An Electoral Strategy for Austin DSA
This statement is intended to convince Austin DSA members to adopt a particular strategy and orientation towards elections. That orientation is away from thinking about elections, and individual candidates, as ends in and of themselves. Instead, I believe that Austin DSA (and DSA more generally) should look at elections as an opportunity for movement building and to expand the appeal of socialist politics. This outlook requires a radical change in how we interact with elections and with the Democratic Party.¹
What Is the Democratic Party?
Any serious left approach to elections has to start with an approach to the Democratic Party. For the last 100 years, the Democratic Party has been the primary avenue for leftists in the United States to compete in elections. That fact, incontrovertible and seemingly unchanging, must frame our thinking about elections. Also incontrovertible and unchanging is the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of elected Democrats, now and over the course of the party’s history, are not leftists, even in the most expansive sense of the word. Democrats have presided over segregation, illegal wars, mass deportations, the mass incarceration of people of color, the expansion and militarization of the drug war, anti-LGBTQ laws, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the runaway growth of income inequality. Of course, most successful reforms, including virtually all civil rights legislation and welfare state programs, have come under Democrats; and whatever we think of Democrats, the modern Republican party is a fascist nightmare. It’s easy to see the Democrats as the only defense we have against the excesses of contemporary American conservatism. The combination of these facts has has led many leftists to conclude that the most realistic path forward is to work within the Democratic Party, and try to realign the balance of power within the party: to move it left.
Most proponents of this strategy, which we can call “realignment,” share one of two outlooks on the party. The first outlook is that the left has to work within the Democratic Party because the party is large, stable, powerful, and has a broad base of support. The Democratic candidate for president has gotten the most votes in 6 of the last seven elections, is practically guaranteed to win nearly 50% of votes cast in presidential elections, and regularly wins the vast majority of votes cast by vulnerable and historically marginalized populations.
The second outlook is the flipside of this. Adherents to this outlook see the party as hollowed out, vulnerable, and ripe for takeover. Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic Party primary despite the best efforts of the Party machine to throw obstacles in his way, and Berniecrats around the country are winning positions of power in their local Democratic Party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley! The party machinery is on the brink of collapse, and a concerted effort by leftists over the next few years can drive out the conservatives and moderates from their positions of authority and turn the Democratic Party into, at least, a Western Europe-style social-democratic party by the 2024 presidential election.
But neither one of these views of the Democratic Party is accurate. The Democratic Party’s base of support may be fairly broad, but it’s not deep at all. Outside of presidential elections, the Democratic Party can barely turnout anyone to vote for their candidates. For example, in the 2018 Democratic Primary runoff for governor in Texas, only 432,000 people bothered to vote, less than 3% of the state’s 15 million registered voters (and that’s not taking into account the ten million-or-so voting-aged Texans who aren’t even registered to vote). The tiny number of those people who did vote were older, whiter, and wealthier than those who didn’t. This isn’t an isolated incident. Even in major elections the Democratic Party can only command a fraction of voting age Americans. Of the 250 million adults in the United States, only about 65 million voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Marginalized communities, in particular, vote in far lower numbers than well-off communities. And while some of that can be attributed to voter suppression, the primary driving fact is much simpler: the vast majority of working class people do not support for the Democratic Party and do not find voting for Democrats to be worth the trouble.
Furthermore, although the Democratic Party’s official leadership is falling left and right, the party apparatus is still buttressed by an immensely wealthy and powerful donor caste. This donor caste is made up of an association of investors and executives from a few key industrial sectors: healthcare, finance, tech, and entertainment. The donor caste maintains an immense ability to reign in Democratic Party members who drift too far to the left, and there’s a whole backbone to the party that can’t be displaced by simply replacing its elected officials or permeating the layers of precinct chairs and Democratic clubs. Even in the face of the insurgent Sanders campaign, the Democratic Party was able to prevent Keith Ellison from becoming the party’s chairperson despite overwhelming support from party activists. And then, when the dust had settled, the party purged Sanders and Ellison supporters from positions of power within the party. Very, very few people noticed either one of these power grabs, and among those who noticed even fewer cared. Fewer still had any real idea of what to do about it. Leftists within the party had no real recourse or levers with which to prevent or overturn those power grabs and, among leftists whose input was solidly rejected by the party’s decision makers, the most common response was a sigh of disappointment, perhaps a shake of the head, and a loyalty oath and a redoubling of their commitment to working within the Democratic Party. How do they get away with this shit?
The answer is two-fold. First, and most obviously: because very few people are paying attention. Working class people don’t care about the Democrats, and certainly don’t care enough to pay attention to intra-party squabbling and power struggles. Consequently, the most powerful elements in the party are able to do whatever they want, so long as they do it outside the context of presidential election cycles. But there’s another reason, which is considerably more entrenched and harder to displace, and this is the key to why realignment strategies fail: the Democratic Party isn’t just elected officials and the official party bureaucracy. And it’s certainly not just the Democratic Party “membership.” In fact, the Democratic Party doesn’t have members, at least not in any meaningful sense. As Anika Gauja has observed, “unlike [parties in other Democracies], where members join a political party through a process of application to the party itself, party membership in the United States has been described as ‘a fiction created by primary registration laws’.” Membership in the Democratic Party doesn’t grant people ability to dictate the program or operation of the party. Instead it allows occasional participation in a primary process, which generally takes place well after the unofficial layers of the Democratic Party apparatus has whittled down the field to a handful of pre-selected options they find acceptable. It’s best to think about this unofficial layer as the real power within the Democratic Party. That layer is comprised not of elected officials and party activists, but by the vast complex of high-level union bureaucrats, non-profit board members, political staff, think tank employees, government employees, campaign consultants, lobbyists, and well-funded liberal political organizations that surround and support the Democratic Party.
This caste of power brokers isn’t accountable to democratic procedure and their leadership is often unelected (even when, like in the case of union leadership, there are elections, they’re often noncompetitive and difficult to participate in). People from this unelected caste frequently move around this network, leading a non-profit one year, working on a campaign the next year, and serving as an elected official’s chief of staff the year after that. Furthermore, these organizations often share the same funding sources as Democratic Party politicians. This financial structure places enormous pressure on the leadership of these Democratic Party-orbiting organizations, and often leads them to behave contrary to their stated goal, like when the Sierra Club was silent for years about fracking in order to preserve financial support from the donor caste. Most of these organizations are not required to report their funding sources and it’s not always easy to figure out the relationships between non-profit organizations and their financiers, but in many cases the ties are out in the open.
For example: Susan Sandler sits on the board of Center For American Progress, the multi-million dollar think tank that helps develop and advocates for Democratic Party legislation. Sandler also sits on the board of the Sandler Foundation, a progressive non-profit that her billionaire parents founded. The Sandler Foundation has spent nearly a billion dollars influencing the direction of liberal politics (they give the Center For American Progress over a million dollars a year). Sandler also helps run the Sandler-Phillips Center which advises wealthy donors on which Democratic Party candidates to fund. Sandler’s fortune comes from her parents, who became billionaires running Golden West, a financial company famous for developing the practices responsible for the market collapse of 2008. She is a major donor to Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. It appears that most of her work is put into running the Sandler Institute, which by itself carries over 800 million dollars worth of assets from year to year, and is a major supporter for each of the following groups: the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Climateworks, Human Rights Watch, Indivisible, the Learning Policy Institute, ProPublica, the Sierra Club, the Truman National Security Project, the University of California, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Sandler is, to put it lightly, a major decision maker in the direction and focus of left-of-center politics in the United States. And she’s completely unelected, entirely unaccountable, and nearly anonymous. She is just one example of a network of unelected, unaccountable, and anonymous power brokers that make up the real substance of the Democratic Party.
When we think about the Democratic Party, we can’t just talk about elected officials. We’ve got to talk about the rigid network of major donors and the unaccountable organizations they fund, and our electoral strategies have to take them into account. Because even if we got rid of every elected corporate Democrat, we’d be leaving in place the support system of the unelected donor caste and their institutions, who would be able to influence, and likely overwhelm, any “insurgent” democrat that we manage to elect.
Realignment strategies have a long history. The most successful example is the work done by Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther to drive out racist Southern Democrats from the party and replace them with civil rights activists, removing the party’s most conservative wing from any influence or decision making ability within the party (DSA founder Michael Harrington was involved in this effort). By the 1970’s, racist Southern Democrats had largely been driven out of the party and the American South turned decisively to Richard Nixon and the Republicans (who have had nearly uninterrupted control of the region ever since). But rather than hand the Democratic party over to leftists, establishment power brokers like AFL-CIO president George Meany and Chicago Democratic power broker Richard J. Daley used the opportunity to solidify their hold on the party. Leftists in the party managed to nominate George McGovern in 1972, but the establishment section of the party withheld their financial and membership support and McGovern lost every state but one. So began a long drift of the Democratic Party to its right.
Current advocates for realignment strategies don’t have the same degree of vision or seriousness of Rustin, Reuther, or Harrington, and there’s very little in the way of long term strategic thinking at play in their activities. Instead, most realignment strategies are two-pronged, focusing on the following short term tactics:
- Support further-left democrats and beat establishment democrats in primaries, while supporting virtually any Democrat in a race against a GOP candidate
- Permeate the lower and middle tiers of the Democratic Party apparatus with leftists who will work to affect the party’s internal decision making
Both of these strategies have obvious failings. Individual politicians are untrustworthy. Howard Dean, for example, ran as the left-progressive candidate in the 2004 election. After he lost, he went on to become a lobbyist for the healthcare industry, before taking over as head of the DNC and sharply criticizing progressives within the party. The permeation strategy has obvious failings as well. While dedicated activists may be able to win sweeping resolutions at party conventions, these resolutions rarely have any real effect on the party’s behavior once in power. The 1976 Democratic Party platform included full employment as a major plank, but the Carter administration (and a majority Democrat congress) would go on to appoint Paul Volcker the Chair of the Federal Reserve where he would institute an interest rate spike intended to drive up unemployment. The 2008 Democratic Party Platform included promises for universal healthcare, a federal jobs program, and an end to mass surveillance. But under Obama we got the ACA, quantitative easing for banks, and the massive expansion of federal surveillance that made possible the current nightmare of Trump administration immigration policies.
These strategies fail because they can’t do anything but fail. They fail because they seek to realign a version of the Democratic Party that doesn’t really exist. It’s a mirage of the Democratic Party, where the Party apparatus is responsive to a great mass of voters whose priorities and values are reflected in the Party’s actions and priorities, and the final decisions are made by elected officials who are largely independent of external influence.²
Instead, the Democratic Party is nothing but a network of money and influence, in which activist energy is used to win intermittent elections but party activity and priorities are determined by the network of well-funded organizations and their donors. Those donors don’t share the same material interests as the voting base of the party, but those voters, constrained by the 2-party system and first-past-the-post elections, feel compelled to vote for the Democratic Party when they bother to vote at all. Their votes aren’t driven by enthusiasm, but by inertia. The realignment strategy seeks to capitalize on that inertia, but a democratic socialist electoral strategy must be driven by enthusiasm, participation, and genuine democracy.
A Democratic Socialist Electoral Strategy for Austin DSA
Still, Austin DSA can’t afford to eschew electoral politics entirely. The capitalist state has a powerful ideological wing at its disposal that reinforces the idea that the ballot box is the source of collective power in the United States. Most people in the US see elections as the main arena where politics take place. We need to do a lot of work to counter that and demonstrate to people the power that working class people have through collective mass action in their workplace and in the streets, but we also have to meet people where they are and take up space in the arena of electoral politics. And while voting isn’t the primary source of power in this country, it is an important and relatively straightforward way in which people can influence the direction of politics. We can’t abandon that arena entirely.
But this can’t simply mean throwing our support behind liberal democrats, or moving from election to election with no larger strategy in place, meeting each election unprepared to do anything other than accept the choices that have been handed to us from outside DSA. Instead, we have to use our ability to turn out committed volunteers to develop our own electoral abilities and impose our will on the political scene here in Central Texas. Already, we’ve made a mark on Austin. City councilmembers know who we are, the local media recognizes us as a growing force in local politics, and local groups look to us for help and, increasingly, for guidance. It’s exciting, but we’re not where we need to be. We can’t be opportunists. Instead, we’ve got to build on what we’ve already built, intentionally, with an eye towards building long term power. This means, by the end of the decade, being able to run candidates from our own ranks (preferably ones selected democratically).
As DSA continues to have success in the electoral realm, lots of opportunists who do not share our anti-capitalist values will turn to us for help in their elections. Liberal groups, funded and staffed by the Democratic Party donor network, will present us with operations for collaboration. Offers for funding will emerge, unsolicited, from the same people who fund all of the organizations that make up the Democratic Party network. And while at times some of these offers may make sense, we have to be vigilant. Organizations like MoveOn.org, Netroots Nation, Progressive Democrats of America, and even the Obama campaign all had enormous amounts of grassroots energy and activist support. But as they gained prominence, the donor caste, (through minor policy concessions, financial contributions, and an influx of establishment membership) tempered their insurgent potential and converted them to just another arm of the establishment Democratic party machine. This should be a real concern to everyone in DSA; the risk of co-option is a serious threat to the anti-capitalism at the heart of socialist politics. DSA must keep a high bar for the candidates we decide to work with and vigorously defend our independence from the Democratic Party machine. We have to see the Democratic Party for what it is: an obstacle to the success of our politics that holds captive, through inertia, a significant chunk of the working class base a socialist organization must seek to organize. And we have to do this while still finding positive and meaningful ways to engage in electoral politics.
Below is one proposal for how we could go about accomplishing this. I’m under no illusions that things will go exactly like I’m envisioning, but I believe the following is a serious outline for how we should approach elections for the rest of the decade:
- Identify one (or at most two) winnable local non-partisan election to target in 2018 where a radical, anti-systemic candidate is running.
- Build our canvassing, data-keeping, and turnout infrastructure so our volunteers can seriously engage in campaigns.
- Continue building, and stress-testing, the infrastructure that we’ve built through issue campaigns through 2019.
- Create a Austin DSA PAC to gear up for the 2020 elections, and develop a few members to deal with election law compliance.
- Continue to build our fundraising ability (using our compliance skills to stay on the right side of election law).
- Identify one (or at most two) winnable local non-partisan election to target in 2020.
- Identify committed DSA members who are willing to run in 2020, and select them, through an internal democratic process.
- Combine a local, homegrown electoral effort with a national effort (hopefully a Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders will be running for President in 2020) and solidify Austin DSA as a serious force in Austin’s electoral politics.
Taken one by one, with more specifics, this is how I see these elements being put into practice:
Identify one (or at most two) winnable local non-partisan election to target in 2018 where a radical, anti-systemic candidate is running.
The only candidate I’m aware of who fits this criteria is Lewis Conway, Jr., who is running for city council in District 1. Conway is a formerly incarcerated person who has dedicated his life to de-carceration and community activism. He’s a genuine democratic socialist, modeling his campaign after the successful Chokwe Lumumba campaign and the Marxist-influenced Cooperation Jackson program in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s running against, among others, Vincent Harding, a former chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, by all accounts a very progressive Democrat. The degree of difficulty here is high, but the opportunity to elect a socialist is unique. The race is a winnable one — only 10,766 voters cast ballots in District 1 in the last general election, and only 5,710 in the runoff election. Austin DSA has knocked on more than 7,500 doors as part of our Medicare For All campaign; we could realistically be the difference maker in an election on that scale. No other candidate in any race so clearly matches our values and the scale of our organization. With a concerted effort (and an effort undiluted by wasting effort on liberal democrats running larger, more well-funded campaigns) we can put a real socialist on city council.
Build our canvassing, data-keeping, and turnout infrastructure so our volunteers can seriously engage in campaigns.
Right now we’re very good at turning out volunteers to knock doors in Austin. In fact, our ability to do this is unparalleled by any other volunteer organization in town. Our ability to collect data from those canvasses is also very strong. However, our ability to do anything with that data is limited. By putting together a working group of our many programmers and people who work with data to make a living, we can improve on this. We also have many campaign veterans who can help us use our data to turn voters out to the polls.
If we focus on just one candidate and one section of the city, we can increase our ability to do really meaningful work with our campaign infrastructure. It’ll also be a serious test of our capacity as an organization. Lewis Conway doesn’t have the financial resources or connections that many politicians have, and if we can get him elected we’ll know that our electoral capacity is considerable. Alternatively, if we fail, we’ll know we’ve got a lot of work to do building that capacity.
Continue building, and stress-testing, the infrastructure that we’ve built through issue campaigns through 2019.
2019 should be a relatively quiet year for elections, but it’ll be a loud year at the Texas state legislature. We’ll have to use the abilities we’ve built to fight bad laws at the state-level. We could also experiment with trying to get a ballot initiative passed (perhaps something like universal paid parental leave or fair scheduling). The key factor will be continuing to build our ability to turn out volunteers, talking to people outside our immediate networks, and expanding our ability to spearhead successful campaigns.
Create a Austin DSA PAC to gear up for the 2020 elections, and develop a few members to deal with election law compliance.
To seriously contest elections we’ll need more money than we can get from passing the hat at general body meetings. And we’ll need to avoid getting sued into oblivion for campaign finance law violations. Throughout the rest of the 2018 and 2019 we need to be deliberate about identifying people who can help us legally raise money for elections.
Continue to build our fundraising ability (using our compliance skills to stay on the right side of election law).
At the same time we need to seriously improve our ability to raise money. We’re in much better shape, financially, than we were a year ago, but if we’re going to run our own elections we’ll want to print tons of literature and possibly hire part-time campaigners for the final push. And we need to follow the law very carefully if we want to do that.
Identify one (or at most two) winnable local non-partisan election to target in 2020.
Austin’s city council is non-partisan, many of the elections are won with very low turnout, and the council materially affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of working class people. Likely this will mean finding candidates to run in districts 2, 6, 7, or 10, though we should also explore the possibility of county commissioner and other local races as well. We’ll want to identify winnible races in districts where there are lots of Austin DSA members.
Identify committed DSA members who are willing to run in 2020, and select them, through an internal democratic process.
Most liberal electoral groups look for candidates to support. Austin DSA should develop a process to select our own candidates from our own ranks. This will mean looking at our dedicated cadre members who live in a given district, finding out who, if anyone, is willing to run, and having quasi-primary elections within DSA to find someone we can support. Our seriousness as an electoral force will come from our ability to select our own candidates from among our own ranks and to insert them into the electoral process.
Combine a local, homegrown electoral effort with a national effort (hopefully a Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders will be running for President in 2020) and solidify Austin DSA as a serious force in Austin’s electoral politics.
In addition to electing our own members locally, Austin DSA should work towards electing a socialist at the national level. We can create literature that ties a popular, insurgent, socialist presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders to our own members, and introduce democratic socialism as a serious electoral force to wide swaths of the city of Austin through our efforts. Sanders (or whatever other Democratic Socialist runs in 2020) won’t be perfect, but the opportunity presented by a viable presidential campaign by an open democratic socialist is too large for a growing organization like ours to pass up. If, by 2021, Austin has several socialists sitting on city council, and the United States has a socialist president, we can turn the socialist movement from a subcultural force in our city to a majoritarian working-class force, and build the kind of large socialist organization that will be necessary to dismantle capitalism and build real economic democracy.
This document is one option for an electoral strategy. I hope that, in the coming weeks, Austin DSA’s membership will begin to seriously consider what an effective electoral strategy might look like. I believe that there’s a lot in this document that can help start the conversation, but it’s clear that, in an organization with over 1000 members, we’re going to have a lot of conflicting analysis, opinion, and strategic outlooks. I hope as a chapter we can seriously start to contend with the daunting task ahead of us: building an electoral strategy that can move us closer to democratic socialism.
- There aren’t many direct citations in this piece, but a few pieces of writing make up a lot of the background for this piece, and I want to link to them in case people feel inclined to explore what I’m trying to build on. Seth Ackerman’s A Blueprint for a New Party is, to my knowledge, the best and most well-considered strategic outline for how to deal with the ballot-line access problem and the challenges posed by the two-party system and first past the post balloting. Sophia Burns’ The Democratic Party Is Not What You Think It Is provides a really illuminating way of thinking about the various informal and unofficial bodies that reinforce the domination of the Democratic Party by the donor caste, though I think her conclusions and overall strategy represent an unwillingness to contest for power within the state apparatus, which would be a disaster for DSA, in my view. Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History seems to me to be the definitive account of the historical relationship between the party and social movements, and I hope that everyone seeking to influence the DSA’s electoral strategy read the entire book (not just the review linked to above). Paul Heideman’s It’s Their Party documents previous attempts to realign the Democratic Party, from socialists like Bayard Rustin and Max Shachtman along with liberal reformers like Walter Reuther and George McGovern. David Kaib’s blog post The Most Basic Fact About Politics is Slack is a very clarifying about the extent to which most working class people fundamentally do not participate in politics and are completely demobilized. Finally, Peter Camejo’s Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action makes very clear the difference between a socialist organization building power and seeking influence.
- Tellingly, no one really believes this model applies to the Republican Party, even though in practice the GOP is much more responsive to their activist base (largely comprised of evangelical Christians) than the Democrats.