As the new socialist left deepens its engagement with mass politics, it is beginning to grapple with many of the same problems and dilemmas our predecessors encountered many years ago. Chief among them is the question of how to hold socialist officeholders accountable to the principles and programs of the organizations they are part of — and what to do when these imperatives inevitably clash with the exigencies of public office.
In a notable essay in the 2018 Socialist Register, political scientist Adam Hilton proposed an ambitious organizational project for the US left: “A geographically rooted network of mass-member civic organizations, oriented toward building a base within working-class communities and labor unions that can also act as an effective independent pressure group on the Democratic Party.” Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has taken important but still limited steps in this direction, and the relationship between DSA-backed politicians elected on the Democratic ballot line and the organization can be complicated.
Andre Vasquez, one of the six DSA members on Chicago’s city council, voted to approve the mayor’s 2021 municipal budget. The other five members, in line with the chapter’s position, voted against it. The chapter therefore issued a statement censuring Vasquez and called on him to resign his DSA membership.
According to former DSA National Political Committee member Marianela D’Aprile, this was the right decision. In her view, it gave the chapter an opportunity to educate members and focus their attention on the budget fight: “Hundreds of socialists across the city were tuned into the city council budget meeting and paying attention to what was going on because we knew we’d have to make a decision about what to do about Andre if he voted yes. So it was a big lesson in how to engage in local politics.”
These decisions are not always so clear-cut. Last year, DSA’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Working Group and others criticized US congresspeople and DSA members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Jamaal Bowman for their votes on $1 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile system. AOC voted “present” while Bowman voted yes. Some DSAers circulated a call to expel Bowman from DSA.
The Lower Hudson Valley (New York) DSA chapter, however, took a more measured approach. It criticized him in a statement, saying “We are particularly disappointed that Jamaal Bowman, whom we endorsed, voted” for Iron Dome funding. But it did not call to expel him, nor did it rule out support for his reelection.
In the end, DSA’s National Political Committee did not expel Bowman but made clear that it “will not re-endorse Bowman unless he is able to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine in alignment with expectations we have set.”
Faced with these dilemmas, it makes sense to seek the wisdom of history. Many of us have consulted the history of the Second International, particularly the record of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in its classical period, for guidance on how to tackle these issues. This is important history, and every socialist cadre should have at least a passing familiarity with it. But its practical relevance to our contemporary political context is very limited. From the shape of our constitutional order, to the characteristics of our political parties, to the size and strength of our labor movement, our situation is simply too different from the German Empire for a historical download of this kind to be successful.
Fortunately, we have an example that is far closer to hand and directly relevant to the challenges facing US socialists today. That is the New Politics movement of the 1970s, which sought to transform the Democratic Party into a centralized, disciplined, programmatic party with a mass-membership base similar to the labor and social democratic parties found throughout the rest of the world, and in which DSA’s main predecessor organization, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, played a key role.
Adam Hilton’s True Blues: The Contentious Transformation of the Democratic Party skillfully demonstrates how the New Politics movement both succeeded and failed to achieve its goals. In his telling, the hard-fought battle between extra-party groups from the New Left — the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements and the labor unions allied with them — and established officeholders shaped the Democrats into the party it is today. The political realignment DSA founder Michael Harrington and others sought really did happen, at least in part. Southern reactionaries were driven into the Republican Party, and the fusion of racial and labor liberalism inaugurated by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s was consolidated.
At the same time, however, Democratic counterreformers defeated the most far-reaching proposals for institutional party reform, giving rise to a party coalition that was in certain respects more ideologically progressive but organizationally hollow. This story may lack the drama and grandeur of socialism’s halcyon days, but it is crucial for grappling with the big issues on our agenda and understanding the recent history of the socialist movement.
Political Parties à l’Américaine
Political scientists distinguish between two different types of parties: externally mobilized and internally mobilized parties. The former are established by outsiders looking to fight their way into the political regime, like the German SPD and other major socialist and working-class parties. The latter are established by, in political scientist Martin Shefter’s words, “politicians who do occupy leadership positions in the prevailing regime and who undertake to mobilize and organize a popular following behind themselves,” typically to gain advantage against an opposing faction within the governing class. The major American parties are among the leading examples of this party type, which in the US case was also closely associated with widespread patronage instead of a dues-paying membership base.
Until the turn of the twentieth century, American political parties were private political associations like their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They even printed their own ballots (commonly known as “tickets”) and distributed them to voters on election days, a practice that seemed particularly corrupt to “good government” mugwumps. In the absence of national electoral administration, these reformers sought to restrain political parties at the state and local levels, and their policy innovations sought to undermine the strength of political machines and party bosses.
One of the most consequential reforms was the direct primary, which accelerated the transformation of political parties from private associations to, in political scientist Leon Epstein’s words, “public utilities.” In the US-style direct primary system, parties surrender not just the printing of official ballots to the state, but control over the right to bestow the party’s label on candidates as well.
In Political Parties in the American Mold, Epstein argues that the “mandatory state-administered direct primary clearly transforms party nominations from the private to the public sphere. Party action thus becomes state action. Or, for the purpose of nominating its candidates, a party is made into an agency of the state.” Their candidate-nominating process was thus opened up to include all voters who registered their party preference with the state, not just officeholders or activists.
In its seminal call for a more “responsible” party government, the American Political Science Association quoted a 1923 speech by Idaho senator William Borah to highlight this ambiguity of membership in American-style political parties:
Any man who can carry a Republican primary is a Republican. He might believe in free trade, in unconditional membership in the League of Nations, in states’ rights, and in every policy that the Democratic party ever advocated; yet, if he carried his Republican primary, he would be a Republican. He might go to the other extreme and believe in the communistic state, in the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the abolition of private property, and in the extermination of the bourgeoisie; yet, if he carried his Republican primary, he would still be a Republican.
Of course, party elites sought in many cases to limit who could register to vote or participate in party primaries, and in the first decades of the twentieth century the new rules effectively organized many poor and working-class people out of political participation. One of the most notorious examples of this was the “white primary” Southern Democrats ran to shut black voters out of the political process. But that practice was invalidated in 1944, when the Supreme Court overturned a Texas state election law in the Smith v. Allwright case. In this and subsequent cases, the courts affirmed the idea that the candidate nomination process should be a public affair regulated by the state, rather than the private business of a membership association.
The result of this long and complicated process of development was a party system quite unlike any other in the world.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Democratic Party had become a strange bricolage of social, ideological, and geographical elements: the new labor-liberal alliance rooted in the CIO, the political machines of the urban North, and the reactionary Bourbon Democrats of the ex-Confederacy. The New Politics reformers were not the first to try to make the Democratic Party more ideologically coherent, programmatically oriented, and legislatively disciplined. Organizations as varied as Congress of Industrial Organizations – Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC), the American Political Science Association, and the Democratic Study Group all pushed in this direction in the 1950s and 1960s, laying the groundwork for those who came after them. But the New Politics arguably came closest to realizing this vision in practice, thanks to the political opening created by the seismic conflicts of 1968.
Party of a New Type?
Hilton seeks to explain how the 1970s struggles over institutional party reform gave rise to a new kind of party type he calls the “advocacy party,” a contradictory formation reflecting the layered influence of both reformers and counterreformers over its shape. Hilton sums up the contradiction as the institutionalization of “greater party dependence on outside groups for legitimacy and support,” namely the interest groups, social movements, and nonprofits constituting the progressive advocacy world, which in turn are more dependent on “the administrative presidency for the satisfaction of their symbolic and substantive demands.”
This development is particularly ironic, considering the New Politics reformers’ overriding concern with subordinating the presidency and the executive branch generally to the party organization, and holding presidents accountable to the party platforms hammered out at national conventions. Their aim was to empower the national party relative to state and local organizations, while reducing national-level officeholders’ scope of autonomy at the same time.
The movement to transform the Democratic Party stemmed from the disastrous 1968 national convention, when the Chicago police beat antiwar demonstrators outside the convention hall as party barons bestowed the presidential nomination on Vice President Hubert Humphrey inside the hall — despite the fact that Humphrey hadn’t run in a single primary election. After Chicago, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) inaugurated a commission on party reform commonly known as the McGovern-Fraser commission after its two leaders, Senator George McGovern and Representative Donald Fraser.
The nominal goal of the commission was to formulate a new set of rules governing the selection of delegates for the 1972 national convention. Strengthened by the intra-party crisis generated by Richard Nixon’s win over Humphrey, the regulars’ hand-picked nominee, the New Politics coalition used the commission as a vehicle to push for even more ambitious reforms to the Democratic Party’s institutional structure.
What kind of party did the New Politics movement want? In 1971, reformers on the commission issued a proposed “Charter for the Democratic Party of the United States,” which sought to transform the Democrats from a loose confederation of state and local parties sometimes working at cross-purposes into a centralized national party. Their proposed structure kept the quadrennial national convention as the party’s national convention. It retained the DNC as the party’s leading authority between conventions, but the DNC chair would be elected by a new national policy conference that would meet during even-numbered, non-presidential years to set party strategy.
A DNC executive committee would oversee the work of a new Educational and Training Unit charged with recruiting candidates and conducting policy research. It would also coordinate the work of the most innovative new office the commission proposed: a Membership and Finance Council, which would run a national dues-based membership program. Finally, it envisioned a new layer of regional committees, which would coordinate between the national level and the state and local parties.
This amounted to a radical proposal to break with the long tradition of American-style political parties to make the Democrats more like their counterparts elsewhere. The goal was to weaken party insiders and empower racial minorities and women, the New Left activists who flooded the party through the 1968 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, and the coalition of industrial, service sector, and public employee unionists who chafed under the leadership of old American Federation of Labor (AFL) stalwart George Meany.
And, perhaps surprisingly, much of the intellectual and strategic energy behind this project came from a band of political refugees who had just been kicked out of the Socialist Party.
Waves of Contention
By the mid-twentieth century, the Socialist Party (SP) had become a pale shadow of what it was in its Debsian heyday. According to historian Maurice Isserman, the SP could only count 691 members in good standing nationwide, most of whom lived in just four states. Faced with such bleak prospects, the party sought to bring other groupuscules on the scattered anti-Stalinist left together under the SP’s faded banner.
One of those groups was Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League, which was also quite small but boasted dynamic young organizers like Michael Harrington, who later went on to become a best-selling author and DSA’s first chair. Shachtman, Harrington, and their allies in the SP’s “Realignment Caucus” advocated a new strategy oriented toward the organizations and social forces in and around the Democratic Party. As Isserman puts it in his biography of Harrington, the realigners “conceived of their own role as a kind of ideological matchmaker in a grand majority coalition of progressive forces.”
They were small in number but punched far above their weight. They were not the only ones on the broad US left calling for a major realignment of political forces, and the idea went at least as far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)’s failed attempt to purge Southern reactionaries from Congress in the 1938 primary elections. The CIO through Labor’s Non-Partisan League supported Roosevelt’s attempt at realignment, and by the late 1940s pop it dropped a previous commitment to forming a new labor party and formed CIO-PAC. Those unions would, in turn, become the anchoring group of a renovated, consistently left-liberal Democratic Party in an ideologically polarized two-party system.
In his 1968 essay “For a First Party,” Harrington argued that “there must not just be a new majority but a new party as well.” Crucially, however, he didn’t think that a new party had to be created from scratch. In making this case, Harrington insisted that
the important thing is to allow the public a choice of liberal and conservative alternatives. The names by which the options are called is not crucial. Indeed, currently the drive toward realignment is expressing itself mainly within the Democratic Party, where its Left and Right wings have been engaged in a bitter struggle for some time. And it is therefore quite possible that a new party will bear an old label: the Democratic Party.
By the early 1970s, Harrington and the Shachtmanites had split, and the SP imploded under the weight of its conflicts over Vietnam and the Cold War. The party split three ways at its 1972 convention.
Bayard Rustin became the chair of Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA), which kept the old party’s infrastructure and aligned with Meany’s hawkishly anti-Communist leadership of the AFL-CIO. David McReynolds helped to lead a small group into a new Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), which still exists. Harrington’s faction formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which remained committed to the realignment strategy and oriented toward both the New Left and the anti-Meany tendencies in the labor movement.
In Taking Sides, Harrington argued that what distinguished DSOC from other tendencies on the Left was that “we were committed to coalition politics and electoral work in the liberal-labor wing of the Democratic Party.” This set DSOC apart from SDUSA, which was also oriented to coalition work in the Democratic Party but despised the New Politics movement; as well as SPUSA, which continued to insist on running its own candidates for office despite decades of membership erosion and electoral futility.
Harrington summed up DSOC’s mission as a “prosaic, extremely difficult job: to unify labor and minorities and women and environmentalists and peace activists and all of the rest of the progressive constituencies. Together they might prevail; fighting one another they would lose.”
Despite the continued presence of right-wingers in the Democratic coalition, this was where the Left had to be, because it was also where the various elements of any plausible mass base for left-wing politics was politically organized. This is what Harrington meant when he said that DSOC stood on the “left wing of the possible.”
In the battle over party reform, DSOC stood with activists who came out of the “Dump Johnson” movement of 1968, the labor movement’s anti-Meany wing (above all the United Auto Workers), and the politically oriented wings of the feminist, antiwar, and civil rights movements. They formed a network called the New Democratic Coalition (NDC), which supported Senator George McGovern’s 1972 candidacy and backed the most far-reaching reform proposals. They locked horns with the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), the network of counterreformers who came together to oppose both McGovern’s candidacy and the McGovern-Fraser commission. CDM drew on the support of establishment Democratic officeholders, a group of intellectuals in and around SDUSA who would soon become the vanguard of neoconservatism, and the Meany-led forces in the AFL-CIO.
Under Meany’s leadership, the labor federation remained neutral in the 1972 presidential race — the first time labor stayed neutral since the AFL didn’t endorse FDR in 1932 — out of resentment toward McGovern and his supporters. They justified this decision by casting themselves as the defenders of the traditional, blue-collar working class against college-educated, white-collar reformers.
McGovern’s landslide loss in 1972 handed the initiative to CDM and the counterreformers, who successfully mobilized to block the most ambitious organizational reform proposals. They watered down the commission’s affirmative action provisions for women and racial minorities, and defeated the proposal to establish a formal, dues-paying membership base. Three midterm party conferences were actually held in the 1970s, but they did not turn out as the reformers hoped. As Hilton recounts, these conferences were “an experiment that party leaders,” especially elected officeholders, “were not eager to cooperate with. They went out of their way to resist it, control it, and convert it into a bit of a photo opportunity for themselves.” They were abandoned by the 1980s and have not been revived since.
Finally, CDM succeeded in turning back the efforts of the reformers, grouped by the late 1970s in a DSOC-initiated coalition called Democratic Agenda, to hold elected officeholders — namely President Jimmy Carter, who reneged on the 1976 national party platform’s commitments to full employment, labor law reform, and economic planning — accountable to national convention decisions.
Democratic Agenda was the seedbed of Senator Ted Kennedy’s left-liberal 1980 primary challenge to Carter, which also succumbed to centrist countermobilization. By the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an event that closed the window of opportunity for organizational innovation, the successive waves of intra-Democratic reform and counterreform produced an uneasy synthesis. Reformers successfully opened up the process of delegate selection and cemented the role of state-by-state primary elections in choosing the presidential nominee.
At the same time, however, counterreformers succeeded in stopping nearly every significant proposal for institutional reform and maintained the relative autonomy of elected officeholders from party platforms and convention decisions. The result was something that nobody on either side of the battle expected or wanted. In Hilton’s words, “Many reformers harbored reservations about opening the party without also supplying the requisite organizational infrastructure to fashion a well-integrated Democratic Party. Counter-reformers’ ability to torpedo the latter, but not the former, set the Democrats on the path to the advocacy party.”
If the disaster of 1968 opened the door to the New Politics movement, the disaster of 1972 allowed the counterreformers to start closing it. McGovern’s crushing defeat gave them the chance to stop the most far-reaching proposals for party reform, and it dealt a major blow to the labor-liberal alliance the New Politics sought to put at the forefront of the Democratic Party. Reagan’s victory over a bruised Carter in 1980 and his thrashing of Walter Mondale in 1984 — whom DSA misguidedly backed over Jesse Jackson in the primaries — gave further impetus to counterreformers, now led by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), to push the party further away from the labor-liberal alliance, itself weakened by deindustrialization and the corporate-conservative anti-labor offensive, in favor of Southern conservatives and suburban moderates.
At the same time, however, the “New Democrats” grouped around the DLC — most prominently Bill Clinton and Al Gore — failed in their own attempts to remake the party organization in their image, leaving the advocacy party form fundamentally intact. Its logic would later be fully embraced by Barack Obama, who won two elections but presided over massive Democratic losses and organizational atrophy at the state and local levels during the 2010s.
Consider the Alternatives
In his monumental work The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson sought to rescue his subjects’ resistance to capitalist modernity from what he called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Something similar might be said about the history Hilton recounts in True Blues. It is easy to look back on the efforts of Harrington and others to transform the Democratic Party with a sneer, but from today’s vantage point it is more useful to ask: What were the plausible leftist alternatives, and what did they accomplish?
The New Communist Movement (NCM), at its height in the 1970s, claimed roughly ten thousand members across an alphabet soup of Marxist-Leninist organizations. It attracted post–New Left militants inspired by the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese Communist parties who wanted to destroy US imperialism from within. It placed a particular emphasis on fighting racial oppression and building a political base among the poor, and many cadres went into rank-and-file labor organizing.
NCM activists made some headway in this regard, but on the whole, the movement never developed beyond a proliferation of intensely dogmatic sects. According to the movement’s premier chronicler, Max Elbaum, the NCM was overly optimistic about the prospects for revolution in the United States and too infatuated with authoritarian governments abroad. It fell apart in the 1980s, and some of its key members went on to do important work in labor and community organizing as well as electoral politics, namely the 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson campaigns.
Various Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist groups sprouted up or were revived in the late 1960s and 1970s, but this current was generally smaller than the NCM. During this time, the International Socialists (IS) and others emphasized the “turn to industry,” which entailed getting jobs and organizing in auto, steel, trucking, and other core industrial sectors. The ultimate goal was to cohere a layer of organic worker leaders, shop stewards, and local union officials into the core of a revolutionary socialist party.
Like the NCM’s attempt to build a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist vanguard, this scenario proved to be wildly optimistic, and the militants who pursued it largely found themselves fighting defensive battles against deindustrialization and the corporate-conservative attack on labor. These groups never grew beyond their small numbers, though IS (and later, Solidarity) members made a major contribution in helping to establish Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and other rank-and-file labor formations. Many groups in this milieu have dissolved, with some former members joining DSA.
Other post–New Leftists sought to walk a tightrope between revolutionary sectarianism and DSOC’s commitment to Democratic Party coalition politics. The most prominent example was the New American Movement (NAM).
According to Isserman, “From the early New Left and civil rights movement, NAM took an emphasis on the importance of local community organization; from the later New Left it took a mixture of Marxism and feminism.” NAM members were active in the public sector labor movement, and made a strong contribution to feminist organizing. But the organization never really took off.
In her memoirs, NAM leader Dorothy Healey observed that local chapters “searched for the proper ‘nonreformist reform’ they could organize around in the community, one that had the right racial, class, and gender dimensions to it. At the same time they viewed any proposals for national programs and strategy with great suspicion.” Moreover, NAM’s generally healthy rejection of revolutionary sectarianism often spilled over into an excessive looseness that undermined their capacity to build their own organization or exercise political leadership. These preoccupations, combined with an overly heavy emphasis on questions of internal process, meant that NAM was rarely able to participate in mass political activity in a meaningful way.
Despite differences in strategic emphasis, NAM and DSOC had enough in common for the two organizations to consider a merger. Merger talks began in 1977, and it took years of discussion and debate to bring them to consummation. The merger was completed in 1982, and DSA was born. It stagnated along with the rest of the Left during the neoliberal ascendancy. But unlike other socialist groups it has survived and, more recently, even thrived. It became the main organizational vessel for the growth of interest in democratic socialism after the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, and has continued to embed itself — if unevenly and sometimes with difficulty — in mass politics since then.
In the end, the New Politics project to remake the Democratic Party was hamstrung by many of the same dynamics that prevented the emergence of a mass socialist or labor party in earlier periods — above all, the long-running split in the labor movement between craft and occupational unionists on one hand and industrial unionists on the other. It is no coincidence that George Meany, the scourge of the New Politics, was a plumber whose own father was president of the Bronx local of the AFL plumbers’ union. Far-reaching party reform was an uphill battle from the start, and the absence of labor unity only made it that much harder. A partial and incomplete labor-liberal alliance was not strong enough to overcome it.
No “Ideal Instrument”
One of the leading figures NAM brought into the merged DSA was Barbara Ehrenreich, who was among the first to address what’s become a leading topic of controversy on today’s socialist left: the “PMC question.” In two seminal essays in the journal Radical America, she and John Ehrenreich argued that “professional-managerial class” (PMC) workers, defined as salaried mental workers who don’t own the means of production but whose role in the class structure is the reproduction of capitalist culture and social relations, stand in a contradictory position vis-a-vis the working class.
In their view, this meant that the PMC’s “objective class interests lie in the overthrow of the capitalist class, but not in the triumph of the working class; and their actual attitudes often mix hostility toward the capitalist class with elitism toward the working class.” In their view, the failure of the New Left to achieve its revolutionary goals resulted, to a significant extent, from its PMC origins and its attendant inability to transcend its class location.
The PMC question wasn’t only debated in post–New Left journals. It was deeply embedded in the battles over Democratic Party reform, with the Democrats’ old guard casting the New Politics activists as out-of-touch elitists who knew or cared little about the party’s traditional working-class base. This attitude was summed up in Meany’s pungent description — ghostwritten by a SDUSA member — of McGovern’s supporters at the 1972 Democratic national convention: “A bunch of jacks who dressed like jills and had the odor of johns about them.”
But as Hilton correctly observes, the conflicts over party reform were more complicated than this. They did not break down cleanly along white-collar/blue-collar or working-class/PMC lines, “but rather reflected distinct interests within the labor leadership over its traditional mode of party influence and the future of American unionism.”
In retrospect, it’s clear that Harrington and his allies — who welcomed the New Politics and worked to cement an alliance between its constituencies and the labor movement — were right, and the likes of Meany and the nascent neoconservatives were wrong. They didn’t know it at the time, but organized labor was about to take a beating and needed all of the allies it could get, even if they went to college, ate wheat germ, and wore strange clothes.
Today, Ehrenreich concedes that the PMC she assayed in the mid-1970s has been “seriously smashed,” though she is correct to note that many of the challenges of bringing workers together across differences in education, occupation, and culture remain. Today’s discussions of the PMC question happen too often in the polemical mode, and not enough in the context of practical organizing activity.
Besides, there is not much more to be said beyond what Harrington concluded over fifty years ago:
It would be much more emotionally satisfying if there were some majoritarian proletariat with internal cohesion and solidarity seeking to find its own mighty voice. There isn’t. So one is forced to the politics of coalition not because it is an ideal instrument to make sweeping changes but because it is the only way available to American society for the foreseeable future.
For many decades, that “ideal instrument” has been a brand new party of our own, an aspiration summed up in the old slogan “Break with the elephant, break with the ass — build a party of the working class!” It has been the US left’s white whale, and many have pursued it to the point of political self-destruction.
On the basis of his research into the US party system, Hilton concludes that “[m]any very smart and dedicated people have tried to create an independent labor-based party for over a century, and it hasn’t worked. So I begin from the premise that maybe it’s time to accept that we’re not going to get one, and move on from there.”
I resisted this conclusion for a long time, but experience and study have worked inexorably to pull me toward it. We don’t have an electoral system that allows for an array of parties representing particular classes, class fractions, or other social groups. Instead, as former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan complained before setting off for the private sector, “We basically run a coalition government without the efficiency of a parliamentary system.”
In effect, the coalitional bargaining that happens between parties in other countries occurs largely within them here. Even if we in the labor movement and on the Left had our own party, this would still not solve our basic strategic dilemmas. As Hilton astutely points out, even if the party system were reformed such that three, four, or more parties became electorally viable, we would “still have to face the question of whether to win elections by forming a parliamentary majority coalition with the mainstream Democrats to block ‘moderate’ Republicans from allying with the Trumpian America Firsters” to keep the Right out of office.
Moreover, the structure of the US labor movement remains fragmented and localized, reducing the capacity of unions to come together across occupational, sectoral, and geographic lines to support a national, class-wide political instrument. The closest the AFL-CIO has come in recent years is Working America, which was founded in 2003 by Karen Nussbam, a veteran of the New Left. Working America counts millions of members and thousands of activists across the country, but its conception of membership is still rather thin. Its own executive director describes it as “a really light touch mechanism” that typically doesn’t go far beyond short doorstep conversations about union-backed candidates, and there hasn’t been much appetite among the federation’s affiliates to take it beyond this.
So long as US labor’s internal structures remain unchanged — and, just as importantly, its membership remains concentrated in a small handful of states — even reforms to the party system may not be sufficient to allow for the establishment of a new, labor-based party with broad electoral viability. This is just one reason why it is so important for socialists to not just defend, but to grow and transform our unions wherever it is possible.
There is simply no procedural fix to the problem of officeholder accountability, especially in the kind of party system we have in the United States. Even parties that approximated the ideal of a centralized, membership-based mass party (like the German SPD in its heyday) couldn’t guarantee it.
The intra-DSA controversy over Jamaal Bowman’s vote on Iron Dome funding illustrates the point. DSA could very easily have expelled him, but he would have stayed in office and the organization would not have had the capacity to vote him out at the next primary election. Principle would have been defended, but at the cost of underlining our weaknesses — while alienating one of the few members of Congress who truly cares about Palestinian lives.
None of this is to say that convention decisions, resolutions, platforms, and the like are meaningless exercises. But it does imply that the only real way to hold officeholders accountable, even those who emerge homegrown from the organized left, is to be organizationally strong enough such that a non-endorsement carries real electoral consequences — up to and including the possibility of a credible primary threat. It means building more power than we currently have, and that can’t be done by perfecting our internal platforms and procedures.
The “advocacy party” that Hilton describes in his book has many downsides. Above all is the fact that some groups have more capacity to advocate for themselves than others; as always, this disadvantages working people and the poor.
At the same time, the hollowing out of the major parties provides an opening for us to, in Seth Ackerman’s words, “mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency.” Unlike the New Politics movement, today’s left need not concern itself with transforming the institutional structures of the Democratic Party; if anything, elements of its Charter for the Democratic Party are worth emulating in our own organizations, including DSA.
We can use the public utility of primary elections to focus on the things that matter most: building an organized base, anchored in the working class and supplemented by progressive people of all backgrounds, capable of powering democratic socialists to victory regardless of ballot line. This is precisely what successful DSA chapters around the country have been working toward since 2016. Leftists should embrace it in theory as well as in practice.