As the 2020 presidential campaigns begin in 2019, nearly everyone on the left knows the stakes are high. The defeat of Donald Trump and the ejection of his right-wing and white supremacist populist bloc from the centers of political power is a tactical goal of some urgency not only for Democrats but also for leftists. The outcome of the upcoming election will have a direct effect on thwarting right-wing populism and the clear and present danger of incipient fascism and war.
The removal of Trump’s bloc would also remove a stubborn obstacle to a range of urgent progressive reforms much needed at the grassroots — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, no new wars and interventions, a $15 minimum wage, and so on. Given how unlikely Trump’s resignation or impeachment is, the election of the candidate running on the Democratic Party line seems like the likeliest path toward his removal.
What would be the most effective way for the left, and especially the socialist left, to go about unseating the Trump bloc? The most fruitful strategy would not only accomplish that goal, but would also strengthen the left’s leverage in other upcoming rounds of class and democratic struggles, keeping the country on a socialist road.
Electoral Politics Is Not a Sideshow
Work in elections is always conflicted for socialists. There is a uniqueness to any campaign in that it is time-limited. There are specific tensions that are unleashed given the intensity of the effort, but one knows that on a specific day — Election Day — it all ends. There is no seamless spillover, moreover, into organizing on-going political organizations and their many longer-term mass campaigns, such as organizing the unorganized, or unionizing the South. Here the time frame is far more open. The election-of-the-day looks a lot like the Gramscian “war of movement,” mobilizing forces quickly for the taking of a strong point of power. The other protracted base-building campaigns are more like the “war of position,” gathering strength, taking or winning over stronghold by stronghold, concentrating our forces on the weak spot to make a breakthrough.
What we want to argue here is that the “war of position” and the “war of movement” are best seen as tightly interconnected, like casting out nets and drawing them in. The art and science of strategy and tactics, then, is to know which to emphasize and when, which is not so easy with a battleground always in motion.
This requires a wide-awake assessment of our current conjuncture, a fresh survey of the terrain, and a good estimate of the balance of forces. The dramatic growth of left forces since 2016 — especially Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) surging to 60,000-plus members located in every congressional district, plus the election in 2018 of two DSA members to Congress and many more to state and local offices — is the most obvious change. But we are still in a period of overall strategic defensive, within which we view the war of position strategically and the wars of movement tactically. This is our orientation through 2020 and its immediate aftermath.
Election campaigns are not a sideshow. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware.
This means election campaigns are not a bothersome, if still required sideshow. They are at the center of our work. We use them to make our local base communities stronger, more connected and more aware. Through electoral campaigns, our mass outreach can be magnified tenfold or even more. And we integrate electoral work in creative ways with all of our non-electoral mass campaigns for organizing our respective base communities.
But there is also a range of ways to do electoral work: effective, ineffective and in-between. The most ineffective way is merely to contact the local Democrats and volunteer for whatever task they might assign to you. At the other end is organizing a left-progressive bloc under their tent that becomes stronger than the regular Democrats themselves, where they might even begin to take our lead locally.
The starting point is getting a good grasp on exactly what the Democratic Party is. To say that it is “capitalist” is true, but only tells us something at the general level. Repeatedly, all too many of us on the left misread the Democratic Party and believe that it is actually a political party. It is not, at least in any regular meaning of the term.
The Democrats, instead, are an alliance of class interests and grassroots civic forces that exist in the form of a political party, dominated by a segment of the capitalist class. Since the 1980s, that segment has moved further and further in the direction of neoliberalism. The politics of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council represented a rejection of traditional liberalism and a rejection of the progressive populism represented by forces such as the Rainbow insurgency of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In many countries, the Democratic Party would exist as a coalition in which component “parties” were engaged and disengaged depending on the moment.
In many other countries, the Democratic Party would, in fact, exist as a bloc or coalition in which some of the component “parties” were engaged and disengaged depending on the moment. Thus, a healthy sentiment has emerged on today’s left that the way we should participate in electoral politics is through our existing organizations rather than simply jumping into an official campaign.
In other words, we should not provide volunteers for a campaign of the regulars, but instead, take on campaign work that we do in our own names. This sentiment arises from an understandable concern that electoral politics can suck in and suck up all the energy from the left. The danger, however, is that such a view can alternatively lead to practical sectarianism. It thus must be deployed carefully.
Think of it this way: If the only way that the left participates in electoral politics is on its own terms, that limits the possibilities for building broader fronts. But even if it participates in the campaigns of more mainstream Democrats (but only operating within its own formations), it reduces the possibility of bringing together a broad assortment of left forces to collaborate more and exert more influence on the ultimate direction of a campaign.
We should not abandon working within campaigns of non-left Democrats. We should, however, ascertain what is gained or lost through working within such efforts, while at the same time creating and strengthening independent political organizations that help left/progressive forces to build up independent base areas.
What Are Our Options?
We want to start with a more realistic and nuanced view of the Democratic Party. First, it is often weak at the grassroots in many areas. It consists of a cluster of lawyers and publicists around a few incumbents, lists of voters and donors and not much else. There are exceptions — such as the network of working-class Democratic Clubs in California, and in the ward organizations in a few larger city machines.
We should not provide volunteers for a campaign of the regulars, but take on campaign work that we do in our own names.
But its main strength is at the top, and rests in the Democratic National Committee-aligned think tanks and big-donor PACs. In the Congress itself, it operates first in caucuses with shared platforms or interests, and second, in clusters of these caucuses or even subdivisions of caucuses.
At the moment, there are two major caucuses: the social democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the neo-Keynesian New Democrat Coalition (NDC)/Third Way Caucus. A minor one, the Blue Dog Caucus, seeks compromise with the GOP neoliberals in the South and West, as well as with health insurance companies. DSA, Working Families Party (WFP) and Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) make up the left wing of the CPC. The Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others like them divide their forces between the NDC and the CPC, as does labor, although some unions are also working with Blue Dogs around tariffs.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus gets even greater reach at the grassroots through Our Revolution and Indivisible. Our Revolution grew out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and has hundreds of local chapters. Indivisible was formed in the protests around Trump’s inauguration, first around a manual on how to organize. It now boasts a reported 3,800 local groups.
The implications? Socialists shouldn’t work “within the Democratic party,” but with one of its clusters, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, especially its DSA/WFP/PDA left wing and its mass allies. The Progressive Caucus is by far the largest of the Democratic Caucuses, with numbers above 100 members (compared with the smaller New Democrats and Blue Dogs).
The goal would be to develop and expand the CPC, win over as many of the New Democrats as possible, and isolate the Blue Dogs if they can’t be budged. How could people on the left do so? By simply fighting for what people need, defined as those redistributionist and structural reforms that can unite a progressive majority of voters. Medicare for All is now a case in point, and the Green New Deal is becoming one. When connected with the base communities in the local congressional districts, the left could elect progressives until it becomes a solid majority among Democrats in the House.
This will eventually raise the stakes and the tensions to a new level. The left forces under the Dem tent will be tempered by the need for wider left-center unity to defeat far-right measures and candidates, but we will wage our “war of position” nonetheless.
Back on the Bloc?
Some on the left have asked: Why doesn’t DSA just start a new party? The answer: because DSA and its close allies, objectively, are already helping to do so by growing the social-democratic bloc and giving it an organized and independent grassroots base in the working class and communities of the oppressed. But the work begins under the Democratic tent as a largely inside job. Once you get over 100,000 or even 200,000 new DSA members from the organizing and base-building of backing Sanders on the Democratic line, you’ve created at least one key component of the large bloc needed for a new First Party.
To be clear, there are other essential components to a bloc and the work of DSA or allied groups will be insufficient if these other components are not reached, particularly left/progressive forces among people of color, the revitalized women’s movement, environmentalists, and key elements within the larger labor movement (including but not limited to the trade unions). The fusion of these components will result in more than quantitative growth. It will help to lay the foundation for the Democratic Party reaching a transformative crisis. The Third Way types may try to throw us (and our close allies) out. Then the Dems will face the dilemma of transform or die, much as the imperiled Whig Party of 1860 was replaced by a new political formation — the only example of such a change in our history.
If there is a DSA/PDA/CPC bloc strong enough, it will fall to the left progressive bloc to gather all the best mass elements of the working class and its allies and make a new party. The hard part is timing, doing this when the GOP itself is severely split, and when the process will aid the left-center alliance far more so than the right.
Others on the left may think this is simply a rehash of earlier strategies aiming to “move the Democrats to the left” via pressure from below, or “realignment” by machinations from within. We don’t think so. This is a direction for laying the basis for a new political party configuration.
First, the Democrats have already shifted to the left in major ways, as seen in the nature of the struggle already underway in the lead-up to presidential primaries. Much of what Sanders articulated in 2016 — and was treated as radical at the time — has come to be accepted since. The two parties are more sharply divided than at any time in the past 50 years. Second, they have already realigned in major ways, with the departure of the Dixiecrats into the GOP in 1968, and now with the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s and Blue Dog Trumpers following them in 2016.
Instead, our combination of the “war of position” and the “war of movement” aims for a new transformational upheaval, a radical rupture with the old alliances. It is not likely to be won in one round at the top, even though victories there can be very helpful. We still have what the German socialist Rudi Dutschke described as the long march through the institutions of government and civil society from the local, metro and state levels. Currently, our strong points are in the cities with a robust “rainbow” multinational working class, but they are not enough. We can and will aim for shaping up a new national historic bloc that can take the lead in most, if not all, areas of the country.