Electoral Politics, Class Formation, and Socialist Strategy

Electoral politics can play a key role in reorganizing the working class and stimulating social organization on a mass scale.

The seeds of DSA’s recent growth were planted over a decade ago, when the financial crisis brought the global economy to the brink of collapse and Barack Obama was elected president on the promise of “fundamentally transforming” the U.S. Two magazine covers from the early days of the Obama administration captured the hopes (and fears) of many: Time depicted Obama as the new FDR, poised to bring a New New Deal to a crisis-ridden country, while Newsweek declared that “We Are All Socialists Now.” 

Instead of inaugurating a new regime, however, Obama did everything he could to prop up the old one. The upside of his defense of established power and privilege was the development of productive disillusionment among a growing number of Americans. This found expression in a number of different outlets: the coherence of a new intellectual left around Jacobin magazine; the spectacular emergence of Occupy Wall Street, which injected a powerful critique of rampant inequality into the mainstream; the protests against racist police violence that eventually rallied under the banner of Black Lives Matter. 

By the end of the Obama administration, a broadly oppositional — yet politically undefined — mood took hold of a substantial section of younger adults, their status undercut by persistent economic insecurity and a general sense of alienation from established politics and institutions. Instead of becoming organic intellectuals for the ruling class, they’ve flooded the ranks of DSA, essentially refounding an organization built for a different political period. 

Even so, it was far from assured that this general mood would develop into something beyond a small subculture. Cycles of protest and demobilization, the recurrent emergence of “movements” that fizzled out as quickly as they appeared and left no meaningful organizational residue, defined the U.S. Left for decades. This pattern could well have continued indefinitely if it were not for a crucial and unexpectedly successful political intervention — Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

DSA and the broader Left were, of course, regularly involved in electoral politics before 2016. But the Sanders campaign signaled the possibility of a break with the politics of lesser-evilism and “harm reduction” that dominated progressive electoral activity since the Popular Front,  including most of DSA’s electoral activity since the 1980s. By identifying himself as a democratic socialist and calling for a political revolution against the billionaire class, Sanders did what no national politician had done for almost a century: he brought the question of socialism versus capitalism into the heart of U.S. politics. While Bernie had been hammering these themes for decades, material conditions in the country had become so dire for so many that a previously marginal message could finally get a wide hearing. And he did it on the biggest stage in U.S. (and probably world) politics — the presidential contest. The 2016 Sanders campaign showed us what might be possible if we manage to avoid two pitfalls that have long bedeviled the left: a self-isolating focus on “social movements” on one side, and subordination to the forces of official liberalism on the other.

The Sanders phenomenon and the subsequent growth of DSA compels us to consider a number of crucial strategic and tactical questions: what is the role of DSA in electoral politics? What is the place of electoral action in a wider democratic socialist strategy? How should electoral action at different levels of government interact with each other, and does any one level carry disproportionate strategic importance? How should we balance electoral politics with other modes of organizing and educational work? 

I advance three main arguments in this article. First, the salience of electoral politics in left strategy has increased as the size and strength of mass-membership organizations in general, and unions in particular, has declined. Second, consistent national-level electoral action is strategically central in today’s political landscape. Finally, electoral insurgencies such as the Sanders campaigns will play a key role in rebuilding a mass base for socialist politics and encouraging organization in workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. This will also help DSA grow beyond our current base of “connected outsiders” – highly educated, very online, but economically precarious young adults – to include working class people of all backgrounds. Effective electoral action, through both Democratic Party primaries and independent campaigns where feasible, can help us build the forces we need to challenge the power of capital and create a truly independent political movement. 

Electoral Politics and Class Formation 

Whether we like it or not, election campaigns – and presidential elections above all – are the form of political activity that ordinary Americans engage with the most. In a formal democracy like the U.S., elections are typically perceived as synonymous with “politics” itself. Even though the level of popular enthusiasm for politics in this sense is usually not very high, any left political project aspiring to mass support needs an ongoing electoral expression if it wants to be successful, and become a reference point for popular struggles outside the electoral arena. 

This has long been the case in advanced capitalist countries with representative government and universal suffrage. But the salience of electoral politics in democratic socialist strategy has only increased as the size and strength of mass-membership organizations in general, and unions in particular, has declined. The overall rate of unionization reached its all-time high in the early 1950s, when roughly one-third of the U.S. workforce was organized. Today it stands at 10.5%, the lowest level in a century. The rate and extent of unionization also varies considerably by sector as well as geographically. Only 6.4% of the overall private sector workforce is unionized today, but that rate drops even lower in a large number of southern and southwestern states. Public sector unionization still exceeds 30% nationwide, but this rate also varies widely by state and level of government. Public employee unions have been subjected to a wide-ranging political and judicial assault, as exemplified by Wisconsin’s notorious Act 10 and the Supreme Court’s imposition of a national public sector “right-to-work” regime in last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision. Janus has not so far had the immediate negative impact that many feared, but it will open the door to yet another round of attacks on the legal-institutional underpinnings of organized labor’s last remaining stronghold.

The social underpinnings of unionism have also been significantly eroded. Unionism in the basic manufacturing industries tended to be tightly integrated with working-class community life in the neighborhoods and towns surrounding the factory. Before the development of the modern welfare state, labor unions often served as a focal point of community life and provided a wide array of benefits that helped workers meet the costs of important services like healthcare and basic education. As the labor movement grew in size and strength, it was able to successfully shift the cost of benefit provision, at least in part, to the state and the employers. This was a victory, but one that had the contradictory effect of making union members and the broader working class reliant on the state and employers for crucial benefits and services, namely health insurance and unemployment benefits. Industrial unions declined along with manufacturing employment, and since collective bargaining had become their main reason for being they didn’t leave much of a community-based infrastructure behind them. As manufacturing moved out of the central cities and factory towns lost their plants, workers chased after work or got stuck in increasingly distressed communities. The leading edge of the working class was disorganized, the class solidarities that were built in an earlier period were eroded, and a generation of working people lost out on the opportunity to gain the knowledge and experiences that result from running one’s own organization.

The decline of organized labor, coupled with the widespread disintegration of urban working-class community life, means that only a relatively small minority of the working class is currently situated to engage in effective forms of collective action at work or in their communities. There are consequently few available channels outside of election campaigns to engage and politicize a mass audience on a regular basis, and the ones that are potentially available are typically defensive in nature and limited to radical expressions of interest-group pressure politics. In this context, electoral activity must play an important role in reconstituting the working class as a political subject, and in creating a more favorable environment for workers to organize and engage in class struggle outside the electoral arena. 

Chantal Mouffe and other advocates of “left populism” are wrong to sever political subjects from any grounding in objective social structures and material interests, and to reduce the working-class movement to just one link in a “chain of equivalence” in which no particular actor or set of demands carries any particular strategic importance. Despite its largely disorganized state, the working class is still the key to fundamental social transformation because of its size and strategic location in the social order. But the left populist emphasis on the need to actively construct political subjects through conflict, and to not simply reflect pre-existing economic or sociological categories, is basically sound. There is no automatic correspondence between one’s location in the class structure, or in social relations generally, and one’s political orientation. Class identities do not necessary flow from the objective structures of the class system – they must be created. As Vivek Chibber has argued, in the classic Marxist account of class formation “the class structure is taken to generate class consciousness, which in turn induces workers to build class organizations,” but in reality “class consciousness is the consequence of class organization” and conflicts between collective historical actors. Class formation, then, is an effect of struggles which are not structured or determined solely by the relations of economic production, but ideological practices and political regimes as well. 

Labor unions play an indispensable role in this regard, but so do parties and political organizations. As Leo Panitch has argued, the mass socialist and working class parties of the twentieth century were “the essential condition…for the reinforcement, recomposition, and extension of class identity and community itself in the face of a capitalism which continually deconstructed and reconstructed industry, occupation, and locale.” At their best, they served to at least partially overcome the narrow sectionalism that often limits workplace-based organization, “not only through the national identity given to the class through its association with the party’s project of winning state office, but through their potential role in socialist education and mobilization.” To a significant extent it was parties that organized classes, not the other way around.

The absence of such parties in U.S. history is both cause and consequence of the relative weakness of class politics in this country. Early extension of the franchise to propertyless white men allowed for the development of political machines that organized workers on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion, and locale instead of class, and put U.S. workers in a different relationship with the state than their counterparts in other countries. Struggles against governments which sought to deny equal suffrage and political rights to the working class gave German, French, British, and other workers an opportunity to organize themselves politically on a class basis, and encouraged the development of an independent working-class culture. The vibrant social and cultural institutions of German social democracy, for example, resulted from the extensive legal and political repression of workers in Imperial Germany. They had no choice but to use their parties and related organizations to build a “world within a world,” separate and apart from the official bourgeois society. Similarly, the Canadian state’s repressive response to the labor upsurge of the 1930s was a major factor in the development of an independent working class party in Canada, while the relatively accommodating response of the Democratic Party led to the U.S. labor movement’s effective absorption into the cross-class New Deal coalition.

Today, U.S. elites show little interest in absorbing or encouraging working class organization. Even with the labor movement in a position of historic weakness, employers and their political functionaries continue to pursue their assault on the right to organize. This is occurring in tandem with a wide-ranging campaign to suppress voting rights, the ultimate goal of which is to further reduce popular control of government, which already is virtually non-existent. Under these conditions, DSA and the broader left should use the electoral arena to turn Bernie Sanders’s call for political revolution into a project of class (re)formation. This should not be premised on an abstract call for more “democracy” drained of social content, or centered on welcome but insufficient measures like campaign finance reform. It should be a program that links the democratization of political institutions with encouragement of working-class organizational capacity in politics, the economy, and in every arena of social life. In short, an American Chartism for the twenty-first century.

All Politics is National 

The 2016 Sanders campaign underscored the central strategic importance of national level politics in the contemporary political landscape. For well over a year, Bernie used the platform of the presidential contest to speak to the entire country about class politics, his program, and his criticisms of current government policies. This led to a modest increase in DSA’s membership during the course of the campaign, particularly among those who already identified with the left in some fashion but refrained from joining any of the existing socialist organizations. The real membership explosion, of course, began in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, as the horror of the situation made the need for organized political action crystal clear. But the main reason that so many turned to DSA instead of one of the various expressions of the #Resistance was undoubtedly the Sanders campaign. It didn’t just spread the idea of political revolution to a mass audience. It exposed the utter bankruptcy of the Democratic Party establishment, which proved itself more effective in combating a left-wing challenger than Donald Trump and the odious political project he represents. 

It is simply impossible to make sense of the organization’s sudden growth otherwise. If the primary contest was between Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley (remember him?) it’s very unlikely that DSA’s membership would be at the level it is at today. And it’s far from clear that the new crop of national electoral tribunes — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, etc. — would have emerged as the vocal, leftist figures they are now if not for the Sanders campaign’s demonstration effect. Bernie’s campaign primed huge swathes of the country for an unabashed class politics, and made the only organization with “democratic socialism” in its name the place to go for those who wanted to keep the political revolution going beyond 2016. 

None of this is to say that DSA should give up on everything but election campaigns. Consistent electoral action is a major aspect of building a hegemonic political project, but so is building disruptive strikes and mass actions; promoting economic power through unions and cooperative enterprises; developing our own network of media outlets; and implementing political education programs for our own members and broader audiences. The ongoing strike wave in public education provides a particularly good example of how class politics waged inside and outside the electoral arena can create a mutually beneficial feedback loop. Bernie’s 2016 campaign played a key role in creating the political conditions for the teacher strike wave, and now educators (and nurses) are the leading source of working-class support for Bernie 2020. Whether their unions will follow them this time around is a question to which DSA labor activists around the country can help provide the right answer. 

Nor should DSA chapters or the left in general abandon local level politics. Sanders got his start, after all, as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Local level politics gives our members valuable opportunities to gain skills and experiences at a manageable scale, develop themselves as leaders and candidates, use local offices as organizing centers, and address important issues and problems directly through community-based organizing. District attorney offices, despite their inherent contradictions, have become a useful tool in the fight against mass incarceration where reformers have won election. The recent election of six self-described democratic socialists to Chicago’s city council made international headlines, and should serve as an ongoing source of strength for DSA and the broader left in that city. The local level is an important terrain that should not be neglected.

But localities, even the biggest and most economically self-sufficient ones, are extremely vulnerable to whipsawing by capitalist interests. They often lack the level of resources necessary to effectively address their most intractable problems, and in many places the largest employers can effectively blackmail local government with the threat of lost jobs and tax revenue. In many cases they lack home rule over the most important sources of funding and policymaking authority. Under U.S. constitutional law, municipal governments have long been treated as creatures of their respective state governments, and as such they occupy a decidedly subordinate position in the system of intergovernmental relations. The Constitution doesn’t discuss local government at all, and all powers not granted to the federal government are expressly reserved for the states. In recent years, a number of state governments have moved to repeal or preempt local laws concerning minimum wages, paid leave, sanctuary city status, and other important issues. These structural weaknesses of local government present advocates of municipalist politics with a number of constraints and limitations. The local level often raises the lowest barriers to success, but it also provides the least amount of room to make the kinds of systemic and structural changes democratic socialists need to prioritize – which includes not just social policies like single-payer health insurance but also fundamental changes in the constitutional order. Moreover, local political projects often depend on a favorable political environment at higher scales of government, and can be derailed by broader conflicts that may have little to do with local issues and concerns. 

While it would be a mistake to dismiss local politics as unimportant or irrelevant, our strategic thinking must be closely attuned to the most salient developments of the moment. Among the most important of these is the increasing nationalization of U.S. politics. The old adage “all politics is local” may have been accurate in a time when ticket-splitting was common, and voters tended to make judgments on individual candidates and officeholders regardless of their party affiliation. Today, however, there is a growing tendency for voters to base their electoral decisions, including those at the state and local levels, on their views of the national parties in general and the sitting president in particular. These dynamics account, to a significant extent, for the increasing frequency of midterm “wave elections” with big swings in party control of Congress, as well as the trend toward near-universal single-party control of state legislatures. Whatever we think of these developments, we have to reckon with them. As such, DSA chapters across the country should make a strong commitment to Bernie 2020, which the National Political Committee recently voted to support through an independent expenditure campaign. 

Of course, presidential elections happen only once every four years, and there doesn’t yet seem to be any likely candidate to replace Bernie as the national tribune of democratic socialism after he retires from the scene. So any effective strategic approach to electoral activity must find a way to balance the need to consistently address national issues and problems with local organizing. As James Weinstein argues in his book The Long Detour, “the place to start seems clearly to be in the smallest constituencies concerned with national policy, which is congressional districts.” To begin with, congressional elections occur every two years, a timetable that offers the opportunity to carry out a permanent campaign in support of democratic socialism in the district. Furthermore, the value of having even a handful of self-identified socialists in Congress has been decisively proven first by Sanders, then the rapid ascent of AOC, Omar, and Tlaib. They have had an enormous impact on U.S. politics in a very short period of time, and have played an important role in articulating local fights with national issues (e.g. the successful fight against Amazon’s second headquarters in Queens). 

These campaigns have been waged so far in Democratic Party primaries, and the use of this tactic should definitely continue. It has helped DSA and the broader left build our forces and reduce our debilitating isolation. In certain circumstances, however, DSA chapters should also consider running or supporting socialists in independent general election campaigns. This would help our movement retain its independent political identity and help lay groundwork for the organizational infrastructure that will be needed if, as many of us hope, the socialist insurgency inside the Democrats helps to generate a crisis and restructuring of the national party system. 

Beyond the Campaign Trail

As DSA continues to grow and develop, we will eventually confront the need to consolidate ourselves on the basis of a national political program that embodies our common project; ties together local chapters scattered throughout a country the size of a continent; attracts potential allies; and mediates the immediate reform fights which constitute our day-to-day work with the ultimate goal of democratic socialism. Such a process would constitute a key milestone in our ongoing transition from an inchoate expression of the oppositional mood into a durable political organization. 

Commitment to a common national program will ultimately amount to little, however, if we fail to root ourselves in a solid social base. Like our counterparts in other countries (e.g. Podemos, the Corbyn-led Labour Party, France Insoumise, etc.) our growth, particularly of the activist layers, has been driven mainly by what the political sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo calls connected outsiders: people (often with high levels of formal education) who are unorganized by churches, unions, or other social organizations, and are therefore reliant on digital communications and social media platforms to overcome their atomization. 

This is, to a significant extent, an unavoidable consequence of the fact that the neoliberal project has disorganized the working class and its collective institutions. And it is a good thing that digital platforms help to lower barriers to participation in an era when many political institutions are discredited and distrusted. At the same time, however, it means that unlike the mass organizations of the old left, DSA tends to draw support from self-selecting individuals with weak or non-existent links to a broader working-class or popular constituency. This process of self-selection, combined with the academic and professional milieus we often draw upon, also goes a long way toward explaining the current racial composition of the organization. Our main organizational task for the foreseeable future is to reestablish the severed link between socialist politics and a mass working-class constituency. 

Here, we come full circle to the particular importance of electoral politics today. With the level of social organization at historic lows, electoral insurgencies will continue to play a key role in rebuilding the base we will need to sustain our project beyond the present political moment. Fortunately for us, Bernie Sanders will spend at least the next year telling an audience of millions that if they want fundamental change in this country, they can’t just campaign and vote for him — they need to get organized and take action at work, in the neighborhood, and in every other area of their lives. This isn’t just cheap campaign talk. Bernie’s campaign is demonstrating its commitment to mass organizing and popular mobilization by using his lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and to encourage the development of organizing skills among his base. By engaging the millions who will participate in Bernie’s campaign, we can transform DSA into a mass organization that is capable of putting that message into practice — something that will be absolutely indispensable to winning the demands Bernie is raising if he actually wins the election.

The chance to build a mass movement for democratic socialism is right in front of us. Will we take it?