Electoral Politics a la américaine

The Sanders movement can help European comrades adapt to the Americanization of political parties.

The left is losing ground across Europe, with both social democratic and radical left parties trending downward. The Iberian peninsula offers some hope in the form of Spain’s coalition government between the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can, UP) and the continued strength of the broad left in Portugal. But the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party’s resounding defeat in last December’s election is one of many recent examples of left-wing electoral failures in Europe. This decline is all the more troubling considering the simultaneous rise of the far right. In last May’s European Parliament election, the social democratic Progressive Alliance of Socialists of Democrats and the radical left European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), lost 31 and 11 seats, respectively, for a total loss of 42 seats. By contrast, the body’s new radical right formation, Identity and Democracy, gained 37 seats.

Throughout Europe, far-right and fascistic currents seem poised to make lasting gains even in countries where they have historically been weak. Relatively more egalitarian and social democratic countries such as Sweden have seen a new wave illiberal and right-wing populist parties and mass organizations. The Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats, SD), who despite their name advance a reactionary agenda, entered Sweden’s parliament just over a decade ago and now are the third largest party in that body with 62 seats. This force has captured significant support from white, native-born Swedish workers by campaigning, like President Donald Trump, on anti-trade and anti-immigrant policies. To add insult to injury, they claim that their national chauvinism makes them the true heirs of the social democratic legacy.

These trends are driven by a number of mutually reinforcing factors. Some are mirrored in our our own country – the decline of union density, negative impacts of global trade, misappropriated fears about global terrorism, and much more. While these social and economic forces have pushed politics on both sides of the Atlantic in a rightward direction, there is an important difference between contemporary politics in the U.S. and Europe. The rise of Bernie Sanders as a national political figure has advanced left-wing politics in the U.S. in a way our country has never really seen before. Unlike many European countries, we have not had a mass socialist or communist party in government. The 2016 and 2020 Sanders presidential campaigns, the candidates he has inspired, and his broad social democratic agenda offers a new hope for U.S. progressives and democratic socialists. This hope in the future of left-wing politics is what currently distinguishes the European and U.S. lefts. The former is justifiably pessimistic about its future prospects, while the latter is buoyed by a bracing sense of hope.

In this essay, we argue that one major explanation for this state of affairs can be understood by important differences in political party structures. European political systems have historically had strong and centralized political parties, especially when compared to parties in the U.S. America’s two major political parties are more a patchwork of different local, state, and national committees and de facto coalitions than parties in a European sense. While the parties are more internally coherent today than they’ve been in the past – the days of conservative Dixiecrats and liberal Rockefeller Republicans are long gone – Democrats and Republicans still are little more than a ballot line in most places. The parties therefore have few effective ways to discipline dissenting members.

The relative weakness of the two main U.S. parties helped pave the way for today’s left to build on the energy of the countless volunteers and voters inspired by Bernie Sanders. We will address how progressive civil society in the U.S. was more prepared than its European counterparts to take advantage of activists and small donors seeking alternatives to the traditional center-left. Because major parties in the U.S. are relatively weak, independent clubs, political organizations, and unions have always played a larger role in voter mobilization than their European equivalents. European parties, on the other hand, were unprepared to deal with declining party identity among their traditional voters and lacked mechanisms to mobilize voters or engage potential new supporters outside their traditional structures. At the end, we propose ideas for how the Sanders movement can work with comrades in Europe to advance their volunteer activities and voter contact methods.

The Revival of Socialism in the U.S.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders shocked the political world with a wildly successful presidential campaign that many expected to garner a few votes before becoming a footnote to Hillary Clinton’s coronation. His unexpectedly strong run for the Democratic nomination inspired a new interest in electoral and party politics, revived previously dormant activist organizations, and generated widespread interest in democratic socialism as an alternative to capitalism. Sanders’ own consistency over a forty-year political career spoke to many voters tired of the political establishment and their stagnant economic situation. While Sanders is an excellent candidate, it is impossible not to give some credit to Occupy Wall Street, which introduced a powerful critique of inequality into political discourse, which Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have capitalized on. The Sanders campaigns have used these themes to advance what Bhaskar Sunkara calls “class struggle social democracy,” a politics of radical reform grounded specifically in class antagonism, not just an abstract appeal to social justice.

The Role of the People’s Summit

Only a handful of progressive and socialist organizations formally backed the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Many pro-Sanders groups came together after the conclusion of the 2016 campaign at the People’s Summit hosted by National Nurses United (NNU), the labor union arguably most actively supportive of Sanders’ presidential campaigns. The People’s Summits of 2016 and 2017 brought together about 3,000-4,000 activists and members of groups supportive of Bernie Sanders. These included Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), as well as the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, People for Bernie, Working Families Party (WFP), Food and Water Watch, Our Revolution, and a few others. With the exception of the WFP, which is backing Elizabeth Warren for president, these groups have gone on to re-endorse Sanders in 2020 or stayed neutral.

The value of the People’s Summit has been hard to measure. But it served a critical role in holding together and expanding the Sanders coalition in a political system that lacks strong party organizations. A primary goal of the People’s Summit was to build personal networks within the Berniecrat movement to create a strong left convergence without a formal structure. A significant portion of Sanders’ 2020 staff attended this gathering. Many more have gone on to join insurgent campaigns, run for office, and become the basis of the new or revived pro-Sanders organizations. This energized leadership now had a network they knew and could work with beyond the short attention span of social media.

Trump Bump and Resistance Activism

While the Sanders campaign introduced many people to a fresh political hope, it was Donald Trump’s election that sparked the growth of a new movement. DSA has grown tenfold since Election Day 2016, and new formations including Indivisible and the Sunrise Movement have channeled activist energy against the Trump presidency. While many of the new or reinvigorated groups support Democratic Party candidates and put defeating Trump above all else, they are not formally part of the Democratic Party. This is critical because it goes to show that in the U.S., people are more willing to join civil society organizations than a party formation to advance a political program and social agenda.

The Democratic Party and its structures at the municipal, county, state, and national levels also benefit from this new enthusiasm. People are donating more to candidates and some party structures like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The armies of volunteers that civil society organizations can provide to campaigns, however, is the main way that energy gets funneled into the Democratic infrastructure. This dynamic reflects the weakness of political parties in the U.S., which have to rely on outside organizations to supply volunteers and independent electoral activity such as phone banks and texting parties. Many politically-interested nonprofit organizations maintain large lists of voters, or purchase and rent them. These groups can mobilize their volunteers to engage the electorate in support of candidates absent a formal party structure.

With the growth of large membership groups after Trump’s election, the role of extra-party formations in the electoral process will only increase in importance. These national and local groupings play a large part not only because they fill a role in mobilizing people to donate money and time, but because these activities have replaced those once carried out by unions and party machines. The decline of organized labor and party machines (defined here as largely non-ideological party formations are groups controlled by a tight leadership that reward participants with material gains) have created a space that is being filled by liberal-left nonprofits and membership organizations like DSA. The critical factor here is that these groups have developed methods to engage their members in ways that a union or centralized political party probably would not. These technological techniques include mass email (especially fundraising), texting, events, phonebanking, and more. Many of these activities rely on tools like comprehensive databases provided by companies like NationBuilder, ActionNetwork, and others to allow activist organizations to interface with members and supporters in many different ways.

The Sanders 2020 campaign is using a scaled-up version of these platforms. By relying heavily on volunteers (and trust), the Sanders campaign is powered by informally organized events that allow volunteers to text message and call people throughout the country. While such communications techniques are not new, the degree to which the campaign relies on them is new. Furthermore, the BERN app, which allows supporters to identify their friends and family’s level of interest in Sanders, is an unprecedented exercise in giving non-professionals a major level of influence over the nature of a presidential campaign. This type of devolution to thousands of volunteers is unheard of in European parties, which rely on trained members, party leaders,and campaign professionals to lead election efforts.

The U.S. left can help our European comrades learn these skills. In fact, Steve Bannon has been doing this with his fellow right-wingers throughout the continent. What Bannon, the Trump White House’s former chief strategist, can draw on, however, is funding sources the left simply does not have access to. Building a bridge between the Sanders movement and its allies abroad will require a thoughtful process and an understanding of international socialist history.

Socialist Exchanges

The U.S. left has always had connections to our socialist siblings in Europe. Unfortunately, because of distance and the negative influence of American parochialism, exchanges between both sides pale in comparison to the density of relationships and exchanges within Europe. There are formal international associations such as the Socialist International (SI), but DSA left the SI in 2017. In any case, the SI stopped playing a meaningful role years earlier, leading important European center-left parties such as the Swedish social democrats to jump ship as well.

Since leaving the SI, DSA has maintained different types of relationships with comrades abroad. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the Die Linke (Left Party) research foundation based in Germany with global offices, has provided support for DSA’s domestic activities and facilitated internationally-oriented programming. This has included connecting DSA and others with the GUE/NGL and Party of the European Left (PEL). Recently, DSA has participated in Momentum conferences in the U.K. and sent volunteers to help the Labour Party’s electoral efforts. Outside of Europe, DSA considered but ultimately declined a chance to join the Latin American-based Foro São Paolo (São Paolo Forum). In all, DSA continues to reach out internationally building new partnerships one by one with many interactions too long to list here.

None of the other groups in the Sanders movement had formal global memberships like DSA did with the SI. But they still maintain relations with comrades abroad. DSA members have conducted many exchanges – virtual and in person – over the years. In 2019, the WFP and Justice Democrats (JD) also attended the Momentum conference, and JD joined DSA and PDA in a delegation with Our Revolution to Brussels to meet GUE/NGL and PEL.

Along with DSA National Director Maria Svart and Justice Democrats Executive Director Alex Rojas, the authors visited comrades in the European Parliament with the help of DSA International Committee co-chair Ethan Earle. We spoke on several panels and met representatives from many radical and socialist parties, which made us realize how depressed they were about the European situation and how inspired they were by developments in the U.S. These exchanges also made us realize there was a big difference between their electioneering methods and those used by U.S.-based activists and NGOs.

One of the few European left parties that is currently making gains is the PVDA+/PTB-GO! (Workers’ Party of Belgium). Of Maoist origin, the party has steadily grown in membership and vote share, and recently elected its first member of European Parliament, Marc Botenga. In addition to their popular political program, they have adopted techniques from Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s book Rules for Revolutionaries such as distributed organizing. This only reinforced our notion that we should facilitate an exchange back home to teach these skills.

The Proposal

We propose to connect European groups with workshops and conferences to learn the best tools we have available here in the U.S. Furthermore, this should be coupled with political education, including public and private exchanges, about how our weak party system and the decline of critical institutions has given rise to such volunteer and voter mobilization techniques. As European politics comes to resemble U.S. politics (for better or worse), we need to continue developing tools to build the left and fight the right both domestically and internationally.

We can organize at conferences like Netroots Nation and Rootscamp that feature vendors and the latest developments in organizing tools. We can build programming around these gatherings that involve public meetings with local Sanders-aligned groups and political education on how to combat the far-right and promote a democratic socialist agenda. European center-left and radical left parties can learn new electoral and volunteer mobilization techniques to help make up for the erosion of their traditional social bases. All things being equal, a party system with strong and internally coherent parties should still be the goal; the growing importance of nonprofits and civil society organizations in electoral politics is a sign of democratic decline, not strength. But this is the terrain we are currently dealing with on both sides of the Atlantic, whether we like it or not. Armed with new strategies and techniques, European left parties can begin to rebuild the class base that made them such important political forces throughout the twentieth century.