Like It or Not, the Left Can’t Get Away From the Democrats

While the Left agonizes over its relationship to the Democrats, the extreme right has few qualms about throwing elbows within the GOP. Socialists should follow their lead and accept doing battle within the Democratic Party as the only viable political option.

Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy introducing presidential nominees to delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. (Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

In October 2018, a crew of Proud Boys violently attacked anti-fascist, or “antifa” activists on the streets of Manhattan. The occasion for the melee was a speech by Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, leading to ten arrests and jail sentences for two of the Proud Boys. A street fight between fascists and anti-fascists may not have been so newsworthy were it not for its location on the tony Upper East Side, whose denizens tend to prefer the pastel hues of Ralph Lauren polos to black-and-gold Fred Perry.

Before the fight, McInnes rallied his troops at the Metropolitan Republican Club, formerly a “chummy watering hole for the city’s GOP elite” that’s been taken over by the radical right. These days, their website’s “About” page features a terribly lit photo of Tucker Carlson giving a speech to club members, situated above an all-caps declaration insisting, perhaps too insistently, “WE ARE SERIOUS PEOPLE.”

This is not the only New York Republican Party institution that the radical right has claimed. Since 2016, the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC) has become a hub for local, national, and even international reactionaries. When former president Donald Trump was arraigned in lower Manhattan last April, the club organized a rally outside the courthouse that attracted the likes of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and far-right activist Jack Posobiec. Four months earlier, the NYYRC annual gala brought radical right-wingers from across the United States together with guests from European extremist parties like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) and Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Austrian Freedom Party). Gavin Wax, the club’s president, gave a speech that can only be described as fascistic:

we want more offenses; we want flanking maneuvers; we want to cross the Rubicon; we want total war. We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media, in the courtroom, at the ballot box, and in the streets. This is the only language the Left understands: the language of pure and unadulterated power.

Wax is a recurring character in Amanda Moore’s harrowing undercover Nation report on today’s radical right. What stands out about these figures, beyond their vile worldview, is just how ruthlessly pragmatic they are.

Moore recounts Wax’s justification for accepting a position with Turning Point USA on a reactionary “comedy” podcast: “My view is that we should use every institution we can to our benefit. If you have to shift the Overton window, shift it to the right, take it over from the inside. . . . If they’re gonna elevate my message and my platform, then we’re all square in my book.” There is real value, according to Wax, in working with and influencing Republicans to pull them ever further toward the right-wing fringe: “If they’re going to change their tune, if people are going to start to acquiesce to our movement — or, I don’t even know if I can say ‘our movement,’ but shifting to the right — then take the W.”

Wax isn’t the only radical pragmatist, freely moving between margin and mainstream, featured in Moore’s story. One white nationalist she profiles is the chairman of a Republican district committee in Michigan. Another served as the Washington Young Republicans’ national committee person and worked on a GOP congressional campaign before getting fired. Yet another frequents Oregon Young Republican meetings to schmooze and spread the fascist gospel. Their literature, in the words of the Michigan GOP official, “will tell you everything you need to do to become a precinct captain. And then we can, from the bottom up, throw out all these RINOs and make the GOP a solidly America First party.”

They are, in short, pursuing a right-wing version of the realignment strategy.

A Tale of Two Realignments

The realignment strategy is typically associated with mid-twentieth-century left-liberals, labor activists, and democratic socialists seeking to transform the Democratic Party. It had many different exponents, but its leading early theorist on the socialist left was Max Shachtman. Shachtman was among those expelled from the US Communist party in 1928 for siding with Leon Trotsky in his unsuccessful battle with Joseph Stalin for control of the Soviet party. By 1940, Shachtman and his followers broke with Trotsky over the nature of the Soviet Union, which they considered a new kind of “bureaucratic collectivist” class society, not a “degenerated workers’ state” worthy of critical support as Trotsky insisted. They founded the Workers’ Party (WP) in 1940, which changed its name to the Independent Socialist League (ISL) in 1949.

The WP/ISL milieu was small but influential and included, at various times, such well-known figures as C. L. R. James, Irving Howe, and eventually Michael Harrington. James Baldwin was a fellow traveler for a time through his friendship with the labor organizer Stan Weir.

Shachtman and his cothinkers in this small but influential milieu, spurred by engagement with reformist elements in postwar liberalism and the labor movement, formulated the classical version of the realignment strategy. By the late 1950s, according to Sam Rosenfeld in his excellent book The Polarizers, Shachtman arrived at an “elaborate political project for labor radicals: unite with civil rights and liberal forces, aggravate tensions within the Democratic coalition, and compel an exodus of reactionary southerners and urban bosses” to the Republicans or a third party. The ISL joined what remained of the Socialist Party (SP) in 1957, and by 1959 won the party over to this vision of a realigned party system polarized between two clearly defined, programmatically consistent liberal and conservative parties.

Of course, not everyone on the Left adopted the Shachtmanites’ commitment to a realignment strategy. Currents in the SP that later split to form the still-extant Socialist Party USA, for example, insisted on keeping the party aloof from coalition politics inside the Democratic Party. The cornucopia of Trotskyist sects, as well as other formations that grew out of the New Left, continued to raise the demand for an independent workers’ or socialist party. Their impact, however, generally paled in comparison to Shachtman and his followers, many of whom played key roles in the civil rights and labor movements of the 1960s.

The Shachtmanites themselves split in the early 1970s over the Vietnam War, anti-communism, and the movement to transform the Democratic Party after the disastrous 1968 presidential campaign. The old man and his diehards bitterly opposed the New Politics movement to democratize and radicalize the Democratic Party. A group around Harrington left the SP to found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1972. DSOC vigorously supported the New Politics and helped to lead it through formations like Democratic Agenda, which, according to the veteran democratic socialist Joe Schwartz, “picked up active support from the leadership of such unions as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Auto Workers and the Machinists, as well as from feminists, activists in communities of color and left activists in and around the Democratic Party.”

Democratic Agenda exercised significant influence over the party’s 1978 midterm convention (a New Politics reform that party leaders later suppressed) and was the seedbed of Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful 1980 primary campaign against President Jimmy Carter. In 1982, DSOC merged with the New American Movement to form Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

This story is fairly well known on the Left. Less well known is the fact that the resurgent radical right was grappling with similar questions of electoral strategy at the same time.

John Huntington’s illuminating book Far-Right Vanguard is, in many respects, a history of the postwar radical right’s fitful journey from independent party building to realigning the Republican Party. The rise of New Deal liberalism drove a wedge into the heart of the Democratic Party, which until the 1930s was dominated by the most reactionary elements in American politics. It pitted New Dealers and Dixiecrats against each other inside the Democrats’ big tent, and spurred the latter to form a de facto conservative coalition party with congressional Republicans. With both main parties containing a spectrum of liberals and conservatives, right-wing Democrats and Republicans felt increasingly uneasy in their ostensible political homes.

Huntington’s book recovers a cast of formerly lost characters in postwar ultraconservative politics like Kent Courtney, a dogged organizer whose Conservative Society of America (CSA, in a deliberate callback to the Confederacy) sought to win anti–New Deal, anti-communist conservatives from both parties to a new, consistently right-wing third party. I had never heard of Courtney until I read Huntington’s book, because his efforts, and the efforts of other ultraconservatives committed to building a third party, made zero direct impact on electoral politics. Their presidential campaigns were just as quixotic as Norman Thomas’s six failed runs on the SP line.

But as Huntington’s study makes clear, by bringing ultraconservatives together into practical organizing projects, they did much to cohere the right-wing networks that later powered Barry Goldwater’s Republican Party insurgency, and ultimately Ronald Reagan’s ascension to the White House in 1980.

Groups like the CSA, John Birch Society, Christian Crusade, and Texans for America “put their stamp on party politics,” Huntington observes, by “laying the groundwork for an eventual coup within the two-party system” that Trump brought to full fruition. Militants shifted the aim of their cross-party and third-party organizing from a break with the two main parties to transforming the GOP into an unambiguously conservative party. By merging with the Republican Party’s most rightward elements, contesting primary elections, and becoming active in party organizations, they were able to build enough strength to push the party away from Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of “Modern Republicanism,” which sought an accommodation with the New Deal order, toward the right.

In doing so, they created the conditions under which the party could then be pushed even further to the right by today’s white nationalists. Courtney’s descendants ultimately succeeded in constituting a major new party on the extreme right wing of American politics. It just happens to be called the Republican Party.

Not As We Please

It’s commonly said on the Left that the realignment strategy failed. If one understands realignment as aiming at the wholesale transformation of the Democrats into something like a Western European labor or social democratic party, then yes, it failed. But that’s not necessarily how its practitioners on the Left understood the basic goal at the time.

In his 1968 book Toward a Democratic Left, Harrington argued that “the important thing is to allow the public a choice of liberal and conservative alternatives.” By this criterion, realignment did indeed happen. The Dixiecrats were driven into the Republican Party, while liberals gathered under the Democratic Party label. By almost any measure, the Republicans and Democrats became more polarized and internally coherent than they ever were before. Whatever we think of the two parties, it’s just not the case, as George Wallace claimed during his 1968 third-party presidential run, that there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between them.

What did not happen is the second step many left-wing realigners hoped would come to pass. The labor-liberal wing failed to win a leading position in the Democratic Party coalition in the wake of the two parties’ political realignment. For one thing, the house of labor was sharply divided over the New Politics movement and its vision for transforming the party. Craft unions descending from the premerger American Federation of Labor bitterly opposed it, while industrial unions descending from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, together with the public sector unions, generally supported it.

Moreover, realignment took hold at precisely the moment when the labor movement, particularly industrial unions in the private sector, entered a seemingly endless period of decline, and the mass phase of the civil rights movement was largely exhausted. In this context, the neoliberal New Democrats led by Bill Clinton — much like Tony Blair’s New Labour in Britain’s Labour Party — were able to win the leading position in the party, where they have remained ever since. The “de facto social democratic party based upon the unions and operating within the Democratic Party,” as Michael Harrington described it in his book Socialism, couldn’t muster the forces to push the Democrats’ realignment even further to the left.

But the radical right wing of the Republicans did succeed in pushing the GOP even further to the right. While realignment made the parties more ideologically consistent, it tended to hollow out party institutions, thereby opening more space for insurgent candidates to win primary elections — particularly if they could count on funding and foot soldiers.

For the radical right, realignment was fortuitously timed to coincide with the end of the New Deal order and the postwar economic boom. While the unions and civil rights movement organizations were entering a period of protracted decline, the radical right benefited from the mass mobilization of white evangelical Christians into Republican Party politics.

Far-right activists also benefit from a structural advantage that their counterparts on the Left simply can’t match: the seemingly endless parade of crackpot capitalists willing to pour vats of cash into their organizations, election campaigns, conferences, and publications. Rich liberals are typically not interested in funding socialists, and there aren’t many rich socialists. The unions, for their part, are extremely risk averse and firmly ensconced in the Democratic coalition, as they have been for about a century. Left-wing advocates of a new socialist or labor party bank on union support as insurance against sectarian isolation, but they rarely grapple with the fact that unions are just not likely to back risky new party initiatives. Unions are largely consumed with putting out fires and holding on to what they have left.

If we can’t count on funding the way the far right can, how exactly are we going to make a new party a viable concern?

US socialists who want to change the world have, by and large, pragmatically accepted the need to run candidates in Democratic Party primaries. Even so, the Left’s relationship to the Democratic Party continues to inspire the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. After beginning to find success through Democratic Party electoral politics, many socialists — including many in DSA, the traditional home of the realignment strategy — want to run away from it as quickly as possible.

The impulse is understandable, but its long record of practical futility should give us pause.

The American left, despite its best efforts, has never been able to set itself up fully independently of liberalism. Even at its height, the SP couldn’t win more than 6 percent of the vote for its presidential candidate. When the SP split and collapsed, many of its best elements went into farmer-labor politics. That movement produced a new Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, but it wound up merging with the state’s New Deal Democrats in the 1940s.

The SP itself went nowhere during the Great Depression, and many party members effectively became left-wing New Dealers through their labor organizing and other activities. The Communists never became a mass movement and elected very few people to office. But they made their biggest, if still limited, steps out of marginality when they positioned themselves on the New Deal’s left wing in the 1930s and ’40s (relatedly, they also stopped trying to organize their own independent “red” unions, opting instead to work within the labor movement’s existing organizations).

The historical record, particularly since organized labor and racial justice movements went into the Democratic coalition in the 1930s, seems clear. If democratic socialists want to be politically effective, they need to act, at least for the purposes of electoral politics, as a left-wing faction in the Democratic Party.

The far right has no qualms about swimming in the Republican mainstream, as you can see in Moore’s Nation story. They settled these questions decades ago; by every indication, it seems to be working out quite well for them. They set for themselves the task of pushing the Republicans’ realignment as far to the right as possible, and they didn’t give up on it even when GOP leaders disappointed them. Trump’s election to the presidency richly rewarded their efforts, and demonstrated how flexible and penetrable — the very characteristics that have made them so durable for so long — the two major parties can be.

The Democratic Party may be flexible and penetrable, but this means that many different actors, not just democratic socialists, see opportunities to exercise power through it. Both major parties have fallen sway to a “disorderly assortment of actors” that the political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld call “the Blob.” Each side has its Blob, but they don’t look or act the same way.

The Republican Blob, Schlozman and Rosenfeld contend, “has adopted a take-no-prisoners, don’t-sweat-the-details zeal on both procedure and substance with no parallel on the other side,” where the “groupedness of the Democratic coalition of interests is more visible and pronounced than in the GOP case — comparatively speaking, the seams show.” These seams often make it difficult for the Democrats to advance a comprehensive partisan vision. But at the same time, they provide space for the Left to organize together with parts of the Democratic base that must be part of any viable left-wing political project.

Transforming the United States in a progressive direction is a damned difficult business. From our geographically extensive and federated polity, to the ethnic and racial conflicts that have divided our working class, to the fragmented and localized structure of our labor movement, the deck has always been stacked against socialist politics in this country. We owe it to ourselves and to the people whose interests we profess to serve to be as ruthlessly effective as we can possibly be, given the conditions we face.

“The burden of the American left,” as Adam Hilton argues in a brilliant analysis of the Democrats and the Left, “is to build the power of the working class without the assistance of a working-class party. When it comes to translating that power into votes, and votes into seats in government, which is necessarily part of the struggle, we have very few options.” Socialists should come to terms with what this implies, namely the strong unlikelihood of ever having a major labor-based third party.

This does not, and should not, entail a chastened accommodation with the Democratic establishment. If anything, it entails heightening direct conflict with this establishment and its corporate funders — who would like nothing more than for the Left to spend precious time, energy, and resources on “independent” politics instead — through primary challenges and the advancement of a strongly left-wing legislative agenda.

Accepting these realities clarifies the actual strategic choices the Left confronts, and might even reduce the debilitating political neuralgia that continues to afflict the Left concerning the party question. The first choice is deciding whether pushing the Democrats’ realignment further to the left, so that it becomes the functional equivalent of a labor or social democratic party, is possible. If it is not, there appears to be just one realistic option left: acting as a minority faction in the Democratic coalition and working to leverage that position to the fullest possible extent. Partisan polarization centered on the presidency has squeezed out any room there might be for a third option, or any kind of break from the existing two parties — clean, dirty, or otherwise.

In this sense, the Left could stand to learn from the radical right. Its representatives stopped agonizing over their relationship with the Republican Party long ago, faced up to the dilemmas of protest and partisanship, and set out to make history under circumstances, as one particularly notable socialist put it, not of their choosing but “existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”