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The Path Through the Party: Movements and the Democrats

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Man and woman wearing shirts that say Let My People Vote standing in a line

As long as there has been a socialist movement in the United States, there have been questions about how it relates to the Democratic Party. These include but are far from limited to: do we build our own party, should we be an organized faction within the Democratic Party to take it over, prioritize social movement pressure to exert policy demands from its politicians, or simply ignore it all together? After a century, these questions have not been adequately answered because none deal with a preliminary question: what is the Democratic Party? I understand the party to be a series of smaller, interconnected, self-interested organizations. 

Armed with this understanding, new questions arise. We should, instead, ask what we can do with, against, and for specific parts of the Democratic Party. Socialists and movement activists must ask these questions because, to paraphrase a Russian revolutionary, you may not be interested in the Democratic Party, but it is interested in you. Their concern is pure self-interest, so it is imperative social movements use our limited resources most effectively in the electoral arena. Examining two federal associations – the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – to provide examples of when, where, and how movement activists and socialists can best shift Democratic Party-oriented formations called extra-party organizations.

So, why focus on Democratic Party associated groups and not the party itself? Because the Democratic Party is not a single, monolithic entity but rather a patchwork of independent and interdependent committees and regional parties. These are too numerous to name, but a few well known ones are the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). In addition to state, municipal and county parties, many local areas also have clubs and machines. For the context of this essay, I will describe anything besides DNC or its state and county equivalents as an extra-party organization. These are Democratic Party branded but exist not to build the party locally, but rather to advance the interests of a constituent group such as an ideological tendency or officeholder.

A classic example of an extra-party organization would be a “Democratic machine.” Machines are traditionally controlled by a powerful “boss” or small leadership group that can reliably deliver votes for their preferred candidates. They tend to be non-ideological and grounded in locality or identity. They reward their constituents with jobs, access to government services, and other forms of patronage. 

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These extra-party organizations act to influence candidate nominations, party platforms, and fundraising. The DCCC and its Senate counterpart are extra-party organizations that exist in order to enable incumbent federal elected officials to exercise their influence in primaries without any real accountability to Democratic voters. But not all extra-party groups and affiliate organizations are the same, and as I argue below, there are some party structures that should be of particular strategic importance to progressives and leftists.

It’s best not to view the Democrats as a unitary party because such a conception blurs where the leverage often actually lies. Take Maryland last year. In 2018, former NAACP president Ben Jealous won an upset victory in the gubernatorial primary to face a popular GOP incumbent governor Larry Hogan. Hogan defeated Jealous by over 10 points, and many progressives were quick to blame “the Democratic Party” for his defeat. However, a closer look shows that the party did in fact do a good deal of coordinated work for Jealous. It was the more powerful machines controlled by Democratic state house leadership which failed to back their own party’s nominee. Lacking this critical electioneering operation, Jealous could never overcome Hogan’s advantages of incumbency. 

Socialists seeking to advance our program through electoral politics should not ignore or downplay these kinds of nuances. We should seek to understand who controls which elements of the party infrastructure, how rules are determined that affect primary elections in particular, and whether it is possible to make reforms that empower grassroots party supporters. Doing so, we can best see where we can intervene and leverage our power and base. Identifying cleavages and openings is how we win social change. Let’s first look at the Congressional Progressive Caucus to begin this examination.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was founded by the two democratic socialist congressmen in 1991: the late Ron Dellums (D-Ca.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Rep. Dellums, a lifetime member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and former Vice-Chair of the organization, and Rep. Sanders, while not a socialist organization cadre for many years has become the most visible proponent of the viewpoint, came together at a time when Bill Clinton and the center-right “New” Democrats were taking over as the dominant view point of the Democratic Party. Although founded by open socialists, the purpose of the CPC was much more to preserve a New Deal and social democratic perspective in a congress dominated by the neoliberalism of both parties.

Unlike other ideological caucuses, such as the Freedom Caucus of Republican Party’s more libertarian wing, the Progressive Caucus never tried to really exert unity or discipline overs its members. This allowed it to be the biggest caucus in terms of political orientation of any party, but also permitted representatives to join New Democratic and other contradictory formations with Congress. Therefore, the CPC and many of its members could be counted on to produce the most liberal legislation and policy, but often had little ways as a body to enforces its member to adhere to support such an agenda. This could lead to rifts at the grassroots. For example, in 2015, while I was DSA staff, several key leaders in my organization opposed signing on to the CPC’s People’s Budget, a very progressive vision of people-centered government spending, because nearly half of the CPC had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president over Bernie Sanders in their heated presidential primary contest. DSA ultimately backed the symbolic budget, but this tension represented how the CPC members could often make choices that were disconnected from their movement allies.

The disappointment in the CPC amongst leftists led Bhaskar Sunkara in Jacobin magazine in November of last year arguing for the newly elected Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mi.) to start an alternative Socialist Caucus in Congress with Senator Bernie Sanders. The logic was that since the CPC could not keep out corporate Democrats, it would be best to begin a new internal leverage group on Capitol Hill to advance a more explicitly socialist agenda. I found this argument weak first because I could not imagine Bernie Sanders abandoning the caucus he founded much less the two new congresswomen alienating their new liberal colleagues. But it secondly demonstrated a real disconnect of understanding what the caucus did do and what it could do.

In coming to Washington, I learned and joined CPC-led meetings between its staff and progressive organizations to discuss policy and how to advance our agenda on Capitol Hill. It was clear to me that the caucus provided at least a basic entry way for movements to pressure and advocate internally for demands. More importantly, however, I saw that rising stars such as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Tliab could use their platforms with social movements to push their colleagues. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez teaming up with the Sunshine Movement during their sit-ins has enabled Progressive Caucus members and others to be bolder. Now, even Senators such as Ed Markey (D-Ma.) have said its okay for some socialism if it means the Green New Deal.

Instead of starting a new faction and expending energy there, the socialist congresswomen have used an existing caucus to advance movements demands. Doing so, they have worked closely with activists to push their agenda. This symbiotic relationship can take place when there is an opportunity and space in an extra-party institution to do so. Ultimately, this was possible in the CPC but not always possible in other institutions such as the DCCC. The CPC and DCCC demonstrate that the question is not if we should engage with he Democratic Party or not but what extra-party organizations can we leverage and which can be shamed. Since there effectively is no singular Democratic Party, knowing where and how to push is essential for social movement activists, and especially socialists, to use our scarce resources.

The socialist origins and activist friendliness of the CPC are a huge reason why its makes sense to improve that body, not reject it. The DCCC, which largely exists to help the establishment exert their influence in congressional primaries, is not the same. Recently, this body instituted a new policy to stop giving work to consultants and others who work with candidates if they are employed by primary challengers of incumbent Democrats. Partly this rule was established to allow the DCCC to save money by reducing the number of contracts it must give.

The reality is that groups such as Justice Democrats, which were the first to highlight this program, had led a successful effort to primary from the left many incumbent Democrats. Most famously, of course, was Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over the then House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in 2018. Numerous other progressive and left-wing groups such the Sanders-inspired Our Revolution joined together oppose this policy which we describe as a “blacklist.” Since the DCCC is largely controlled by establishment Democrats and its really beholden to no one but the incumbent congress members, there is no effective way to internally pressure them. Therefore, movements-oriented groups have begun a public efforts to shame DCCC Chair Rep. Bustos (D-Il.) into abandoning the policy. Unlike the CPC, there is no “long march through the institutions” strategy with the DCCC.

Social movements must be strategic about interventions in the Democratic Party and its extra-party groups. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which now has a new Center pushing social policy, has only become more bold and strong with the influx of new socialist members and better collaboration with allies around issues such as the Green New Deal. However this one positive pathway for movements’ agendas in the party does not mean we should put all of our faith and activist energy into the Democratic Party. Some of its extra-party formations like the DCCC will not be changed by internal pressure. There, more traditional pressure from the outside makes sense. Context matters and for us to change American politics, we have to grapple with addressing the largest political party in the country. It is best to engage with the Democratic Party and its constituent formations by analyzing their ties to social movements and their membership composition. Through that, we can make the biggest change without abandoning movement independence needed to keep the drive for social change alive.


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