogate organization within the Democratic Party and rejection of third-party approaches.

One of the keen observations of the book is that DSA members who call for running openly socialist candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line fail to consider “how successful candidates of a party surrogate or ‘dirty break’ organization plan to get around the ‘outsized influence,’ pressures and obligations imposed by the party caucus and other aspects of the party’s total field of control.” (53)

Moody points out the contradictions of how successful candidates “who are elected would become accountable to two distinct political organizations representing different and opposing class interests.” As an example of how the party apparatus controls the legislative process, Moody shows how the proposal for the Green New Deal got buried by Nancy Pelosi and party leaders, and sent to eleven committees where it died. (41)

What Kind of Break?

The analysis of the structural and political limitations posed for radical campaigns by the Democratic Party’s field of control poses a serious challenge to the advocates of running socialists on the Democratic Party ballot line.

Moody distinguishes between those in DSA and the socialist left advocating for a “dirty break” and those seeking a workers’ party, a goal he supports. And he questions what we are breaking toward: “If there is not a workers’ party in formation, a serious effort in that direction, or at least a substantial number of successful independent candidates to show it is possible to run as independent and win sometimes,” there is not enough motivation to “break into the unknown.” (56)

He also argues that for a left politics that can reach working-class America, understanding the class and racial composition of rural voters is key. Pundits on the liberal left tend to assume that the “red” areas on electoral maps are predominantly rural and full of conservative mostly white voters angered by the disinvestment by capital and the federal government and who have responded to populist politics of the right.

But “completely rural” areas are a very small percentage of the U.S. population. “Mostly rural” areas vote Republican, but are composed of towns and small cities whose inner core tend to vote Democratic. Moody argues that Rural America looks “surprisingly proletarian,” and its racial diversity reflects that of the country. (78)

The book examines the existence of manufacturing, warehousing, and data center employment along major interstate corridors as well as the relatively high percentage of public sector workers in rural counties.

While Moody points out that there are more rural factory workers than farm workers, my experience in Wisconsin shows we should also focus on the multi-national character of agricultural workforce. (During the pandemic we saw the impacts of lack of personal safety equipment in meatpacking, and the impact of anti-immigrant policies on the dairy industry.)

The Democratic Party and the left ignore rural working-class voters, and without a presence in these communities neither can expect to develop progressive populist policies that would appeal to rural voters.

Firsthand Experience

Breaking the Impasse illuminates the very contradictions I grappled with as a Wisconsin third party activist (Wisconsin Labor Farm Party, New Progressive Party of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Green Party) and later as member of a local independent party, Progressive Dane.

Defending independent and third-party political action in the face of the two-party duopoly has often been a lonely place.

I served for 14 years as an elected member of the nonpartisan Madison City Council, in one of the most left-wing districts in the state. Nonpartisan elections, where there is no Democratic Party ballot line, provide a vehicle in many major cities for independent political action.

Like thousands of other socialists, after Bernie Sanders’ launched his 2016 campaign, I joined the DSA. When faced with the opportunity to run for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2020 with the retirement of the incumbent Democrat, I decided to run as a Democrat not as a Green.

The district included my aldermanic district and much of the urban core of Madison. It is a solidly high-turnout one-party district, so whoever won the Democratic primary in August would win the November general election. But whichever Democrat won in my district, the Republicans would control the State Assembly, since Wisconsin is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation and will remain so for the next decade.

Early in the campaign, I got an inside look at how the Assembly Democratic caucus helped candidates. After the filing deadline passed, the Assembly caucus organized a Zoom meeting where small groups of candidates from across the state were put in virtual rooms to give our two-minute elevator speech to slews of lobbyists who rotated through in batches.

I naïvely thought I would meet individual donors, but instead I met the reps from the banking, grocery, building trades and realtors’ industry associations. I felt like I was in a Hollywood Squares meat market for corporate lobbyists.

It was clear that once elected, Assembly candidates would be expected to participate in the Democratic caucus. Candidates are supposed to contribute to the Assembly PAC (and other party PACs). Candidates in safe seats are expected to help other candidates around the state, not organize their districts.

Candidates are instructed to target likely voters and rely on professional consultants for data-crunching and digital campaign tools like targeted phone banking, text messaging and social media buys. Nonvoters are ignored.

When I read Moody’s description of the “party’s field of influence and control” (43), I understood it immediately. I did not win in August 2020, and I was relieved.

Toward Independent Political Action

Beyond the Impasse urges us to seize opportunities to experiment by conducting independent working-class political action in one-party urban districts dominated by Democrats, especially ones that are key centers of logistic clusters; and in one-party rural districts dominated by Republicans, particularly where union organizing has been successful.

There are hundreds of these districts that could be a starting point. Running as independents means that candidates bypass the pitfalls of the party and caucus’ pressure to conform to their norms, protocols, and discipline and instead focus on mobilizing the larger electorate. (170-171)

Who Is This Larger Electorate?

“The biggest missing working-class vote is unquestionably that of the ‘party of nonvoters’ …nearly 77 million citizen voters eligible to vote did not do so in 2020. These are mostly lower-income working-class people, many single parents, younger, more urban, and more racially diverse than the population. Their numbers exceed the margins of victory or defeat in the major battleground states and their numbers surpass Trump’s entire 2020 vote.” (83)

The recent midterm election identified a trend described in Breaking the Impasse: the relative decline of the Black vote, “both as a proportion of those voting and of those voting Democratic.” (81) Moody also looks at the demographics of the Latinx vote, the majority composed of immigrants or former immigrants from Mexico and Central America and their children.

Given the centrist economic policies of the Democratic Party and the deference to business and rich people, it is not certain that these voters will show up for the Democratic Party.

Ranked Choice Voting

In the Alaska special election held August 2022 to fill the Congressional seat vacated due to the death of the Republican incumbent of 49 years, Ranked Choice Voting was used for the first time since it was adopted in 2020.

It resulted in the unexpected victory of Democratic state representative and former tribal judge Mary Peltola, while the seeming heir apparent, former Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin came in second. Peltola also won re-election in November for a full two-year term, after the second round of counting gave her the majority.

Instead of a partisan primary, Ranked Choice Voting holds an open primary in which candidates from all parties participate.  In Alaska, the top four vote-getters proceed to the general election where voters submit ranked votes and simulated runoffs continue until a winner receives more than 50% of the vote emerges.

The book doesn’t raise the question whether the left should push for Ranked Choice Voting as a strategy, but I suggest that it should be tested further.

Lessons and Future Prospects

During the 2022 midterm elections, we saw the general pattern that incumbents have a huge institutional advantage upset, as far-right MAGA Republican primary candidates unseated traditional Republican incumbents.

Beyond the Impasse argues that the reactionary and increasingly fascist-like character of the Republican Party is not just a Trumpian phenomenon but has its roots starting in 1964 with Barry Goldwater’s campaign for President. Today the Republican Party is a hard-right party that has built strong state party organizations and used gerrymandering to pick voters.

The possibility of violent opposition from the far right is very real, as evidenced by the violence demonstrated in January 2021.

If the left engages in new independent electoral strategies using the power of the working-class as derived from its economic position, Moody reminds us that it should be prepared for legal assaults regarding ballot access, state repression, a flood of dark money and media disinformation.

The book examines the historic record, from the 1930s labor movement and the movements and actions of the civil rights era to today’s Black Lives Matter, women’s rights and recent strike upsurges, to make the case that electoral campaigns should be connected to the self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed and exploited if we are to achieve meaningful reform.

“(T)he best social legislation in the U.S., as limited as it has been, has followed the rhythm of mass social upheavals and movements far more closely than that of the ins and outs of the two major parties.” (128-129)

Moody argues that a mass working class based political organization or party built on the self-activity and power of workers is required to break the impasse. This involves organizing the unorganized and will require a dynamic and democratic labor movement.

Moody points to the increased vulnerability of employers who rely on speedy and close connections between manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution sites in major urban and metropolitan areas (149, 161) and the upsurge in strike activity among teachers, health care providers, baristas, warehouse workers and others.

The outpouring of worker activity since 2020 was “truly an uprising of ‘untrained’ organizers, ‘undeveloped’ organic leaders, activists who skipped a structure test or two, and people who had never protested before.” (150)

“If there is to be a new working class-based political party of the left in the U.S., it will have to be much more than an electoral organization…. It should differ not only from conventional major-party campaigning in being an independent, permanent, democratic membership organization, but also from that of many third-party efforts, such as the Green Party, that have no real social base and rely on a limited issue constituency.” (168)

The impasse exists in a world of rising social turbulence and deep crisis. The solutions will require ruptures and transitions that are not linear, or simply events. If the left doesn’t change the dominant electoral practice of using the Democratic Party and build a left-wing political alternative outside the party, it will take a step backwards and ignore the signs and promise of the upsurges from below.

Kim Moody provides us with a welcome roadmap to break the gridlock and new thinking on the kinds of organization and politics needed to build the organized power of the working class.

January-February 2023, ATC 222

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