by Ashley Smith and Lance Selfa
Senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic Party nomination for president has certainly energized thousands. It has also rekindled an old debate on the American left that revolves around the question: Should the left join, endorse, support, or work for campaigns in the Democratic Party?
Socialists should have nothing but sympathy for the aspirations of those thousands who support Sanders for all the right reasons: his call for “political revolution” against the “billionaire class,” his support for a single-payer health care system and a massive “green jobs” program, and for his refusal to run away from the “socialist” label. Sanders is helping to inject some idea of socialism into the mainstream political discussion, and socialists and other radicals should take advantage of that to raise the profile of socialism in the broad left, especially with those who are new to radical and socialist ideas.
If that was all that had to be said about Sanders’ campaign, there wouldn’t be much of a debate to be had. But the strategic discussion of the left’s relationship to Sanders’ campaign specifically, and to the Democratic Party in general, is much more contentious. Nor is it a peripheral or academic discussion. In fact, the left’s relationship to the Democratic Party is arguably the main explanation for its failure to build a sustained mass political alternative representing, and projecting the politics of, an anti-capitalist left.
Some readers may wonder why it’s important to discuss building a mass anti-capitalist left party. If Sanders can win the Democratic nomination on the platform on which he has campaigned so far, wouldn’t that constitute a victory for the left? Why would the left need its own political vehicle? This perspective—call it an “optimistic” scenario—presumes that the Democratic Party will actually allow Sanders to win its nomination. Second, it assumes that the left can take over the Democratic Party and even transform it into an instrument to stand up for working people. We will argue that neither of these “optimistic” outcomes is likely. In fact, history shows that betting against these outcomes is about the closest approximation to a sure thing there is.
But to establish that assertion, we have to understand just what the Democratic Party is and what it is not. Since at least the time of the New Deal, when organized labor gained a solid institutional foothold in the Democratic Party, liberals and activists have proposed that popular forces or the left can democratically take over the Democratic Party. If the left could accomplish this, the argument went, it could transform the Democrats, one of the two big-business parties in the American political duopoly, into a vehicle for progressive social change. This was the core contention of the “realignment” thesis of the post-World War II era.1
The realignment thesis was premised on the idea that the social movement pressure of the labor movement and the civil rights movement would provoke a split in a party that, after all, incorporated both those forces and (at the time) the leaders of the Jim Crow South. Even under better circumstances for the left than exist today—back when a quarter to a third of U.S. workers were unionized and thousands engaged in mass action against Jim Crow—the Democratic Party remained a cross-class amalgamation of interests where labor and liberals consistently surrendered to business. Sanders’ supporters today have a lot of enthusiasm and hope, but they have little of the social weight of the postwar labor and civil rights movements.
Only a Ballot Line?
Some on the left reject characterizing the Democrats as a party of capital. For example, Jason Schulman argues that the Democratic and Republican parties have now become “state-run ballot lines, whose ‘membership’ consists of registered voters rather than dues-payers. It is the state, not the party, which controls who can register as a Democrat or a Republican.”2 Given that, he and others contend that the Democratic Party can be taken over by progressive candidates and voters.
This claim does not stand up to the test of facts. It’s true that the Democratic Party machine no longer exists as it once did and that it does not have “members,” but only registered voters. But these developments do not weaken capital’s hold on the party. They have actually strengthened it.
The party is now more dependent on capitalists because elections have become Read the rest of this entry »