With the founding of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1973 the largest segment of the American socialist movement broke decisively with its past and charted a new future.
For most of its history, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) contested elections at the local, state and national levels against the Republican and Democratic parties – as well as various minor parties – but after Eugene Debs won over 900,000 votes in the 1912 and 1920 presidential elections the party endured a slow slide to electoral irrelevancy. By the 1960s it had largely abandoned the electoral arena as its members argued over the party’s future – an acrimonious debate that split the party three ways. During the socialist realignment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the remnant of the SPA that became DSOC embraced a new strategy: working within the Democratic Party to try and influence its movement to the left.
Leading DSOC in this new direction was its founding chairman, Michael Harrington. Indeed, beginning in the late 1950s as a leader of the SPA, Harrington began embracing the idea of the Democratic Party as fertile ground for left politics. That led him to work with the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson in its War on Poverty, as Harrington had come to prominence exposing the persistence of poverty in the United States in his influential book The Other America. Harrington saw the sectors of American society that would be the building blocks of any socialist movement – “labor and minorities and women and environmentalists and peace activists” – firmly ensconced within the Democratic Party, he wrote in his 1985 book Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind. “For a majority of the left in 1973, our notion of building such coalitions in the Democratic party was rank heresy, a sellout to a ‘bourgeois’ institution that contained many racists, sexists, union busters, corporate lobbyists, hawks, and every other species of reactionary” – but also housed the progressive forces he saw as the future of the American left.
DSOC spearheaded the 1976 creation of Democratic Agenda, a coalition that brought together socialists with a broad spectrum of labor leaders – one of whom, William Winpisinger of the Machinists, became a DSOC member – along with feminists, liberals, religious activists “and an entire stratum of sixties veterans who had not sold out,” Harrington wrote in his autobiography The Long-Distance Runner. Democratic Agenda played a key role in the 1978 Democratic midterm convention, turning the spotlight on President Jimmy Carter’s drift to the right.
If there was such a thing as “Harringtonism” within the socialist movement, it was the notion that socialists working within the Democratic Party could wrench it to the left, remaking it over time into something resembling a social-democratic party along the lines of left parties in Europe.
But the plans of DSOC and Democratic Agenda were dashed after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Not by his election per se – the broad left was more than willing to go to war to against Reagan’s pro-corporate agenda, his plans for tax cuts for the rich and his reflexive Cold Warrior mentality. The problem was the Democrats in Congress, who panicked at Reagan’s “landslide” victory (although he won less than 51 percent of the popular vote) and retreated rather than challenge him.
Thus did the vision of the Democratic Party as a left force, perhaps even a socialist party in the making, wither – and with it the Harringtonian project within American socialism. After DSOC merged with the New American Movement in 1982 to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the idea of pushing the Democratic Party substantially in a progressive direction was rejected by many on the left, even by many members of DSA as it tried to keep a left-Democratic coalition alive, rebranded in the 1980s as New Directions. While there were genuinely left members of Congress within the Democratic Party during that period – Ron Dellums of California, Major Owens of New York (both of them DSA members), John Conyers of Michigan – they were far outnumbered by the pro-corporate members of the party who too often caved to the Reaganites.
This is in no small part why DSA remained a tiny and politically weak organization for decades – its grand strategy was dead in the water. DSA, both nationally and locally, campaigned for progressive Democrats at various levels – including Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential race – but even among its most politically active members, moving the party to the left seemed a laughably impossible goal.
Then came Bernie Sanders. He first reached political office in 1980, the same year Reagan was elected president, becoming mayor of Burlington, Vt. The significance of this maverick independent socialist to national politics wasn’t immediately clear. But as he rose to become a member of the House of Representatives, then Senate, then a candidate for president in 2016, he began to exert a gravitational pull on American politics. That year even many of his supporters doubted he could win the Democratic nomination; his best hope, they believed, might be forcing likely nominee Hillary Clinton and the Democratic platform to the left. That he nearly took the nomination represented a new era in American politics – the empowerment of the left within the Democratic Party. In short, it was a delayed victory for Harrington, 27 years after his death and 38 years after the Democratic Agenda insurgency at the midterm convention.
Sanders’s strong start in the 2020 primary season – winning the most votes (although not the most delegates) in Iowa followed by victories in New Hampshire and Nevada – panicked the corporate forces in the party into consolidating behind Joe Biden. As the Washington Socialist goes to press, Biden is a prohibitive favorite to win the nomination although Sanders continues to contest for delegates. But the real story behind Sanders’s White House runs may be less their (probably) ultimate failure than their success – at fundamentally altering the Democratic Party.
Reagan biographer Sam Tanenhaus, writing in Washington Post, said that “Sanders, a spoiler in 2016, is on his way to remaking the Democratic Party, no matter how this year’s campaign ends,” in much the way as Reagan recast the GOP as an ideologically right-wing party.
“Our first step,” Sanders said in 2016, “is to transform the Democratic Party from a top-down party to a bottom-up body, to create a grassroots organization of the working families of this country, the young people of this country.” His two presidential campaigns carried the party a long way to that destination.
It is ironic that Sanders had such an impact on the party, given that he never identified as a Democrat until he entered the 2016 presidential race – and immediately after it was over went back to calling himself in independent. Perhaps it took someone not wedded to the party to invade and transform it largely against its will – and he brought thousands of like-minded new activists into the party with him to help carry it off.
Sanders’s run in 2016 inspired progressives to run for office in the election cycles to follow, with a direct result being the emergence of “the Squad” – the quartet of progressive young women of color who collectively became a center of power in the House of Representatives after they were elected in 2018. Now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (both DSA members), Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley are only four members out of the 435-member House, but their visibility and unabashedly left politics have given them a stature beyond that of any random four freshman members. They represent the potential face of a new Democratic Party, one that stands for something – for people, not profit; for justice, not greed; for equality, not plutocracy. Behind these four, more Democrats are willing to call themselves progressives – after 2018 the House Progressive Caucus included 98 of the chamber’s 235 Democrats, or nearly 42 percent. As recently as 2015 the caucus had only 68 members, or 29 percent of House Democrats. Several other members could be considered in DSA’s political neighborhood including Andy Levin (MI), Jamie Raskin (MD) and Mark Pocan (WI).
Yet as we see with Biden’s likely claiming of the presidential nomination, the fulfillment of Michael Harrington’s dream is not complete. It will take future candidates like Sanders – perhaps members of the Squad, perhaps others not yet on the national radar – to lift the Democratic Party into the role of a truly progressive party, and perhaps someday a genuinely socialist one. It also will take hard work by DSA and other organizations on the left to back them up.