It’s Party Time: DSA and Post-Realignment Electoral Strategy

DSA electoral activists should begin to build an organized democratic socialist faction within party structures across the country.

Dozens of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members are elected officials in a wide range of offices across the country. These include nonpartisan neighborhood commissioners in Washington, D.C. representing a few thousand residents, small-town city councilors, the executive of Maryland’s largest county, and New York City’s Public Advocate. In a handful of places, DSA members have even faced off against each other in primary elections. How DSA reached this point was no accident. Much of this success came from local chapters, as well as changes the national organization made in its approach to electoral activism and used its expanded volunteer base.

Today, DSA members are engaged in a wide range of debates on questions related to electoral politics: what kind of relationship should the organization have with our elected officials? What kinds of accountability mechanisms are necessary or even practical? Which issues are we not willing to see our candidates make compromises or concessions on? Less immediate but no less important is the longstanding debate about our relationship with the Democratic Party. While some members have called for an independent party, more often than not DSA members seem content running candidates primarily, but not exclusively, as Democrats. For the most part, members seem to accept that this the most effective way to achieve electoral success in our political system, and that in the absence of legal changes that make effective independent political action more feasible, running candidates outside of the Democratic Party puts the cart before the horse. Less discussed, however, are the ways in which DSA could potentially change the Democratic Party.

Discussions of DSA’s orientation to internal Democratic Party politics can often take place in anachronistic ways. This is evident in a recent episode of Jacobin’s podcast program The Dig, in which host Daniel Denvir interviewed Doug Henwood regarding his article on the new DSA. This led to a short comment about DSA’s former realignment strategy of moving the Democratic Party left. Henwood summarized the old DSA as being tied to the idea of Democratic Party realignment while the new DSA eschews that idea. While their dialogue quickly moves from the subject, I felt their exchange could leave a listener with only an incomplete understanding of the situation. Yes, the old DSA very much was tied to the idea of moving the Democrats to the left. However, a listener might wrongly assume it was newer members of DSA that changed this. In fact, the organization’s shift in electoral strategy began before the recent explosion in DSA’s membership after the election of Donald Trump. 

I would know because I was part of it. Despite my admiration for Michael Harrington, I was always skeptical of the possibilities for realignment. So was the DSA I joined in 2003. By then, DSA was occasionally canvassing and donating for Democratic candidates and pushing progressive issue campaigns. It did not participate in any concrete efforts to change internal Democratic Party rules or platforms. That type of activism is essential to any genuine effort to shift the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction, much less the goal of changing it into a social democratic formation as in the realignment scenario. 

Obviously, the DSA I joined had much less in the way of volunteers and resources. The organization had roughly 4,000 national members 15 to 20 years ago. To understand how much has changed, consider the fact that this number is roughly the same as the combined current memberships of just the Chicago and Metro D.C. chapters. It is difficult to conceive of changing a national political party when you have fewer activists than most union locals. As we approach 60,000 members and draw upon a vibrant base of activists, DSA barely resembles the one I joined. This is, of course, a welcome change. However, it raises a major question that we have yet to answer: what will we do with the essentially new organization we’ve built together over the last three years? 

As DSA grows and its activist programs mature, it’s critical to reconsider our electoral strategy as well. DSA activists should begin to organize to change Democratic Party institutional rules to empower the grassroots as a next step in our development. To be clear, I do not think that at this time we can win over the party as a whole and move it in a fundamentally socialist direction. Instead, we should begin to build an organized democratic socialist faction within party structures across the country.

The Party and its Guests

The Democratic Party is not a single, monolithic entity but rather a patchwork of independent and interdependent committees and regional parties. These are too numerous to name, but a few well known ones are the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). In addition to state, municipal and county parties, many local areas also have clubs and machines. Machines are traditionally controlled by a powerful “boss” or small leadership group that can reliably deliver votes for their preferred candidates. They tend to be non-ideological and grounded in locality or identity. They reward their constituents with jobs, access to government services, and other forms of patronage. 

These extra-party organizations act to influence candidate nominations, party platforms, and fundraising. Similar party organizations such as state-level committees are not necessarily structured the same way. For example, some state parties have powerful paid chairs while others have volunteer chairs trying to balance their day jobs and other obligations while running the party. The DCCC and its Senate counterpart allow incumbent federal elected officials to exercise their influence in primaries without any real accountability to Democratic voters.

It’s best not to view the Democrats as a unitary party because such a conception blurs where the leverage often actually lies. Take Maryland last year. In 2018, former NAACP president Ben Jealous won an upset victory in the gubernatorial primary to face a popular GOP incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan. Hogan defeated Jealous by over 10 points, and many progressives were quick to blame “the Democratic Party” for his defeat. However, a closer look shows that the party did in fact do a good deal of coordinated work for Jealous. It was the more powerful machines controlled by Democratic state house leadership which failed to back their own party’s nominee. Lacking this critical electioneering operation, Jealous could never overcome Hogan’s advantages of incumbency. 

Socialists seeking to advance our program through electoral politics should not ignore or downplay these kinds of nuances. We should seek to understand who controls which elements of the party infrastructure, how rules are determined that affect primary elections in particular, and whether it is possible to make reforms that empower grassroots party supporters. Despite our growth, DSA’s membership still constitutes a very small part of the U.S. electorate. Only a fraction of our members actively engages in election campaigns and are often treated as an uninvited guest at Democratic Party functions. But in politics as in life, parties often include both invited and surprise guests. The porous nature of our weak national party structures remain the biggest structural barrier to independent political action, and are the main reason why contemporary socialist electoral strategy in the U.S. largely relies on using the Democratic ballot line instead. 

DSA’s Electoral Strategy: Nearly Unchanged For Two Decades

Since well before our membership surge, DSA’s electoral work has focused on candidates and not party building. In fact, a common criticism lodged by Democratic centrists against DSA is that our actions do not show an investment in the long-term health of the Democratic Party. In fairness, this is true. Nor is it new. I’ve been a member for nearly 20 years and this candidate-oriented approach has been our standard practice during that time. 

What has changed over the past few years is DSA’s organizational capacity. With hundreds of volunteers with various talents, DSA can find candidates and run campaigns with little help from others. Still, DSA’s electoral strategy of primarily but not exclusively using the Democratic Party ballot line as the best vehicle to win races will face limits as currently conceived. While the weak and fragmented nature of our parties makes it nearly impossible for the establishment to block socialists from running and winning elections as Democrats, there is an inevitable plateau in how much we can win unless party rules change.

The Party Rules

Democratic Party rules affect DSA and its candidates whether we want to admit it or not. The most obvious example is Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Bernie’s campaign was kneecapped by the existence of super-delegates and onerous primary registration rules. Super-delegates, whose convention voting rights were determined separately from Democratic presidential primary outcomes, went heavily for Hillary Clinton over Sanders. Democratic state parties also lacked uniform rules for voter registration. In New York, many found that they would have had to switch their party affiliation nearly a year in advance to vote in the Democratic Party primary. These rules, which exist to protect machines and incumbents from new voters, hurt the ability Sanders supporters to propel him to victory in states around the country. 

It’s not just national politics. Last year, DSA member Julia Salazar and several other Democratic state senate candidates finally defeated a set of incumbents who were in the pocket of real estate and/or caucused with the Republicans to give the GOP a majority in that chamber. Called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), this caucus successfully prevented progressive legislation from reaching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk (much to his pleasure) for years. While the IDC is gone, the fact that ostensible Democrats can still create such formations is a threat to social justice everywhere.

Realignment Revisited

One way to change party rules is to take over the party. The realignment strategy of early DSA and its predecessor organization Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) represents one particular effort to reshape the Democratic Party. The premise of realignment was that through a coalition of progressive forces including labor, people of color, feminist organizations, and others, the party could push out its conservative elements and become a consistently social democratic party. This strategy involved serious intraparty work such as mobilizing for Democratic Party midterm conventions. DSOC’s efforts were so successful that in 1982, the Democratic midterm convention abolished itself. Furthermore, reactionary Southern white Democrats began to leave the party for the GOP. For a time, prospects for realignment looked good.

The exodus of these conservatives did not bring the progressive Democratic Party that DSA and many others worked for. The global retreat of the left, embodied by the defeat of socialist governments in France and Sweden and the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, closed the opening for the U.S. realignment project. More importantly, the emergence of the “New Democrats” as a reaction to both the strength of the right and the growth of Jesse Jackson’s populist Rainbow Coalition led to the ascendance of neoliberals like Bill Clinton. Instead of a social democratic realignment, a polarization occurred as both major parties embraced neoliberal economic policies but divided over social and cultural issues. While there are progressives in the Democratic Party and nationalists in the Republican Party, until the election of President Trump both party establishments advanced so-called free trade and corporate globalization. 

While not realignment, the broader Bernie Sanders movement introduced a concept of “DemEnter,” or Democratic Enter.  This pithy phrase captures the fact that many independents or formerly nominal Democrats joined the party or became party activists because of the Sanders campaign. Some merely switched registration in order to vote. Other Sanders supporters joined their local Democratic Party organizations and run for positions despite the fact that Bernie is an independent. DemEnter represented a unique but nearly totally uncoordinated effort to get these Berniecrats into strategically important positions in internal party structures. 

This almost spontaneous surge led to the election of Sanders supporters to a handful of state party chairs and many other positions at lower levels. Reclaim Philadelphia, a post-Sanders formation with its own budget and staff, and Neighborhood Networks, an older group and also an Our Revolution affiliate, led a successful effort to win 186 ward committee seats in a city known as much for its machine politics as its brotherly love. These committee seats were largely won in the first and second wards. This effort is already paying dividends. While only two of the five candidates they endorsed in the recent Democratic city council at-large primary election won, in two wards where they won the majority of committee seats, their candidates finished in the top five and seven, respectively, out of 30 contenders. The candidate who finished seventh barely ran any campaign and spent no money.  Because of Reclaim Philadelphia and Neighborhood Networks’s efforts, however, that candidate fell a few votes short of real estate developer who spent a significant amount of money on the campaign. 

Our Revolution (OR), the national nonprofit that came out of Bernie’s first presidential campaign, continues to advance this strategy. OR has hundreds of local groups, some of which formally identify as  OR and others which maintain their own identity, like Reclaim Philadelphia and Neighborhood Networks in Pennsylvania. In addition to supporting grassroots DemEnter work, OR led a two-year effort to an effort to implement the findings of the Unity and Reform Commission, a body formed by the 2016 Democratic National Convention in the wake of that year’s presidential election as a concession to Sanders supporters. These included the removal of super-delegate participation on the first ballot and mandates that state Democratic Parties change their onerous primary registration rules. Locally, OR groups and members have won party offices and pushed left positions on issues such as Medicare for All. While this strategy is not the same as realignment, it does demonstrate a clear and successful effort to push Democratic party institutions to the left. The realignment strategy sought to bring together labor, liberals, other opponents of Dixiecrats, and the nascent neoliberal forces. The aim was transforming the party, not building a faction within it. By contrast, DemEnter seeks to be a check on establishment and corporate Democrats by building a faction within the party, with no illusions of fully taking it over.  

Neither Nonaligned Nor Realigned 

What works for OR might not work for DSA. Instead of ignoring party rule making or realigning the Democrats, DSA should instead move towards building internal formations within the party institutions. DSA members could join in formal and informal party groups, like local grassroots Democratic Party clubs. The goal of these groupings would be to maintain oversight over establishment party leaders and participate in the important rulemaking processes that set the rules of the game.

Yes, there are limits to this kind of activity. No DSA formation could have stopped the DCCC’s recent anti-insurgent rule to blackball consultancies that help congressional candidates who challenge incumbents. Instead, much of the party work DSA can best influence is at the local not federal level. These party rules will have a larger impact as more and more DSA members run for office as Democrats. Making sure DSA candidates will have access to resources and a fair shake is vital to winning future races. At the current moment, DSA activists can most effectively work as a pressure group, even on a temporary basis, within the Democratic Party rather than trying to change all its institutions at once. Unlike realignment, the goal here is not to change the party completely, but make sure its progressive and democratic socialist voices are not marginalized once again. To paraphrase a Russian revolutionary, you may not be interested in the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party is interested in DSA. Simply put, efforts to make the party rules fairer and more favorable to the left will allow more many more socialists to be elected. 

Specifically, a stronger DSA consider pursuit of the following goals: 

DSAers should actively participate in coalitions such as the campaign around the Unity and Reform Commission. There are plenty of national efforts to change the Democratic Party. DSA did ultimately make an official endorsement of the Unity and Reform Commission effort, but did not provide much material support. DSA should join other progressives on national campaigns to push back against the party establishment and make the party more accountable to its grassroots supporters. DSA could formally come out against the DCCC’s blacklist policy and join with groups such as Justice Democrats and OR to end this practice.

Where possible, start Democratic clubs to pressure the Democratic Party from within. In states such as California, it is relatively easy to start Democratic clubs. These membership organizations have official status in Democratic parties and are critical for insurgent candidates seeking endorsements and support. A network of democratic socialist Democratic clubs that promote left-wing candidates, volunteer opportunities, and party reform could go far to advance our politics with the Democratic Party framework.

Caucus within conventions and other events to build a visible and vigilant presence. A simpler option is to attend gatherings in an organized fashion to promote grassroots participation and accountability within the party. This can be include electing delegates, pressuring party officials on rules, and other tried-and-true tactics to curtail the power of the establishment.

Democratic Party work should not come at the expense of other social movement activism that DSA does. Our members engage in action on many fronts and only a fraction should be engaged in electoral politics on an ongoing basis. While we struggle in many arenas, what makes DSA special is it recognizes these are all connected in our struggle against capitalism and its amplification of multiple oppressions. This call is specifically for comrades during candidate and electoral work to take changing the Democratic Party more strategically. This should not be done alone. Such party reform work can occur in coalition with allies such as Our Revolution and other local formations. It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and take democratic socialist action in the U.S. to the next level.