On spoilers and dirty breaks
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 Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.
What Is Our Electoral Goal? (I think it’s building workers’ movements that stand for themselves)
Elizabeth Wrigley-Field | I’ve been frustrated, along with intensely interested and inspired, by the debate Socialist Worker has been hosting between ISO members about the “dirty break” strategy — the idea that socialists can use campaigns on Democratic Party ballot lines to build up forces for a movement that ultimately will break decisively from the Democratic Party and create an independent workers’ party.
To me, the focus on ballot lines seems narrow and misplaced. If an organization adopted a strategy of “We’ll run in any open primaries where we can find an audience, but if we lose in those primaries, we’re still running in the general as spoilers,” I can’t see any real principle of independence that they’d be violating. (I do think this would be an odd, maybe insurmountably odd, strategy in most situations.)
The picture I got from the original dirty break piece, “The Ballot and the Break” by my comrade Eric Blanc, was along those lines. (I know that history is disputed, and I don’t know enough to evaluate it; I’m really thankful for comrades for raising it as something we clearly need to learn far more about.)
To me, to the extent that the description fits, that hardly seems like a “dirty break” at all. If that’s all that we’re talking about, we truly are talking about a tactical question.
But it doesn’t seem to me that that’s all that we’re talking about at all. Aren’t we also talking about the willingness to play that spoiler role, and whether that’s central to what an independent socialist movement needs to win people to?
What seems to me to be getting oddly little attention in this discussion is the logic of “lesser evilism.” But for me, that’s first and foremost what the question of independence from the Democrats is about.
Lesser evilism is what has led our movements, again and again, to silence themselves at key moments in order not to embarrass the less-bad candidate, whose positions aren’t actually ours.
As a third-party voter, I’m frequently accused of thinking the two major parties are “the same,” or that the differences between them are unimportant. And on some of the issues I care the most about, like whether the U.S. will wage wars around the world, this is pretty close to true.
Yet on other issues that matter most to me, it’s clearly not true. Democrats aren’t Republicans when it comes to abortion rights, for example. Which is exactly why I often explain why I don’t vote or campaign for Democrats in terms of how I think we need to defend abortion rights: because it makes our case on the strongest possible ground for our opponents’ side.
And as William Saletan (hardly a radical) documents in his book Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, we’ve lost ground on abortion because, in each individual electoral contest, it makes sense to make the narrowest possible appeal (“Trust doctors to decide”).
Yet when you do that in election after election, you no longer have a story to offer (the person who is most competent to decide what should happen to a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant). By doing its best to win each battle, our side lost the war. The consequences for women have been devastating.
And that, to me, is a microcosm of what has happened to our movements as a whole: Our side has been so hamstrung by trying defensively to win each individual battle — above all, each individual election — that we have given up standing up for something real. And we have lost.
That is lesser evilism, and it’s why building movements that break decisively from both parties is not optional or something we can afford to put off, but unavoidable and urgent.
Figuring out the questions
My dirty break comrades, I am reading your contributions with intense interest and an open mind, but you aren’t convincing me that we can simultaneously embrace Democratic primaries, not in the abstract, but as they exist in real elections right now, and also train our movements not to abandon our principles and demands every time elections with the highest stakes require it. Can you walk me through what you think this might look like?
Say we had joined the Bernie campaign (do you think we should have?). Obviously we wouldn’t have campaigned for Hillary after Sanders lost the nomination, but most people we would have been working with would have at least seriously considered doing that. What argument would we make to them?
I understand how an organization could decide to prioritize the Bernie campaign but not the Hillary campaign, but for us, that’s a dodge, right? Because we think that the way we’ve gotten to the point of having the choice between Clinton and Trump, the way we got to where Trump could be a force in mainstream politics at all, is partly because the left always folds away what we want in favor of campaigning for the least-worst of what’s on offer.
And so one of the most important roles that we can play is to try to build up a left that isn’t going to do that any longer — not just that will say we need something better (everybody knows we need something better), but that will actually refuse to be held hostage.
What is the strategy that joins socialist campaigns on Democratic lines — even only the purest, most socialist organization-connected campaigns — but then, when they lose (because many will lose), is still training all of us in those campaigns to resist being a hostage?
I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying that I am trying to picture it, and failing. This is what I need to have a vision of in order to see the dirty break strategy as a real contender. Please give me this vision!
Answering these questions would help me to understand the dirty break position:
Is it meaningful that no one in the Bernie campaign was able to mount an effective campaign for him to run as an independent spoiler in the general? “Effective” not just in the sense of convincing Bernie, but even, far short of that, being a true pole in the debate among his supporters broadly.
How much was that attempted, but not able to succeed?
How much was it not attempted because the comrades in his campaign didn’t think it was a good idea?
Would you have wanted to do that, and do you think that having a relatively small group pushing for that would have made a difference?
When does independence come into it?
I think there is a danger of treating socialist participation in elections only as a question of the candidates’ positions, and not their relationship to the parties and the question of independence.
Comrades who are relatively newer to these debates may not realize what a tremendous departure that would be from our past practice (which I say not because we can’t change our practice, but because we need to understand exactly what we would be changing).
When we supported Ralph Nader and did not support Dennis Kucinich in 2004, for example, it was not because Nader had better positions on the issues (I think they were roughly equivalent). It was because Kucinich was creating more space for people who hated everything that John “Reporting for Duty, Expand the Army” Kerry stood for to ultimately vote for him — while Nader was trying, with whatever limited success in that very difficult context, to do the opposite.
If the pressure to make our politics fit the needs of candidates we didn’t choose and wouldn’t have chosen has played such a powerful role in holding back our movements, then building movements that can stand against that pressure is an urgent priority, and we judge campaigns by whether they help or hinder that process.
That isn’t by itself an answer to comrades who think that, in some circumstances, using the machinery of the Democratic Party is the best way to break someone away from the party. It does make me want to ask those comrades some more questions:
Do you think support for a campaign should be primarily about whether we support the candidate’s platform (and then in practice we’ll argue against campaigning for most Democrats because most Democrats have awful platforms)?
Or do you think that because our overarching goal is to build the confidence and politics of our side for an independent socialist movement, we should presumptively oppose campaigns inside the Democratic Party on that basis, but make occasional exceptions?
Or something else?
But, most importantly, I think this way of framing the question does help to clarify the terms on which we choose an electoral strategy. Does our participation — not the campaign itself, but our participation — create more room for the independent action of the working class and the socialist movement over the long term than our non-participation does?
Posing the question that way also helps to clarify that a great deal turns on what our “non-participation” means, as well as on what our “participation” means. How much space is there to influence campaigns, and how much space do we have to create long-term relationships in common struggle and political education through movements that aren’t tied to particular Democratic campaigns?
We are absolutely right to be having this debate with urgency now, yet we are also extremely early in this new radicalization still, and the answers to some of these questions aren’t necessarily clear yet.
In my political lifetime, electoral campaigns that decisively shift the political landscape and mainstream narrative have been rare, but they have been real. Bernie and now (if we can make that projection) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the recent examples, and they are inside the Democratic Party.
Jason West (winning) and Matt Gonzalez (losing, but scaring the shit out of Gavin Newsom) are examples from the Green Party that I think should get a lot of credit for marriage equality (by achieving the first recognized same-gender marriages alongside Hawaii, which accomplished the mirror image of how we have lost abortion: it changed the question of abstract principles to a question of real human beings’ lives).
Understanding when and how electoral campaigns can play that role is incredibly important. But it is only one of the core questions we need to answer to formulate a strategy around elections.
What it takes to train cadre of the socialist movement — not just in our own organization as it exists, but in a much broader sense that we hope will be possible — to stand for our own principles and not accept the limitations of the choices we’re presented with is just as core.