Can the Left Work with the Democrats? Three Questions to Ask

Can the Left Work with the Democrats? Three Questions to Ask

Ever since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, the US Left has taken up electoral politics. This is an excellent development because it marks a major step forward out of our decades of isolation. Since the early 1970s, to be a radical of any stripe meant being a lone wolf or a member of a tiny organization. Now, we can openly call ourselves Leftists (particularly socialists) and be seen as legitimate contestants in politics.

The excitement created by the success of Bernie’s campaign and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) popularity led Leftists to throw themselves into elections in 2018. The immediate approach to elections was to either run for non-partisan seats, like Chicago’s city council, or to run as Democrats. So far, both strategies have worked. Six socialists were elected to city council in Chicago. At the national level, candidates like Sanders and AOC have funneled people into groups like DSA.

But we are still early in the game. The US ruling class, particularly its representatives in the Democratic Party, will eventually figure out how to purge Leftists, tame them, or both. Assuming that the Democrats will eventually develop a strategy to deal with us, we need to openly discuss what we see as our future in electoral politics and use that discussion to map out a path forward.

To that end, here are some questions for the US Left to consider:

  • Do we agree that the Democrat and Republican duopoly is a problem?
  • Do we want to build our own party?
  • Are we willing to be honest with the working class?

These questions might seem like they have obvious answers. But without openly discussing these questions: we don’t know what everyone thinks about them and how they think we should address these questions. We can’t take anything for granted because the topics we don’t discuss are the blind spots that the ruling class will exploit. Worse, the questions we don’t discuss end up affecting our strategy without us realizing it.

Most importantly, these questions are meant to get comrades thinking about the distinction between a Liberal approach to elections and a Leftist approach. For Liberals, the working class are just “voters.” Every few months or years they are supposed to be corralled to the polls to vote for what the Liberal groups think is in their best interests.

For Leftists, the working class cannot just be voters. They have to be respected as our equals now, and our comrades in the future. The way we treat our comrades is to trust them, be upfront and honest with them, work to both teach them while also learning from them.

I think our Leftist approach to electoralism has to involve this trust in the working class.

1. Do we agree that the Democrat and Republican duopoly is a problem?

My sense is that most folks would agree that the duopoly is a problem. But let’s try to explore both answers to the question. Again: until we discuss it openly, we don’t know what comrades are thinking.

Not a problem

Some might argue that the US is simply an exceptional society. We have a two-party system that has yet to be expanded to include a viable party, or parties, of the working class. Who cares? We’ve had success so far while working within the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party has no party platform. It is (theoretically) malleable and could be used to promote our Leftist candidates. Theoretically, Leftists could either take over the Democratic Party, or at least fill it with as many Leftists as possible and then figure out next steps at some indefinite date in the future. Why waste time smashing the duopoly if this blank-slate vehicle is available for us to use, anyway?

Is a problem

Some might argue that the duopoly means that the two capitalist parties will always be run by people who are directly paid by the bourgeoisie (via campaign contributions), and are materially and ideologically on board with maintaining the capitalist system. Therefore, the “blank slate” is actually rigged. The leadership of this party will find ways to block or neutralize Leftists that pop-up sooner or later.

Worse, for those of us who are interested in the long term vision of social revolution, the duopoly means that the working class is blocked from forming a party that could help discuss politics and organize in a way that pushes workers to take power into their own hands.

As long as the duopoly exists, the workers are stuck thinking in terms of the capitalist point of view.

  • “What is good for business?”
  • “How can we spur growth?”
  • “How can we maximize profits and remain competitive on the world market?”

Those perspectives are all about competition. Competition pits workers against each other within the US (spurring internal racism and other oppressive politics and practices). It also pits US workers against workers in other parts of the world, like China and India (promoting war and imperialism).

A worker’s party could think through how we replace a capitalist economy of chaotic, unplanned competition with a socialist economy of democratic planning and rationalization. In other words: a worker’s party could provide a legitimized space where the working class can stop thinking from the capitalist point of view and begin forming its own, worker’s point of view.

2. Do we want to build our own party?

Again, my sense is that most folks would prefer to build a party independent of the Democrats. But we don’t know until we discuss it openly.

Let’s not build a party

Some might argue that they are opposed to the duopoly, but not convinced that a political party to the left of the Democrats is necessary. The argument could be something like building up the neighborhood organizations, the unions, social movements, and mutual aid societies is enough. No need to fight for electoral power.

If the goal is for the working class to take power into its own hands, then why bother with these illegitimate, bourgeois offices? Especially if we could focus our energy on real points of power?

They could also argue that “all power corrupts” and that pursuing offices would actually be detrimental to the overall project of rebuilding the US Left. So far, they’d be hard-pressed to point to an obvious example of this. But they could still try to make the argument and appeal to the liberal or anarchist “common sense” about this.

Let’s build a party

Building off of the arguments I made above against the duopoly, others could add that building a labor/socialist party could aid in the development of social movements, unions, neighborhood organizations, workplace organizations, etc.

The reality is that in the US, the majority of folks have been raised on the idea that the US is the “greatest democracy on Earth.” Regardless of how radicals feel about it, the vast majority of US residents start from the position that the US has a legitimate democracy, however flawed they acknowledge it to be.

Therefore, the millions of people who follow politics but aren’t ready to engage in activism only see electoral politics as legitimate. If we don’t deepen our Leftist legitimacy via our own party we leave ourselves at the mercy of the leadership of the Democratic Party. As mentioned earlier, while the Democratic leadership hasn’t figured out how to out-maneuver Bernie and AOC so far, it is only a matter of time.

By building our own party, we can create a political nucleus that provides social movements, unions, etc. a forum where they can discuss perspectives, strategy, and tactics. Our own party can also help provide a bigger-picture analysis. Movements and local groups often get caught-up in their local needs and can miss the bigger picture of national, international, and even historical considerations. A party could help movements and local groups understand the broader context of their own work, and the work of the party.

Our own party could also serve as a “memory for the working class.” Movements and groups pop up and often have to reinvent the wheel regarding how they organize themselves. Building our own party could mean that the lessons from different movements and organizations could be stored in one place, written about, discussed, and learned from for future movements and organizations.

Lastly, others could argue that the US working class is long overdue for its own labor/socialist party. For example, let’s take quick look at when other countries of similar industrial development formed their labor/socialist parties.

3. Are we willing to be honest with the working class?

This last consideration is the one that I am most eager to discuss.

I know that comrades are all operating in good faith and from a genuine place of desire to see the US Left grow. But there is a hangover from liberal electoral politics that is weighing over us.

For liberals, politics is viewed simply as chess pieces on a board. The main drives for liberals are:

  • Accumulating as many offices as possible
  • Only making sure that the candidates shuffled into power are better than the conservatives
  • “Strategically” thinking through what other candidates are worth endorsing from other parties to deal with the least amount of opposition during our candidate’s time in power

None of these considerations are about political principles, the political development and empowerment of the masses, nor honest discussion with the masses about how electoral candidates that are not held accountable by a worker’s party are ultimately wild cards.

The liberal approach to electoralism feels a lot like the way politics is discussed and handled on the TV show House of Cards: cold, selfish, and interested in winning for the sake of winning via a political chess game. There is no input, participation, or interest in the democratic demands of the working class.

Having said that: let’s take a look at the two different arguments to be made.

Let’s not be honest

Proponents of this position would argue that honesty isn’t necessary. We are the Leftists. We know what is best. For example: let’s run as Democrats, but not talk about it. Instead of calling out The Democrats as racist, imperialist, and pro-bourgeoisie: let’s just sneak our comrades onto their ballots and win offices. Over time, we can sneak enough socialists into office and then lead a “break” out of the Democrats and into our own party.

This line of reasoning is based on the idea that we don’t need to involve the masses in our plans and that we can trick the leadership of the Democrats.

Also, if we are honest about how racist, imperialist, and pro-bourgeoise the Democrats are, they might ban us from using their ballot line and make life harder for any of our candidates that have already been elected.

Another line of reasoning might be that the masses aren’t ready to have the Democrats called out and so it would just be hurtful for us. Instead of alienating people, we should just hold our tongues and get as many Leftists into power as possible. The masses will catch up with us, and thank us, later.

In any case, these perspectives all lead down a path of paternalism. The working class is just a tool to be manipulated for its own good rather than trusted to learn, self-develop, and eventually take power.

Let’s be honest

If we’re serious about rebuilding the US Left, then we have to distinguish ourselves from the two main political parties of the US. The over-arching thing that both Democrats and Republicans have in common (from the perspective of the masses) is that they both lie. This is an open secret. Politicians ought to be treated like attorneys: if their lips are moving, assume they are lying.

This isn’t simply about dishonesty. It’s a political tactic. The lies of the Republicans and Democrats are intended both to confuse the sections of the masses that are listening and to jade others so that they eventually become apolitical. In both cases, the working class is kept from raising its class consciousness and becoming an organized force that could take power for itself.

For the US Left, honesty isn’t just about moralistic principles. There is political strategy in it. We need to always be open and upfront about what we aim to do and why. Only by doing this can we create public discussion, help generate solutions to problems, and help elevate the class consciousness of the working class.

The working class is a huge body of humanity. One of the main ways for humans to learn from each other, and teach each other, is through discussion. Discussion only works when it is public, democratic, and honest. Again, this isn’t a moralistic argument: it is a practical one. The Left can’t develop its politics, strategies, and tactics if we don’t communicate. We also can’t connect with the masses—learn from them and lead them—if we aren’t openly communicating with them.

(The other main way groups of people learn from each other and teach each other is through engaging in struggle together.)

This honesty is also about the overall political mission of the Left: are we caretakers of the masses or comrades with the masses? If our goal is to rule over the masses in a benevolent way, then we don’t need honesty. But again, if our goal is to help build them up, recognize their collective interests, identify their collective enemies, and help unite them under a labor/socialist party: then honesty is the only recipe.

We also have to be honest because if the Left isn’t invested in involving the working class in our activism, then we are just repeating the tactics of liberals. Our mission needs to be the mobilization and consciousness-raising of the working class. We also can’t fool ourselves. We aren’t going to trick the Democrats out of power. The duopoly hasn’t lasted this long because they are idiots. It has lasted this long because they are smart and cunning.

How we answered these questions affects how we engage elections

At this point, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that the questions of how socialists should engage elections and the Democrats have been ongoing. But this has largely been confined to either a handful of people (like Eric Blanc and Seth Ackerman), or the pages of the defunct Socialist Worker newspaper. For the most part, the discussion has been very expert-level and mainly discussed in ways that require a lot of prior knowledge of how the Democrats work and how our US electoral system is structured.

I think that we need to take this conversation to broader sections of the Left and start with more practical aspects of the discussion, then work our way up.

If we follow the questions outlined above, I think we can begin looking more closely at how we tackle the main question facing the US Left: how do we engage the Democrats so that we use them without letting them use us? More importantly, how to we see electoral politics as a way to help raise the consciousness of the working class and empower it? Not simply in the sense of empowering it with more government representation, but empowering it in thinking through its own class interests and building up its own class party.

To that end, a comrade named John Ellison wrote an article for Socialist Worker.

I will quote the main section of the article below, regarding how to run as a Democrat while still being an open and honest socialist (but this could apply to non-socialist Leftists as well):

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 highlight this list because I think it is a practical way to be open and honest Leftists while using the Democratic Party.

It is an approach that is honest with the working class. Bluntly honest. It is an approach that trusts the working class. It is an approach that plants the seeds in the minds of the workers about resisting the Democrats, building a worker’s party, and demonstrating that there are comrades who are actively engaged in this work.

To put it another way, it is an approach that responds to the questions above by stating:

  • Yes, the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats is a problem and it needs to be smashed.
  • Yes, we need to build some kind of worker’s party that is to the left of The Democrats, independent, and interested in fighting for political power.
  • Yes, we NEED to trust the working class because our entire project involves their self-emancipation.

In my opinion: any other approach to how we operate in official politics is answering these three questions as “no” instead of “yes” (deliberately or not). We need to discuss this and get as many comrades to loudly and proudly answer all three questions with a resounding “YES.”

I propose we follow comrade Ellison’s suggestions and implement this approach from now on, whenever we run in elections as Democrats.