The City Budget Coalition As A Pre-Party Formation

The City Budget Coalition As A Pre-Party Formation

Chicago DSA’s December General Chapter Meeting included open discussion of the Chicago city budget vote of 2021, which resulted in a split vote between the socialist alders. The split vote has led to acrimony and confusion among Chicago socialists. Since then, most commentary has focused on asking “how should they have voted?” However, the alders are part of a coalition, which includes Chicago DSA, intended to organize struggle around the budget. Therefore, it would be more helpful to think through how CDSA should orient itself within the coalition, which I argue is functioning as the much heralded “pre-party formation,” a center of comradely debate and agitation following democratic and transparent methods.

It Takes a Village

To set the context for the budget vote in 2021, keep two things in mind:

  1. The budget coalition represents an acknowledgment that it took all of the Chicago left-wing ecosystem to get 5 socialists elected. The coalition includes United Working Families, CTU, SEIU, various ward organizations, CDSA, and many more.
  2. It is true that there were significant wins in the budget negotiations, especially the addition of permanent, unionized positions at clinics. But it is also true that the police were not defunded and actually had a budget increase. 

Any individual can decide for themselves if the wins outweigh the losses. But individuals are just as likely to see a glass as half-full as they are to see it as half-empty. This puts a lot of pressure on the alders to decide how to vote. The coalition, representing all of the organizations that got the alders elected in the first place, can resolve this individualistic impasse by democratically arriving at a definitive decision.

We saw an example of this in 2020 when the coalition definitively decided that the socialist alders, and all alders, should vote “no” on the budget. The coalition then publicized the position on social media so that any Chicagoan, whether or not they were present at the coalition meetings, would know how the alders were expected to vote and who to hold accountable if they broke ranks.

This is in contrast to the coalition’s decision in 2021 that the alders could vote in particular ways based on particular criteria and then did not publicize the position. Today, it is clear that the absence of publicity about the decision unintentionally created confusion.

Flowing from these observations, a baseline orientation for CDSA in the coalition would be to push for a clear and final decision of having the alders vote “yes” or “no” and making sure that the position is widely publicized. Ultimately, I think the coalition has the responsibility to dictate to socialist alders how they must vote and CDSA has the responsibility to ensure that happens.

To be clear, socialist alders should have a voice and a vote in the matter. But whenever possible, socialists should vote as they are democratically told.

Contested Spaces

In any coalition, every organization represented will have political positions that it will want to push for. This is a normal and healthy part of working in any space with people or groups from different political backgrounds. For something as high-stakes as a city budget, it is important that all stakeholders speak up and work to win over the majority of the coalition to adopt their perspectives.

The statement released by Chicago AfroSOC through Rampant magazine is an example of the sort of arguments that CDSA needed to push for in the coalition, even if I personally disagree with parts of the statement. However, this article was late to the game.

With that in mind, CDSA should push forward its perspectives and positions both inside the coalition meetings and publicly through articles. We should make sure to do so long before the coalition decides how the socialist alders should vote. We may not succeed at winning the coalition to our perspectives, but we have to try. If we don’t fight for our positions, then we only have ourselves to blame if there is an outcome we don’t like.

Picking Our Fights Strategically

A budget is a site of struggle, which means we need to be strategic about whether or not we have the strength to pick a fight at that site, on a case-by-case basis. For example, in 2020, the struggle around the budget happened on the heels of the uprising and with a significant number of alders automatically opposed because the budget included property tax increases. Knowing that the coalition had the wind at its sails from the uprising, and that the city council was divided, it had confidence that it could organize enough alders to shut down the mayor’s budget. In fact, the budget vote ended up being the closest in living memory: 29-21.

The conditions were very different leading into this budget fight. Instead of going in on the heels of the uprising, many organizations have seen declining membership engagement. There was also less dissent among the city council, so there were no divisions for us to exploit and swing one way or another. With hindsight, this probably wasn’t a fight we were prepared to engage. Moving forward, CDSA should be prepared to push for the coalition to avoid a potentially damaging battle.

While we won’t always be prepared to fight around city budgets, the alders will still have to vote. Given that all city budgets will default to being pro-capitalist, unless we are able to organize enough street and workplace struggles to force major wins, CDSA should push the budget coalition to default to voting “no”. This way, we avoid engaging in negotiations that might get us small victories at the expense of large concessions because we lack the strength to fight effectively. Especially if certain concessions may, rightly or wrongly, demoralize our members and supporters.

When There is No Village

While these are some ideas for how CDSA should intervene in the budget coalition, this still doesn’t account for moments when socialist alders vote on something that did not involve coalition work or input from any organization.

In those moments, socialist alders should vote based on how they answer the following questions:

  • Will voting this way deepen trust with the people that door-knocked for me?
  • Will voting this way defend/build struggle?
  • Will voting this way build trust and help recruit among affected communities?
  • Whose trust will be eroded if I vote this way?

These questions are in contrast to the usual calculus of thinking about “the voters.” Remember, the voters elected George Bush Jr. twice, then Obama twice, then Trump. Voters are fickle, they swing up and down like a see-saw. This is not a north star you can trust, but the people that have door-knocked for someone will always show up as long as they feel that their trust hasn’t been broken. That is a true north star.

A Party of Our Own

This article has tried to build off of observations of the budget coalition and the fallout afterward and to recenter the coalition as a legitimate space to democratically decide how the socialist alders should vote. This is in contrast to the debates in the aftermath that simply asked “how should socialists have voted” without taking into account all of the other stakeholders. But while the budget coalition is the topic of this article, these general recommendations could apply to any coalition work that involves CDSA and the socialist alders.

Coalitions are contested spaces where every participant will push for their vision. If we adopt the recommendations above, it will help enter coalitions with an orientation that helps us be strategic about picking our fights and decisive when we do. The final recommendations can also help our alders figure out how to vote when they don’t have the engagement of a coalition. Going into coalitions and electoral work with baseline orientations can help us heighten our profile, build our reputation among other coalition members, and build trust with working-class Chicagoans.

Taken together, this overall orientation helps bring us one step closer to the concept of forming a political party. In the past, some have defined DSA as a “pre-party formation.” But in Chicago, on the ground, the coalition resembles an actual pre-party formation. In effect, the budget coalition sets the scaffolding for a worker’s party which would centralize the labor, ward, and left-wing groups. We should be working to make this concept a reality.