Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

July 31, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Chris Beck.

The Balance of Power Inside the Democratic Party

Christopher Zimmerly-Beck | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a Democratic congressional primary is an exciting development for socialists and the working class as a whole.

As a member of the International Socialist Organization, I hope the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs, continues to grow and win in the electoral arena. The successes of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and DSA’s electoral strategy are raising important questions about elections and how the socialist left can and should relate to the Democratic Party during a period when socialism is once again “in the air.”

Echoing what others have already said, I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate, many of whom are far more experienced and knowledgeable than I am. Open debates like this are of vital importance in our current political moment.

I believe Hadas Thier’s contribution to this debate (“New Conditions Give Rise to New Opportunities”) is correct to assert, “Rather than seeking to shield our members or collaborators from contradictions, we should work alongside them, and attempt to explain and to learn along the way.”

My disagreement with Thier is not in suggesting we grapple with contradictions shoulder to shoulder with our comrades in and out of the ISO, but that she overestimates, in my opinion, the impact specific contradictions are having on the Democratic Party and our side’s ability to take advantage of those contradictions.

As we think about whether to use the Democratic Party’s ballot line, the role that the Democratic Party has historically played as the “graveyard for social movements” should loom large.

Thier argues that while the Democratic Party intends to take people away from activism and co-opt social movements, we can’t assume that the party will always accomplish its aim or that “every person who runs on their line has that intention.”

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers and contributors are debating the lessons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York. SW’s coverage of the election began with this article:

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte
How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

Eric Blanc
Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

Robert Wilson
Seeing all the opportunities in elections

Alan Maass
Can socialists use the Democrats?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
On spoilers and dirty breaks

Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh
What do socialists take into account?

Joe Evica
What kind of break are we looking for?

Nate Moore
What should independence mean today?

Eric Blanc
On history and the dirty break

Nate Moore
Precedents for flexibility?

But the intentions of an individual, even an individual propelled into office by a growing polarization and radicalization, are small potatoes when compared with the amount of capital and material leverage behind the Democratic Party officialdom.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation. In practice, we’ve already witnessed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retreat on the question of solidarity with Palestine. She has come out in support of a two-state solution and apologized for using the term “occupation.”

This retreat on a central question before having even taken office highlights the kind of pressures that will face victorious socialist candidates who find themselves with a D by their names.

Lastly, I disagree with Thier’s assertion that it is contradictory to “think the election of a candidate [running on a Democratic Party ballot line] represents a step forward for our side, but not one which we will support.”

Our experience in the ISO relating to people excited by the politics that Bernie Sanders expressed during his presidential primary campaign demonstrates that we can effectively contribute to movement building and build our organization without accepting the concessions that come with endorsing candidates inside a capitalist party.

Or to put it another way: Our practice has demonstrated that we can embrace the victory of a candidate like Ocasio-Cortez as a step forward, while not throwing our support behind her running in the Democratic Party.

Further Reading

From the archives