Breaking Bad: Obsession with an Independent Workers’ Party Hurts the Socialist Electoral Project

This entry was originally published in The Organizer, a blog maintained by Collective Power Network, a national DSA caucus. You can find a link to the digitally archived entry here.

In 1988, Republican State Representative Charles Cusimano resigned from his Metairie, Louisiana-based State House seat to become a judge on the 24th Judicial District Court. Governor Buddy Roemer, then a Democrat, called for a special election for the vacant House seat to be held on January 21st, 1989. Louisiana uses a top-two or “jungle” primary system, meaning that two candidates from the same party can advance to the general election. This was the case in 1988. Republican John Treen, brother of former Governor David Treen, came in second with 18.85% of the vote, enough to advance to the February 18th runoff. The Republican in first place heading into the runoff, with 33.07% of the vote, was the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke.

Because of the national outrage at Duke’s candidacy and frontrunner status, Treen’s candidacy drew the support of every establishment politician in the state of Louisiana and beyond. Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan campaigned for Treen, explicitly to deny the seat to Duke, an unheard-of intervention in a local race. Even prominent Democrats and the Louisiana AFL-CIO president supported the Republican Treen and vigorously opposed his Republican opponent, Duke. At the end of the day, however, Duke withstood the unprecedented intervention against his candidacy, winning 50.7% of the vote to Treen’s 49.3%. Duke served just a single term in the Louisiana House of Representatives, but mounted future unsuccessful campaigns for Governor and US Senate, making the general election each time as a Republican against the vociferous and unified opposition of the Republican establishment.

Never before or since has an American political establishment lined up so comprehensively to oppose a successful candidate. But despite Duke’s official party affiliation, at no point could the formal Republican Party of Louisiana prevent or even interfere with his candidacy, because in America, ballot lines are state institutions, not the property of political parties.

Take, for instance, someone who wants to run for office in Virginia, where the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and all 100 delegates are up for election this year. A candidate must file a statement of organization with their local clerk, who is an employee of one of Virginia’s 95 counties or 38 independent cities. In this statement, the candidate must designate the office they seek and, importantly, choose a recognized party affiliation for their campaign, despite the fact that, in Virginia, voters do not register with a party affiliation. The institutional state party the candidate designates has no legal way to stop any candidate from participating in a race. While the exact mechanics differ slightly from state to state, this general process is true of the vast majority of legislative and executive offices in America which are partisan and decided by primaries.

It’s easy to misunderstand that the ballot lines of the major parties in America are state institutions, given the way we speak about them on the Left. For years, the question of electoral strategy and the party form within the American system has been broken into two supposed camps: “realignment,” which seeks to make the Democratic Party a force for social democracy by reforming from within, and the “break,” which is the idea that socialists must, at some point, create a new ballot line to host an independent workers’ party.

This “break” tendency manifests itself in several ways, the most prominent of which are the “clean break” and the “dirty break.” The “clean break” approach urges DSA to immediately eschew the major ballot lines and only run candidates who are independent socialists. The “dirty break” encourages strategic use of the Democratic ballot line until sufficient mass is built behind our movement to break from the Democratic Party and form our independent workers’ party and that we should be open about and constantly building towards this break.

Both these theories, and other manifestations of the break idea such as the Movement for a People’s Party, are deeply flawed in similar ways. First, they fundamentally misunderstand that the true power of the Democratic Party lies not in the ballot line or even the formal party apparatus as represented by the Democratic National Committee and its associated campaign committees but rather in the complex web of consultants, donors, lobbyists and institutions that cooperatively constitute the “party establishment.” Second, they do not understand or reckon with the fact that the ballot line exists not within the apparatus of the Democratic Party itself, but on the contested terrain of the state. With these base misunderstandings about our organizing conditions, break advocates provide no framework for success, only for the permanent marginalization of the socialist electoral project. A serious electoral strategy for the Left must seek to overcome the actual barriers facing socialist candidates, utilizing the ballot line as a tool to ensure the greatest chance of success, and building political independence for the socialist movement through a “party surrogate” model.

The Limits of Break

Perhaps the most extreme example of the clean break strategy to gain any amount of relevance within DSA is the Resolution: For a Genuinely Class-Independent Strategy in the 2020 Presidential Elections introduced to Phoenix DSA by self-described entryists from the Trotskyist sect International Marxist Tendency, seeking to eschew so-called “lesser evilism” in elections. In the resolution, the authors resolve that:

“Phoenix DSA will not endorse candidates from either the Republican or Democratic Party, whether or not such candidates campaign on one or more socialist or progressive demands … Instead, we will seek to promote and campaign for … candidates who run as independent socialists …”

The resolution goes on to dictate how elected members must behave in office, a problem that the authors of the resolution will never have to face, as the resolution itself is a guarantee that Phoenix DSA would never endorse a winning candidate.

It is as if this resolution was written by Nancy Pelosi herself, as it gives her and the Democratic establishment nationwide exactly what it wants by consigning the socialist electoral project, now at its strongest nationwide in a century, to permanent marginalization. Refusing to compete in Democratic primaries establishes a permanent roadblock to elected power for socialists in America. Because of the single-member districts and winner-take-all voting systems that dominate the United States electoral landscape and the favorable treatment given to major parties in terms of ballot access and media coverage, there is no feasible path to victory for third parties in this country.

Even more baffling is that the resolution is entirely unnecessary. There is no meaningful threat to our ability to strategically utilize the ballot line of the Democratic Party, so long as our electoral organizing continues to be serious and disciplined. The actual marginalization of successful left candidates in the status quo happens long after Election Day when elected socialists take their seats and do the work of governing and building power within an elected body. Insisting on only endorsing independent socialists does not solve, and in fact exacerbates, this alienation, while still making it significantly less likely that our candidates get elected to these bodies in the first place. This unnecessary resolution damages our ability to win races, and those candidates who do miraculously pull off elections (most often to non-partisan seats where no one is on any official ballot line) would be alienated symbols, struggling to build power for the working class, serve their constituents or further the cause of socialism.

Lest it be said that this mood is confined to one sect in one chapter, the idea that electoral power must now or imminently be built without the strategic use of the Democratic ballot line is a view increasingly held by many. Some groups have proposed a so-called “dirty break” from the Democratic Party that entails the imminent creation of a workers’ party in the United States that would contest elections against both the Democratic and Republican Parties. In a pair of articles released last summer by the Bread and Roses Caucus within DSA, Nick French and Jeremy Gong argue that maintaining the creation of a new ballot line as a lodestar is necessary for short-term organizing before such a party even becomes feasible. They argue that the branding of the new ballot line in itself will raise the class consciousness of workers. From this, they prescribe that we ought to be aiming to create a workers’ party running on a new ballot line “by 2030” and that we must begin laying the groundwork now.

Fellow Bread and Roses Caucus member Jane Slaughter goes a step further to contend that maintaining the publicly stated and internally held goal of an independent workers’ party will make real material impacts on how we, as socialists, organize. To the extent that Slaughter’s contention is true, it can only make that organization worse and less effective by focusing the time and energy of electoral organizers on staking out symbolic and rhetorical differences from the Democrats, not on winning elections and growing DSA as a force for working class politics.

Proponents of the dirty break make a fundamentally un-Marxist observation as the centerpiece of their argument, namely that the rhetoric and aesthetics of our campaigns for elected office matter more than the actual material outcomes that we offer working-class voters. That overemphasis on propaganda and symbolism flies in the face of what has been successful among socialist campaigns in the short term post-2015 and merely replicates the marginalization of socialist politics during the preceding century. It is not effective propaganda to show the working class that a socialist can run for office alone; socialists have been doing that for more than a century. It is effective to show what socialists can win and how socialists can exercise power even in a capitalist system, from capping the costs of insulin to building affordable housing to diverting money away from police and toward public goods.

While posturing as more serious than those who disagree, proponents of the dirty break would lead DSA and the socialist electoral project only into the same permanent marginalization and ultimate failure as those who push for an immediate independent party.

You don’t even need to look at history to see where this type of symbolic politics leads. As I write this, about two dozen #ForceTheVote protesters representing various anti-establishment organizations are “rallying” at the United States Capitol Building just down the road. This misguided movement, and the Movement for a People’s Party that helped spring it forth, are reacting to the readily apparent failures of the Democratic Party establishment and, even more than that, to the realization we’ve all come to: the institutional Democratic Party and the aforementioned establishment associated with it does not, nor does it want to, represent the working class in this country. But on the narrow topic of strategic use of the Democratic Party ballot line, it is clear — even among many proponents of immediately or imminently abandoning the Democrats — that few understand that ballot lines are contested entities that can be organized for and won. Ballot lines are not internal to parties as organizational entities. American political parties are exceptionally weak on issues of membership and ballot access. After Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary, the Working Families Party, which had already given Crowley their endorsement (under New York’s unique fusion-voting laws) and their ballot line for the November election, had to beg the outgoing congressman not to run on their ballot line. They could not, nor could the Democrats, simply rescind their consent to his appearing on their line.

In fact, to entertain the idea of an independent socialist ballot line, let’s say that in the 2034 midterm elections, a “dirty break” American Labor Party founded by DSA members elected as Democrats has made serious gains in state houses in the four years since its inception and has become an officially recognized party in every state where ALP members have won state house seats. It now automatically appears on the ballot, rather than being consigned to obscurity. In the 8th District of New York, registrations for the American Labor Party have eclipsed those of the Democratic Party, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries will be in a real fight to hold on to his seat. Rather than face the insurgent left-wing party in the general election, nothing is preventing Hakeem Jeffries from running in the primary for the ALP nomination, or, due to New York’s fusion voting, appearing on both the Democratic and ALP ballot lines. Indeed, in our first-past-the-post voting system, this would be the rational decision. As a state institution, the ballot line doesn’t belong to the ALP and is vulnerable to use by corporate Democrats in the same way that the Democratic ballot line is vulnerable to use by us today. Our workers’ party has no control over who can run in, and more importantly, who can vote in our primary. All the organizing to lift the party out of obscurity, thousands of petition signatures gathered, millions of dollars on ballot access attorneys and fees, has been for naught, and the gains made by the party are vulnerable to cooptation because there has been no internal vehicle separate from the ballot line to secure them.

We don’t need to rely on hypotheticals to see this play out. Almost every major democracy on Earth has some sort of workers’ party or labor party that makes up some part of the center-left coalition in their country. In nearly every case, those parties are liberal. In fact, this reality prompted DSA itself to leave the Socialist International. In the United States, where our system is designed to only allow for two major parties, success for a future American Labor Party ballot line to the extent that it eclipses that of the Democrats would by definition prompt a great many liberal politicians in America to begin to run on the ALP ballot line rather than the Democratic one. As such, the powerful institutions that they’ve built which are separate from the ballot line would similarly transfer, and we will have poured all our time and energy into rhetorical changes while neoliberalism continues to wreak havoc on the American, and global, working class.

The Soft Power of Party Establishments

So if the ballot line and ballot access are not hindrances to socialist electoral campaigns, how then is the Democratic Party establishment so successful at picking the winner in supposedly open primaries? In short, this is because of their success at off-boarding the institutional heft of the Democratic Party from the DNC and state Democratic Party affiliates themselves and into the private sector, and of the dominance of the Democratic Party brand among voters.

Democratic Party organizations such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party organ responsible for winning races for Democrats running for the US House of Representatives, and allied organizations such as EMILY’s List, an extremely influential organization dedicated to supporting pro-choice Democratic women candidates, exercise significant control over candidate fundraising and act as validators to big donors and bundlers, donors or organizations who skirt contribution rules to maximize political power. Far from being unique to the federal level, similar, albeit less powerful, arrangements are present in a multitude of states and cities.

In addition to party organizations and their allies like EMILY’s List, chambers of commerce, think tanks and other organizations with skin in the game, an immense amount of Democratic Party power also resides in consulting firms, so much so that the DCCC pledged to inhibit access to these firms via the use of the “blacklist” which forbids DCCC members from working with firms that have ever taken on clients who have brought a primary challenge to a DCCC member. The blacklist has had mixed results, and in some cases helped the handful of high-quality firms who can survive based solely on the market share of House challenger and non-House races. To candidates seeking to challenge House incumbents, however, it has made the path towards establishing quality digital, fundraising and crucial outreach like Facebook ads and mail even more difficult than it previously was, as those high-quality blacklisted firms can only take on so many clients at a time.

While the above problems are caused by the Democratic Party establishment, the creation of the independent ballot line would do nothing to address them. Since no analogous institutions exist to support independent socialist candidates, an immediate split would exacerbate the above problems while putting partner organizations that any successful socialist candidacy needs (labor unions, environmental orgs, racial justice orgs, etc.) in the impossible position of choosing between the more likely winner on the Democratic ballot line or the candidate more reflective of their values.

There is no evidence that by 2030, as proponents from Bread and Roses suggest, DSA will be an organization sufficiently large to command enough of the American voting base to supplant the Democrats as a major party. More likely, a split along that timeline would further alienate us from labor, environmental and progressive partners. As history has shown, the choice most often made, and the right one in a first-past-the-post election for a single seat (the vast majority of elections in America and every federal general election outside of Maine and Alaska), is to pick the likely winner.

Another crucial barrier to a successful third party — not accounted for by legal and structural explanations, not addressed (and even exacerbated by) the ballot line question —  is the mindset of the average voter. All ideologies prescribing a break rely upon the idea that there is, at present, a massive depoliticized working class that is simply waiting for the right candidate with the message and branding to get involved. To believe this, one must reckon with why the Sanders campaigns failed to win. With more than 80 million voters deciding to sit out even extremely high-turnout general elections, only 20% of those voters cited not liking either candidate. The vast majority of non-voters, who are young, disengaged and disproportionately Latino, would have to be convinced by a third party not only to vote for the first time, but to vote for a party they’ve never heard of. In lower-information level elections like state house or city council, that is a herculean feat. 13% of the electorate voted for the first time in 2020, and 68% of those votes were for Biden. Even in 2016, when the popularity of both candidates was at an all-time low and third-party voting at an all-time high, 95% of first-time voters voted for either Clinton or Trump. With the two major parties becoming more and more separate in legislating and in who comprises their base, the idea that a third party could spring up to even get on the ballot in a sufficient number of races to make an impact is laughable.

There are no shortcuts to organizing the working class, and a clean or dirty break is nothing but a shortcut. Mobilizing the depoliticized mass of people will take time. Cycle after cycle of worker and tenant organizing that lasts outside of elections speaks to the material needs of depoliticized nonvoters, and is representative of them demographically and economically, is necessary to increase voter turnout. A split sets this goal back severely, most likely irreparably. Mobilizing the majority of America’s working class to demand socialist representation in government will not happen immediately, and it certainly will not happen by 2030. By the time it has happened, it won’t matter what you call the resulting party that is the vehicle for the American working class. The smart, dedicated and results-oriented electoral organizer will be agnostic on the question of the split for that reason. Third parties are the playthings of cynics who have opted out of mainstream politics, not a serious vehicle for organization.

The Path Forward

Proponents of abandoning the Democratic Party ballot line, either immediately or in 2030, would have you believe that not doing so harms our movement’s political independence. Just like their stance on the ballot line question, though, that argument relies on either the misunderstanding or willful obfuscation of the truth of elections in America. Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella propose in their article “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” one such method of achieving and maintaining that independence, which they call the “party surrogate” model. Slaughter reduces this model to simply realignment by other means, but it most closely resembles the model that has provided us the success we’ve seen so far, and intentionally and thoroughly adhering to this model will help maximize our success.

The party surrogate is a membership organization, like DSA, which behaves the way a workers’ party would and should, operating organizationally independent of either of the major parties. This surrogate would conduct electoral campaigns every step of the way: finding and recruiting candidates, leading and forming local coalitions and doing the everyday blocking and tackling of elections from messaging to canvassing to data. This surrogate would, through intentional growth and development, become large and powerful enough to free our candidates from the network of donors, consultants, think tanks and elites that control the Democratic Party. This organization would operate using the Democratic ballot line where it is strategic, as well as run candidates for nonpartisan seats like school boards or city councils. In doing so, we’d find that the organization is what is important, not the ballot line on which our candidates run. That flexibility and independent structure are more valuable to the working class than the symbolic victory of a workers’ party candidate pulling in 0.8% of the vote.

The party surrogate is much closer to the conception of a “party” as talked about by Marx and Lenin than any of the currently existing third parties or any of the hypothetical third parties brought about by “breaks” from the Democrats. The party surrogate would be a political home for the entire working class, make decisions democratically and ensure mutual accountability. The membership of the party surrogate would direct all external actions when it comes to electoral politics, but it wouldn’t have to solely rely on electoral politics in the way ballot lines alone do. The party surrogate would include tenants and workers organizing with each other in collective struggle, and our electoral program would be merely a manifestation of that struggle that is seeking to win and utilize elements of state power.

We also do not need an independent ballot line to contest for power with the Democratic Party. We’re doing that right now! Furthermore, the Democrats themselves are proof that merely occupying a separate ballot line does not make a group an opposition party. In fact, were we to create a separate ballot line and rely on that ballot line to gain a hegemonic foothold in a city like Washington, DC, we would end up in the same position as the Democrats there today. There would be nothing we could do to prevent developer-backed liberals from primarying our workers’ party councilmembers on our ballot line. But if those councilmembers are accountable to a party surrogate organization, we would be able to get them elected, crowd out capitalist opposition and achieve socialist governing majorities for the working class of the District. At that point, it will be immaterial whether those councilmembers were elected on the Democratic Party ballot line, the Statehood Green ballot line, as independent socialists, or on the Whig Party ballot line.

This leads to the final point on this matter: even if you grant that the dirty break does not necessitate a split from the Democratic Party ballot line now, in 2030 or even for 50 years, it’s a red herring. A loyal mass base large enough to allow for a dirty break while avoiding electoral marginalization will necessarily require a majority of Democratic voters and be powerful enough to dominate in Democratic primaries. By the time a dirty break could be successful the debate over realignment of the Democratic Party versus the dirty break would be irrelevant. At that point, it doesn’t matter what ballot line we use, we’d already be delivering all the material results for the working class that we can through electoral organizing and a parliamentary strategy.

When we engage in electoral politics on any level, our goal must be victory. Not symbolic victories, not moral victories, but material victories for the working class. The branding exercise of which ballot line is used to achieve those victories is immaterial. An insistence on a new ballot line is an individual vanity project that accomplishes nothing for anyone. We do not have the time, resources and energy to spend on such a project. As the personalities behind the Movement for a People’s Party will soon find out, only real organizing and movement building will win power for the working class. Ballot lines are symbolic, and the rejection of the Democratic one is nothing more than a mood brought on by the obvious and abundant failures of the institutional Democratic Party. But the Democratic ballot line is a tool, and a powerful one, that socialists must use in our fight on all fronts for socialism, justice and working-class liberation.

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