Parties in the USA

To be effective, democratic socialists must clearly grasp the unique characteristics of American-style political parties.

The United States has one of the most unique political systems in the world. No country has anything like our particular set of institutions and norms governing elections, representation, and legislation. There are many lenses through which one could examine the exceptional nature of American politics, but few are more clarifying than our strange and unusual political parties.

In his new book True Blues: The Contentious Transformation of the Democratic Party, the political scientist Adam Hilton traces the conflicts between officeholders, interest groups, and activists that reshaped the Democratic Party and the wider political system. Using the New Politics movement of the 1970s as his starting point, he also assesses the opportunities and contradictions confronting socialists who seek to use the party as a vehicle for social transformation.

Socialist Forum recently spoke with Hilton about his book and the broader questions it raises for DSA members: electoral strategy, the relationship between officeholders and movement activists, and the prospects for a new kind of party system in the US. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Socialist Forum: Why did you decide to study American political parties and the Democratic Party in particular?

Adam Hilton: I was a graduate student of Leo Panitch‘s in Toronto. I went up to York University to work with Leo because I was fascinated with Left politics and the prospects for Left politics inside the United States. Leo did his work on social democracy, the British Labour Party in particular, especially the struggle to democratize that party in the 1980s. In my own research on the Democrats I found that there was a similar movement in the party in the late 1960s-1970s, so it seemed a natural thing to want to learn more about. As I was doing that research, Bernie Sanders came on the scene and showed the proof of concept that there was space in the Democratic Party, not for the American Left to achieve all its goals, but to make surprisingly significant headway. So it was a personal and academic interest on my part intersecting with a historical development, I might even say a historic development, unfolding right in front of me.

Something that clearly comes across in your work is that American-style political parties are extremely unique compared to their counterparts around the world. What makes American political parties so unique?

For one, they are what my colleagues Danny Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld call “hollow parties.” We have these name brands that are remarkably durable, but with pretty loosely institutionalized organizations undergirding them. That makes them highly porous. They’re pretty easy to enter. It also makes them difficult to take over, because there isn’t a single command center of the party that, once you capture it, the rest of the apparatus comes along with you.

Alongside this, the United States never developed a national election system. Electoral administration and party regulation happens at the state level, and the laws vary across all 50 states. It has a private system of campaign finance and primary elections. All of this makes parties highly penetrable by outside social forces, and also really dynamic. The irony of the American two party system is that, while these two parties have been so durable, what those parties stand for has changed dramatically several times over in the last 150 years.

The Democrats were the first mass party in the world, and the Republicans have been around for almost 170 years.

Yeah, they really stick around. But part of the reason they stick around is because they can change so much. If they were truly inert, sclerotic structures that resisted change at all costs, they wouldn’t last. They would be displaced by rival parties, third party upstarts, more often. It’s precisely their flexibility that makes them so strong.

As you know, our orientation to the Democratic Party is one of the most controversial and long running debates on the American Left. But it seems that this debate doesn’t usually account for this dimension of the American party system.

I’m a student of those debates, and I have a lot of respect for people who take very different opinions on that debate. The importance of independent political action notwithstanding, the fact is that no amount of wishing for a third party has ever helped one actually develop.

Part of what I’ve tried to do in my work, going back to my piece in the 2018 Socialist Register, is not to take a principled position on the question of the Democratic Party and whether the Left can take it over or not. My position is one of realist acceptance. Many very smart and dedicated people have tried to create an independent labor-based party for over a century, and it hasn’t worked. So I begin from the premise that maybe it’s time to accept that we’re not going to get one, and move on from there. It’s not that people who make good arguments about the importance of independent political action are wrong. It’s that I simply don’t think it is a viable political project at this moment or in the foreseeable future.

The individuals and organizations you study in True Blues certainly came to that conclusion, and tried to reform and democratize the Democratic Party. The book focuses on dueling efforts at reform and counter-reform in the Democratic Party that began in the late 1960s and have been ongoing ever since. Let’s start with the reformers. What was their analysis of the party’s problems and how did they propose to change them?

To begin with, there was ongoing agitation in the Democratic Party throughout the New Deal period. From the late 1930s the liberal, non-southern, union-linked wing of the party was increasingly intolerant of the southern, racially conservative, red-baiting and anti-union wing of the party that managed to have effective veto power over the party’s legislative agenda. The rise of the Civil Rights movement and its incorporation into a labor-based liberalism put these two wings of the party in contention with one another. Layered on top of that was a secondary conflict that developed in the second half of the 1960s about U.S. Cold War policy, in particular the war in Vietnam. By 1968 these contradictions just exploded, leading to the complete collapse of the coalition that undergirded the New Deal Democratic Party for over a generation.

The reformers who converged around the New Politics movement traced the crises of American politics and the Democratic Party in particular to a lack of democracy. The old Democratic Party power brokers were trying to thwart the new activists and social movements that were flooding into the party’s ranks, first the anti-war activists and civil rights activists, then the feminist and LGBTQ movements and many others. From their perspective, the way to renew liberalism and the Democratic Party as its key vehicle was to democratize the party, reform its representative institutions, and rebuild it into the kind of programmatically liberal party that many New Deal Democrats always wanted it to be.

The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which was one of DSA’s predecessor organizations, plays an important role in this story. Michael Harrington and other figures on the democratic socialist Left pop up more than once in True Blues. What were they trying to accomplish, and how effective were they?

I spent many wonderful hours in the DSA archives at New York University’s Tamiment Library looking through all kinds of memos Harrington and his associates wrote. DSOC formed in the early 1970s and spearheaded a lot of this activity in the Democratic Party. By the mid-1970s Harrington and many figures had seized on the need to build a kind of programmatic capacity in the party where officeholders, including the President of the United States, would be members of the party organization and would govern on its behalf rather than having presidents set the party’s agenda. Much of their early activity was meant to not only influence the Democratic Party platform, but to also develop mechanisms whereby they could hold office holders accountable to that platform. They had some pretty direct confrontations with the Carter administration in the second half of the 1970s.

As for their effectiveness, it’s difficult to say. The Carter administration went out of its way to deliver symbolic victories and lip service to these groups. White House memos from that time reveal that the Carter administration was really quite needled by these groups. They certainly put enough pressure on the administration that Carter and his aides felt they had to respond to them, but in terms of major policy demands like the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act the Carter administration outmaneuvered them by passing an essentially symbolic bill that did not have much of a meaningful impact on unemployment in the United States, or the ability of party activists to have formal control over a Democratic administration.

What were some of the specific institutions or mechanisms that these reformers proposed, and what would they have done if they were implemented?

Anyone who’s familiar with parties in other countries would’ve found these proposals to be pretty mainstream. In particular, one of the mechanisms that’s often used in European political parties is the party conference, where the party assembles at the national level to discuss party strategy. It’s kind of like a presidential nominating convention, but without any nominations. They get together, they have panels and meetings. It’s a forum in which party leaders often have to account for their performance in office or, as the case may be, in opposition. It’s considered one of the highest bodies of the party. It’s where party activists can express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction, as the case may be, with the party leadership, and it’s considered to be one of the standard mechanisms of accountability for a party that has any pretense of being internally democratic and representative of its members.

I should add that amid the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s the Democratic Party actually held these kinds of midterm policy conferences, where they effectively constitutionalized the party and debated strategy. The party had been operating for a century and a half without any formal constitution laying out who was in charge and how those relations of authority worked inside the party. They held three of these conferences before they were phased out after the reform movement demobilized. It was an experiment in intra-party democracy, but it was also an experiment that party leaders were not eager to cooperate with. They went out of their way to resist it, control it, and convert it into a bit of a photo opportunity for themselves.

In addition to the officeholders, who were the counter-reformers? Why were they opposed to the New Politics movement, and what was their analysis for what ailed the party?

The New Politics emerged out of a cultural and generational movement that developed out of the rights revolution and opposition to U.S. policy in Vietnam. Once the reformers seized the upper hand and nominated George McGovern for the presidency in 1972 many figures in and around the party establishment, like union leaders and Cold War intellectuals, got very worried that the U.S. imperial framework was in jeopardy. They accused “McGovernism” of being a return to the isolationism of the pre- World War II period. They also found the cultural milieu of the hippies, the New Left, and the feminist and LGBTQ movements to be quite distasteful.

Many people who, a decade earlier, would’ve been staunchly in the New Deal liberal camp reacted with hostility to the rise of the New Politics movement, not just because they felt themselves losing control over the Democratic Party, but because they saw their core ideological values like anti-Communism or the white male breadwinner ideal threatened by this movement. Then there were those who we might say had more pragmatic concerns. McGovern, as most people know, lost every single state except Massachusetts to Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. A lot of people were convinced that the New Politics movement was going to doom the Democratic Party, and that what was the majority party for the last 30 or 40 years was going to permanently lose its grip on national power. They could also be convinced by the counter-reformers that the reform movement went too far and too fast in pushing the party to the left. Above all, they thought the reformers made a big mistake by giving primary voters and activists more control over determining the presidential nominee.

It’s commonly assumed that organized labor was entirely in the counter-reform camp, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

No, it really wasn’t. The New Politics movement provided an opportunity for the divisions in organized labor to really come to the surface. George Meany, who was the AFL-CIO president for decades, was deeply enmeshed in the Cold War labor-liberal framework so his reaction to the New Politics movement was pretty severe. Many other labor leaders backed him on that, but many others were in favor of the reform movement and a reshuffling of power within the party. Industrial unions and rising public sector and service unions, which were always subordinated to the Meany-led wing of the AFL-CIO, saw this as an opportunity to gain a greater share of power in determining the presidential nominee and making sure that they had an ally in national power. Frankly, many of the members of those unions, whether they were in industrial unions or public sector unions or service unions, looked a lot more like the folks in the New Politics movement. The traditional labor leadership was middle-aged, middle class, and overwhelmingly white and male.

“Pale, male, and stale” is the phrase that was often used to describe them.

Exactly, that was a very pithy summation of the problem. So unions like the UAW and AFSCME supported George McGovern in the 1972 election, while George Meany pushed the AFL-CIO to officially sit it out, the first and only time the federation has ever done that. Those divisions in labor pre-dated the New Politics movement. Before his death in 1970 UAW President Walter Reuther led the union out of the AFL-CIO to form the short-lived Alliance for Labor Action with the Teamsters and some other unions. The reform movement in the Democratic Party exacerbated these lines of division and what you might call the labor Left saw an opportunity to reshuffle the hierarchy of unions inside the Democratic coalition.

The counter-reformers defeated most of the core proposals for party reform, but they didn’t stop everything. In your book you argue that this process of reform and counter-reform gave rise to a new configuration of the Democratic Party you call the “advocacy party.” What is this type of party, and what kind of impact has it made on American politics?

The advocacy party is a party structure that is dependent on what I call outside advocates for electoral assistance and even ideological legitimacy. We’re talking about interest groups, social movements, and nonprofits, the many types of organizations and networks that populate the advocacy universe. I see this as the product of this struggle, because one of the things the New Politics movement tried to do was fill in much of what made the Democratic Party so institutionally hollow for so many decades.

During the New Deal era the Democratic Party could be rather complacent about organizing state and local level parties. They had massive, commanding majorities in Congress, in the states, and in presidential elections. For all those years, they did not make meaningful investments in building up the party organizationally. The New Politics movement wanted to do that, and tried to do that somewhat at the national level, but the counter-reformers hated it. At the same time, New Politics reformers also wanted to open the party up so its “members,” namely primary voters and activists, could have a stronger hand in selecting the nominees, shaping the platform, and so on. That’s something the counter-reformers were not able to effectively block. Since the 1970s the major parties have chosen their presidential nominees through binding primary elections. The modern presidential nominating system as we know it now comes out of this period of party reform.

The upshot is that the Democratic Party became even more dependent for its claims to govern and lead the country on representing the social movements, interest groups, and causes that have animated the advocacy world since the late 1960s. These have been labor, civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights, a broad commitment to diversity, equality to some extent, and so on. Moreover, the party began to outsource a lot of its organizing activity to these groups. They don’t just help fund the campaigns, they provide many of the foot soldiers who go out and register people to vote, and turn them out to vote on Election Day. They sign petitions. They contribute networks, and they often even contribute personnel to the party, either in terms of staff or in terms of actually governing.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this type of party?

Broadly speaking, this party is more reflective than it used to be of the many progressive voices and identities that came into mainstream politics over the last two or three generations. I’d argue that the Democratic Party has become more progressive over the last 15 years or so, and that’s partly a reflection of the party’s dependence on these groups for legitimacy and electoral viability.

That said, not everybody is well represented in the advocacy universe. Advocacy has itself become something of an industry. There are many rival claims to represent those in need of representation, and it reflects the systematic biases we see in other forms of politics. Those who are poor, unemployed, or otherwise lack the means to hire advocates or lobbyists are largely powerless in American politics, so it’s not so clear that the advocacy party is going to serve them very well. It raises serious questions about representational inequality even as the party has arguably become more representative over the last generation. Finally, while one of the core goals of the New Politics movement was to subordinate the president to the party organization, I think we’ve seen the opposite happen. The role of president as party leader has continued to grow and dominate the Democratic Party. We saw this especially with Barack Obama, who I discuss in the book as the first leader to embrace the advocacy party and harness it to his own personal popularity. He carried that out to great effect, but this did not leave the party in a very good place when he left office because he did not invest any money in building the party. Instead, the party suffered tremendous losses at the state and local levels during his tenure, and of course it lost power at the national level in the 2016 election.

The Republican Party is not an advocacy party like the Democrats. But Trump’s continuing dominance over the Republicans despite being out of office really speaks to this empowerment of the presidency. How would you describe or conceive of the Republican Party today?

I’ve provisionally labeled the Republican Party an authoritarian party instead of an advocacy party. The Republican Party has a deeper and longer tradition, going back many decades, of presidential dominance. Trump was obviously the most outrageous expression of this. Even so, the Republicans are not as institutionally hollow as the Democrats. When the Republicans were the seemingly permanent minority party during the New Deal era, they built up a nuts and bolts apparatus that joined forces with the New Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the New Right’s cadres and their protégés staff those organizations today. It is a dangerous combination of extremist ideological advocates with a really robust organization.

You’ve argued that the US Left should devote its efforts to building a “party surrogate” type of organization to navigate this terrain and advance our agenda instead of trying to establish an entirely new political party.

As far as I can tell DSA is doing precisely this kind of work. The Democratic Party structure is such that there’s really nothing to capture even if you wanted to. It’s not really a space that needs to be colonized because there’s so little there in the way of institutional and organizational sources of power. There are things like county and state committees, but I don’t think they are the best use of the Left’s time. On the contrary, I think that if the Left is able to build independent organizations that can influence voters and amass resources that are valuable to a hollow party, then those committees and other bodies will come to you because they need what you have. Now that’s a tall order, especially where the Left is strong, say in New York. Those party committees don’t necessarily come calling, because Democrats are likely to win in those areas anyway.

And if anything they see DSA as a threat or competitor, not a resource to draw on.

Yeah, and that’s a difficult dilemma. The spoiler problem that has traditionally plagued any kind of independent political organization to the left of the Democrats is another big problem. It’s just a product of the electoral system we have. If you end up splitting the vote, the candidate you like least is likely to win. What we’re seeing at the national level especially is reflective of the fact that the American Left is not organizationally united. We’re not all members of DSA or something else. We’re not all coming together in conferences or committees, to decide our platform or how to operate strategically. Even though it’s a rather fractured Left, the broad ideological project of greater equality and social justice, of building a different kind of healthcare or educational system, is actually pretty widely shared. And I think that’s why we see some movement on these issues on the national level.

Like many others on the Left I have been rather surprised by the positions Joe Biden has taken as president. Who expected him to propose what would have been, and probably still will be, the biggest spending package in 30 or 40 years? But this all has less to do with Biden himself than with the kind of party he, I think, wisely recognizes he’s leading now. A lot of what the Left is doing right now is valuable, and I think we’re beginning to see its bite. There’s not going to be a day where the Democratic Party comes around and says, “You know what? We are now the Democratic Socialists of America,” right? What I’ve tried to show in this book, and what I think we’re seeing right now, is that this party has grown increasingly dependent on people at the grassroots and middle levels who are able to build organizations and develop cadres who support a progressive agenda.

Even though DSA has been putting this strategy into practice, there’s some trepidation in the organization about committing entirely to this road. In particular, there’s a pretty reasonable concern about becoming just one more of many the advocacy groups operating politically under this shared electoral label. What do you make of that kind of critique?

I’m definitely sensitive to that perspective. I don’t think they’re wrong. I think they’re right to treat this with some amount of trepidation and apprehension, because it’s certainly not optimal and it’s not a strategy without risk. There’s the risk of being swallowed up. There’s the risk of completely losing connection with a transformative kind of politics. And it’s not a strategy I advocate out of any genuine principle, as the way that we will get everything we want. I don’t think it is.

Frankly, I don’t know how to get everything we want. I wish I did. Even if some DSAers feel a sense of trepidation, a lot is possible and I want them to appreciate that a lot is being changed because of their activity and many other groups’ activity over the last 10, 15, 20 years. I think the Left is not giving itself enough credit in that transformation. I don’t know how historians will look back on this period, but I have a feeling that neoliberalism as we understood it is probably over. I’m not sure that we can fully see all that right now. I’m also not sure what’s emerging in its place, but compared to the celebration of free market forces that we saw in the 1990s, I mean, who talks like that anymore? That’s gone. It’s gone on the Left and it’s gone on the Right.

I’m not sure what period we’re in now, but I think the age of bipartisan neoliberalism is probably behind us. The Left can play a foundational role in shaping whatever that next thing to come is going to look like, and I want the Left to appreciate how much power I think they’re actually exerting right now. Yes, we’re not on the verge of revolution or anything like that, but I think the opportunity to create a more just social order is on the horizon.

Do you think there is any realistic possibility for a new type of party system to emerge in the US?

That’s a good question. More people are talking about proportional representation right now than they have in probably the last 50 years. I think there could actually be more mainstream buy-in for electoral reform that would permit the rise of a third and a fourth party: progressive Democrats, the old Democrats, moderate Republicans, and the Trumpian far Right, those four parties.

I think it’s possible we could see a mainstream consensus on the need to reform the electoral system as political polarization continues what the political scientist Lee Drutman calls its doom loop. We have increasing and escalating confrontations over who won what election. I could foresee sometime in the next 10, 15, 20 years some kind of bipartisan settlement in which questions of campaign finance and electoral reform are opened up in ways that they haven’t been for a very long time. That would be a moment where, I think, reforms that would give us the third party we want would become more possible.

At the same time, many other countries already have those kinds of electoral systems. We’re going to have to be prepared for the fact that having proportional representation or a multi-party system still will not be optimal in the sense of getting us what we want. We would still have to face the question of whether to win elections by forming a parliamentary majority coalition with the mainstream Democrats to block “moderate” Republicans from allying with the Trumpian America Firsters. Again, my position is that the Left is a potent but small slice of the American political scene, and what I’m excited about right now is that it seems to be exerting a far larger degree of influence than has been true in the past. But whether we have a third party or influence in the Democratic Party, coming to terms with the uphill struggle of making the United States a better place to live is one of the main things the American Left has to contend with.