The Two Paths of Democratic Socialism: Coalition and Confrontation

After Bernie Sanders, democratic socialists in America face a vital strategic dilemma. Do we go the Justice Democrats route of winning gains as the junior partner in a progressive coalition, or do we take a gamble on more independent class organization and struggle?

Democratic socialists in the United States face a crucial test, one more significant than any since the mass 1930s incorporation of the industrial working class into the Democratic Party coalition. The Bernie Sanders campaign has politicized thousands of new democratic socialists; the COVID-19 crisis may create political space for social-democratic policies unlike anything we have seen since the Great Depression; and a tidal wave of mass protests for racial justice has upended conventional politics throughout the spring, with far-ranging political consequences we are only beginning to understand.

The situation is fraught with extraordinary uncertainty — simultaneously creating the conditions for a resurgent left, as well as an even stronger and more emboldened right-wing nationalism. Quite simply, we are living through an epoch-defining moment for the Left. Depending on how we respond, the coming years may offer unprecedented opportunities for the growth of democratic-socialist politics, or else lead to the socialist left’s increasing isolation and irrelevance.

In this piece, I lay out two basic paths socialists might take on the electoral front, each of which can operate on different scales (local, state, regional, and national). The first broad approach has been advocated in some form by left-liberals as well as pragmatic-minded socialists, ranging from Data for Progress to the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats. This orientation exhorts progressives and leftists to build common cause with as broad a coalition of Democrats as possible, within legislatures as well as among the electorate. That means seeing most elected Democrats as potential allies — while also working to primary conservative Democrats in liberal districts — and widening our support among both working- and middle-class voters.

The second option, proposed by socialists in the Sanders universe such as Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman, Meagan Day, and Micah Uetricht, is to bring together different forces within and beyond the Sanders coalition around a combative, class-centered, left-wing organization that takes elections seriously. This organization would run its own candidates, usually on the Democratic Party ballot line, and would view class — rather than partisan identification — as the primary criterion for building an electoral base. Of course, these are stylized renderings of strategic hypotheses that rarely appear in such pure form on the ground, but hopefully they can help to clarify some of the key discussions around democratic-socialist strategy.

I have previously advocated for my own version of the latter orientation in the pages of Jacobin, and, as I discuss below, I continue to believe it offers a number of strategic advantages. That said, serious challenges to this approach — underscored by the lack of empirical support we’ve seen for key assumptions underlying Sanders’s 2020 electoral strategy — remain unresolved, and to date there has not been a particularly fruitful dialogue between proponents of the two strategies. In this piece, then, my goal is not to take sides, but rather to lay out the terms of debate. Each approach has important strengths and weaknesses, and we must grapple with them seriously if we hope to emerge from the coming period in a United States where democratic socialism can reach new heights.

Electoral Politics Matter Now More Than Ever

Before diving into the contrasting electoral strategies socialists might pursue, it is worth first explaining why a focus on electoral politics makes sense at all. Given socialists’ weak ties to working-class communities and organizations in the United States, perhaps we would be better served concentrating on social-movement and trade-union activities. Indeed, a number of commentators have reasonably concluded that, in the absence of a stronger organic base — within, for instance, the organized labor movement — socialist electoral projects will be, at worst, totally irrelevant, and, at best, entirely dependent on continued support from elected officials over whom we have little political leverage.

These concerns are valid. To the extent that socialists can broaden our base through different forms of organizing — in communities, among tenants, on the shop floor — while strengthening our ties with labor, we will be in a stronger position both to wage electoral campaigns and to exert broader political influence.

At the same time, however, the non-electoral strategies proposed by skeptics are pitched at a scale that is nowhere near adequate to build serious political strength in the foreseeable future. Crafting effective community organizations and progressive union locals takes years, even decades, and generally does not allow leftists to reach a mass audience.

Under ordinary circumstances, such a focus would be understandable. When general political headwinds are against us, there is very little that the organized left can do beyond engaging in various forms of political education to keep the home fires of socialism burning, and carrying out local experiments in community and electoral organizing that might serve as models for future struggles. Furthermore, under these conditions, most progressive electoral struggles will be defensive, aimed more at stopping the rollback of previous gains than pressing forward an assertive agenda. For around three decades between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, there was little that electoral politics could do to advance a democratic-socialist agenda at state or national levels.

Today, however, things are different. Our ideas are very popular, and it is now conceivable that we could win majority legislative support for some of them at the state and even national level. Under these circumstances, electoral organizing has the capacity to significantly alter the playing field on which future socialist struggles will take place. Election campaigns can popularize our ideas among the public on a mass scale — just look at Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 efforts. They can also be used to push through structural reforms that will make future organizing easier (such as labor, voting rights, and campaign-finance reforms), and to open the door to major victories around racial justice, health care expansion, green infrastructure investment, or public jobs programs.

These measures can show skeptical Americans that real alternatives to the status quo do exist, and can generate massive new constituencies committed to defending and deepening gains. Many reforms along these lines would also have the benefit of putting working people in a stronger position to demand more by insulating them from the vagaries of the labor market. In other words, these reforms represent potentially epoch-defining changes in the terrain of US politics.

The electoral paths that I explore in this essay would face several barriers: a lack of institutional support from the labor movement, the Left’s relatively weak connections with working-class communities, and an overdependence on charismatic political leaders. And, of course, a strategic focus on electoral politics by no means implies eschewing other forms of organizing at the same time. On the contrary, these should be mutually reinforcing activities.

Yet sitting out the electoral fight, or putting it on the back burner, would be a serious mistake in this period of extraordinary opportunity. Barring legal changes that might tilt the playing field of industrial struggle in favor of workers, a major upsurge in union strength is not going to materialize, even under the most optimistic assumptions. Increased strike activity may well result from the economic downturn to come, but this is by no means inevitable, as strikes are historically more common in tight rather than slack labor markets.

To be sure, widespread strikes by workers in strategic industries — particularly logistics — could help to force significant concessions from major corporations, and could produce broader political ripple effects.

Beyond that, mass protests may intensify in response to corporate greed, police brutality, and the government’s poor response to the coronavirus crisis. As the dramatic upsurge of protest around the country after the killing of George Floyd has shown, these protests can play an important role in shifting public opinion and ensuring progressive and democratic-socialist policies make it onto the legislative agenda.

As important as these developments could be, however, their impact would be severely limited in the absence of significant electoral advances. Our unfortunate reality is that the historic weakness of the US left and labor movement means that turning democratic socialism into mass politics will depend heavily on a relatively narrow window of opportunity to make advances in the electoral realm. The legislative and broader political effects of these advances can alter the structural limitations we face and create more favorable conditions for future working-class struggles.

The Path of Coalition

The first option for socialists is to create a new electoral project or to join an existing one, focused on building constructive relationships with as many Democrats as possible. The goal would be to forge broad coalitions to support key progressive reforms. In the legislature (whether local, state, or national), this would mean working to persuade Democrats that such reforms are in their own political interest. In terms of the electorate, it means targeting working-class voters, but also middle-class professionals — including more centrist suburban Democrats. This strategy could be implemented at whatever levels are possible, based on the success that progressives and socialists have in forging relationships with new coalition partners.

Building such coalitions by no means rules out the idea of waging primary campaigns against conservative Democrats. Indeed, electing more progressive candidates in Democratic primary contests is an important aspect of the coalition strategy, since the larger the progressive legislative bloc, the more influence it can exert. At the same time, the plan does assume that the most likely political allies for progressives will be other Democrats. From this perspective, unnecessarily attacking fellow Democrats makes little sense and would be counterproductive.

The idea is to push and persuade mainstream Democrats as much as possible, but also to avoid alienating them. Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid puts it this way:

A good way of thinking about the situation in American politics today is that the left wing of the party — whatever label you want to use for it — is a junior partner to a senior partner in a coalition government. The senior partner is the party of Pelosi and Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries and Dianne Feinstein. They have more power. But we are in a coalition together to get over 50 percent and keep the Republicans out of power.

This approach has been championed recently not only by Justice Democrats but also by liberal strategists such as Sean McElwee, as well as by leaders of other progressive electoral organizations such as the Working Families Party and Our Revolution.

The experience of organized labor from the 1930s to the 1950s is perhaps the most important example of the coalition strategy. During this period, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) made common cause with the Democratic Party to ensure the gains of the New Deal were preserved and to push for further labor-friendly legislation. This involved trying to push the party in a leftward direction by channeling money to progressive candidates, working to shape the party platform in a pro-labor mold, and proposing mechanisms to ensure that congressional Democrats would be more accountable to the party’s working-class elements. However, CIO leaders knew, even at the height of their power, that they could not exert enough influence in Democratic Party politics to secure outright congressional majorities.

Furthermore, since coalitions with progressive Republicans were not viable, the Democrats were labor’s only plausible allies. In turn, because CIO leaders considered the idea of starting a third party to be far too great of a political risk, labor’s leverage with Democrats had to come through persuasion and delivering votes, rather than the threat of exit. While the gains labor achieved through its alliance with the Democrats were disappointing when compared with the advances made by social democrats in Europe around the same time, proponents of this strategy argue that the key question is what would have happened if labor had pursued another strategy.

Political scientist Daniel Schlozman, for instance, argues that CIO leaders simply understood the limits of their influence and crafted the best strategy possible given the constraints they faced. Consequently, he contends, “the most plausible alternative to labor-Democratic alliance was not industrial democracy, but a far less consequential partnership that simply entrenched the prerogatives of white unionists — or no alliance at all.” From this perspective, the labor-Democratic alliance facilitated the rise of civil rights as a core issue on the Democratic agenda, giving rise to the defection of Southern Dixiecrats from the party and paving the way for the Great Society reforms of the 1960s. In sum, while leftists might have hoped for more, the coalition strategy ultimately maximized progressive gains under less than ideal circumstances.

Proponents of the coalition strategy can also argue that conditions today may be even more propitious for sweeping progressive legislation than they were during the New Deal era. While they will not rack up the overwhelming congressional majorities enjoyed by FDR, if Democrats can win majority control of both houses of Congress this time, they will not depend — as the party did in the ’30s and ’40s — on a powerful bloc of reactionary Southerners to pass legislation. On the contrary, Democratic lawmakers today have constituencies that support key planks of the progressive policy by often overwhelming margins, and the Democratic establishment has shifted further to the left in recent years than we have seen in decades. When you combine this with the possibility that aspects of the progressive agenda might face less intransigent opposition from sectors of capital than we would expect under normal circumstances, when the economy is not teetering on the brink of collapse, the coalition strategy appears plausible.

Beyond its prospects for exerting legislative influence, there are also reasons to believe that the strategy can deliver more progressive electoral victories, in working-class as well as middle-class districts. For instance, let’s take membership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) as a rough proxy for progressive legislators in the US House of Representatives who more or less follow the coalition strategy. The figure above shows that progressive candidates perform significantly better than other Democrats in working-class districts that have relatively low proportions of non-college-educated white voters.

What’s more, there are 162 congressional districts that fit these criteria, so progressives have ample opportunity to augment their ranks through an electoral strategy focused on those districts. And while CPC members are less competitive than other congressional Democrats in more affluent areas, they nevertheless won in nearly thirty such districts in 2018 (representing just under 30 percent of all CPC members), suggesting that they can simultaneously compete well in predominantly working-class districts as well as ones with more middle-class liberal voters.

The coalition strategy, then, has much to recommend it. It offers a plausible theory for how progressives can exert influence over legislators from a position of relative weakness, while also demonstrating a capacity for electoral success in a large number of congressional districts.

But the strategy also has important limitations. First, it does not explain how the movements that get progressive and democratic-socialist legislators into office can hold them accountable once they are there. What kind of leverage do we have over officeholders, in the absence of a clear political platform they must adhere to or risk losing our financial and organizational support? How can we pose a credible threat to elected officials if we see them primarily as coalition partners we depend on to advance our political agenda, rather than as strategic allies who must deliver for us to ensure our continued backing?

The coalition strategy’s theory of progressive political influence is based primarily on the idea that voters in Democratic districts support a progressive agenda and are willing to punish legislators and candidates who don’t support that agenda. The successes of insurgent progressives in recent years at all levels of government lend some credence to this theory, but the extent of such successes remains limited, and it’s not clear how much further they can be pushed.

In turn, the coalition strategy assumes that a relatively small but committed group of progressives can have an outsize influence on policy-making. The capacity of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib to affect nationwide political discourse suggests this theory is valid, at least when it comes to agenda-setting, if not actually passing legislation. There are also historical examples to suggest that having strong, influential progressives in strategic positions during key moments can be critical. The work of New York senator Robert F. Wagner and his staff in drafting and skillfully building a coalition to support labor reforms in 1935 comes to mind.

Nonetheless, a modest increase in the number of insurgent candidates, and the hope that a small but well-organized bloc of electeds can work legislative magic during a time of crisis, falls short of explaining how leftists can hold legislators accountable to our agenda. The recent failure of Congressional Progressive Caucus members to ensure the inclusion of a paycheck protection element in the HEROES Act points to the limits of the coalition approach.

Another limitation is its electoral weakness in areas with large concentrations of non-college-educated white voters. As we can see below, while around 40 percent of all congressional districts fit this profile, they only account for 13 percent of the CPC membership (twelve representatives). Democrats can clearly win a majority in the House without relying on districts with large concentrations of these voters; however, such voters currently make up most of the electorate in twenty-seven US states. This means that the coalition strategy is less suitable for winning the presidency or securing a majority in the Senate, not to mention in state houses across the country.

If establishment Democrats can argue convincingly that an overly progressive message amounts to electoral suicide in national politics, they will continue to wield an effective veto over any progressive legislation, even if Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress. And we will have no credible leverage with which to stop them. The threat of exit from the Democratic coalition in our winner-take-all electoral system, where the opposing Republican Party is openly hostile to every aspect of the progressive agenda, would simply not be taken seriously.

Finally, since the coalition strategy depends to a considerable extent on middle- and upper-middle-class liberal voters, it may be less effective in promoting a radical, redistributive program than a strategy that is focused primarily on support from working-class voters. Indeed, the notion that middle-class Democratic voters are afraid of redistribution has been a driving force in pushing Democratic politicians to the right on economic issues for decades. What’s more, careful empirical studies have shown that the economic preferences of middle-class voters diverge substantially from those of working-class and poor voters, and that politicians are consistently more responsive to the former.

This is not to deny that middle-class Democratic voters often have favorable views of virtually all planks of the progressive agenda, including those with major redistributive implications. Indeed, analysts have shown that college-educated voters (across all ethnicities) hold just as progressive, if not more progressive, views on economic redistribution compared to non-college-educated whites. They might become even more egalitarian in the future, as well. To the extent that relative prosperity for middle-class voters over the past few decades has made them resistant to a redistributive agenda, the historic economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis may well shift middle-class voters to the left, at least for a while, as it did in the 1930s.

However, the bulk of the evidence suggests that expressed preferences in opinion surveys of middle-class voters don’t necessarily conform with their behavior at the ballot box. As we saw above, for instance, members of the Progressive Congressional Caucus were notably less successful in predominantly middle-class districts compared to other Democrats in 2018. Democratic elected officials who are chiefly accountable to middle-class voters will likely remain a serious political liability for economically progressive policy-making.

The question, then, is whether any realistic alternative exists to mitigate the anti-redistributive, middle-class bias of many Democratic politicians by building broad, multiracial, working-class electoral coalitions that can hold elected officials accountable to a Sanders-style political program. This is the wager made by proponents of confrontation.

The Path of Confrontation

The second electoral strategy socialists might choose is to build new organizations or coalitions based explicitly on a zero-sum, class-based political logic. Rather than trying to work with existing bases of power in the Democratic coalition, this strategy seeks to create new legislative blocs and electoral constituencies based on a message of confrontation with the Democratic leadership and their principal donors.

In the legislature, this will mean doggedly advocating for a clear, working-class-oriented platform, and threatening Democrats with primary challenges whenever they fail to support that platform. In electoral terms, it entails building a primarily working-class support base, focused on nonvoters and independents with weak partisan attachments to the Democratic Party, as well as working-class Democratic partisans who feel sufficiently disillusioned with the party leadership to take a chance on insurgent primary candidates.

The confrontation strategy could also be carried out at any level of government, depending on what resources are available. This approach by no means rules out the possibility of making strategic alliances with existing blocs in the Democratic Party coalition: the decision of Bernie Sanders to caucus with congressional Democrats, despite his strong, public denunciations of the Democratic Party over several decades, is a good example. In general, however, the confrontation strategy privileges electoral threat over persuasion and mutual accommodation.

Confrontation will almost certainly alienate potential allies, both in the legislature (Democrats) and among the electorate (middle-class liberals and strong Democratic partisans, across class lines), but if successful, it could generate a larger number of new allies. While it’s been a common strategy employed by populist politicians around the world during periods of time when traditional parties have experienced sharp declines in electoral support, confrontation has rarely been employed effectively at the national level in the United States. This is because of the relative stability of the two major parties over time, and the failure of third-party electoral projects that have attempted to supplant one or both of them.

That said, there have been attempts to execute a strategy along these lines at the national level through Democratic (and Republican) primaries. Generally, however, these battles have been waged between powerful blocs within the party establishment — the 1912 Republican contest between Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, for example, or Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to purge the Democratic Party of anti–New Deal Southern Democrats in 1938 — rather than by an outsider bloc against party insiders writ large. These efforts were also not particularly successful.

Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns represent something closer to the confrontation approach applied to groups outside the party establishment. Sanders openly challenged Democratic Party leaders, sought to build an electoral apparatus without depending on any traditional sources of funding from within the Democratic coalition, and enjoyed the support of only a handful of elected Democrats. He explicitly sought to bring nonvoters and low-propensity voters into his coalition, in order to compensate for the low levels of support he received among strong Democratic partisans (particularly those over thirty-five). Yet this strategy faced limitations that ultimately proved insurmountable, and it underperformed expectations in key respects, particularly in terms of mobilizing working-class voters to take part in the Democratic primary.

The most successful examples of the confrontation strategy have come at the state level, most notably in North Dakota and Minnesota in the 1910s and 1920s. In North Dakota, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) successfully took over the Republican Party between 1916 and 1918 by creating an electoral organization distinct from that party. The organization used the primary system to wage an open electoral war against the Republican establishment in the state. By 1918, as Richard Valelly describes, the NPL had “seized control of North Dakota government to an extent simply unknown in American state politics before or since then.” Based on this extraordinary electoral success, the NPL in 1919 was able to push through wide-ranging reforms in education, health care, and other public services, even in the face of extreme opposition from elites in the state.

In Minnesota, the NPL created an electoral organization to compete in the Republican primaries. It was so successful that it prompted Republicans to ban NPL candidates from running independent campaigns in the general election after first losing in the Republican primaries. Since Minnesota was effectively a one-party (Republican) state at the time, and since the NPL was already a powerful electoral force, in 1922 it chose to abandon its Republican primary strategy and instead create the independent Farmer-Labor Party (FLP). During its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, the Minnesota FLP was able to elect three governors, four US senators, and eight US House representatives, in addition to securing majorities in the Minnesota state legislature.

A similar strategy today, carried out at either the state or national level, would offer several important advantages. First, as I mentioned above, winning legislative majorities requires a strategy with wide appeal across the working class. As we saw above, the coalition strategy has not been electorally successful in areas with large concentrations of white workers. By contrast, while Sanders’s support declined in white working-class areas in 2020, there is some evidence that his confrontational class rhetoric, combined with a platform based on policies that are popular across the broad working class, could be more effective than the coalition strategy in securing red-state victories.

For instance, Sanders has a long track record of electoral success in heavily working-class areas in Vermont, and he consistently outperformed his coalition-oriented progressive rival Elizabeth Warren in head-to-head contests against Donald Trump throughout battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This is consistent with evidence suggesting that Sanders was viewed less unfavorably by rural Americans than all the other 2020 Democratic primary contestants. Furthermore, polling has found that key planks of Sanders’s economic program, particularly Medicare for All, are more popular in rural areas than they are in both suburban and urban communities. Finally, the strong negative correlation between income level and support for Sanders in the 2020 primaries indicates that his populist economic message can resonate with working-class voters.

A second potential benefit of the confrontation strategy is that it could be more effective in holding elected officials accountable. Historically, progressives in the Democratic Party have been keenly aware of the inherent difficulties in enforcing discipline around progressive planks of the party program when relying on a political strategy that seeks the broadest possible support among legislative and electoral blocs within the ideologically diffuse Democratic coalition. There were important movements in the 1950s and ’70s that aimed to address this problem by overhauling the party’s internal structure (such as by implementing biannual national conventions, adopting a party platform, and abolishing seniority rules).

Though these efforts did produce some gains, they were largely unsuccessful. This failure can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that the progressives pushing for reform could not credibly threaten to exit the party if their demands were not met, and they were unwilling or unable to use primary challenges on a large scale. However, if a similar approach were to be taken today, by an organization that was independent of the Democratic Party’s formal structures — one that focused on Democratic primary challenges — it could conceivably enjoy greater success.

Instead of directly contesting for power within the key institutions of the party apparatus (like the Democratic National Committee, or state and local committees), this organization would create a parallel structure with its own internal decision-making procedures, fundraising mechanisms, and political identity. We would be hearkening back to the NPL strategy discussed above. Our formation would require all candidates it supported to commit to a clear platform, and would itself commit to withdrawing organizational and financial support from elected officials who reneged on that commitment. If we were successful in winning a significant bloc of seats in a state legislature (or in the US House), our threat to primary recalcitrant Democrats might be taken seriously enough to push some of them leftward on key policies.

Finally, the confrontation strategy could help to build an organized long-term base for left politics in the United States. The exigencies of the electoral cycle mean that progressive moments come and go, and it is very difficult to convert the energy of an insurgent electoral campaign into a durable political organization capable of patient movement-building. Indeed, virtually every important national-level left-wing insurgency in the last century — from Robert La Follette and the Conference for Progressive Political Action in 1924, to Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in 1988 — squandered any chance of building durable progressive organizations through an excessive reliance on the insurgent presidential candidate.

Employing a confrontational strategy in the wake of Sanders’s 2020 presidential bid and the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 could be an effective way of creating a political home for people who have lost faith in the Democratic Party establishment and its capacity to meet the needs of working people. Even if its short-term electoral prospects were relatively limited, an organization formed along these lines could be effective in long-term constituency and movement-building, while also playing a role in popularizing leftist ideas among an increasingly sympathetic working class.

Such an organization would run primary challenges against incumbent Democrats at all levels of government (depending on its organizational and financial resources), and would also carry out sustained voter outreach campaigns in working-class communities between electoral cycles. If the group maintained a clear and consistent program that distinguished it from the Democratic establishment, while offering its membership a more significant role in organizational decision-making, it could conceivably maintain a loyal base of support even in the face of slow advances on the electoral front.

Why Confrontation Could Fail

All that said, the confrontation strategy also has serious weaknesses. First, and perhaps most obvious, the electoral viability of this approach is far from clear. Despite the promising figures discussed above, the Sanders 2020 campaign fell far short of its own promise to dramatically expand the electorate through bold redistributionist demands. To the extent that Sanders did well in white working-class districts in 2016, a prime cause was opposition to Hillary Clinton rather than the outright appeal of democratic socialism.

Hence, in 2020, when more moderate but also more popular figures — relative to Clinton — like Joe Biden were on the menu, many white working-class voters jumped from the Sanders ship. Others simply didn’t participate in the Democratic primary. Additionally, the evidence from recent electoral cycles that economic populists outperform centrists in congressional races is mixed at best.

Second, since the confrontational approach requires open conflict with the very legislators and constituencies that currently offer the most plausible route to winning key pieces of progressive legislation — which is to say, the rest of the Democratic Party — it runs the risk of producing outcomes that could ultimately put left political movements on a weaker footing. For example, CIO president John L. Lewis attempted to chart an independent path from the Democratic Party in the early 1940s by supporting Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie in 1940. This proved disastrous, as the vast majority of the labor movement — judging the political risks to be far too great — was unwilling to follow him.

This set back labor’s electoral efforts for years, and it left John Lewis in the political wilderness. In turn, the Lewis-led United Mine Workers of America’s 1943 decision to launch a nationwide coal strike — in defiance of both the CIO and the Democratic Party — backfired fantastically, supplying a pretext for the viciously anti-union Smith-Connally Act later that year. Lewis’s efforts faced objective limits that no confrontational strategy, however bold or innovative, could have overcome.

Other attempts have been made to forge a middle-ground strategy between open conflict and quiescence to Democratic Party leaders. At least one important figure in the CIO’s political leadership, for instance, called for progressive labor to seriously consider the threat of withdrawing its campaign resources from Democrats in 1956. The goal, as explained by the CIO PAC’s assistant director, Tilford Dudley, would have been to force the party leadership to drop the seniority rules in Congress that gave Southern Democrats outsize influence. According to Dudley: “If we really did this, and meant it, it would be a thrilling revolution in American politics. But we won’t do it.” It is impossible to know how successful the CIO would have been had they taken Dudley’s suggestion seriously. Evidently, however, virtually the entire CIO leadership believed his strategy was not a risk worth taking, since it could further empower the Republicans in Congress.

Today, the labor movement has much less leverage over Democratic leaders when compared to the 1940s and ’50s, and the only labor organizations that would even consider the confrontational strategy lie at the margins of Democratic politics. Even if these groups were willing to withhold support for mainstream Democrats, their resources are so limited that losing them would not prove fatal to many Democratic candidates. Most Democrats would be perfectly happy to forgo the headache of appeasing marginally useful, and potentially antagonistic, progressive forces in their coalition.

Another alternative would be defection to a third party, but unless that party’s constituency were large enough to convince Democrats they could not win without it, the most likely result would be marginalization and a politically debilitated left. And given that partisan polarization is, by many measures, higher today than at any other time in modern US history, it is unlikely that a significant percentage of the electorate will be convinced any time soon that there is no meaningful difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the most likely supporters of a Sanders-style third party based on economic populism are the least likely to defect from the Democratic Party. As the figure below shows, it is neither disillusioned former Democrats, nor independents who may not feel the party represents their interests but who vote for it on strategic grounds, who are most eager for more left-wing economic policy. To the contrary, voters who identify strongly with, and feel most adequately represented by, the Democratic Party are the staunchest democratic socialists in the electorate. Hence, a “successful” third-party challenge that garnered enough votes to hurt Democrats and reward Republicans, but not enough to position itself as a viable electoral alternative, would make that party extremely unpopular among the voters most receptive to its political message. If anything, a third-party approach would be likely to push progressive voters even closer to the Democrats, as they sought to prevent further losses to the Republicans.

Source: Democracy Fund Voter Study Group data set. “Dem. to Ind.” indicates voters who identified as Democrats in 2011, but who no longer did so and did not lean Republican in 2018.

The spoiler problem is precisely why even the most vocal proponents of a third-party alternative from within the Democratic coalition have ultimately decided against taking the plunge. An important example here is former United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther. In response to growing disillusionment with the Truman administration’s failure to press forward with the New Deal agenda, Reuther in 1946 called on the UAW and its allies “to work toward the eventual formation of a broad new progressive party which will truly represent the needs of our nation and its people.” In the end, however, understanding the extraordinary political risk associated with splitting the Democratic coalition during a period of Republican resurgence, Reuther never took any concrete steps toward the formation of a labor party. It is conceivable that things might have looked different if Truman had been routed in 1948 (indeed, third-party proponents in the UAW even planned an educational conference to prepare for the formation of a labor party, to be held on the date of Thomas Dewey’s 1949 inauguration), but as it happened, no mass defection from the Democrats materialized.

The only real potential leverage that an organization pursuing the confrontation strategy would have over Democratic candidates and lawmakers is the threat of waging as many primary challenges as its organizational resources allowed (assuming, of course, that successful insurgents could win in general elections). This approach could certainly prove effective in increasing the number of disciplined progressives and leftists in Congress and state houses. Beyond the risk of alienating critical allies, however, it would also run up against serious limitations when it came to legislative influence.

Insurgent candidates could conceivably scare a fair number of legislators to the left; if elected in sufficient numbers, they could serve as a consistent voting bloc to obstruct anti-progressive legislation. That said, leftists’ ability to force Democratic leaders in Congress and state legislatures to actually pass progressive legislation is limited, among other things, by the fact that those leaders don’t believe they can win majorities if their candidates in relatively moderate or conservative areas are associated with overly progressive legislation. This is the same problem already discussed above in connection with the coalition strategy.

Even if left-wing candidates and lawmakers were totally willing to burn their political bridges with the rest of the Democratic Party, then, they would still have little capacity to ensure the passage of progressive legislation. The only context in which the confrontation strategy could succeed in guaranteeing such legislation would be if insurgent lawmakers held a majority of seats, so that they wouldn’t have to depend on alliances with any other Democrats (as the NPLers were able to do in North Dakota in 1919, for example). This is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, either at state or national level.

Short of that, it is possible that progressives could exert more legislative influence if the Democratic electorate shifted decisively to the left. This is arguably why the Tea Party and its subsequent iterations have been so successful in shaping the Republican agenda. Republican leaders understand that their base is very conservative — more than three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative — so they can afford to pass elements of the extreme-right agenda without generating serious divisions among the party base.

By contrast, Democratic leaders face a more diverse and less ideological base: only around half of Democrats identify as liberals today, which is still a historic high (up from 40 percent in 2010). As a result, in order to maintain support among the broad set of interests and ideologies that characterize the Democratic coalition, candidates often have to distance themselves from elements of the progressive agenda.

Yet even if the current leftward shift of Democratic voters continues — assuaging the party’s fear of alienating segments of its base by enacting progressive legislation — Democratic leaders will still face a major additional hurdle to progressive reforms: in order to win the Senate or the presidency, Democrats have to prevail in states with electorates that are majority conservative, and increasingly so. This means that they have to appeal not only to centrist Democrats, but also to right-of-center voters. Democratic leaders worry, not illogically, that they cannot win if they make too many policy concessions to the Left.

However, if Democrats could find a progressive message that was as effective in highly liberal urban and suburban districts as it was in rural districts, this could change. The Sanders movement has suggested such a message, and it may prove to be especially compelling in the coming years if the Democratic Party is unable to put forward economic solutions for working-class people on the vast scale required by the coronavirus crisis. Even so, it remains to be seen how realistic such a strategy could be. Its proponents must continue experimenting with models based on the most successful cases that we’ve seen to date.

What’s Next?

In practice, the extent to which one approach is pursued over the other in the short to medium term will depend on the outcome of this year’s presidential and congressional elections, as well as on the political learning that occurs as we take stock of the last four years and update our strategies based on dramatically evolving conditions, both political and economic.

At the national level, if Donald Trump is reelected, the prospects of either strategy will be limited in the medium term. We will be forced to focus our energies on defensive battles against an almost certainly emboldened and more dangerous second-term Trump, and increasingly desperate Democratic voters will become even more risk-averse than they were during the 2020 primaries.

It is important to remember that, however much establishment Democrats are loath to pass bold reforms, even Obama-era Democrats took important steps to stem the tide of rising inequality — though they were unwilling or unable to pass sweeping legislation to actually reverse the decline in working-class living standards. For almost all progressive voters, then, maximizing Democratic electoral victories during a second Trump administration will be much more important than attacking establishment Democrats for not doing more.

If Trump loses, by contrast, the medium-term prospects of the coalition strategy will be enhanced. Under these conditions — particularly if Democrats win the Senate — there is a chance of passing popular, progressive policies to avert economic depression. Yet we should not be overly optimistic. Even with Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the possibility of sweeping progressive reforms would be limited by — to name just a few factors — a president with little political vision who is reliant on a neoliberal brain trust, a non-filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, and opposition from conservative Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Nonetheless, the opportunities are real, and it is difficult to imagine advocates of the confrontation strategy finding too many progressives sympathetic to their arguments under such conditions.

If Democrats win control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, but they fail to deliver at least some of the progressive agenda, however, the viability of the confrontation approach might increase significantly. More Democrats may become disillusioned with their party, and more working-class Americans may be open to a combative, populist message. Unfortunately, many Americans may also become more receptive to an even more insidious brand of Trumpism.

The same logic might be applied to the confrontation strategy’s prospects in the event of a defeat of Joe Biden in 2020: in other words, mass disillusionment with the party establishment’s capacity to beat Trump (again) paves the way for an even stronger Sanders-style insurgency within the party in 2024. But this scenario is less plausible. It is more likely that a Biden defeat would rally progressives further round the flag of electoral pragmatism to stop additional Republican advances.

This possibility is all the more likely since we know parties out of government are much more willing to make rhetorical concessions to their activist base than parties in power — after all, they have little to lose politically from doing so. In other words, a Biden defeat would give establishment Democrats more political space to appease progressive demands than a Biden presidency, and this would be likely to further constrain insurgent challengers.

At the state level, the coalition strategy has a much greater chance of success in strongly Democratic states, where a focused coalition of left and progressive electoral groups could conceivably win enough seats in the next couple of electoral cycles to constitute an influential minority in the Democratic caucus, if not a majority. In turn, if a wide range of progressive and left national organizations concentrated their efforts on a confrontation strategy in one state or a small number of states, they could conceivably make real headway (especially if the coalition included significant elements of the progressive labor movement).

That said, the negative consequences of paying less attention to other states or to federal races could be considerable. If advocates of the confrontation approach hope to demonstrate the viability of their strategy, however, focusing on state-level races in one or a small handful of states that are not Democratic strongholds might be the most effective way to do so.

Finally, either approach might be successful in specific municipalities, especially those with nonpartisan elections or with single-party Democratic rule. Indeed, we have seen isolated successes of the confrontation strategy in the not-too-distant past in places like Burlington, Vermont; Jackson, Mississippi; and Richmond, California — not to mention historical examples in places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Schenectady, New York, to name but a few — and we have seen many more successful examples of the coalition strategy. Progressives and socialists should certainly take advantage of local-level electoral opportunities, particularly in larger cities, to experiment with progressive policies, expand their electoral base (especially among working-class communities and communities of color), and deepen their bench of effective candidates.

As important as these efforts are, however, the fiscal constraints facing municipal governments limit the broader impact of electoral gains at the local level. Where possible, then, regardless of whether they focus on the confrontation or coalition strategy, progressives and socialists should set their sights on the state and federal levels.

There is no simple means of adjudicating the relative merits of coalition and confrontation: inevitably, both will continue to be tested to one degree or another — often in combination. The coalition strategy offers a realistic theory for how progressives might expand their ranks substantially in state and federal legislatures and exert greater influence over lawmaking. Yet it does not explain how progressives and democratic socialists can hold elected officials accountable in the absence of a serious electoral threat, nor does it offer a strategy for progressive success in the many red and purple states where a traditional liberal message tends to fail.

For its part, the confrontation strategy offers a way to hold officials accountable and build electoral coalitions across the broad working class, but it bases its claims on limited evidence. If unsuccessful, the strategy could generate serious negative political consequences for progressives and leftists. In other words, the coalition strategy offers less uncertainty but potentially fewer benefits, while the confrontation strategy points to much broader political horizons but is based on a number of critical and largely untested assumptions.

Ultimately, progressives and socialists have to seriously assess whether the coalition strategy rests on a realistic assessment of the Left’s level of political influence — or, alternatively, if it is based on a self-defeating aversion to disrupting existing political alliances within the Democratic Party that hinders a bolder, and potentially more effective, confrontational alternative. Conversely, is the confrontation approach grounded in a hard-nosed appraisal of the objective limits of reform and the nature of political leverage in a capitalist democracy? Or is it based on a set of idealistic, if not naive, assumptions about the prospects of class politics in the United States that could undermine less flashy but ultimately historic advances?

These are the questions we should be debating, as the answers will have major implications for democratic-socialist strategy during a period when the stakes could not be higher.