I have heard more than one long-time Working Families Party leader express a similar sentiment: when they started the party in 1998, there was very little happening in the left electoral space. The Green Party occasionally ran independent candidates, sometimes winning locally and sometimes spoiling elections. The Labor Party existed, but only ran one candidate for office, in South Carolina, as the party was collapsing. The Vermont Progressive Party was doing interesting work, but it seemed siloed in Vermont. But today, they say, there is so much more happening.
WFP leaders are right: in 2019, there is a diversity of left electoral projects and experiments unfolding. An ultimate goal is easier to name than the path to get there: we need to deepen and extend democracy into the most important, collective aspects of our lives including especially the places we work and the neighborhoods and buildings we live in. But before we can name a path – a strategy – to get there, we first need some awareness and understanding of current efforts, as we give them the time they need to develop.
After the Great Recession, new left electoral projects began to emerge or get more attention than they had previously, though like the Vermont Progressive Party they all appeared to be local phenomenon. Socialist Alternative is a national (indeed, international) organization, but only in Seattle did they run a socialist candidate for office and win. Kshama Sawant’s victory and the subsequent passage of the country’s first $15 / hour minimum wage legislation in a major city were a jolt to the left.
The Richmond Progressive Alliance, New Haven Rising, and the work of MXGM and the Lumumba family in Jackson, Mississippi all provided glimmers of electoral hope in a largely bleak environment. As Ash-Lee Henderson argues, the latter case – combined with more recent efforts like Stacy Abrams’ nearly successful campaign for Georgia Governor – suggests that the post-recession left electoral upsurge is as present in the South as anywhere else.
Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency and Donald Trump’s subsequent victory over Hillary Clinton were an electoral battery for the left: the inspiration and the horror combined to activate millions of people, many young and many with politics to the left of previous generations. Specifically, the two candidates combined to send a wave of young people into the Democratic Socialists of America, which today boasts more than 55,000 members, the largest U.S. socialist organization in a century.
There are almost as many left electoral analyses in DSA as there are DSA members, but some broad practices have emerged. Although they’ve been willing to run in general elections in safe districts (see Jabari Brisport’s campaign for New York City Council, when he earned more independent votes than any candidate since LaTisha James, who the WFP successfully ran as an independent in 2003), the dominant practice is to run candidates in Democratic primaries.
The U.S. electoral system is unique in that control over candidate selection – a central task for political parties in any almost other country – has been wrested from party organizations by the state and put in the hands of an electorate. In most cases, there is no particular capacity that the Democratic Party as organization has to select “their” candidate that an independent force like the DSA does not. Super-delegates to the presidential nominating convention are the exception that proves the rule in this regard. This more than anything else explains why operating in Democratic primaries is a completely viable approach for the left. Of course, powerful Democrats can raise more money than 27-year-old DSAers – but that is a capacity that comes from networks rather than from the party’s specific control over candidate selection.
DSA has endorsed candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – recruited and supported by Justice Democrats, another recent left electoral project – Khadar El-Yateem, and Cynthia Nixon, each of whom joined DSA and declared themselves democratic socialists, but none of whom is a true partisan. Julia Salazar, on the other hand, successfully ran for a New York State Senate seat, very much as a DSA candidate.
In the former cases, DSA was part of the coalition. In the latter case, DSA built the coalition. Citywide DSA leaders – elected by the general membership – have regular phone calls with Salazar even during the hectic New York budget season, a level of access that is simply unimaginable for an elected official who is not fully identified with the organization. Yet there are only so many DSA candidates and chapters that can spearhead a coalition. In many cases, DSA will be a coalition partner and not the convener. Both models are important, especially in this moment of left expansion and experimentation.
All of the above projects have in common a fully independent organizational approach, while operating primarily though not exclusively on the Democratic Party ballot line. Not one of these organizations, to my knowledge, has any interest in “infiltrating” the many Democratic Party organizations to take them over or change their rules (Although a DSA chapter in Denver, Colorado did successfully move the city’s democratic party to add socializing the means of production to their platform). On the other hand, Our Revolution – the vehicle created by Bernie after his failed presidential bid – has Democratic Party rule change as one of its three core tasks. Berniecrats in California for example, narrowly missed taking the top seat in the state party.
There are undoubtedly more electoral experiments happening than I have been able to catalogue here, and even the ones I have each deserve a book-length treatment to understand fully. I feel confident that the broad approach of building organizational independence while operating primarily but not exclusively on the Democratic ballot line is the path forward, for now. But even that should not be hard and fast strategic rule. Perhaps a left-right coalition will be able to move significant electoral reform at the federal level in 2020, and fully independent political parties (like the Vermont Progressive Party is in Burlington, if not the rest of the state) will become viable. Or perhaps a group like Our Revolution will demonstrate in very practical ways the utility of controlling or changing Democratic Party organizations.
WFP and DSA appear to be the only two forces right now capable of generalizing the approach that is common to the bulk of the organizations above. They both have a national presence, while boasting significant if uneven local electoral capacities. For my money, those are the organizations to engage for those interested in developing a broad left electoral plan. Of course, for those living in states where the WFP and DSA are on the wrong side of uneven, electoral engagement will unfold in important formations like the State Power caucuses or the New Majority organizations that operate in a number of states.
And even where WFP and DSA are central to left electoral work, attempts at strategic unity are still premature, the urgency of a burning planet notwithstanding. There is much more experimenting to do before even deciding what it is that needs to be generalized: just a year and a half ago, whether to operate on or off the Democratic ballot line was an open question in NYC-DSA. We need to give these approaches and organizations time to play out, and to gather together lessons as they do.
In the meanwhile, let’s be nice to each other, and build bridges across the gulfs that separate us, geographically, ideologically and in terms of material experiences of race, class and more. And let’s not forget that an electoral left without a robust labor movement is doomed from the outset. Bridge-building and labor organizing/solidarity will be as important as anything else in cohering a national left electoral strategy in the coming decades.