Three (and a half) Socialist Electoral Strategies

If there is one basic guide for how to bring the working class into power, to lead society and build towards socialism, it is that the working class needs to have its own party that can fight for its political demands. Without a workers’ party, working class interests are subsumed into the interests of other opposing classes (namely, the capitalist class).

The problem is that there is no labor or social democratic party in the United States, and the rules of the system are undemocratic and are designed to keep the political establishment in power. Since a political party won’t just drop out of the sky, workers and left activists need to have a plan for how to create a viable party. This article will briefly introduce the obstacles to political representation and the three (and a half) strategies that the left has articulated to create a new electoral vehicle. This is meant to clarify and situate those who are new to this question and won’t be exhaustive.

The Problem is U.S.

Before talking about the strategic approaches to building a party, we need to quickly go over why it is so hard to form a party in the United States.

The United States works through the “two party system”: the Republican and Democratic Parties dominate political representation and make it incredibly difficult for new political parties to successfully field a candidate even if they have support. The rules of the game are complex, but they essentially penalize voters who refuse to support the Democrats because they aren’t far enough to the left by comparatively awarding an election to the Republican, and vice versa — this is called the “spoiler system”; by not supporting candidate A, you’ve effectively made it possible for candidate B to win even though you don’t support them.

For most Americans this is just how elections work, but in other countries there are different rules that allow more room for more political parties with systems like run-off elections (where there are two or more rounds of voting to narrow the field down), or election thresholds (a minimum amount of support you need to win, so you can’t “spoil” an election), and proportional representation (seats in national government are awarded by percent of the total vote won by each party, rather than each individual race) allowing more space to vote your preference without automatically benefitting opponents.

The United States has numerous undemocratic rules:

· The “first past the post” system: it doesn’t matter how much support you get it just has to be more than anyone else

· The electoral college and the “winner take all” system: whichever candidate wins the plurality of votes in a state receives all the presidential electoral college votes — every other vote goes unrepresented

· Gerrymandering: electoral districts are drawn by the party in power, to benefit themselves for continued electoral victories; voters don’t choose their politicians, politicians choose their voters.

· Ballot access: the two parties have written the rules to push other parties off the ballot and make it hard to get listed in the first place. Third parties typically need to collect signatures to even appear on the ballot, which the Democrats and Republicans do not need to do

· Campaign finance: there is hardly any public campaign finance, so to be able to compete in an election the amount of money support you need is astronomical, particularly after the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling; in 2016, presidential election campaigns cost billions of dollars

· Finally, the United States does not follow a “parliamentary” system — we elect individual candidates, and parties have no formal power over a candidate to ensure that they represent the political program of the group they’re associated with; anyone can call themselves a Democrat if they want. In many other countries, parties have some power to remove their seated politicians if they do not support their program while in office; the US has no such system, allowing politicians to stray from the will of their party as they see fit (in fact, this is an integral feature of the Democratic Party system).

These are the formal barriers for third parties. Additionally, the two parties operate as a complex, with strong media ties, trade unions, feeder organizations and public figures who exert enormous pressure on voters to stay within the system.

We have to understand that the United States is an extremely undemocratic electoral system. It has historical roots in the compromise between southern slave owners and northern elites to share power, and though the system has evolved minorly over two centuries it is built on that foundation to suppress popular democracy with its system of “checks and balances” (check the popular classes, balance power between the ruling class blocs).

Paths to a Party

Now that we have a sense of what the obstacles to forming a party in the US are, we can quickly go over the approaches that socialists have taken towards trying to build a party. There are distinct positions for how to address the obstacles and build a new party: these are the clean break, the dirty break, and the “clean” dirty break. These are the only positions that advocate building an independent party.

· The “clean break” advocates an immediate exit from the Democratic Party to build a third party. The argument presented is that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party, efforts to reform the party in the past have not changed it but those who enter the Democratic Party adapt and quickly lose sight of the objectives (“the graveyard of social movements”). The clean break stresses the enormous pressures placed on anyone who attempts to use the Democratic Party to play ball with establishment politics, which continually compromises the left project until it has little substance. Right now Howie Hawkins from the Green Party is the one advocating this most clearly with his “case for an independent left party”.

· The “dirty break” also recognizes the need for an independent party, but identifies the obstacles in the US electoral system for third parties and argues that a clean break doesn’t work and instead we need to find a bridge from our present situation to a new party. The dirty break argues that the party line you run a candidate on should be a secondary question right now and that building independent organization should be the primary one.

The “dirty break” suggests running on any ballot line that makes sense (though often this will mean the Democratic Party), until we’re able to actually field a viable party. The theory is that you create a “pre-party”, developing a distinct independent organization tied to your electoral efforts as you decide which ballot line to use tactically; that could be the Democratic line, it could be a third party; it could even be the Republican line. When the independent organization has enough strength, it “breaks” to form its own party.

· The “clean dirty-break” expands on the “dirty break” idea, saying that the problem with the dirty break is that its maybe too dirty; breaking to form a new party seems to always be kicked down the road. The “clean dirty-break” stresses that the project of building independent organization must be present from the outset and it must be an active, ongoing part of a dirty break.

If we really want a break and we’re going to be independent, we can set up some conditions that our candidates should follow (being explicit that you’re not a Democrat and you’re only running on that line because it’s not possible to run independent right now; refusing corporate donations; constantly building the independent organization as you run candidates, etc.) This attempts to assert independence more definitively and prepare a new party without reinforcing the legitimacy of the capitalist parties.

The clean break and dirty break are similar because they have the same goals (form an independent party separate from the Democrats — the “break”) and a similar emphasis on independence (you don’t get enmeshed in the inner workings of the Democratic Party, you build something separate). The “dirty break” versus the “clean dirty break” is largely a distinction of strategy — what, how and when — it draws the line more sharply.

The Not-Breaks

After the “breaks”, there is the argument that it is either not possible or desirable to form a new party. This takes a few different forms, but ultimately the goal is to transform the Democratic Party rather than build a new party.

· “Popular front-ism” is a fraught concept, but it is born historically from the Communist Party’s turn to New Deal Liberalism in 1935. Prior to that, socialists and communists had always insisted on the need for an independent workers’ party. With the introduction of the “Popular Front” (informed largely by a motivation to protect the Soviet Union from the Nazis), the Communist Party dropped its position on building a workers’ party in order to create a cross-class “popular front” against fascism (note: this is different from a united front). Popular front-ism is essentially the “lesser evil” position, which speaks to left politics but consistently argues to support Democrats against a fascist threat and has been deployed in practically every election since it was introduced. (In my mind, this isn’t really a strategy.)

· “Realignment” is the historic position of DSA articulated first by Michael Harrington, which believes that you can remake the Democratic Party into a social democratic party. The strategy is to isolate the reactionary parts of the party and force them out, and then shift the party into a kind of labor/progressive/social democratic party that you can take over. This is not intended to lead to a new party. The best example of an organization dedicated to realignment today would be the Justice Democrats, who recruited candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and they maintain their own identity, lists and funding to push through their candidates.

Since realignment and popular front-ism don’t aim for a new party, they are fundamentally different from the clean and dirty breaks.

This brings us to the commonalities all the perspectives share: first all three perspectives agree that you must have organization. If individuals are just trying to influence the Democratic Party or run as independents, that relies on being an “operator” rather than building class forces. Second, all the perspectives agree that organized labor is a central player in the construction of a working-class party in the United States.

Whether one has a fully worked out idea in their head or not, electoral strategies take the form of some version of clean break, dirty break, or realignment. The default position is a more generalized notion of realignment: ‘Put good people in the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party will be different’; sometimes this has a notion that changing the Democrats could create a new party. These are confused, pushing off important questions and hoping they get resolved on their own.

Tactics, Defined

With a general sense of what the different perspectives are and how they aspire to create an instrument to express workers’ interests politically, we can move onto a few of the tactics (note: strategy is the plan, tactics are how you action it).

· Independent organization — Building an “independent organization” is a simple premise, though its frequently misunderstood. Independent organizations can exist for a variety of reasons, but a group that has a distinct set of interests or goals forms its own separate organization to rally people who agree and try to advance their perspectives. As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, independent would mean that the organization does not participate in the inner workings of party structure (elections for chair, convention delegations, attempting to shape the “platform”). Politically, “independent” often alludes to class independence, which asserts the need for formations to be instruments of the working class and not professionals or monied interests.

This is distinct from a caucus formation like the Justice Democrats, who are relatively successful in fielding progressive candidates and have a common vision, but they do so for the purpose of winning influence in the Party and realigning it.

· Movement candidates — A “movement candidate” is distinct from a professional politician in two ways.

o Movement candidates typically “rise from the ranks” of a social movement or struggle. They are fielded as a candidate from the movement for the movement’s aims, both politically and to further build the social movement. Accountability to the movement or organization is a major difference between movement candidates and professional politicians.

o Movement candidates stay firm on their issues and withhold support from other politicians until they agree to advance the aims of the movement, typically a short list of political demands. A movement candidate who ran for Medicare for All/universal healthcare, for example, would refuse to support another candidate unless they agreed to support the reform.

· Fusion voting — Candidates are cross-listed between multiple parties, allowing support for a third party while voting for one of the two major parties: candidate X is from a third party, but runs as a Democrat, so their name is listed with both Democrat & third party. Fusion voting is best known as a tactic of the Working Families Party in New York. This is only legal in eight states in the US and laws made by Republicans and Democrats against fusion voting have been upheld by the Supreme Court.

· Non-Partisan Elections — Most municipal elections are not on party lines, but are “non-partisan”, presenting only two candidates without stated party affiliation after whittling down a larger pool of candidates in a primary contest. Most cities are single party dominated (typically Democrats), and non-partisan elections keep the race within one party’s bounds.

Don’t Just Vote

Elections matter — the absence of a workers’ party in the United States is a major reason the capitalist parties were able to resist universal healthcare and a strong social safety net. At the same time, labor and social democratic parties around the world are reformist parties and are highly institutionalized; after the fall of the Soviet Union they quickly abandoned the pretense of fighting for socialism or anything like it and embraced social liberalism (free market economics + liberal stances on social representation of women, people of color and other oppressed groups).

Organizations need robust internal democracy to prevent bureaucratic deal-making that accommodate capital, bosses and politicians, which means an activated rank and file. What’s more, we know that reforms are won not through top level statecraft but they follow pressure from below — the question of a workers’ party is about how those popular demands are expressed politically and can win concessions from the capitalist state. Capitalism wasn’t voted in, and it won’t be voted out.

Socialist and labor activist in Wisconsin.

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