Editorial Note: Electoral Politics and Democratic Socialist Strategy

For better or worse, the 2020 presidential campaign has begun. Bernie Sanders is running for president once again, and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has officially endorsed his candidacy. This third issue of Socialist Forum focuses on strategic and tactical questions related to the Bernie 2020 campaign; the role of DSA in electoral politics; the place of electoral politics in democratic socialist strategy; the relationship between national and local political action; and the balance between electoral politics and other modes of organizing and educational work. 

Chris Maisano advances a broad set of arguments concerning the place and purpose of electoral politics in democratic socialist strategy. He makes three main points. First, the importance of electoral politics in socialist strategy has only increased as mass-membership organizations in general, and unions in particular, have declined in size and strength. Second, national-level politics occupies a strategically central place in today’s political landscape, and that DSA’s electoral activity should be oriented primarily (though not exclusively) toward congressional districts. Finally, democratic socialist electoral insurgencies such as the Bernie Sanders campaign must play a key role in encouraging social reorganization on a mass scale, and broadening DSA’s membership beyond its present social base. 

A set of three essays investigate a range of potential strategic approaches to building an organized democratic socialist formation in the U.S. political system, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. David Duhalde makes the case for building a democratic socialist faction within Democratic Party institutional structures across the country. Instead of seeking to capture and fundamentally transform the party (as in the realignment strategy), this approach is more modest and realistic, but still ambitious; it seeks to give a degree of permanence to the Sanders movement so that it may continue after Bernie retires from the political scene. Alexander Kolokotronis and Sam Nakayama advance a related but distinct perspective in their essay, which argues for the organization of a democratized caucus among socialist elected officials. The purpose of such a formation, in their view, isn’t just to keep officeholders accountable to their constituents and to DSA members, but to lay some of the organizational groundwork for a potential alternative to the Democratic Party. Finally, Jason Schulman looks to the career of Bernie Sanders in Vermont as an example of how democratic socialists might effectively engage in independent political action while avoiding the traps and limitations of third party politics in the U.S. political system.

DSA chapters around the country have scored a number of important electoral victories in recent years. Earlier this year, Chicago DSA helped to make international headlines when a group of democratic socialists took on the city’s entrenched political establishment and won election to the city council. In an interview with National Political Committee (NPC) member Marianela D’Aprile, Chicago DSA member Lillian Osborne talks about the political conditions that have made Chicago’s “red wave” possible and how socialist election campaigns can help build lasting power on the local level. Are similar breakthroughs possible elsewhere? In her article, Marilyn Arwood argues that the only way to find out is by digging into the data to find the most favorable terrain for democratic socialists looking to continue the political revolution that Bernie launched in 2016. If a President Bernie Sanders wants to implement any aspect of his ambitious agenda, he will need as many supporters and allies in Congress as possible.

The democratic socialist movement has grown by leaps and bounds, but an organization like DSA is still too small to exercise power at the national level on its own. We need allies and coalition partners. One crucial source of strength is the labor movement, which, despite its largely disorganized state, can still bring significant amounts of people power and resources to bear on election campaigns. Rand Wilson and Peter Olney argue that democratic socialists working in formations like Labor for Bernie to not only support Sanders, but to promote a strategic approach to the 2020 political process – and to use the primary as an arena of struggle against the corporate Democrats. In their view, the task for labor activists in 2020 is going all-out for Bernie while building the unity necessary to defeat Trump. The labor movement isn’t the only potential coalition partner for democratic socialists – so are left-liberals social democrats, according to Kam W. in his article on the new U.S. left. In his view, figures such as Elizabeth Warren have helped the socialist movement by providing us with political space to articulate our ideas. In this way, social democrats should be seen as and cultivated as allies in our big-tent democracy, not enemies. 

Finally, Lion Summerbell looks across the Atlantic to assess the current state of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the challenges it will face in advancing a socialist agenda should it win power. He also compares DSA and Momentum, the pro-Corbyn movement inside the Labour Party which has been the site of much conflict and contention since its formation in 2015.