Reflections on the NYC-DSA Convention, and Beyond

NYC-DSA's local convention highlighted continuing debates over the Democratic Party and electoral strategy.

DSA’s New York City chapter recently held its annual convention at Unitarian Church of All Souls, a progressive congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We New Yorkers can sometimes have an outsized sense of our own importance, something our compatriots elsewhere are quick to remind us of. But in the context of DSA’s organizational life, NYC-DSA’s convention carries more than just local significance. Our chapter constitutes roughly 10% of DSA’s entire membership, and six of 16 National Political Committee (NPC) members are from New York. As left-wing journalist Sam Adler-Bell put it in his recent portrait of DSA in Dissent, “for better or worse, New York City remains DSA’s center of gravity…its power within the organization means its leaders have a disproportionate impact on DSA’s overall work, its public perception, and its future.”

It is therefore not surprising that local convention resolutions were discussed and debated by DSA members not just in the five boroughs, but throughout the organization. The most hotly debated resolution by far was the cleverly named “1-2-3-4 Plan to Build a Party-Like Structure.” It was formulated and backed primarily by local members of the Bread & Roses caucus, but received support from members across a number of different tendencies in the chapter. Members diligently whipped votes and spoke passionately in favor of it, but the resolution ultimately failed by a decisive margin, 70-123.

This was a significant decision that reflects and reinforces recent political developments in DSA. The resolution’s defeat marks a further turn away from the “dirty break” strategy that became DSA’s formal electoral orientation at the 2019 national convention, but which suffered defeats on the floor at the 2021 national convention. Chapter member David Duhalde, who held electoral responsibilities while on DSA’s national staff, has argued that while the dirty break has been the organization’s formally expressed electoral strategy, our de facto strategy has been what he cheekily calls “dirty stay” – an approach that aims to use Democratic Party ballot lines without seeking to transform the party’s institutional structures nor making concrete steps to create a new party.

I spoke and voted against the 1-2-3-4 plan at the convention, less because of the specifics and more because I’ve come to disagree with the dirty break orientation the resolution was framed by. The resolution’s text conflated practices that don’t necessarily entail a particular approach to the Democratic ballot line with a commitment to “intermediate steps” to “form an independent political party with its own ballot line,” language that encapsulates the dirty break view. At the same time, the resolution gestured toward the need for a “surrogate party,” a concept which is explicitly premised on rejecting the pursuit of a new, non-Democratic ballot line. The left-wing political scientist Adam Hilton is the leading proponent of this idea, and he argues that the establishment of a new labor-based socialist party in the US faces “insurmountable odds” and is “not a viable option.” Instead, the surrogate party organization Hilton proposes would be a network of chapter-based organizations “oriented toward building a base within working-class communities and labor unions that can also act as an effective independent pressure group on the Democratic Party.” While it would retain its own organizational capacity and political identity, it would not attempt to constitute itself as its own party with its own ballot line. As Hilton argues, “precisely because this effort is not premised on exiting the Democratic Party to launch a third-party alternative, it would avoid the pitfalls experienced by the 1990s Labor Party project of expending precious resources in negotiating state ballot access and the spoiler problem that can result in Republican victories.” I’m not sure whether members were conscious of this conceptual slippage, which in my view contributed to the sometimes disorienting nature of the debate.

I found myself in agreement with many of the specific practices the resolution’s authors proposed. Our chapter would benefit from a greater degree of coordination and centralization across election campaigns, with more consistent communications, design, and the like. This is a big reason why the convention passed a separate resolution to create a citywide electoral working group (until now, we have had borough-based electoral working groups). I also think it’s good for DSA candidates to identify themselves as democratic socialists in campaign materials and other communications, and if elected to vote as a bloc as much as possible. These are fairly common sense ideas for a democratic socialist organization, and I hope they find practical expression in our work moving forward.

The rest of the proposal, however, raised more questions for me than answers, particularly its conception of how to talk about the Democratic Party in the context of election campaigns. As the text of the resolution recognizes, NYC-DSA will be doing our electoral work through Democratic Party primary elections for the indefinite future. Party primaries, by definition, take place among those voters who identify most strongly with the party they’ve registered their preference for with the State. When we go and knock on doors, one of the most common questions we get from voters is whether our candidate is a Democrat. The resolution would have had our candidates attempt to pull off a rather difficult feat – win the support of the most loyal Democratic voters while simultaneously distancing ourselves from the Democrats tout court, and it’s far from clear to me how it might be possible in practice to square that circle. I don’t think these kinds of distinctions are very meaningful or intuitive to people who are not already organized socialists, and who want their elected representatives to focus on making material improvements to their lives. A better way to distinguish our candidates from establishment Democrats and neoliberals is on the basis of their program, who they are willing to take campaign contributions from, and the like. That is how we will build our own political identity, because when a DSA candidate wins a Democratic primary they become the official Democratic candidate in the general election. They are Democrats, whether we like that or not, because of how the electoral system works in the US.

The more our candidates do that, the less likely an already unlikely independent political party with its own ballot line will become. When democratic socialists win Democratic primaries, or white nationalists win Republican primaries, they begin to change the meaning of the Democratic and Republican electoral labels. It increases our candidates’ identification with the Democratic Party label, even while we contest its meaning, and advance an agenda that puts us in conflict with neoliberal Democrats and the Democratic establishment. We should figure out how best to reckon with this directly instead of holding out hope for a brand new party of our own.

Devilish Details

The barriers to effective dirty break politics become even clearer upon close examination of the electoral rules and institutions in New York State. Considering the current legal landscape concerning ballot access laws, as well as the broader political environment the Left must operate in, it’s very difficult to see how DSA could carry out such a strategy in the state without marginalizing ourselves.

In New York, a party must qualify for automatic ballot access every two years by receiving either at least 130,000 votes or 2% of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial or statewide election. This very high threshold for ballot access was implemented in 2020, as part of former governor Andrew Cuomo’s years-long campaign of political harassment against New York’s Working Families Party (WFP). The previous threshold was still challenging, but easier for minor parties to clear. It required parties to win 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial election every four years, which made it feasible for the Greens and Libertarians, as well as more niche concerns like the Sapient Party and the Serve America Movement, to field their own candidates and get on the ballot. This year marked the first time since 1946 that only the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor, Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin, respectively, appeared on the ballot. They also appeared on the WFP and Conservative ballot lines, because these parties routinely cross-endorse the major party tickets in order to get the votes they need to retain their ballot access (New York has fusion voting, more on this below).

Parties that do not have automatic ballot access can petition for a ballot line for specific candidates. For statewide candidates this requires at least 45,000 total signatures, and at least 500 signatures in at least half of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Local candidates can petition to gain access to a ballot line, and the requirements vary from place to place.

Simply put, the barriers to winning automatic ballot access or petitioning for a ballot line for statewide candidates are enormous. Currently the WFP and the Conservatives are the only minor parties to enjoy automatic ballot access in New York, because they use fusion to cross-endorse major party candidates in statewide races. A brand new left-wing party would have to spend enormous amounts of time and resources just to keep its ballot status, something it would be able to achieve only by routinely cross-endorsing the Democratic presidential and gubernatorial tickets, which would be inconsistent with basic tenets of the dirty break strategy.

What about petitioning for ballot lines in local general elections? This is easier to achieve, but it’s far from clear whether this is worth the time, effort, and resources it entails. In 2017, NYC-DSA member Jabari Brisport ran as a Green Party general election candidate for city council in central Brooklyn against the incumbent Democratic candidate. In addition to running on the Green line, DSA members in the district collected petition signatures to get Brisport an additional ballot line, the Socialist line. As mentioned above, New York has fusion voting, so candidates can run on multiple ballot lines and all of the votes they win on every line are totaled up.

The threshold for getting the Socialist line was 450 signatures. We made sure to get three or four times that to make sure the effort wouldn’t fail because of invalid signatures. Altogether, Brisport won about 29% of the vote in the general election, enough for second place, while the Democratic candidate won the election with about 67% of the vote. He won the vast majority of his votes on the Green line, and very few on the Socialist line. This was probably because many people have heard of the Green Party, as well as the fact that the Green line had a much more visible position on the ballot itself. The Socialist line was in a weird place on the ballot and we had to encourage people to both look for it and vote for Brisport on it. This can be difficult to communicate to voters during a campaign, and that difficulty obviously came through in the final results.

The Democratic victor won roughly 22,000 votes, while Brisport won about 9,500. He made a strong showing in what is probably the most DSA-dense district in the country, but he still lost by more than a 2-1 margin. Is it possible that the chapter could have continued building an electoral operation in the district strong enough to defeat Democratic incumbents in general elections? I am skeptical. Losing consistently in general elections while foregoing opportunities to defeat bad Democratic incumbents in primaries is a very difficult thing to convince people is worth the cost. Brisport himself switched his registration from Green to Democratic after 2017, ran for State Senate in the Democratic primary in 2020, and won. Earlier this year, he soundly defeated a primary challenger backed by New York City mayor Eric Adams and the Democratic Party establishment, cementing NYC-DSA’s position in central Brooklyn alongside fellow chapter member Phara Souffrant Forrest in the State Assembly. All of NYC-DSA’s incumbents who were challenged this year handily defeated their establishment-backed primary opponents.

Democrats currently dominate New York State politics, and their partisan advantage is unassailable in most areas of New York City. It is an overwhelmingly blue city, and the people we want to appeal to tend to strongly identify with the Democrats. One of the signals from recent municipal elections is that local-level voting behavior is thoroughly nationalized and based, to a significant extent, on voters’ judgments of the sitting president. Voters in more conservative neighborhoods have stopped voting for moderate Democrats in city council elections, and are sending Republicans to City Hall instead. Nationalized politics polarized around the presidency is squeezing out any space there might be for independent candidates at the local level.

This raises the very mundane but important need to clearly identify a democratic socialist candidate as a Democrat so voters know they should vote for them. It also raises the larger dilemma of whether to attack the Democratic Party per se or to raise the aspiration for a new party among the strongest Democratic partisans. What one might call dirty break propagandism doesn’t seem like a particularly effective message to send in this context. Differentiating socialists from moderates and self-identified but vaporous “progressives” is certainly crucial, but the most effective way to do this (in addition to identifying clearly as a democratic socialist) is by proposing qualitatively different demands and training rhetorical fire on the business interests who stand in their way, and who are probably funding our competitors in primary elections.

Is a New Party System Possible?

The electoral system we are forced to work within has many flaws and few virtues. The strange bricolage of rules and institutions we labor under – which vary from state to state because of the lack of national electoral administration – is very unique compared to other countries, and nobody in their right mind would design something like this from scratch today. We need a different kind of party system in this country, but the strategies available to us for bringing this about are far from clear. DSA members should raise demands for electoral reform wherever they live and organize. This could range from local-level electoral reforms; citizen-led ballot initiatives in the states that allow them; pushing your state to commit to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact if it hasn’t already done so; or building support for the Fair Representation Act (FRA) at the congressional level. Federal election reform bills like the FRA have zero chance of passing right now. But it’s important for democratic socialists and others interested in electoral reform to keep these ideas in the popular discourse so they’re available in case a major constitutional crisis with the potential to crack open the party system comes along.

How might such a crisis come about? I don’t think one will happen through the intentional activities of democratic socialists. The most likely scenarios revolve around the increasingly creaky presidential election system, and 2024 is shaping up to be a major test of the system’s viability. Republicans around the country are clearly signaling their intention to swing the election to their candidate, no matter how the electorate votes, through dubious vehicles like the independent state legislature theory. As the January 6th putsch made clear, there is real possibility of instability and violence not just in Washington, D.C., but in battleground state capitals like Atlanta, Harrisburg, Madison, and Phoenix. If this does happen – and if the forces of reaction are defeated in the contest, which is by no means assured – the need for a major overhaul of the electoral system should become blindingly obvious to anyone committed to even a modicum of popular democracy in this country. In the meantime, DSA chapters should do everything they can to help prevent such a crisis from happening in the first place – which necessarily entails joining coalitional efforts to support local- and state-level Democrats against Republicans in general elections, even when those Democrats are not part of our movement. Considering the GOP’s openly declared intention to impose Hungarian-style electoral authoritarianism wherever they can, abstaining from these contests would be an act of major political irresponsibility.

In the absence of crisis-induced electoral reform, the only viable electoral strategy is to continue operating as part of an organized, left-wing faction in Democratic Party primary elections and in legislative bodies. A comprehensive realignment akin to that of the postwar years doesn’t seem likely in the near term either, because it’s not clear which social-electoral blocs could plausibly be shifted from one party to the other. For the foreseeable future, we are left with continued contestation of Democratic primaries and uneasy relations with factions in the Democratic coalition who are opposed to many of our goals. This is far from satisfying, but our strategies need to be grounded in a rigorous analysis of the context we’re operating in for them to bear any fruit. We should follow that analysis wherever it leads, even if it’s not the path we’d prefer. As always, we make our own history – but not as we please.