What’s next for socialists after the elections?

November 9, 2018

Socialists are discussing strategy and opportunities in the wake of the midterms. Todd Chretien comments on what it will take for us to “think big and organize bigger.”

TWO YEARS into the Trump presidency, a few things should be clear.

Trump won’t back down. He knows he doesn’t have majority support, and he’s figured out that he doesn’t need it. The day after the elections, he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and picked a fight on national television with CNN reporter Jim Acosta, while doubling down on his claims that Central American immigrants fleeing poverty and violence constitute an “invasion” and that the press is an “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s message? I am powerful. America First. I’m going to win in 2020.

Trump has taken control of the Republican Party’s mechanisms of power and brought an increasingly confident and aggressive base to its feet. Of course, not all Trump voters are racists, anti-immigrant bigots and misogynists. But millions are — and they are getting stronger.

Striking hotel workers on the picket line at the Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
Striking hotel workers on the picket line at the Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter (UNITE HERE Local 30)

Since his election, Trump has spoken at 65 mass rallies before hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. And since the murderous Unite the Right mobilization in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, hate crimes have skyrocketed and far-right groups have proliferated. And if Trump’s mass based is concentrated in the middle classes, it has penetrated frighteningly deep into sections of the white working class as well.

Liberal fantasies about the deep state or Silicon Valley capitalists stepping in to “discipline” Trump have washed away in flashfloods of Pentagon spending and tax breaks for the rich. Some security state bureaucrats and billionaires may not like him, but most have learned to appreciate Trump.

By now, we should also know that once-and-future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will spend the next two years prostrating herself before the Alter of Bipartisanship.

Significantly, Pelosi’s pledge to “reach across the aisle” is the central organizing principle of the powers that be in the Democratic Party. There is a socialist rebellion brewing to the party’s left, but party leaders remain firmly in control of its principle fortress. The election bears this out clearly.

Keep in mind that Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have very definite goals. They want to flip a few Electoral College votes in order to take the presidency, and maybe the Senate, in 2020.

What will they do with this power? They will chart a path towards a more equitable and just society, one based on human need, not corporate greed...I’m just kidding. Their goal is to return to mainstream neoliberalism, the same status quo that created deep wells of resentment and frustration that nourished the seeds of Trumpism in the first place.

BUT WHAT about that socialist rebellion?

For decades, socialists fought to answer existential questions of the “to be or not to be” kind. Today, thanks to the Great Recession, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, ecological collapse, the Bernie Sanders campaign and more, tens of thousands have declared that we shall be. Now we face a new question: What will we do?

For his part, Sanders points to working-class history and social movements, and, much to his credit, he is one of the few politicians willing to walk a picket line. Yet his main emphasis as a traditional social democrat is shifting the balance of power within the Democratic Party to the left through getting out the vote and recruiting progressive candidates.

Sanders sees legislative action and elections as the primary field of action, as judged by a simple measure of where he puts his money, his energy and his support.

However, as the midterms demonstrated, centrist and mainstream liberal Democrats maintained a big advantage over progressive candidates, and an even bigger advantage over openly socialist candidates within the party. How this will play out in 2020 for a Sanders presidential campaign is an open question, but it isn’t a level playing field.

Further to Sanders’ left, democratic socialists recognize their political enemies in the leadership of the Democratic Party.

In an Election Day article, Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara wrote that he is “skeptical” about reforming the party, but argues that socialists should run on Democratic Party ballot lines in order to elect “dozens of national candidates” (and even more state and local ones), taking inspiration from Democratic Socialists of America members Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib winning congressional seats in New York and Michigan.

These elected officials would, perhaps as early as 2023, set up a “socialist caucus” in order to “encourage a wider class struggle, seeing it as the source of their power as they pursue policies in the interests of ordinary people,” Sunkara wrote.

Sunkara rightfully worries about politicians, even socialist ones, getting out of reach once in office, so he proposes organizing a “an entire structure” to keep them accountable and “an independent party — rooted in workplaces and in the streets — able to threaten capital more fundamentally.” He suggests this path is the only way to transform socialism into “a force that can end the suffering and hopelessness that so many face today.”

DOES THAT mean socialist campaigns are only worthy if they win? Not at all, says writer and DSA member Meagan Day. “[E]ven when explicitly left-wing candidates don’t win office,” she wrote at Jacobin, “their losses aren’t complete if they’ve dedicated their campaigns to articulating and popularizing progressive and democratic-socialist ideas on a mass scale.”

This is an important insight, as it cautions against the ever-present pressure in electoral contests — especially U.S. elections that are focused on individual candidates — to win at all costs.

Socialists running for office should, like Sanders, campaign for “ideas that would transform working people’s lives but that few Democrats had the guts to publicly propose, including Medicare for All to tuition-free college and student-debt forgiveness,” Day writes. In so doing, they can help change consciousness.

However, if Sunkara argues that “the electoral sphere seems to be the most promising place for advancing left politics, at least in the short term,” Neal Meyer writing in The Call, warns that the deck is stacked against socialist candidates. “DSA’s representation in state legislatures [rose] from 3 to at least 10,” Mayer writes. “A drop in the bucket of the total 7,383 state legislative seats in the country.”

Worse, in arguably the most progressive state legislative district in the country, (in the East Bay, including Oakland and Berkeley), DSA member Jovanka Beckles lost to Buffy Wicks, a former Hillary Clinton staffer who proudly boasted her “Buffy the Bernie Slayer” nickname, by a margin of 56 to 44 percent, or roughly 50,000 to 40,000 votes.

It goes without saying that the Wicks was awash in campaign cash from Democratic Party bigwigs, but this race goes to show that mainstream and liberal Democrats aren’t all sitting ducks when faced with democratic socialist challengers.

Even if, like Meyer, we want more “class warriors dropped behind enemy lines” in Congress, city councils and state legislatures, it is worth asking what sort of energy, time and money the left should dedicate to this prospect.

THIS DISCUSSION raises two questions.

First, what is the relationship between running independent socialist campaigns and running socialist campaigns on the Democratic Party ballot line?

Sunkara, Day and Meyer all see running on the Democratic ballot line as an expedient to prepare for an independent party, and none are against independent socialist campaigns as a rule. But now that we will have two DSA-backed candidates in Congress, this question will take on a new life.

I wrote in a previous SW article that adopting “tactical involvement in the Democratic Party and an undue focus on electoral campaigns” will sooner or later — and I tend to think sooner, long before 2023 — create thorny obstacles to an independent party, as politicians (again, even socialist ones) tend to adapt to their surroundings.

Still, there will be plenty of opportunities to test the successes and pitfalls of this strategy in practice.

There’s an equally important question that tends to get short shrift in socialist debates about ballot lines — that is, what is the role of elections in relation to social and class struggle?

Sanders is almost single-mindedly focused on electoral campaigns, whereas the democratic socialist writers I’ve quoted here place far greater weight on action. Meyer concludes his assessment of 2018 by arguing: “Our immediate next steps must be to pivot to strengthening social movement campaigns for redistribution and freedom.”

From a revolutionary socialist point of view, this is exactly right, and we should also add an emphasis on building solidarity with the Central American migrant caravan, uniting to fight the far right, going into the streets to defend transgender people from Trump’s attacks, and building solidarity with the labor struggles being fought now and in the future by teachers, nurses, hotel workers, Google employees, UPS workers and more.

In an article published at both Jacobin and SW, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor accentuates this point:

To put it sharply, voting is not enough...For those that think we as a society can keep meandering through the political wilderness, losing some and winning some, I would implore you to look beyond the borders of this country. Look at Brazil. Look across Europe. The growth of the hard right is real. The threat of fascism is real. Climate collapse is real. These all require a qualitative transformation in our political expectations and demands. We have to think big; we have to organize bigger. It requires more than getting out the vote. Now the hard work continues.

NO DOUBT democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists agree on the urgency of confronting the crises we face collectively.

But here, Taylor points to a revolutionary socialist vision that challenges the conception of an orientation for socialists that alternates, depending on the calendar, between social and class struggle on the one hand, and electoral campaigns on the other.

Socialists must not see strikes, mass protests, sit-ins, popular rebellions and border solidarity as only the raw fuel from which socialist electoral campaigns draw their energy, as Sunkara suggests when he writes that the “wider class struggle” is “the source of [the elected socialists’] power as they pursue policies in the interests of ordinary people.”

Ultimately, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “where the chains of capital are forged, there they must be broken.”

I think Sunkara knows this quote well and believes as much as I do that it is as true. And given that his article was focused on elections, I don’t want to pick a rhetorical quarrel about phrasing.

However, it’s noticeable that none of the articles quoted above by prominent democratic socialists — again, accounting for the fact that they were focused on elections — mentioned the recent wave of strikes among hotel workers, teachers and others, nor the Central American caravan, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre and outburst of anti-fascist organizing that followed, nor the protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

If we want to “threaten capital more fundamentally,” we will have to learn how fight on multiple fronts simultaneously, and any independent socialist party we build together must be capable of doing so.

Yes, elections matter, and socialists must find a way to enter the field. But democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists — and everyone who understand the stakes we face — can’t wait until 2020 to “think big and organize bigger,” as Taylor demands.

Further Reading

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