In 2019, I was a DSA national convention delegate and I enthusiastically supported the “dirty break” electoral strategy, but I can’t in good conscience support it anymore.
I supported this strategy because I was caught up in the momentum of Bernie Sanders’s campaign and I knew that the election of a democratic socialist who “wasn’t really a Democrat” would expose several capitalist contradictions within the Democratic Party. The more these contradictions were exposed the more inevitable a break from the Democrats seemed to me.
But I was wrong. As someone who once vocally supported the dirty break, I would like to expand on this and explain why I no longer do.
If the momentum for a dirty break ever existed, it is now gone. I do believe DSA should put our energy into becoming an independent body that does not depend on outside institutions for success, but a dirty break is not how we will make that happen. While I am sympathetic to those disillusioned by the Democratic Party, the dirty break is dead. Continuing to push for it despite the loss of impetus ignores the material reality we now face as socialist organizers.
Material Conditions Changed After 2019
The momentum driving the energy behind the dirty break from 2017-2020 was the fact that in the 2020 primary we had a high-profile socialist candidate. While it is true that some in DSA were already pushing for a break before he ran, it was Bernie who engaged people in the political process within the Democratic Party and did well enough that he made it seem like we could split the party. This got more people in DSA excited about the dirty break strategy than ever before, myself included. But Bernie lost, and so with him the momentum for a “workers party” was lost.
The DSA for Bernie campaign yielded several successes. It was a catalyst for building our organizational infrastructure and it helped further our membership surge, but we still have yet to gain the numbers that would make a dirty break anything but symbolic. Symbolic gestures are not pragmatic, they are not materialist, and they do nothing to make working-class gains. A dirty break at this point would only be symbolic, not tactical.
Along with this, the material conditions that once made a dirty break seem possible are no longer applicable. Before 2020, Bernie seemed the most viable candidate to oust Trump because he was the most popular candidate with independent voters, which in my state, California, are referred to as “No Party Preference” voters (NPP). Before 2020, independents & NPPs were both the largest voter demographic in the country and the most notorious for not voting. In previous elections most of the working class didn’t vote because workers saw little to no difference between Republican and Democratic candidates. All of that changed in 2020.
We can’t say most people are independents anymore because support/membership of the Democratic Party is at 49% among registered voters, according to Pew Research. We can’t say most people don’t vote anymore because 2020 saw voter turnout average to almost 70%. These are not factors that make a dirty break feasible. While disillusionment with a neoliberal party apparatus is fair, socialists need to face the facts – the Democratic Party isn’t as unpopular as we want to believe it is.
Party Politics Are Incidental to Workers
It is true that there are some working-class leftists who are vocal about their disdain for the corporate Democrats, but a new party is not a working-class demand. It is an idealistic demand of a certain faction of leftists.
Working-class demands are exactly what they sound like. They are the material demands of workers in the present moment, and these demands usually orient themselves around a workers’ needs. The working class is demanding things like healthcare, housing, job security, improved working conditions, and an end to white supremacy. It is not interested in an obsession with party polemics.
Party is incidental to most voters because most of the working class vote based on who they think will answer their immediate concerns, most of which usually relate to protection and survival. When workers do vote en masse, they tend to elect Democrats because the Democrats are the ones who are seen as less of a threat to their day-to-day needs. Insider baseball about nominations, party conflict, and platform, are of little or no consequence to most people. Our personal problems with the Democratic Party are not necessarily the personal problems of the working class.
It’s Not Necessary
The offices that socialists need to win are ones that have immediate effects on workers. This means DSA must put energy not just into national races like the presidency, but as many small local races as possible. While having a socialist run for president helped to popularize democratic socialism, it is the socialists we elect to Congress, city councils, state legislatures, and school boards who are in a position to help the working class the most immediately.
I have good news for my comrades who avoid these electoral races because they can’t stomach the Democratic Party machine: several of these elections, like races for school board, are non-partisan.
If you don’t need to declare for a party, you do not need to depend on the Democratic Party’s apparatus to win. If you don’t need to depend on a party, what is the point of pushing for an ideological break that will only alienate Democratic voters from our candidates? A dirty break is an exercise in self-aggrandizement and it is one that will only hold back electeds, even the ones who don’t need to declare for a party.
It is true that in some states these races are partisan. In California, several local races are non-partisan but in others, such as many on the east coast, it is law that candidates declare their party affiliation, even if they are running as independents in small local races. Even in California, where you do not have to declare for a party in some races, many still do in order to assure themselves a base of support. The inconsistency of this electoral precedent from state to state means that a push for a dirty break as a national political position for DSA would only complicate our work, and our work is already complicated enough.
Voting Rights, not Party Fights
Expanding on that latter point, I think Bernie has come up with a brilliant formula for navigating around the Democratic Party. I am registered as No Party Preference, and I remain so because of the example Bernie has set. Bernie showed me how it is possible to remain independent of the Democratic Party machine and still successfully work with Democrats. While I am not officially a Democrat, I will gladly caucus with my local party whenever it is needed to elect democratic socialists or push back against the GOP. Yet as an independent, I can easily distance myself and scrutinize the party when they make bad decisions.
I call this the Bernie Strategy. I think this makes more material sense than a symbolic party break.
From his position both as an independent and Senate Budget Committee Chair, Bernie can criticize Democrats from the outside and caucus with them from the inside. He can both hold their feet to the fire and get the votes he needs to pass working class policies. Say what you will about Bernie, he is a genius when it comes to party polemics!
Not everyone has this privilege though. I live in California and here I can vote in a Democratic primary as an independent if I request the party’s ballot. My state also allows election day voter registration and every registered voter receives a vote by mail ballot. But in some states, like New York, the voter registration system is much more complicated and difficult to navigate. In several other states, especially the South, socialists have to organize around the blatant gerrymandering of the GOP. The answer to these problems is the expansion of voting rights, not a new party. This is why it is good we not only distanced ourselves from the dirty break at the 2021 national convention, but we also passed the resolution to start a massive voting rights campaign. DSA members should not underestimate the importance of this new campaign.
We Are Not the Green Party, We Are Not the People’s Party
A dirty break is a demand based on idealism, not materialism. Continuing to insist on a dirty break puts us more in line with the failing strategies of the People’s Party and the Green Party than with workers. Both the People’s Party and the Green Party are doomed to fail because the idea that workers need another party ignores all the conditions I have already pointed out. These movements and the dirty break strategy are more concerned with telling workers that they need a party instead of listening to workers and organizing around their demands.
The demands of workers are already in line with our values as democratic socialists. The majority already supports a great deal of the democratic socialist platform, especially things like Medicare for All. Plus, even people who were hesitant to vote for Bernie admit they like what he has to say. But the more you talk to workers the more you realize how inconsequential insider party conflict is.
Most workers vote and get into politics around their immediate material needs. We vote for the person who we think will give us healthcare, who will protect our job, and who will make sure we still have a home. The only factors that should matter to a socialist are the material. Our ideas should come through in our work itself, and building yet another party is not the work that speaks to the working class. DSA shouldn’t be telling workers they need a new party, we should be listening to their already vocalized demands.
The dirty break debate will probably continue well into the foreseeable future, especially as the organization continues to grow. As we grow, there are better ways to make DSA a self-sustaining body than symbolically breaking with the Democrats. We can use our resources to develop community leaders and win local races. We can foster a presence on political issues that garners us national attention. We can elevate our members’ organizing in their workplaces. We can build infrastructure to both support our elected comrades and hold them accountable. These steps do more to build our practical independence from the Democratic establishment than our choices about ballot lines will.
We should not get so caught up in the debate over ballot lines and “workers’ parties” that we forsake the immediate demands working people are already making. We organize for solidarity, not saviorism. We are socialists because of materialism, not idealism. We are not in politics to flex our ideology, we are in this to win power for the workers.