Colin Foster's review of Maurice Isserman's biography of Michael Harrington was mostly fair. Some corrections are required, though. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is no more a caucus within the Democratic Party than the AWL is a caucus within the Labour Party. It does officially support some Democrats -- and some Greens and some independents -- but it is not part of the Democratic Party machinery, in large part because there really is no such machinery. Nor is DSA "midly social-democratic." DSA is openly anti-capitalist. Mild social democrats are, at best, resigned to capitalism, believing nothing better is feasible.
Now, why would socialists ever support candidates of a bourgeois party, you might ask. The answer is as follows:
British comrades should understand that the U.S. electoral system system is not analogous in any significant way to these or any other liberal-democratic electoral systems. Consider England, where Ken Livingstone wanted to run for mayor of London, and the majority of dues-paying Labour Party members voted for him, but party mechanisms allowed Tony Blair to deny him the nomination. He therefore ran as an independent, which made perfect sense in that context. But were Livingstone an American and had run for office as a Democrat, he could have won the Democratic nomination simply by winning the primary, no matter what the Democratic National Committee, or any Democratic official, wanted. While it may be true that Republican and Democratic Party clubs, wards, etc., can throw people out, the "members" they toss out can still run in Party primaries for Party positions. The state, not the parties, controls who can join (anyone who registers); the parties have no control over who registers, runs in their primaries, or holds office under their name.
The U.S. effectively has 435 separate parties, corresponding to each electoral district, loosely affiliated, but with no party discipline. (At the moment, Democrats and Republicans — aside from their Presidential candidates — are more polarized from each other and more homogenous internally than at any time this century, but for most of this century, each party would have votes going in completely opposite directions on almost every vote.) The national parties may help but they are usually do not contribute a significant portion of any candidates funding. One effect of the McCain-Feingold bill is that even less money will be now coordinated by the national party committees; left-of-center donor groups are now setting up their own coordinating groups to directly hand out money. (No one writes checks to "the Democratic Party"; they write them, usually, for individual politicians.)
No Democratic Congressperson has ever been sanctioned in an effective way by the Democratic National Committee. Congresspeople may be challenged by unions or corporations or other non-party groups, but not specifically by the party organs themselves. There no party discipline at all exerted in that way. Within Congress, party discipline is at times enforced by promising or denying "pork" to chairmanships, but this is the same for any candidate of any party once elected. It's standard operating procedure for every legislature in the world, regardless of whether it's a multi-party proportional system or a two-party first-past-the-post system. Most party discipline in the U.S. is exerted from the grassroots, not from inside the Beltway. Congresspeople hardly care about the call from DNC headquarters, but they do care about the calls from back home. And those calls are now more partisan and uniform district to district across the country than they once were, largely because Southern Democrats are now overwhelmingly responsible to black or increasingly Latino rather than white primary constituencies, much like urban Democrats in the North. There has also been a homogenization of cultural polarization of constituencies between the "parties" around issues like abortion and the environment.
It shouldn't be forgotten that the central organizing event of the modern U.S. party system was the Civil War — an event of transcendent significance and permanent effects for Americans, the results of which loom over our political system even today. As a comparison, reference Ireland, in which the Labour Party has never risen above third place, because Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were the opposing sides in the Irish Civil War, which was the crucial fact in the organization of the modern Irish state.
The institution of the Presidency, elected separately from the legislature, is also a barrier to the building of a mass third party. (Note that Charles De Gaulle, by creating an elective Presidency for the Fifth French Republic, largely destroyed the multi-party nature of French politics.) And then there's the Federal system. The effects of this on U.S. politics are often overlooked — the most dramatic example is, of course, the Civil War. The U.S. is the only country that fought such a war over the abolition of slavery because it is the only country that defined so basic an institution as local! Consider such matters as corporate charters to see how federalism privileges the rule of bourgeois politicians. Furthermore, federal systems contribute "fuzziness" to electoral results — as in Canada and Germany, where opposition parties tend to gain control of the states or provinces in elections that react against the center.
All of this should be taken into account when making an argument regarding pro-working class electoral strategy. The unpalatable bottom line is that the U.S. Constitution requires coalition politics in order to get anything done. And, given the rules of the game and nature of American society that means that both (main) "parties" are in fact coalitions of disparate elements, which contain elements that are unsatisfactory to each other. Both the Republicans and Democrats have a hard core of ideological/interest group supporters, and a group of centrists who ally with them for one reason or another. The cores are always dissatisfied that they don't get their way on "more" while the center always entertains fantasies of the imaginary "great party of the center," which would sweep any election.
It is a fact that every Democratic president since the Civil War (with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt) came from the center-right of the party/coalition. Candidates further over rarely win the nomination and never the presidency. And certainly every Democratic nominee for president since George McGovern has been, in reality, a pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council type (the DLC has a wonderful ability, whenever its candidates lose, to blame it on the Democratic left wing). In governance, both Carter and Clinton have both ended up unsatisfactory both to the DLC and to the "liberals" (which is what U.S. social democrats are usually called), because they scurried back and forth between them. That's the nature of the Democratic Party, and it is that way because of the reality of the political system in which Americans live.
Had Al Gore become president, he would, perforce, have done what Clinton did, and tried to satisfy, alternately, all the different groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Bush has done the same, only with much greater ease because of the more homogeneous nature of the Republican Party. That means his views are to the right of some 70 percent of the American people.
The nature of the American electoral system is what it is, and not to be overcome by an act of will. The reason that third parties haven't become major parties once the ballot access rules were changed in the 1890s is not a failure to try. It’s been tried, and tried, and tried again.
Similarly, the link of major institutions such as the AFL-CIO to the Democratic Party is not to be overcome by an act of will. The supporters of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign may believe they are speaking for the oppressed but it is a necessity of what they are doing to denigrate the leadership of those potential allies. But the AFL-CIO is lead by John Sweeney, not George Meany, and it makes the same electoral decisions. Why? Because, given the electoral system, it makes sense. (This is not to say that Sweeney is a radical, but he is not to the right of the typical European social democratic labor top.) It was just those calculations that made most of the leaders of the Socialist Party, at various stages since the 1932 election, abandon the idea of running SP candidates and become Democrats. Does this solve the problem of building a mass socialist left? Hardly. _No strategy has worked._
However, I do have great confidence in stating that a never-endorse-Democrats third party strategy, under the present rules of the game, won't work. Changes in state laws to permit multiple-party endorsements, the alternate vote, proportional representation and the like would vastly improve the prospects of third parties. Hell, a simple proposal to substitute a direct popular vote for the Electoral College would help third parties.
A simple geographical way to think about the U.S. is to remember that the state of Missouri is not only the population "center" of America — it is also the political center: it votes for the winning candidates more than any other state. Show me the likelihood of a successful leftist third party in Missouri and I'll scream, "break with the elephant, break with the ass, build a party of the working class!" Absent that, I'll continue to support social-democratic Democrats, and those who think that I'm actually supporting bourgeois politicians will continue to be mistaken.