US socialists debate electoral strategy

Submitted by SJW on 19 September, 2018 - 12:01 Author: Eduardo Tovar
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In the US, self-described socialists running on Democrat ballot lines have produced shock electoral successes.

The successes include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district and, more recently, Julia Salazar’s victory over incumbent New York State Senator Martin Malave Dilan to become the Democratic nominee for the 18th district.

These successes have revived a long-running debate on how the American left should approach elections.

Much of the current debate centres on a “blueprint for a new party” put forward by Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman in November 2016.

In brief, Ackerman’s argument is that the US electoral system poses distinct obstacles because third parties have to petition to get onto the ballot, satisfying such demanding requirements as collecting high numbers of signatures, whereas the Democrats and Republicans get automatic ballot access.

In Ackerman’s view, such regulatory obstacles mean that the present task of creating a workers’ party in the US is not directly analogous to such famous historical examples as the founding of the UK Labour Party in 1900, which successfully split the voter base of the Liberal Party and provided a distinct political front for the labour movement in Britain, without significant worries over ballot status.

Accordingly, Ackerman sees value in socialists standing for election on the Democrats’ ballot line if they demonstrate clear political distance from the Democratic Party itself, thereby building a distinct, institutional identity that can break away to form a viable labour or socialist party in its own right. This strategy is often described a “dirty break” from the Democrats, as opposed to the “clean break” of only campaigning on independent third party ballot lines.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) has helpfully facilitated the debate with a series of articles in its newspaper Socialist Worker (unrelated to the British newspaper of the same name produced by the Socialist Workers’ Party), offering various standpoints on Ackerman’s proposal.

Some common objections to a “dirty break” strategy are that running on the ballot line of one of capital’s parties necessarily means conceding to the two-party system and that it might even strengthen the Democratic Party, since candidates’ electoral successes will be attributed to their ballot-line party rather than their proto-party.

It is worth stressing that one should not read “dirty break” proposals as ones of realignment; that is, of transforming the Democratic Party itself into a workers’ party, as Michael Harrington and Max Shachtman unsuccessfully attempted historically.

All sides of this debate agree that realigning the Democratic Party itself is impossible because the main political parties in the US are not voluntary associations funded by and (at least somewhat) democratically accountable to a mass membership.

In short, the major American parties are not “parties” as understood anywhere else in the developed world.

I stress this because, as a comrade of mine in the US socialist group Solidarity puts it, Ackerman’s article is something of a “Rorschach test”, with many reading the proposal as much more of a realignment-style intervention than intended. It is simply a strategic or tactical question of whether it is worth using Democrat ballot lines, as well as whether it is worth endorsing left-wing candidates who run on Democrat ballot lines.

Many Third Campists here in the Boston area instead focus on the questions of candidate accountability and of building a viable political economy on which to base a third party. In the context of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), we have already encountered the real problem of endorsing left-wing candidates who become wholly unanswerable to DSA itself after gaining their place on the ballot. Indeed, there is a risk of reaching a stage where DSA in practice simply backs anyone who professes to be a “socialist”.

As for issues of political economy, funding and trade union affiliation are crucial factors. As the American left learned from the experience of the 1996 Labor Party, one cannot expect the national unions to break away quickly from establishment Democrats. That is why many Boston leftists who identify with Hal Draper’s “socialism from below” emphasise the need to transform the unions from within in order to provide the social and financial base of a new workers’ party; a project one might begin in the large statewide unions via a rank-and-file strategy.

Since this debate will not conclude anytime soon, I encourage readers of Solidarity to continue it in our pages. Is it worth running or endorsing socialists on Democrat ballot lines? Or is a winning a place on a Democrat ticket always a poisoned chalice? Now that we know the relevant issues, please let us know your thoughts!

• Ackerman’s 2016 Jacobin article:

• Debate hosted by Socialist Worker (US):

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