Groundwork Toward a Socialist Party

A democratized caucus within the Democratic Party could serve as a vehicle for building popular power from below.

Since its first major upticks in membership, the question of Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) electoral activity has loomed large. How should socialists relate to the Democratic Party? Should establishing a third party be an aspiration? If so, how can we even get there? If not, how do we at least keep our options open and maintain our political independence? Once seemingly sectarian debate topics are now live political questions. Some have called for establishing a third party, others see mass volunteer canvassing as a vehicle to contest for power within the Democratic Party whilst pushing it to the Left. But there is another option, hitherto unexplored in the United States: a democratized caucus within the Democratic Party.

While many in DSA have looked to the U.K. Labour Party and Scandinavian social democracy, more relevant answers may come from elsewhere. DSA’s electoral activity has gained clout with Congressional primary victories from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. The flames of contention over DSA’s electoral activity have been fanned by NYC DSA’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon for the New York gubernatorial race, and by Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Andrew Cuomo. Traditional social democratic party mechanisms and structures are appearing less relevant.

DSA National Director Maria Svart asserts that at the heart of democratic socialism is the cardinal principle to “democratize everything.” If electoral activity is itself supposed to perform a democratizing function, then more relevant insights and applications can be derived from elsewhere: the Pirate Parties of Iceland and Germany; the Net Party in Argentina; the municipal “confluences” proliferating throughout Spain; and the Taiwanese legislative agenda-setting system of deliberation. These electoral organizations and models of participatory governance can inform the structure of DSA’s inside-outside strategy in relation to the Democratic Party.  A democratized caucus would operate according to principles and recent innovations in online and face-to-face participatory democracy. More specifically, it would be a caucus consisting of democratic socialist elected officials who operate as something closer to mandated delegates: voting the positions determined by constituents themselves through deliberative democratic processes. This could create a distinct identity for elected democratic socialists from those beholden to the capitalist class within the Democratic Party, and facilitate the necessary consciousness-raising and political education to continuously push the party to the Left or potentially fully break from it.

DSA’s Existing Inside-Outside Strategy and Practice

Posing the question of socialist electoral activity is not to imply that DSA has taken no position on these matters. With a few exceptions, DSA has largely operated according to an “inside-outside strategy” in relating to the Democratic Party. This strategy has attempts to sustain bottom-up pressure in order to create an informal accountability culture within the Democratic Party. It is also informed by the failure of previous “all-in” attempts to transform the Democrats, as well as “all-out” efforts to construct a fully independent third party. Since DSA is not the first leftist organization to attempt to enter or use the Democratic Party, it’s important to remind ourselves of concerted left-wing efforts to realign the Democrats over the last fifty years.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was a first attempt by the New Left to realign the party on a state-by-state basis. The goal was to replace white supremacist Dixiecrat southern parties with black-led multi-racial working class party formations. The MFDP sought official recognition over Mississippi Dixiecrats by being seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, but national party leaders prevented this from taking place. Further attempts were made through Eugene McCarthy’s unsuccessful 1968 presidential primary campaign, which largely flowed from his opposition to the Vietnam War. George McGovern’s successful campaign to win the Democratic nomination in 1972 resulted in a massive loss to Richard Nixon in the general election. The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), one of DSA’s predecessor organizations, participated in valiant but unsuccessful attempts to combat the Democrats’ dominant pro-business elites in 1976 and 1980. The New Left’s last gasp at realignment occurred with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s, in part an outgrowth of the New Communist Movement (NCM)’s attempts at party building. 

Some projects were pursued outside the processes and structures of the Democratic Party. Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party presidential election run continues to be a source of tension among left-liberals, as many still blame Nader for George W. Bush’s slim but decisive margin of victory in Florida. But nearly twenty years after Nader, the broad Left seems to have recognized the dead end of national-level independent political action that is not rooted in an already built organizational apparatus.

There is also a more practical dimension to the inside-outside strategy. At the time of the 2017 DSA National Convention many believed it was far too early to provide more substance to the inside-outside approach. It wasn’t altogether clear how fast, if at all, self-identified socialists could achieve electoral victories, let alone decent showings in primary and general elections. It was not clear who the socialist candidates would be, nor was it clear what the positions of DSA’s national organization and its local chapters would be. Many also did not want to get bogged down on the question of platform, out of fear of sectarianism and the potential to distract from on-the-ground outreach and action. Socialism had momentum, and it was better to act now and focus on the larger questions later. Better to not put the cart before the horse by attempting to answer questions that themselves needed further clarification.

Member viewpoints on the nature of DSA’s engagement with the Democratic Party have ranged from some level of support to hardline opposition. The latter position is simple: running within the Democratic Party risks co-optation and eventual total absorption, with the risk that DSA simply becomes “another unpaid canvassing outfit.” The former is more varied. One position is that DSA should support candidates that move the Democratic Party to the Left. This characteristically means supporting DSA members who challenge centrists in Democratic Party primaries. NYC-DSA’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon has complicated this position. Significant precedent has now been set to endorse candidates who are not themselves DSA members. 

For a number of DSA members opposing the endorsement this has been a confusing and sometimes irritating ordeal. Some, such as the Suffolk County DSA chapter, have argued that a city chapter should not be able to endorse a statewide candidate on its own accord, on the grounds that doing so would allow a local chapter to speak for other chapters across the state. On this view, even if the internal process of the chapter was democratic, it was still effectively anti-democratic because the decision affected DSA members could not participate in the chapter’s vote. 

Dan La Botz observed that supporters of the Nixon endorsement possessed “greater political unity” while opponents “did not form a coherent political view.” An incoherent opposition to the Nixon endorsement reflects a lack of clarity regarding what it means to construct an independent socialist workers’ party. 

Like many other movements that have come before us, DSA runs the real possibility of dire conflicts over the purpose and direction of the organization’s electoral strategy. DSA chapters currently allow space for many types of organizing, from electoral politics to tenant organizing to prison abolition. More electoral success, however, will likely reinforce the notion that electoral politics is the best way to connect to already-existing financial resources and power. The risk here is acceptance of the limited scope of the two-party system as the best way to survive and reproduce; the upshot would be DSA’s conversion into just another Democratic Party front like the Rainbow Coalition.Nonetheless, whatever one’s position on electoral politics, it is clear that DSA’s electoral successes are bringing in new members  by the thousands.  

Proposals for a Dual-Party

The inside-outside approach can be conceptualized in different ways. Mason Herson-Hord writes that the “dual-party” is an organization whose platform, policies, and leadership are rooted in the democratic decision-making of a dues-paying membership. Such an organization “drafts its own candidates, funds them, and runs them in Democratic primaries to build its power without counterproductive focus on maintaining an independent ballot line.” In conceptualizing this as a “dual-party”, Herson-Hord builds upon but modifies a well-known approach to independent electoral action advanced by Seth Ackerman of Jacobin magazine. 

“A Blueprint for a New Party,” Ackerman argues that a truly working class party must be “independent—determining its own platform and educating around it. It should actually contest elections. And its candidates for public office should be members of the party, accountable to the membership, and pledged to respect the platform.” The party platform is key, particularly if the platform is the result of a democratic process controlled by the organization’s members to the greatest extent possible. According to Ackerman, none of this requires a separate ballot line. Pursuit of a separate ballot line was the fundamental mistake of the U.S. Labor Party of the 1990s. By positioning itself as formally independent from the Democratic Party, “the Labor Party had to start with the assurance that it wouldn’t play spoiler politics and that it would [first] focus on building the critical mass necessary for serious electoral intervention.” After reviewing the Labor Party’s failure to mount any electoral challenge in the context of the country’s repressive electoral laws, Ackerman wisely asserts that socialists 

“have to stop approaching our task as if the problems we face were akin to those faced by the organizers of, say, the British Labour Party in 1900 or Canada’s New Democratic Party in 1961. Instead, we need to realize that our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore. Rather than yet another suicidal frontal assault, we need to mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency. In short, we need to think about electoral strategy more creatively.” 

In New York State, trade unionists and their academic supporters often hold up the Working Families Party (WFP) as a potential challenger to the mainstream Democratic Party. Yet the WFP often adopts a policy of risk aversion in key moments, currying favor with incumbents come election time. During the run-up to the 2018 Democratic primaries, for example, the WFP endorsed Joseph Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He was still on their ballot line in the general election.

This brings us back to Ackerman. For all the talk of democratic member control of electoral activity, Ackerman’s proposal is largely focused on the processes for selecting the election candidates who will ultimately be the real decision-makers when and if they get elected to office. Yet, as Ackerman himself notes, the problem with the prevailing progressive approaches to electoral politics is that they “cede all real agency to professional politicians.” Unfortunately, Ackerman does not offer a means of addressing this critical dimension of parliamentary representation. He offers significant insights on the peculiarly repressive nature of U.S. election law and how to work around it. He also argues effectively for democratic member organizational control, the possibilities for mounting electoral insurgencies, and the importance of the party platform. Yet, a significant gap remains concerning the means by which elected officials don’t become disconnected from the base-level members of the organization that propelled them to office. Ackerman rightly argues that the members should be an electoral organization’s  “sovereign power,” but how do we turn this aspiration into a reality? One potential option has yet to be explored: a democratized caucus of socialist elected officials within the Democratic Party.

 Another Electoral Politics is Possible: Designing a Democratized Socialist Caucus

Ocasio-Cortez strongly gestured in this direction when a reporter asked her if she would support Crowley in the general election if he defeated her in the primary. She shocked and impressed many, stating “I represent not just my campaign, but a movement. We govern ourselves democratically. So I would be happy to take that question to a vote and respond in the affirmative or however they respond” (our emphasis). Socialists should take this notion up, and adopt it as a guiding organizational principle for electoral activity. It is the constituency and movement that should ultimately possess power, not the elected official. For all the talk of socializing healthcare, Ocasio-Cortez’s comment paints a picture of how electoral representation itself could be democratized and socialized.

With the election of a small but growing number of democratic socialists at different levels, there is talk of forming a socialist caucus or “sub-caucus” within the Democratic Party. Caucus building does not amount to party-building, and certainly not to building mass organization, on its own. This is whether in terms of “realigning” the Democratic Party, or in building capacity for breakaway from the Democratic Party by putting its internal contradictions on full display.

A democratized socialist caucus means bringing “realignment” and building independent political capacity together through member or constituent governance of an intra-party caucus. Such a formation could operate as a nascent vehicle for building an alternative to the Democratic Party. The conceptual and practical tools for this are not to be found in the UK Labor Party or in Scandinavian social democracy. Here DSA leadership and members would be wise to look at new forms of party or electoral organizations around the world.

The Pirate Party in Berlin, Germany has structured itself according to the principles of “liquid democracy.” This means that “anyone (Pirate or not) can approach the Pirate Party board with a proposal concerning the city-state of Berlin. The proposal is then entered into the Liquid Feedback software and voted directly upon by the members of the party. The board is less a decision-making entity and more an administrative arm of the party.” Furthermore, through a platform called Liquid Feedback, “each Pirate can decide yes or no. If the Pirate is not interested or unfamiliar with the topic, he can delegate his vote to another Pirate, whose vote on the matter then counts as two, and so on.” Applied to the representative of a district or ward, they would simply vote in city council, in congress, or in parliament according to the judgment made by the participatory decisional process.

The German Pirate Party was undermined by the often bizarre antics of its leading figures, but the Pirate Party of Iceland has established itself as a popular political force while also operating on the basis of liquid democracy. In Argentina, the Net Party formed after its founders were unable to find an existing political party to utilize their online decision-making platform DemocracyOS. While it has yet to win elected office, Net Party leaders have helped disseminate ideas about liquid democracy in the Anglophone world.

Spain and Taiwan have been the scene of more successful attempts to initiate and maintain mass deliberative and participatory processes. In Spain, activists have made inroads within Barcelona and Madrid city governments, rolling out various neighborhood and online platforms for participatory budgeting, participatory urban design, citizens’ initiatives, and creating spaces for stimulating civic life. In Taiwan, the growth of participatory democracy came out of the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which waged a twenty-three day occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in opposition to a trade deal with China. Organizer-technologists worked together to develop a system called vTaiwan that allowed for patient online consensus building with a minimum of trolling. Discussions appear first online, with comments—but no replies. Instead, participants can vote to agree or disagree with comments, and a machine-learning system clusters comments to show where divides or consensus exists. As noted in Technology Review, “Although there may be hundreds or thousands of separate comments, like-minded groups rapidly emerge in this voting map, showing where there are divides and where there is consensus. People then naturally try to draft comments that will win votes from both sides of a divide, gradually eliminating the gaps.” 

Discussions have gone from the online space into face-to-face discussions, notably over the status of Uber in Taiwan, involving “academics, industry experts, and representatives from…stakeholders.” Consensus reached online in the Uber discussion eventually led the Taiwanese government to adopt “new regulations along the lines vTaiwan had produced” with its volunteer citizen administrators. The Taiwanese government has adopted a similar system called Join, overseen by Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister a “leading hacker and Sunflower activist.” Both systems run on the Polis platform.

Taiwan is an especially salient example of direct democratic deliberation given that the island was under martial law from 1949 to 1987, and did not have direct presidential elections until 1996. If a young liberal democracy like Taiwan can take significant steps towards direct democracy, surely an avowedly democratic socialist organization with sixty-thousand members can do the same.  

DSA could hire multiple staffers to administer processes that operationally draws on both vTaiwan and Liquid Feedback. These are processes that do not require a giant bureaucracy. Over 23 million people live in Taiwan; there is no reason a high energy, sixty-thousand member organization cannot invest resources in experimenting with inclusive participatory processes at a variety of scales. These can be an entire ecology of participatory democratic processes and mechanisms for constituent control, one which goes beyond keeping elected officials accountable and creates innovative forms of scaled up radical democracy. If democratic socialist officials are truly committed to a self-governing movement and “democratizing everything,” then implementing different forms of constituent-control is necessary. Furthermore, the elected democratic socialist representative and attendant organizers would be opened up to devote their time to facilitating political education and socialist consciousness.

Inside-outside strategy presumes that socialists can minimally sustain a capacity to choose whether to operate inside or outside the Democratic Party on a given issue or campaign. With the continuous consciousness-raising and ideological education of constituents, socialists should strive build capacity such that they are not constrained by opposing forces and pressures within the Democratic Party. A democratized socialist caucus could be the groundwork to an independent socialist party, or an organizational form altogether different from traditional party politics.