US midterms show strengths and limits of DSA candidates

Submitted by martin on 13 November, 2018 - 12:19 Author: Eduardo Tovar
trump free us

On 6 November, Americans came out in droves for the 2019 midterm elections. Preliminary data suggests a turnout of over 113 million, which would be at least 48 per cent of eligible voters. In what was widely cast as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, the Democratic Party gained control the House of Representatives, but the Republican Party retained its hold on the Senate.

Trump approached the election with unsettling, dog-whistle racism and xenophobia, especially in respect of the migrant caravan moving through Central America to the US-Mexico border. Indeed, Trump ran a television advert about the caravan so inflammatory and apocalyptic that even the notoriously right-wing Fox News stopped running it.

The election was also beset with long queues at polling stations, voting machines going wrong, and apparent voter suppression. In the Georgia gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Brian Kemp has declared victory, but thousands of votes were not counted. On 11 November, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams filed a federal lawsuit to delay vote certifications and have officials recount any wrongly rejected ballots.

In Florida, a recount is underway for both the senate and gubernatorial elections, with hundreds of uncounted ballots recovered from the Opa-Locka mail facility alone. The echoes with the US Presidential election in 2000, when the US Supreme Court stopped a ballot recount in Florida that might have prevented George Bush from winning, are difficult to ignore.

On a more positive note for the left, several candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won their electoral races. The list includes DSA members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, who are now members of Congress. At the state level, Julia Salazar and Mike Sylvester were elected to the New York State Senate and the Maine House of Representatives respectively.

These electoral victories prove that such policies as single-payer healthcare and a living wage can resonate strongly with the American public, and that openly running as a socialist is no longer the electoral suicide many would have assumed it to be as little as two years ago. At the same time, the DSA candidates’ victories illustrate the serious limits to the strategy of running on a Democrat ticket.

In Solidarity No 479, I summarised the continuing debate on the US left over whether it is worth running or endorsing socialists on Democrat ballot lines, with some advocating it as part of a long-term strategy to build a distinct political and institutional identity that can break away from the Democrats to form an independent labour or socialist party. This approach is known as a “dirty break” strategy, as opposed to the “clean break” of campaigning on third party ballot lines alone.

I noted then that Third Camp socialists here in Boston acknowledge a real problem of DSA “endorsing left-wing candidates who become wholly unanswerable to DSA itself after gaining their place on the ballot”. Judging by recent weeks, those fears are well-founded. For all of Ocasio-Cortez’s more radical demands, including the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), she has already compromised heavily on multiple political issues. In the build-up to the New York elections, she endorsed “all Democratic nominees”, including the ultimately successful gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, despite Cuomo’s significantly more right-wing stances on such key issues as healthcare and migrants’ rights. This prompted NYC-DSA to make a statement on 28 September criticising Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement.

Although her endorsement of Cuomo might seem like a late-day concession to the establishment Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez was compromising her socialist politics long before we were in the swing of the midterms. For instance, whilst Ocasio-Cortez is in favour of abolishing ICE, she has actively distanced herself from the demand for open borders and claimed on 4 July 2018 that a “humane, responsible immigration system is possible”. To be clear, abolishing ICE would be an extraordinarily progressive step, especially in the highly xenophobic climate of the Trump era. Nevertheless, Ocasio-Cortez frames the demand for open borders in a manner that strongly suggests it should not be pursued even as a distant, long-term goal. For a self-described socialist, she shows astonishing denial of the systematic violence intrinsic to border controls.

In a comparable move to alleviate the concerns of her mainstream liberal and social democrat base, Ocasio-Cortez asserted on 5 July 2018 that one can “pursue an agenda of healthcare, fair wages, and education while supporting small businesses” and “[h]aving mega-corporations pay their fair share means you can give small mom & pops a break”. In other words, like those sections of the UK Labour Party that fetishise “small and medium enterprises” (SMEs), Ocasio-Cortez presents socialism as if it simply means taking on big business rather than supporting the struggle of labour against capital, no matter the size of the employer. Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez might just as well have said “I’m a socialist, but I don’t want to lose the petty bourgeois vote!”

In short, the midterms should give socialists confidence that, even in the age of Trump, unashamedly left-wing demands can make significant headway. However, they should also give us pause for thought as to how much faith we can place in DSA-backed candidates on Democrat ballot lines if we have no real manner of keeping them accountable to either DSA or the working-class volunteers who bring them to victory. This in turn should make us seriously consider what concrete steps we can take to build an independent party for the US labour movement and what role DSA sees itself playing in the effort to build such a party.

Summary of US socialists’ debate on electoral strategy.

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