What kind of break are we looking for?
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 John Ellison.
Is a “Clean Dirty Break” Possible?
John Ellison | Owen Hill outlines definitions of the “clean” and “dirty break” from the Democratic Party in a previous contribution to the SW debate on Democrats and the left:
The traditional view — or the “clean break”...argues that socialists should only participate in campaigns on the ballot line of independent third parties...
Fundamental to the dirty break strategy is an analysis of the intense barriers to independent politics in the U.S. — not just the “spoiler effect”...but...the intense bureaucratic obstacles to even get on the ballot. The dirty break argues that the temporary use of the ballot line of the Democratic Party can, under specific conditions, be a way to build up the strength of socialist organization before launching a new party.
At this level of abstraction, the “dirty break” strategy doesn’t necessarily look like a departure from the principle of working class political independence. It’s only when we dig into the “dirt” of the dirty break strategy that we understand the problems with it as practiced.
Problems with the dirty break
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been put forward by readers like Eric Blanc who argue that they are “not convinced that Ocasio-Cortez’s problematic stance on the Democratic Party and her personal trajectory outweighs the enormous impact that her campaign, like Bernie’s before it, has had on advancing class politics, spreading socialist ideas and building independent left organization.”
Blanc argues revolutionary socialists should support her campaign because it’s a step toward the development of socialist organization. This is a calculation that the dangers of opportunism must be measured against the dangers of isolation and possibility for growth.
I disagree with Blanc’s conclusion that candidates like Ocasio-Cortez deserve the endorsement of revolutionary socialists.
It’s true campaigns like Ocasio-Cortez’s contributed significantly to the growth of socialist organization and socialist ideas.
However, the very thing Blanc downplays above — “Ocasio-Cortez’s problematic stance on the Democratic Party and her personal trajectory” — matters more than Blanc leads us to believe.
The process of accommodation, of blunting one’s politics, of stumping for centrist Democrats, is a feature which is likely bringing significant layers of the working class back into the Democratic Party, including people who haven’t voted in years, but feel reinvigorated by Ocasio-Cortez to support them.
Ocasio-Cortez also explicitly rewrites history to paint the Democratic Party as the driver of reforms like Social Security and civil rights. While she has created more Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, she is also rehabilitating the Democratic Party among layers of people who may have previously felt disenfranchised.
Compared to the thousands who joined DSA, it’s likely that thousands who previously were disillusioned will be voting for the Democratic Party down the line in 2018.
Therefore, revolutionary socialists shouldn’t endorse a campaign like Ocasio-Cortez’s. The campaign sows illusions about the need for working-class political independence, even though it’s been a contributor to the growth of DSA.
As other comrades argued, not endorsing candidates like Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage them. A great example is the Delta organizing drive, which used Abdul El-Sayed’s rally to advocate for a union. We should find ways to relate this way.
Challenges with the clean break
While there are clear problems with a dirty break strategy, a clean break strategy isn’t without serious challenges. The first is the bureaucratic obstacles. In nearly all cases of elections at the state and federal level, it’s more difficult to run on a third-party ballot than as a Democrat.
Another problem is the “spoiler effect.” The problem isn’t that socialists should avoid “spoiling” the Democratic candidate, but that those who vote do so pragmatically. Even if a voter’s ideology aligns with the socialist running on the third-party ballot, they’ll choose the Democrat because they feel their vote is wasted otherwise.
People want to vote for candidates who can win, including the millions of people who describe themselves as socialists and voted for Bernie Sanders, but voted for Hillary Clinton over Jill Stein in the general election in 2016.
Additionally, by getting involved in the general election, rather than the primaries, third parties start behind the curb in terms of name recognition, campaign building, fundraising, etc.
A clean break strategy relies on an established array of fundraising mechanisms, organizational platforms, etc., which don’t exist today.
Those who argue for a clean break strategy say that the only way these can be built is through increased levels of class struggle necessary to create the institutions that can run independent, accountable candidates. Until we have built such mechanisms, we should be comfortable with running candidates who will almost certainly lose.
This argument is only somewhat convincing. It’s true that much relies on forces which we cannot control. Still, the argument concludes that we cannot expect to put resources toward elections with a shot at winning at a time when many working-class people are radicalizing through electoral campaigns where the shot of winning is crucial to their success in radicalizing people.
Winning matters because it shows working-class people socialist politics aren’t just lofty ideals, but practical ideas we can build independent organizations around. Eric Blanc rightly argues that symbolic electoral campaigns “haven’t done much in recent memory to help build up the independent organization or confidence of our class.”
The “clean” dirty break?
I’ve outlined the problems with supporting candidates who don’t principally support the need for working class independence as well as the challenges running candidates solely on independent ballot lines.
Now I’ll argue that the dirty-break strategy doesn’t have to follow this direction. It isn’t the case that running on a DP ballot line is automatically against the principle of working class political independence. Here is an exception to the rule which could warrant the support of revolutionary socialists. We’ll call it the “clean, dirty break” strategy:
1. The candidate calls themselves a socialist and openly says they aren’t a Democrat.
2. The candidate is explicit about using the Democratic Party ballot line because of barriers to third party entry. They use their electoral platform (and position, if they win) to make third party entry more possible.
3. The candidate argues that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and the working class needs its own party.
4. If the candidate loses the primary, they agree not to endorse the Democrat against the Republican and are willing to run in the general election as an independent, in direct opposition to the argument they are “spoiling” the race.
5. The candidate agrees not to accept electoral funds from corporations, super PACS or other Democratic Party mechanisms.
6. The candidate doesn’t endorse candidates using the Democratic Party ballot line which don’t meet the same criteria in points one through five.
I believe these qualifications maintain a commitment to working class political independence. The strategy cuts against the notion we should compromise our principles, while also addressing the challenges with running on strictly independent ballot lines.
The argument for a “clean, dirty break” doesn’t fall into the trap of “spoiler” politics because the candidate wouldn’t back down from participating in the general election simply because they lost the primary. At the point the candidate loses, they take up a “clean break” strategy.
They use the resources built during the primary as tools to promote the need for a break from the DP. The candidate can expose the dirty tricks pulled by the DP to keep them from winning the primary, further convincing people of the need to break from the Democrats.
Julia Salazar is the closest candidate to date to meet these criteria. As Fainan Lakha writes in a contribution to this debate, Salazar “is fiercely critical of the Democratic Party...she supports the running of independent candidates...[and] she believes in the need for an independent, socialist party in the future. Above all, her politics are clearly rooted in a commitment...of building working-class power, with socialism as its end goal.”
On the surface, this seems to be a candidate who shares the principle of working class political independence. Unlike Ocasio-Coretz, Salazar isn’t in favor of realignment. Even in this case, though, there is “dirt” in this dirty break.
Salazar endorsed Cynthia Nixon for governor of New York, a firm Democrat, not in favor of a break or even the building of a socialist party. This endorsement isn’t something we can write off because “the pros outweigh the cons.” When Salazar stumps for politicians like Nixon, it hampers her ability to argue for working class political independence and sows illusions about the Democratic Party.
While no candidate on Democratic ballot line currently meets these criteria, I don’t believe these criteria are so cumbersome that we couldn’t use them to run socialist candidates with broader forces on the left. Salazar may not meet all the criteria, but she meets most, which shows that even without having decided upon these stipulations prior to running, the criteria are realistic and obtainable; not abstract pipe dreams.
Towards the formation of an independent socialist party
Debates about forming an independent socialist party often feel abstract to revolutionaries because they seem to skip the steps necessary within the electoral arena of struggle before the formation of such a party can happen. Therefore, it is important to think through, concretely, what the next practical steps are for making an independent party possible.
The “clean” dirty break strategy could act as a bridge for the formation of an independent party. The strategy doesn’t see building an independent socialist party as some future task we should put off discussing until we win broader layers to our side and finally break from the Democrats.
Likewise, the strategy doesn’t relegate socialists in elections to accept they must lose 95-plus percent of the elections they run in, until some point when social movements and unions are strong enough to build an independent party capable of winning on independent lines alone.
The strategy doesn’t make socialists “hostages” of the Democratic Party. Socialists are only “Democrats” in as so far as they utilize the ballot line. In every other aspect, they are subverting the Democratic Party and building independent working-class institutions.
Running candidates based on the criteria above necessitates the development of independent fundraising mechanisms — this is another way this strategy acts as a step toward the building of an independent socialist party.
The strategy recognizes the foundation for such a party must be built through broader forces (the ISO, DSA, Socialist Alternative, unions, etc.) working together. Absent developing ways for socialists to work with other forces to our right, it’s difficult to imagine how we could build the base for such an independent party, something we all recognize is important.
This “clean, dirty break” doesn’t come without challenges, to be sure. The same mechanisms of accountability for holding candidates who run on independent ballot lines accountable would need to be created for candidates using this strategy.
This means the strategy still relies on increased levels of class struggle. But socialists have always understood elections as a form of class struggle we can use to build our forces. Electoral victories are radicalizing people and bringing them into movement work, indicating that elections are part of the process of building such mechanisms of accountability we need.
Another potential problem with this strategy is that it requires people in certain states register people to vote as Democrats. Still, if the people registering people to vote are clear what the goal of the campaign is — explaining that the candidate is not a Democrat, that our two-party system is rigged, that we’re using the ballot line to argue for an independent socialist party, etc. — this is not a significant issue.
In fact, this registration process is itself another opportunity to get more people involved in the project and lay the groundwork for an independent party.
The strategy doesn’t sow any illusions that the Democrats deserve support. The strategy maintains the revolutionary socialist commitment to independence while reaching people legitimately concerned about how to overcome the two-party stranglehold.
This message resonates strongly with the working class, where polls show majorities of people are in favor establishing a third party, but they see few avenues for its emergence. The “clean” dirty break could attempt to act as a bridge between the stranglehold of the two-party system and the need to develop a socialist party which can run independent candidates successfully.
Socialists interested in maintaining a commitment to working class political independence, but also understandably cynical about the challenges to building a third party alternative strictly through independent ballot initiatives, should consider whether a “clean dirty break” is both possible and advantageous as a strategy for socialists today.