How Can We Bridge the Gap Between Electoral and Labor Organizing?

Kim Moody's newest book fails to make a convincing case for turning away from Democratic Party primary elections. But it is a useful prompt for thinking about how to bridge gaps between electoral and labor organizing.

Review of Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action, and the New Socialist Movement in the United States, by Kim Moody (Haymarket Books, 2022).

On the last day of November 2022, the US Congress voted to prevent a railroad strike. If the strike had happened, it would have been the first such work stoppage since the Clinton administration. Several Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members who sit in the House voted to impose the tentative collective bargaining agreement upon the rail unions. Their votes were contingent on an ultimately unsuccessful strategy to win sick days for the unionized railroad workers, and the failed gambit sparked sharp reactions from the US socialist movement.

Both DSA and Socialist Alternative, among others, put out statements against the actions of most of the Squad, the informal grouping of DSA-aligned representatives. Within DSA, caucuses and factions posted opinions ranging from a call for expulsion to warning against overreaction to the officeholders. Socialists unanimously agreed on the importance of this episode, but the variation in reactions reflects the lack of consensus about how democratic socialist officeholders should apply their principles in office. Some socialists think that the primary role of elected officials is to adopt a consistently oppositional stance that avoids making compromises. Other socialists think that making certain compromises in the pursuit of democratic socialist goals – which is what Jamaal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other Squad members tried to do in this case – is an unavoidable consequence of deciding to elect socialists to public office. In the absence of national electoral campaigns that can unify democratic socialists across different tendencies, such as the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, these disagreements have become sharper and more salient.

The veteran author and labor activist Kim Moody tries to offer a definitive answer to these questions in his latest book, Breaking The Impasse. Moody has called for radicals to join the workforce in unionized industries since the 1960s—a “rank-and-file” orientation to left strategy that spurred him to co-found the publication Labor Notes, where Moody has written on the workers movements and its relationship to electoral politics for decades. He advocates for labor’s independence from the capitalist class. In particular, he believes that any time spent on Democratic Party is not only a waste of time but actively counterproductive. Most DSA members agree that the left has little choice, at the moment at least, but to participate in Democratic Party primary elections. Some members, however, argue that this approach should be no more than a halfway house to an eventual break with the Democrats and the establishment of a new socialist or workers’ party with its own ballot lines. These ideas were up for debate at last fall’s New York City DSA local convention, and they are certain to be debated again at this year’s national convention.

While I share some of Moody’s conclusions about the limitations of leftist approaches to Democratic Party institutional infrastructure (like county committees, for example), his book is ultimately unclear about how exactly socialists should build the institutions—including a labor party—that would actually produce the independence he champions. Neither the “junior-partner” strategy, promoted by Squad-aligned Justice Democrats and elements of DSA, or Moody’s idea of total organizational independence from the Democrats, are our only options. We can chart a course that maintains the organizational and political independence of the democratic socialist movement while avoiding the misguided impulse to imagine that there is a realistic path to a break. Specifically, I argue there is a path to bridging our electoral and rank-and-file labor work in a way that can make both potentially more effective.

From Bernie 2016 to Today

The US left has undergone a massive transformation since 2016. The Trump election and first Sanders presidential campaign sparked a rejuvenation of the socialist movement and birthed new liberal-left and social-democratic political formations. DSA, where I worked during the Trump–Clinton election, grew from about 6,000 dues-payers with a handful of elected officials in 2016 to nearly 100,000 members with hundreds of elected officials by 2022. Justice Democrats and Our Revolution (whose political program I directed from 2018 to 2019) were led by Sanders campaign alumni who sought to channel his millions of supporters into more permanent institutions.

While DSA has shed its social-democratic history in many ways, fundamentally it still aims to elect its own members nearly exclusively through Democratic Party ballot lines (the main exception is in nonpartisan races). As Michael Kazin argues in his history of the Democratic Party, What It Took to Win, socialists have had much more success using the party’s ballot line than they have in independent general election campaigns. By 2020, Kazin notes, there were twice the number of socialist congresspeople in office than at the height of the Socialist Party of America’s success in the early twentieth century.

There’s been a more pronounced change in DSA’s approach to the labor movement since 2016. At the 2019 national convention, DSA officially (albeit narrowly) adopted the “rank-and-file” strategy as its guiding labor perspective. The ideas about worker rights and union power embodied in this approach demonstrate the rising influence of figures such as Moody in today’s DSA. The organization has shifted from being more of a labor cheerleader and source of union staffers to a force that seeks to challenge union leadership and guide younger members in particular into organized industries. The strategy has recently shown some of its limits. Much of the current excitement in US labor today, for example, centers on new organizing in Amazon and Starbucks, not mobilizations among existing union members such as the public education strikes a few years ago.

Over six years after the upsurge of socialist politics began, and without the kind of rallying point the Sanders campaigns provided, the US left once again finds itself in a period of uncertainty. But the “impasse” of Moody’s title refers not to the socialist movement, but to one between the center-left and right-wing establishments. Moody depicts a gridlock between elites that is beyond socialist influence. The shot of power to break this gridlock, he argues, will have to come from outside not only the Democratic Party, but the electoral arena itself.

Unexpected Developments

A few events that neither Moody nor I likely would have predicted have occurred since the book was published last year. Most notably, the Democrats avoided the widely anticipated “red wave” and held on to their majority in the US Senate; they only narrowly lost the House and made gains in a number of states like Michigan, where the Democratic trifecta repealed the state’s so-called “right to work” law. Joe Biden’s first two years have also left a more complex record than some on the left anticipated. He broke with precedent set by Barack Obama by seeking to pass legislation through three separate budget reconciliation bills. Biden also seemed to be much more explicitly pro-labor than nearly any Democratic president in recent memory, at least until his action against the unionized rail workers. He spoke in favor of Amazon workers’ right to organize, has pushed for the labor law reform such as the PRO Act (Obama, by contrast, never publicly spoke in favor of his administration’s equivalent legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act), and included a $25 million increase in funding for the National Labor Relations Board in a recent budget (although the agency itself said this fell short of what is needed).

This is coupled with the defeat of many Trump-backed general election candidates in federal and statewide elections in purple states and localities. At the federal level, the fight for power is largely between centrists and establishment conservatives. But a restive labor movement, a growing socialist and progressive presence in the Democratic Party, and the pandemic crisis pushed Biden in directions that his Democratic predecessors would not go.

None of this means a grasstops-led social-democratic realignment—of the sort hoped for by Michael Harrington, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin the late 1960s to early 1980s—is a likely outcome. All these men, who played leading roles in the mid-twentieth century Socialist Party (SP), eventually concluded that running candidates on the SP line was a dead-end and that the major party could be transformed in a more progressive direction. In fact, polarization in the parties has produced a kind of realignment—but not the one imagined by social democrats (although their goal of pushing out reactionary Dixie and conservative Blue Dogs has in fact come to pass).

Moody points out the real limitations of early DSA efforts to move the Democratic Party to the left. But he is unable to account for why voters perceive the two major parties as very different from each other—despite, as he argues, the fact that the differences between them on many issues pale next to the differences between political parties on the left and right in other industrial democracies.

Today, DSA putatively supports not realignment but a “dirty break” strategy, which holds that it is appropriate to use Democratic Party infrastructure tactically, so long as class independence and the creation of a new workers’ party are the goals. Moody argues correctly that DSA’s current electoral practice makes a “dirty break” nearly impossible. Once DSA members win Democratic Party nominations in primary elections, they are the official Democratic Party candidate in the general election and are Democrats in office. This increases their level of identification with the Democrats in general, and they become increasingly reliant on Democratic Party infrastructure, as does their staff. The cost of leaving the Democratic Party’s orbit therefore becomes increasingly prohibitive.

DSA leaders recognize this and have voted accordingly. In the 2021 national convention, delegates from around the country voted against proposals to seek alternatives to VAN, the Democratic Party’s canvassing tool. They also adopted an electoral resolution that nudged DSA away from a “dirty break” strategy to more of a party surrogate model, which advocates developing independent electoral capacity without setting the eventual establishment of an entirely new party as the goal. The following year, delegates at the NYC-DSA local convention voted by a margin of two-to-one against the 1-2-3-4 proposal, which would have put DSA-backed candidates more under the organization’s control in exchange for additional political support. At both gatherings, DSA delegates rejected efforts to further advance the “dirty break” strategy. These meetings were indicative of DSA’s own impasse, which I call the “dirty stay.” We neither seek to participate in or transform the institutional structures of the Democratic Party, like county or state committees (as realigners would encourage) nor make concrete efforts to create a new party.

Obstacles to Independence

To understand this impasse, it is vital to understand the role of the nearly universal use of first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting in the US. Moody’s argument that FPTP voting is not as great a barrier to working-class independence as we’re told to believe is among the least convincing in Breaking the Impasse. Moody points to other countries with FPTP systems that have more parties, but he does not address the unique ballot access questions of US politics. As Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman covered in-depth in his 2016 essay “Blueprint for a New Party,” the US is unique among liberal democracies in its restrictive ballot access laws. Simply put, it is much harder here for non-major parties to gain and maintain election lines. And it is only getting more difficult. In 2020, New York State enacted rules that increased ballot access thresholds from 50,000 to at least 130,000 votes, or roughly 2 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. The change swept many minor parties off the ballot by 2022. Only the Working Families and Conservative Parties were able to preserve their lines through their use of fusion voting (in which they cross-nominate one of the major parties’ candidates). The Working Families Party’s 4.3 percent of the vote was nearly Governor Kathy Hochul’s margin of victory. The Green Party, which ran a write-in campaign, fared much worse. Total write-in votes—Green and otherwise—accounted for less than 0.2 percent of the vote.

Moreover, the US is one of the only countries that combines FPTP with a presidential system. The FPTP countries with multiple effective parties usually have parliamentary systems, which tend to be more hospitable to more than just two major parties. Our presidential elections have a single round, unlike France, where voters tend to support their real preference in the first round and their tactical choice in the second round; this provides space for political formations beyond the traditional center-left and center-right. Furthermore, the Electoral College makes it necessary to cobble together a broad enough coalition to win at least 270 electoral votes. These features of the presidential election system tend to funnel everyone into two big party coalitions and to close off the space potentially available to other parties.

What about elections in urban centers, which are often incredibly blue? Taken together, our country’s three largest cities have more DSA members than Republicans on their city councils. Should socialists pursue independent political action in these districts as Moody argues? Over a decade ago, I made that argument with a comrade in Jacobin. But a number of experiences since then have turned me against these ideas. I am not alone. Chris Maisano, one of the editors of Socialist Forum, recently wrote that the electoral history of New York State Senator Jabari Brisport led Maisano to different conclusions. Brisport, with full DSA support, ran in 2017 as both a Green Party candidate and on a socialist ballot line created by DSAers. The first-time candidate’s 29 percent of the vote was a record for a Green Party New York City Council hopeful. But Maisano felt efforts to push the socialist ballot line were more confusing to voters than fruitful, and Brisport barely got any votes on it. By 2020, Jabari left the Greens (who do not cross-endorse Democrats) and won an open state senate seat, beating an establishment candidate and another progressive challenger in the Democratic primary.

It is not just partisan races where Moody’s suggestions fare poorly. He points to the California-based Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) as a vehicle that socialists should emulate elsewhere. While RPA has successfully elected socialists, including the mayor, to local office, it is not explicitly socialist. Cities such as Chicago with nonpartisan elections, do not escape these tensions either. There are disagreements among elected officials who continue to fundraise for the Democratic Party and those who don’t. Not all socialist councilors in Chicago are Democrats, but it is unclear if most voters know or even care about these distinctions.

While Moody praises RPA, he feels differently about Our Revolution (which RPA was affiliated with during my time there). Our Revolution, which at its height had 600 groups and nearly a quarter-million members, existed to channel the energy from Sanders’ first presidential run into a permanent political organization. Moody writes that Our Revolution, “like Bernie’s campaign, splintered with many of its leaders and operatives going into the Biden campaign.” This is simply false. Our Revolution did not splinter—it just hired new directors—and no former employees went on to be paid staff for Biden’s presidential run.

These errors aside, Moody ignores the progress Our Revolution made in reforming the Democratic Party’s institutional structures. For instance, Our Revolution led the coalition that made sure the Democratic National Committee reduced the power of superdelegates among other reforms. These efforts did not get enough support, but they were effective when pursued. There is, in fact, no single piece of party infrastructure, especially at the federal level, that is wholly controlled by the party establishment. Our Revolution was able to build a coalition to advance democratic reforms, including reducing the power of superdelegates at quadrennial national conventions. Change is not impossible, it can and does happen.

“If there is to be a new working class-based political party of the left in the US,” Moody writes, “it should differ not only from conventional major-party electoral campaigning in being an independent, permanent, democratic membership organization, but also from many third-party efforts such as the Green Party, that no real social base and rely on limited issue constituency.” I am very sympathetic to this argument. But national nonprofits like Our Revolution—as well as the Working Families Party, People’s Action, and the Center for Popular Democracy—do have working-class bases and some forms of democratic accountability. As I have written elsewhere, it doesn’t make sense to form new organizations when it would likely be easier and more effective to improve and unite existing formations bases under new democratic structures.

Solidarity Together

These criticisms of Moody’s views on electoral politics don’t mean that he is wrong to focus on rank-and-file workers and the importance of socialists rebuilding the labor movement. Socialists are rightly investing energy in rebuilding labor unions and organizing workers.

One place where that can happen is union political committees, which make candidate endorsements and other important decisions. Historically called Committees on Political Education (COPEs), these bodies are often hesitant about backing pro-union socialists. Many of these committees have rank-and-file members on them, and their decisions can impact progressive and left-wing candidates. But neither the proponents of the rank-and-file strategy nor DSA electoral activists have paid particular attention to union COPEs.

Individual socialists, on the other hand, have done so. Socialist journalist Liza Featherstone, a member of the United Auto Workers through her employment at New York University, has told me about her work in the union’s political committee. She joined her COPE equivalent (UAW’s Community Action Program) in 2021, giving her the chance to help DSA candidates in the endorsement process. She has reminded candidates to apply for endorsements, been a friendly voice in discussions, and expressed concerns about anti-left candidates. Featherstone’s activism is a prime example of how rank-and-file socialist union activists can both advance our political work and their union’s democracy simultaneously.

This type of action is not without its critics. Heather Hillenbrand, co-chair of DSA National Labor Committee, has pointed out certain limitations to this approach to me. Participation in COPEs may entail ultimately backing politicians who do not share our views, and COPEs can be opaque and difficult to join. But these valid critiques could just as easily be applied to the rank-and-file orientation as a whole. Democracy means not always being pleased with the result, and unions and their governing structures are often difficult to join. Furthermore, the work of reforming unions often entails forming coalitions with non-socialists, just like in electoral politics. The recent victories by rank-and-file caucuses in the UAW and Teamsters, for example, was based to a significant extent on building coalitions with other workers that do not necessarily subscribe to radical politics. No one chooses the rank-and-file strategy because it promises to be easy.

The suggestion about COPEs is just one example of how socialists can bridge labor and electoral work. Rank-and-file advocates would have to dedicate time and effort to electing politicians, including Democrats, while the electoral side would need to expand its work beyond short-term campaigns. Solidarity across these different areas of struggle can only advance our cause.

Advocates of the rank-and-file strategy, including Moody, do not argue for establishing entirely new unions to challenge and supplant the existing unions. They argue for organizing inside the existing unions, no matter how moribund or anti-democratic they may be, because that’s where the workers are, and because neglecting this work would just leave bad leaders in charge of important institutions. Moreover, the legal framework governing labor organizing in the US, namely exclusive representation, makes it nearly impossible to form viable new unions to compete with the existing ones. So it makes sense to participate in and renovate the existing institutions because that is the path of least resistance, despite the major difficulties associated with doing so. Advocates of the rank-and-file strategy who continue to insist, like Moody, on building an entirely new party with its own ballot line should apply their approach to labor organizing to electoral politics. The Democratic Party is where the progressive elements of the labor movement are politically organized, and the legal framework governing electoral politics makes challenging and supplanting one of the two existing major parties prohibitively difficult. The sooner socialists come to a consensus on this basic point, the sooner we’ll be able to focus our disagreements and debates on strategic questions with real stakes.