Getting to Work on Acting Like an Independent Party

Putting this year's electoral convention resolution into practice will set the groundwork for a new independent party of the working class necessary for winning socialism.

I first learned the name Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the same night she astonished the world, winning her primary race against all odds, bringing the Bernie movement into Congress. Here was a working-class person running on a democratic socialist program who had unseated one of the most corrupt and conservative Democratic leaders in Congress, Joe Crowley. The difference between the two couldn’t have been more stark, and I wanted to join the AOCs against the Crowleys. After that night, I quickly became interested in organizing with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), given its role in getting her elected.

Luckily, I got my chance, diving headfirst into the Julia Salazar campaign for State Senate. Just as in AOC’s race, Julia was an outsider running on a democratic socialist platform against a comically corrupt corporate Democrat. The incumbent, Martin Dilan, had served in one seat or another for decades, was a member of the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine, and, at the behest of his real estate industry funders, championed policies that displaced his working-class constituents.

All the staffers and bulk of the volunteers on the Salazar campaign were open and proud DSA members, many of the canvasses were organized by the chapter, and Julia had been DSA cadre. It was also a clear “us versus them” battle — tenants versus real estate, workers versus capitalists, democratic socialists versus corporate Democrats. I joined DSA a week into volunteering on the campaign. Since then, I’ve been involved in more DSA electoral campaigns than I can count, including the 2021 and 2022 NYC-DSA City Council and State Assembly slates.

However, 2021 and 2022 felt different from the electoral work that had first brought me into DSA. While those earlier campaigns were clear “us versus them,” class struggle battles against corporate stooges, our opponents often opted for a different tack in 2021 and 2022, adopting many of our policy planks and messaging, which often made it more difficult for us to distinguish our own candidates. This was made all the more true by our communications and literature which often presented our candidates not as democratic socialists, but as progressive Democrats — a shortcut to win over Democratic Party partisans in these low-turnout closed primaries.

These experiences led my caucus Bread & Roses to put forward the 1-2-3-4 Plan for Building an Independent Party, at last summer’s NYC-DSA convention. This proposal sought to  advance coordination and discipline between our campaigns and socialists in office, to craft a clear independent public identity for our electoral work. Though that proposal was rejected, its core principles overwhelmingly passed the 2023 National DSA convention this past August in an amendment to the NEC Consensus Resolution: Act Like an Independent Party. Putting this proposal into practice will help our organization distinguish our candidates from run-of-the-mill progressives, help us escape from primarily appealing to a narrow base of Democratic Party primary voters, and, alongside non-electoral movement work and campaigning for electoral reform, will set the groundwork for a new independent party of the working class necessary for winning socialism.

Socialists Versus Progressive Capitalists

When volunteering for Phara Souffrant Forrest’s 2022 re-election campaign, I quickly realized that our opponents had stolen our platform. If a voter took a quick glance at Phara’s literature alongside that of her challenger, Olanike Alabi, they would find it difficult to distinguish the candidates beyond their lists of endorsements and Phara’s accomplishments as an incumbent. Both candidates were running on single-payer healthcare, a Green New Deal for New York, making CUNY tuition free, universal rent control, and ending mass incarceration. This was not unique to Souffrant Forrest and Alabi’s race. During the 2021 City Council elections. DSA-backed tenant-organizer Michael Hollingsworth narrowly lost to progressive career politician Crystal Hudson, whose platform and literature also mimicked our own.

But there are three major differences between our DSA candidates and their faux-progressive opponents:

  1. Our opponents were career Democratic Party operatives, while our DSA candidates were working-class movement leaders: Hollingsworth and Souffrant Forrest were both organizers in Brooklyn’s robust tenant movement. While canvassing, one comrade met a voter who said that Hollingsworth had organized their apartment building, so of course they were voting for him!
  2. Our opponents usually took corporate money, while our DSA candidates were funded exclusively by working people. Despite our opponents’ promises to stand for working-class values, they couldn’t be trusted to deliver on their promises because they were compromised by their corporate bankrollers.
  3. Both Hollingsworth and Souffrant Forrest were running as members of democratic socialist slates. They were accountable to a working-class movement that would keep them true to their word, and were committed to acting as part of a team in office. Our policy goals face the resistance of immensely powerful enemies. Well-meaning individuals cannot defeat these class enemies and deliver real change for working-class New Yorkers. Insead, we need a mass working-class movement and a core of elected officials committed to coordinating with each other, and answering to and building that movement.

While canvassing, when voters would ask me the differences between Alabi and Souffrant Forrest I would hit on these three points, especially the last one. While Alabi was running on the same platform as Souffrant-Forrest, if she had won she would have weakened the bloc in Albany that is accountable to and fighting for workers. This was one of her strongest selling points at the doors.

People also appreciated my honesty about the difficulty of the task ahead. I didn’t say that by electing our candidates, their lives would immediately change. I made clear the power of our enemies and put forward a strategy to defeat them which relied on building mass movements of regular people, engaging in direct conflict with capitalists and their politicians, and expanding the bloc of democratic socialist legislators.

Unfortunately, neither our literature, nor our canvass training and scripts, emphasized that our candidate was running on a slate or accountable to a movement beyond the campaign. Our literature displayed a DSA endorsement, but as one as many among others, and identified Phara as a Democrat running for re-election, as opposed to a democratic socialist running as part of a slate in the Democratic primary. While I’m sure there were other volunteers who took a similar approach as me, the vast majority of constituents were not hearing this powerful message, instead likely seeing our candidates as good individual progressives, and in some cases, not so different from their opponents.

These reflections motivated my caucus in DSA, Bread & Roses, to put forward the “1-2-3-4 Plan” at the 2022 NYC-DSA convention. This plan would have committed our candidates to using the words democratic socialist on their literature and scripts, distancing themselves from the label of Democrat, using a common campaign identity during and between election cycles, bloc voting with each other, and cross-endorsing each other and future DSA candidates as part of a longer-term project of building an independent working-class party.

Why a Party? And How?

Marxists have long identified the importance of independent working-class political action. This independence is essential for simultaneously winning pro-worker reforms, and to build working-class organization and consciousness. Cross-class parties like the Democrats, while at times winning reforms for workers, have historically subordinated working-class power and interests to those of their capitalist leaderships. They also tie workers movements to the brand of anti-worker capitalists. Working-class parties on the other hand allow for workers to have control over their own political apparatus, strategy, brand, and politicians. Together, the movement rank-and-file, elected leaders, and members in political office can collectively present an alternative vision of society in direct conflict with capitalists and their politicians to serve as a rallying cry for workers sick of the status quo.

The 1-2-3-4 plan would have oriented our legislative and movement fights toward helping build their own self-directed struggles through fights that pit their own movements against the interests of capital and forge a working-class identity. Through these fights, we could demonstrate that DSA is the organization — or party —  to join to further their interests as workers, and that to expand working-class power means expanding DSA’s bloc in the state. Moving toward acting like a party and forging a voter-base devoted to our organization and strategy would set the groundwork for one day breaking from the Democratic Party and forming our own party.

The United States’ anti-democratic constitution and electoral rules make it particularly hard to break out of the two-party system forced upon workers. Most in the socialist movement acknowledge this reality, and its implications that at the current moment we need to contest Democratic primaries as a primary terrain of electoral struggle. For some, these hurdles have made building a working-class party seem quixotic, and that we should instead accept our lot as a faction of the Democratic Party. But this ignores that for centuries Marxists and socialists have focused their efforts on fighting for a more democratic state to enable working-class power. Some of the earliest programs of 19th and 20th century mass workers parties even led with demands around universal suffrage and proportional representation.

We don’t have to look as far back in history as Europe’s 19th century workers parties for relevant examples. Following Chile’s managed transition back to democracy, its constitution effectively created a two-party system through 2-seat-large congressional districts that delivered seats to the highest two vote getters. But following the 2011 student uprising against neoliberalism, and the subsequent entry of some of its leaders into Congress in 2014, Chile passed major electoral reforms, expanding the size of its congressional districts to allow for greater representation of other parties than the dominant center-right and center-left coalitions. These reforms, in turn, facilitated the massive growth of representation by Chile’s new left coalition, the Frente Amplio in 2017, in an election that broke up the country’s two-party system.

This was only possible because left-wing politicians and movements fought for this reform, and tied it to their broader economic program of ending neoliberalism. Building a government and society that worked for working people, they argued, required a political system that allowed working people real democratic control over their lives. DSA and our socialists in office should also fight for proportional representation and other democratic reforms that would make it easier to build a new working-class socialist party, and break from using the Democratic Party’s ballot line. In fact, YDSA just passed a resolution to this effect at our recent National Convention, urging

“DSA as a whole to take up a stance of opposition to the Constitution, openly indicting it as antidemocratic and oppressive, encouraging all DSA members in office to do the same, taking concrete actions to advance the struggle for a democratic republic such as agitating against undemocratic Judicial Review, fighting for proportional representation, delegitimizing the anti-democratic U.S. Senate, and advancing the long-term demand for a new democratic Constitution.”

While we don’t get to choose our conditions, we can still make our own history.

Base Building

Building a party can’t solely revolve around winning electoral reform. We have to do the hard work of building a working-class base for independent class-struggle politics. Notably, our rank-and-file labor efforts are going to play an essential role in breaking off a considerable chunk of the labor movement from the Democrats in favor of our socialist project instead and is already paying dividends.

Building mass democratic struggles of workers, showing workers that change is possible through their own independent collective action are essential in building what Kim Moody described as “a sea of class-conscious workers for socialist ideas and organizations to swim in.” Participating among the rank-and-file as the strongest union builders and advocates of union democracy and militancy, supporting workers through extensive strike support, and using the bully pulpits of our socialists in office to amplify and build their struggles, is a clear path for DSA to attract large numbers of working people to our organization.

Last, our electoral campaigns and the actions of our socialists in office have a large role to play in building a democratic socialist identity among our voter base. Literature, scripts, and campaign messaging can foreground that our candidate is running as part of an alternative political movement, DSA, that they are oriented toward building the struggles of regular people, and that they’re planning on blocking with other socialists in office who will together remain accountable to the movement.

Our socialists in office can collaborate with DSA and broader working-class organizations to facilitate mass working class struggle and draw clear identifiable lines between DSA’s electeds and mainstream Democrats. A great example of this has been the campaign for the Not on Our Dime legislation to end New York State’s subsidization of Israeli settlements, championed by most of NYC-DSA’s socialist in office. The Not on Our Dime campaign has oriented toward building people power, not legislative maneuvering, has forced the majority of the Democratic Conference to demonstrate they’re bought by the Israel lobby, and has emphasized the importance of having DSA members in office to truly champion the interests of working people.

Is Working in the Democratic Party Desirable in the Long Run? 

Some argue that we have no choice but to remain in the Democratic Party coalition indefinitely. But there is significant evidence that this is a failing strategy for the long term. First, the Democratic Party is incredibly unpopular, especially when compared to our socialist policy goals. Nationally, the Democratic Party has a 39 percent approval rating. And in red states, like Florida, Republican candidates regularly win state-wide office, while progressive ballot initiatives like a $15 minimum wage and legalizing medicinal marijuana pass by large margins.

Second, the Democratic Party is losing support from significant parts of its base who would form crucial parts of a workers’ party. While there has been a historical base in the South that identifies strongly with the Democratic Party, especially among Black southerners, support for Joe Biden among all non-White voters is quickly declining. According to the New York Times, while Biden won 70 percent of non-white voters in 2020, he is now polling at 53 percent among the same group. Biden’s drop in support among non-white voters is largely concentrated among those without a college education, are younger than 45 years old, and who make less than $50k per year or between $50 and $100k per year. While support for Biden among poorer people of color has plummeted, support among non-white voters making more than $100k per year has actually increased.

This parallels larger trends of diminishing support by workers of all races for the Democratic Party, and the Party’s increasing reliance on higher-income and more highly educated voters. While Obama’s 2012 campaign won voters with incomes under $50k per year by twenty-two points, and lost those with incomes over $100k by ten points, Biden won the former group by merely nine points, and reversed Obama’s loss among the latter group, winning top earners by thirteen points. And during the 2020 presidential elections, support for Trump by immigrants living in major cities massively increased. In Los Angeles and New York, districts with over 65 percent combined Latino and Asian populations both had Republican ballots increase by 78 percent compared to the 2016 election, while Democratic ballots only increased by 23 percent and two percent respectively.

The Democratic Party is quickly alienating key segments of their base to whom a socialist program may appeal — and who are necessary to realize said program. Winning over these groups – working people, people of color, immigrants in cities, and those in former industrial heartland – seemingly requires a sharper distinction from the Democratic Party, a willingness to establish ourselves as an explicit alternative to the party, not just a faction within.

What About Blue States?

In blue states, many argue that identifying as a Democrat is required to win office, but the reality is far less clear. In many of my canvassing conversations I’ve encountered working people whose first question is if our candidate is a Democrat or not. I’d often respond that our candidate was running in the Democratic Primary but was fundamentally different from traditional politicians of both parties, elaborating on the three points that distinguished our candidates from even most progressive non-socialist Democrats. I’d admit we had to run as a Democrat because of our two party system, but that our movement was independent from and in conflict with the corporate politicians of both parties. I’ve never had any problems with this messaging.

For the most part, workers just want to know our candidate is not a Republican. The laundry list of poor experiences with corporate Democrats is near universal. Anecdotally, many of my working-class co-workers hold highly negative views of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Eric Adams, and other leading Democrats, and recognize them as fundamentally alien to their own interests. Last summer, upon learning I was involved in political organizing, one co-worker asked me to help her learn about politics. She felt like she didn’t know much, just voted Democrat because that’s how she was raised, and wanted to learn more. She asked what I thought about the Democratic Party and I replied that it’s home to both poor people and the oppressed, and the ultra wealthy and oppressors. When push comes to shove, it will always choose the wealthy donors over its working-class base, and holds that base hostage because the only alternative is the even worse Republicans. We need a party built by working people independent of the ultra wealthy, and able to actually represent working people’s interests. For the time being we’re stuck in a two-party system and should generally vote for Democrats over Republicans, while building toward that independent party.

She was convinced, and the following week direct-messaged me an Instagram post about Nancy Pelosi’s extreme wealth. The idea that working people would not find this message compelling demonstrates a lack of confidence in both working-class political independence and the ability of workers to understand complex political ideas and put them into practice. The larger challenge is demonstrating that our vision is possible, not that it’s desirable.

Prioritizing Democratic primaries — a partial necessity of our electoral system — also narrows our audience too. Many voters in low-turnout Democratic primaries likely do identify with the Democratic Party. But it’s also true that our electoral campaigns in New York have generally targeted “triple-prime” voters — those who have voted in the three Democratic Party primaries. Since these primaries often receive only thirteen to twenty-six percent turnout of eligible Democrats, this strategy makes sense if one sees the primary task of socialist electoral work as delivering our candidates the greatest number of votes, while also remaining a permanent internal faction of the Democratic Party. But it makes far less sense from an electoral orientation that seeks to use socialist electoral campaigns to organize workers, regardless of partisan identity, into struggle around an alternative vision of society in direct conflict with capitalists and their politicians.

This is also not a good sample source to draw conclusions about the primary source of Democratic Party identification by working-class New Yorkers: negative feelings toward the Republicans or positive ones toward the Democrats. It’s safe to say that my co-worker, who spent her ten-minute breaks at our fast food job simultaneously pumping breast milk and calling up SNAP to try and secure her family food, was not participating in these primary elections. But she should be the prime target of our campaign efforts: a lifelong working-class New Yorker, person of color, mother, pro-union and pro-Bernie, pissed off at her landlord, boss, and the state, and interested in learning more about politics.

Building the Party

It’s exciting to see “Act Like an Independent Party” pass at the DSA convention. This vision of  building on our organizational independence, and establishing strategic independence and a strong public independent identity has super-majority support in the organization. Now we have to put it into practice. DSA can run socialists around the country on a common program and a common identity, build up our national and local electoral infrastructure to recruit and develop class-struggle candidates, and coordinate with them once in office to block together and build worker-oriented mass struggles. We will strengthen our electoral project and build real long-term power for DSA and the workers’ movement.

To do this, the National Electoral Committee needs to support chapters in establishing their own Socialists in Office (SIO) committee and to develop a federal one. These committees can take the best practices from NYC-DSA’s SIO committee, while also learning from its challenges and difficulties. They can coordinate with our officials, help set their messaging, policies, and strategy, collaborate in organizing their constituents into struggle, and ensure that our socialists in office are moving together as a disciplined team.

It also means developing a candidate school, to prepare our candidates to be class-struggle socialists in office, resist the state’s conservatizing pressures, and to rely on mass struggle by working people instead of goodwill with their capitalist colleagues. Additionally, we can work to set clear standards for bloc voting, coordinating with DSA, cross-endorsing our other candidates, and establish national and local brand identities for our electoral work. Using the same identifiable party brand between electoral cycles and between districts during the same cycle will help establish our organization as a party-like fighting movement in the eyes of voters.

Last, we can champion electoral reform to help break our two-party system and create new openings for forming our own party. It’s not enough to simply acquiesce to our material conditions, we must seek to transform them. Workers are itching for something different from politics as usual. It’s on us to give it to them.