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Why the Democratic Party Matters for Our Movements

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Left photo: Bernie Sanders smiling with a microphone in his hand, Right image: Joe Biden speaking into a microphone

Over the next decade, we can build a mass left political party. In the near-term, we must focus on driving a stake through the heart of the Republican Party.

As veteran social movement organizers, we are taking the long view as we make decisions during this election season. The primary season is still far from over, with 77% of delegates still up for grabs, and we don’t intend to make predictions about which of the front-runners will emerge as the nominee. But this is a critical moment to think about how a progressive left front should position itself to build further support for progressive ideas and social democratic policies.

Our work starts with crushing Trump and Trumpism. We need to defeat the sitting president and simultaneously demolish the right. And to do that, we believe, requires a left that can join forces with elements of the center, during this election and beyond. Not only is the battle against Trump the most important fight we are in, it also sets us up to shape upcoming political realignments.

Many of us on the left aspire to build democratic socialism. Inevitably, however, we’ll have to contend with capitalism for many years, so we’ll be operating on the terrain of social democratic reforms. Given this reality, we think it’s critical to identify an ambitious, realistic, mid-range goal: creating a political vehicle that unites progressives and democratic socialists behind a social democratic agenda.

This vehicle will represent a meaningful change in party politics. Since it would probably require a constitutional amendment to switch to a proportional representation system, for now, we are stuck with the winner-take-all, two-party system. But even within this constraint, there is significant room for change. In the last fifty years, the New Deal coalition has disintegrated and neoliberal logic has come to dominate both parties, leaving us with a centrist party and a center-right party. Over the next decade, we could conceivably shift this structure and have a left party and a centrist party. This is a smart and viable goal: creating space for a mass political party that is of the left, multiracial, regionally diverse, and competitive. We suggest two possible paths, both of which assume a continuing leftward movement in the national political debate and growing isolation of white supremacy and white nationalist politics.

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Two roads toward a mass left political party

One scenario envisions major realignments within and across the existing Democratic and Republican Parties, opening up space for mass left politics. In this possible future, the left progressive pole of the Democratic Party would grow stronger and become the center of gravity inside the Party, much the way the far right has reshaped the Republican Party. Center-right Democrats might look for a new home and join forces with moderate Republicans to shape a more moderate Republican Party. To be clear, this realignment depends on left forces inside and outside the Democratic Party working with moderates in the Party while leading it to the left, in addition to our assumption about the growing popularity of left ideas and policies.

A second scenario would require creating a new social democratic party. The most likely possibility would be to consolidate left and progressive forces through a vehicle like the Working Families Party, which has a track record and infrastructure to build upon. At the same time, we need a battle plan to crush reactionary politics and dismember the Republican Party. In that case, and with the nation continuing to move left, disaffected Republicans seeking a political home could join the Democratic Party to form a new centrist vehicle. Over the next ten years there could emerge a major centrist party, let’s call it the Democratic-Republican Party, and a second party that is actually on the left, one that can rapidly build its way to majority status.

In any future, the details will depend on specific circumstances and the nature of the crises that force a reckoning in the major parties. But it will be the ability of state and local groups to model a new electoral politics that will determine whether the left is able to step into those crises and shape a social democratic party. We recommend Van Gosse’s historical overview to offer a sense of what realignment might look like in the coming years.

Why we must preserve the Democratic Party (at least for now)

In either scenario, driving a stake through the heart of the Republican Party is more important than tearing down the Democratic Party. Here’s why:

  • Progressives and left-identified voters must work together to beat Trump, decisively, in November, while also supporting Democrats in down-ballot races. We’ll need to assemble a diverse electoral coalition around the Democratic standard-bearer, enlarge the Democratic majority in the House, and take back the Senate for Democrats.
  • In the coming years, we need to discredit Trumpism and the racial and nationalist politics that fuel it, and many members of the Democratic Party base must be active participants and leaders in that fight. In the process, the left and progressives can weaken the Republican Party, which now represents Trumpism, in a way that leads to its eventual demise.
  • The left must assemble a grassroots coalition that is prepared to wage an inside-outside strategy to push for structural reforms. That means building a popular front that includes left, progressive, liberal, and more center-leaning forces. If the left can form a popular front with moderates to defeat Trump, we can move from defense to offense in campaigns for structural reforms like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and labor law reform.
  • The left must build power within the popular front by engaging others around ideas and persuading them to join forces with us. As others have noted in the past few days, this will be hard to do if they feel belittled, dismissed, and attacked.

What this means for the short term

In the short term, then, it is vital that the Sanders/Warren pole continues to influence this election and hopefully win the nomination. To that end, Sanders ought to stop railing so hard against the Democratic “establishment.” He needs to disavow the antagonistic tone of some of his supporters, clearly and vocally, and model a broader and more inclusive style of leadership. He could borrow a move from Warren’s playbook and mount an aggressive outreach campaign to mid-level leaders in the Democratic Party, particularly centrists who are worried about a down-ballot massacre. This matters: antagonism is not going to persuade people to take a chance on the political changes that Sanders represents. For the long term as well as the next eight months, we need to be more persuasive with ever widening circles of people.

Which brings us to the conspiracy theories. The process is not “rigged” against Sanders. The electoral process and the DNC’s leadership are flawed in many ways, and the political calculations made by party leaders are predictable—that is why and how they are party leaders. Their behavior benefits establishment candidates and frequently fosters cynicism in grassroots participants. But there is no nefarious conspiracy. The Party’s rules are designed to minimize uncertainties, build power, and win a general election. For example, the original intent of the superdelegates was to enforce the will of the broadest possible base in primary elections, where results might be skewed by odd delegate allocations or weak multi-candidate fields. The limits of the process do not point to an anti-Sanders plot.

Likewise, the votes on Super Tuesday were not rigged; they reflected late-breaking news, calculations about “electability,” and fears about taking a chance in a vital election. But they didn’t result from a conspiracy or a coup. Let’s leave these talking points to the Republicans, who benefit from depressed voter enthusiasm and whose leaders traffic in conspiracy theories all the time.

How we build now for the long term

Sanders’ campaign teaches us a lot about the potential to energize and tap into an emerging electorate that is younger and majority people of color. In places with solid progressive infrastructure and organizing history, like California, the existing multiracial and multigenerational majority is already solidly progressive. We can build on this infrastructure and better connect it to the organizing going on in other states, including Florida, Virginia, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, New York and Colorado. But there are limits to using a national election as a vehicle for movement-building. As Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett reminds us: “Elections are a flashpoint, a test. Elections only demonstrate our capacity to move the base we built long before the election began. You can’t leverage what you haven’t built.” Building and aligning a new multiracial (electoral) majority takes time and year-round engagement.

That is why the most critical project right now is building movement infrastructure in the states, led by local leaders who are ready to challenge the existing power structure. In the next ten years, our greatest challenge will be shaping a radical and participatory democracy that is truly inclusive. If we fail, the country may slide into more authoritarianism and nationalism, as we’re witnessing in Hungary, India, and Brazil, and starting to observe in the UK and France. With four more years of Trump, it can happen here. Opportunities for participatory democracy start locally and at the state level. Let’s seize them.

The good news is there is much to build upon. No matter who wins the nomination, the left can position itself to influence a Democratic administration. And beyond that, we can lead a realignment, grounded in the power and participation of an organized constituency that supports social democratic programs even as they look toward a more fundamental transformation.

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.