The Case for Realignment

DSA should return to its roots and embrace the realignment strategy to guide our political work.

But how do we transform these basically antisocial structures with the urgency that is required? Not by a vague third force. The Democratic Party is where the overwhelming bulk of the reform forces—trade unionists, minorities, women, the issue constituencies—is concentrated. As a Democratic Socialist…, I have no illusion that it is as radical as the times demand. But it is just the only place where a beginning can be made. – Michael Harrington, Time (January 13, 1975)

Michael Harrington was and continues to be correct on where a beginning can be made. In his 1980 book Decade of Decision: The Crisis of the American System, Harrington imagines new political alignment scenarios. The first is a positive one where the Left successfully advances a program addressing human needs. The second is a negative scenario, which has more or less come to pass, that pits working people against each other with reactionary and corporate forces benefiting from the situation.

DSA now has no agreed-upon political strategy to expand the power of the Left, to defend democracy, and to build toward a viable governing majority. The status quo position of becoming a mass party at some point in the future and various debates around strategic orientation have failed to grapple with how we get there. Perhaps revisiting realignment as a strategy and analysis can help ground our work going forward.

What is Realignment?

Realignment is a strategy based on Marxist analysis largely credited to Max Shachtman and DSA founding chair Michael Harrington. It is classic formulation, the realignment strategy sought to drive conservatives out of the Democratic coalition and consolidate left, labor, and liberal forces within it. In Shachtman’s and Harrington’s view, this consolidation was a prerequisite for both gaining a progressive governing majority and opening up possibilities for a democratic socialist movement in the US.

I am not sure either could have imagined that in 2022, the most popular US senator would be an explicit democratic socialist and a former Young People’s Socialist League comrade, who calls to transform “the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors,” while DSA formally rejects that approach.

One thing we learned from our shortcomings in 2016 and 2020 is that democratic socialism does not yet have a majority on its own. DSA needs to see the Democratic Party as a primary terrain of struggle. This does not mean working to transform Democratic Party institutions at the expense of building our own organization. It does, however, require a desire to be part of the progressive coalition operating on that terrain.

People on the Left commonly speak of an entity called “the Democrats” as if it were a monolithic organization that operates the same way at every level and in every place. But our decentralized and fragmented political system makes it difficult to speak of the Democratic Party in this fashion. Not all state and county parties are as hostile to the Left as, for example, New York’s Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs has been towards NYC-DSA. In Florida, St. Petersburg councilmember and Pinellas DSA member Richie Floyd was elected with the support of the outgoing Democrat and the West Central Florida Labor Council. And in Nevada, Las Vegas DSA members took over the state party organization in 2021. There, coexistence between Left and the late Senator Harry Reid’s political machine led to a better than expected result in this year’s midterm election.

DSA chapters are succeeding at electing democratic socialists in states and municipalities around the country. Electing them is the first step – we also need to set them up in the strongest position possible to implement our program. That has to include coalition work with those challenging and pushing out the “wealthy campaign contributors” – the capitalist class –  from the Democratic Party.

Various analysts on the Left have attempted to identify the different constituencies making up today’s Democratic and Republican parties. Carl Davidson and Paul and Mark Engler each hypothesize six distinct constituencies making up the building blocks of each of the two main parties. This kind of analysis is foundational to working within the current confines of the two party system. A truly objective analysis will show that DSA’s power at this time is insufficient to carry out any of our program without working with and through a broader coalition.

Realignment strategy was DSA’s common sense for much of its early history. Since then, members such as former DSA Deputy Director David Duhalde have argued that reality hardly matched the rhetoric of realignment, in that the smaller DSA had very little if any sway in the Democratic Party. But in the wake of DSA’s recent growth and development, today’s organization can do a much better job of matching the rhetoric and taking on the task.

Realignment is mostly being carried out in practice by Justice Democrats (JD), the Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party (WFP) and others. WFP director Maurice Mitchell describes a useful strategy to expand the Squad with lessons to be drawn and has called building long term organization foundational for a political realignment. JD and WFP, like DSA, actively recruit leadership to run against reactionary Democrats. But unlike DSA, they do so in order to transform the party. The truth is we are already working with realignment oriented organizations; furthermore, one could argue that DSA is practically carrying out the realignment strategy despite rhetoric to the contrary. These organizations are natural allies in a potential democratic socialist bloc in the Democratic Party.

Far From a Mass Organization

It’s become something of a cliche to quote Lenin’s contention that “politics begins where there are millions,” but it’s certainly true that we need many more people in our movement. Various currents across the organization have sought to address this need, from the Communist Caucus’s argument for building new working-class organizations, to Bread & Roses’s appeal for improving and building DSA into a mass organization, to Socialist Majority’s call to fight the right and center while continuing to build and rebuild the Left. These are all welcome attempts to address the ever-elusive question What is to be done? Even so, all of these perspectives leave gaps that can and should be addressed with intentional efforts towards a political realignment of the Democratic Party. The urgent political questions DSA members from across the organization are trying to address can only be answered through the political terrain as it currently exists, and not at some eventual point in the future. And that requires engaging in political organizing and coalition building on the terrain of the Democratic Party.

In my view,the Communist Caucus analysis leaves more questions than answers. It proclaims the Left’s primary task is “Building Proletarian Organization,” contending that we “need mass proletarian institutions that can be used by their rank and file as vehicles for the class struggle” (emphasis added). However, the authors correctly point out that the working class is disorganized. A recent poll found 9% of US adults identifying as socialists. That is potentially 23 million people ready or at least open to becoming organized socialists. A recent manifestation of this bloc was the 9.6 million votes Bernie received during the 2020 primary. The 23 million disorganized socialists eclipsed the total number of votes President Biden received during the 2020 Democratic primary elections. These are the numbers we need for the transformational change we seek.

In a widely-discussed piece in Jacobin, Jeremy Gong and Nick French quote the late Mike Parker’s contention that “building broader political organization is the ‘main task when it comes to political action,’ not a ‘side issue.’” As such, they argue that the Left, as well as leading left-wing politicians like Bernie and AOC, should focus on creating a new mass organization. The piece stirred much debate. In a critical response, fellow Bread & Roses caucus members Peter Lucas and Sean Estelle argued that the US “Left, instead, should prioritize improving its budding mass socialist organization (DSA) into one that can meet the political moment.”

Abandoning the realignment strategy has blinded us to political opportunities right in front of our noses. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and we are not yet strong enough to successfully do so anyway. Instead of creating a new organization, we should be more like our tribunes Bernie and AOC and be an active part of the coalition to transform the Democratic Party.

Democratic socialists are reaching millions and promoting democratic socialism every day through political action in the Democratic Party. As an organization we should continue to promote those efforts at all times. DSA can become the mass socialist organization Lucas and Estelle call for in their response to Gong and French, but this can only happen through participation in the Democratic Party coalition and not an isolated third party. To be a mass organization, you have to represent the masses, and we are not there yet.

The Socialist Majority caucus comes close to, but doesn’t explicitly call for, adoption of the realignment strategy. It argues that “democratic socialists need to lead in the fight against the right and the fight against the center, that we can connect those struggles to the project of building and rebuilding working-class organization.” This formulation reflects DSA’s current approach to electoral politics, in which we run most of our candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line, but refrain from continuing the work from inside the party’s institutional structures – county committees, state parties, and the like – once our people are elected. In my view, this unnecessarily hamstrings our efforts by leaving our elected officials to fend for themselves against entrenched institutional power within the Democratic Party.

All of these perspectives correctly point to the urgency of building and rebuilding left-wing and working-class organization in this country. This will be essential to appealing to and mobilizing unorganized constituencies. How this can look like will require creativity, trial and error, and more. But we must make transforming the Democratic Party our shared perspective as DSA members.

Preemptive Abandonment

By abandoning realignment, we have missed opportunities that have largely benefited the Right, and will continue to do so until the course is corrected. The dormant Left was caught flat footed for Bernie’s first run in 2016. DSA was the only socialist organization that supported his initial presidential run. Even though DSA had been moving away from realignment in the years leading up to 2016, I credit DSA’s historic advocacy of this strategy as the main reason why it was ready to intervene in the way it did, which resulted in once unimaginable growth for the organization and the broader Left.

DSA sought to maximize its efforts behind Bernie when the National Political Committee (NPC) voted to ratify the overwhelming membership vote in favor of endorsing Sanders in March 2019. At the 2019 national convention in August of that year, however, the delegates made it clear that they were not in favor of the realignment strategy.

We’ve seen further rejection of realignment in places like Pittsburgh and Atlanta, where prominent democratic socialists ran for office without participation and support from their local DSA chapters. In Pittsburgh’s case, the chapter arguably turned inward while Summer Lee won Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional district race. Another democratic socialist, Mayor khalid kamau, won the 2021 mayoral race in South Fulton, Georgia, a city of 108,000 outside of Atlanta. The local chapter’s 2019 electoral resolution called for coalition work in Democratic primaries, but in June 2020 the chapter moved toward an independent electoral approach.  This decision isolated the chapter. During the 2021 Atlanta municipal election cycle, the chapter ran a member for Atlanta city council while ignoring kamau’s run. The result was a disappointing 4th place finish and a public split between the candidate and the chapter.

Both Lee and kamau received chapter and national DSA endorsements in their previous down ballot victories in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Lee is a Justice Democrat and both were endorsed by WFP and Sunrise for their most recent runs. This year’s midterm election saw both chapters not make any endorsements, while previously endorsed candidates built off their previous runs to win. Localized, preemptive attempts at breaking from the Democratic Party with no real constituency have proven catastrophic. These are mistakes we can no longer repeat.

Democratic Party as Mass Political Organization

There is just no denying that the Democratic Party is where the labor movement and all the politically organized progressive social movements can be found. Particularly in the post-Roe world, it could not be clearer that there are real, life-and-death differences between the two main parties. It should not be lost on us that a disciplined and patient movement on the Right succeeded in achieving its goal of eroding bodily autonomy through a patient, decades-long strategy of seeking power through the Republican Party up and down the ballot.

Despite this, when the opportunity arose to eject the only House Democrat to vote against codifying Roe earlier this year, DSA abstained from this crucial primary. Immigrants rights attorney Jessica Cisernos, supported by Justice Democrats, Sunrise, and WFP, came less than 300 votes away from unseating incumbent Henry Cuellar in a safe blue seat. But DSA was nowhere to be seen, the latest instance in an unfortunate trend. Cuellar was re-elected to his seat in the midterm general election. It’s easy to argue, as the NPC did on the occasion of Roe’s reversal, that “the Democrats in Washington failed to act” on reproductive justice. But the same can be said for our political and strategic decisions in a crucial moment in the struggle for bodily autonomy.

Our members have successfully defended abortion rights on ballot measures in Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, in all cases along with other progressive constituencies of the Democratic Party. Also, in all cases these ballot measures outperformed the Democratic Party candidates running on the ballot, proving again that our program is popular. If we commit our organization to realignment, we will better position ourselves to move our program forward, particulary when the moment arises to contest the party’s program during an open presidential election cycle (it would be a mistake for DSA or the Left in general to consider primarying President Biden. With the threat of the authoritarian right, and the likelihood that a left-wing candidate would not win the nomination, the stakes are currently too high). We should follow Bernie’s example and contest for power in the party.  As more democratic socialists are elected across the country, we have to consider if and when they should seek higher office. Whether it’s AOC, Rashida Talib, or Richie Floyd that eventually decide to seek higher office, an intentional realignment strategy will be necessary to support them. Today we are not dealing with Dixiecrats, but the capitalist class buying elections. These are the forces we must work to push out of the Democratic Party.

Across the country, DSA members have answered Bernie’s call to transform the Democratic Party, but this is largely being done in an unorganized manner. This is unacceptable for an organization of organizers. We need to be where there are millions. And for better or worse, today that is the Democratic Party. These struggles occur with us or without us. This will not be an easy task, as it will require patience and discipline. Almost certainly more patience than we gave ourselves as an organization before abandoning realignment prior to our recent growth.

The focus has to be on the big story to make any transformational change possible. The realignment strategy offers a clear grounding to tell that story and avenues for a variety of tactics for every committee, working group, and member to plug into. It fills many voids left by the current debates by making clear our strategic orientation for at least the next decade. Realignment gives DSA a clear orientation from which to expand our power, defend democracy, and build towards a viable governing majority.