The Left’s Electoral Strategy Is Working. Let’s Keep Building It.

Democratic socialists have made their most significant electoral inroads in years by operating as a left-wing faction in the Democratic Party. Chris Maisano argues that we should own that strategy, and push it further.

Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) take questions at the US Capitol on July 15, 2019. (Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images)

I welcome Nick French’s critical response to my recent piece on the Left, the Democratic Party, and electoral strategy. It shows that the US left is moving beyond the most sterile versions of these debates and has gotten over the notion that definitively futile efforts like the Green Party or the People’s Party are worth anyone’s time.

Still, French’s article reflects how the Democratic Party remains a source of vexation on the Left. I disagree with the thrust of French’s argument, yet I found myself agreeing with some of his specific points and propositions: the need to elect democratic socialists to office through Democratic Party primary elections; the usefulness of “party surrogate”–style organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); the often undemocratic nature of official Democratic Party institutions like state or local committees; and the need for the socialist left to maintain its own political identity. None of this is in question here, yet we find ourselves disagreeing with each other. Why?

Party in the USA

The primary source of disagreement, in my view, has to do with the nature and purpose of US-style political parties. These are very odd contraptions quite unlike their counterparts in comparable countries, which is why attempts to emulate the labor and left-wing parties that are commonplace elsewhere have repeatedly failed here.

US-style political parties are less civil society organizations than they are creatures of the state. As Adam Hilton observes in his seminal article in the 2018 Socialist Register, “American parties are products of state actors, invented for the purposes of facilitating officeholders’ legitimacy to advance their preferred agenda and cultivating a base for reelection.” They are, in many respects, “akin to organs of the state itself, straddling a semi-private, semi-public boundary that renders them more similar to ‘public utilities’ than civil society organizations.”

This quality comes through most clearly in the case of primary elections. Primary elections are used to nominate the parties’ candidates for general elections, but these are run by state government agencies — not the party organizations themselves. Whomever wins the primary election is the party’s official candidate in the general election, whether the party organization likes that or not.

The ambiguous quality of US-style political parties is precisely what makes them so flexible and penetrable. As Hilton reminds us, “the terrain of American parties — beset by competing group demands, factional conflict, and no shortage of palace intrigue — has been a flood land of insurgent movements.” This is why the meaning of the “Democratic” and “Republican” party labels have been subject to so much contestation and change over the last 160 years. It’s why they’ve been so durable, and why even the biggest working-class upsurges in our country’s history didn’t generate a new labor party to supplant them.

“Given the present insurmountable odds facing any third party project in the US,” Hilton concludes, the Left should “divorce the twin tasks traditionally assigned to the working-class party, separating the organization of the proletariat into a class from the imperative to win governmental power.” He proposes a network of chapter-based 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.”

That’s precisely what DSA chapters, in their best moments, aspire to achieve. While it would retain its own organizational capacity and political identity, an organization of this type would not attempt to constitute itself as its own party with its own ballot line. It is “precisely because this effort is not premised on exiting the Democratic Party to launch a third-party alternative,” Hilton insists, that it “would avoid the pitfalls experienced by the 1990s Labor Party project of expending precious resources in negotiating state ballot access and the spoiler problem that can result in Republican victories.”

The “party surrogate” idea pragmatically accepts the fundamental unviability of new parties in the US electoral system. It’s meant to reconcile the maintenance of left-wing political and organizational independence with electoral action through the Democratic Party. Yet French recasts a party surrogate as the “groundwork for a potential new party,” thereby maintaining the unhelpful conflation of “political independence” with “new party.”

One might say there’s no harm in keeping the new party torch burning, so long as this desire is kept in perspective. But I don’t think this is cost-free. By keeping one eye on the exit door, French becomes prone, in my view, to misreading the landscape of US politics to vindicate his positions. A failure to fully apprehend the nature of US-style political parties is one example of this. Another is his questionable assessment of the Democrats’ party “brand” and the strategic conclusions he draws from it.

Wishcasting as Analysis

French insists that in “publicly identifying as Democrats, socialists are associating themselves with decades of neoliberal rule and a brand that is toxic to millions of voters — including, increasingly, working-class voters of all races. . . . Breaking free of the Democratic Party label may ultimately be necessary for appealing to the working class more broadly.

This is where, in my view, itching for the exit door has its biggest cost. If the Democratic brand were really that toxic, how does one explain, for example, the fact that the youngest voters — who are also, on average, the most left-wing voters in the electorate — are becoming an increasingly reliable Democratic voting bloc?

According to the progressive data firm Catalist, “65% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported Democrats” in the 2022 midterm elections, “cementing their role as a key part of a winning coalition for the party.” Such lopsided support for Democrats among young voters is a recent development, not a long-standing historical phenomenon. “While young voters were historically evenly split between the parties,” Catalist notes, “they are increasingly voting for Democrats. Many young voters who showed up in 2018 and 2020 to elect Democrats continued to do the same in 2022.”

One could argue this is a vote against Republicans, not a vote for Democrats. But while a fear of MAGA extremism is certainly playing a role here, it doesn’t explain everything. The Left’s recent turn toward Democratic Party electoral politics — from Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, to the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad to Congress, to the election of left-wing Democrats at the state and local levels — has started changing the meaning of the Democratic label and highlighted different kinds of Democrats in the party’s coalition.

What about “class dealignment,” or the ostensible movement of working-class voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party? This idea has become a staple of electoral commentary in Jacobin, and French takes it up in his article. But as I have written here and elsewhere, it is by no means clear that this is actually happening the way its advocates claim it is. What is happening in electoral politics, in my view, is not class dealignment so much as class fragmentation.

It is true, as the political scientists Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm have shown in their important research, that “the core constituencies of left and right parties have changed, and the old core groups have become cross-pressured groups” open to switching their votes from election to election. What class dealignment arguments often overlook, however, is that today’s working class is quite heterogeneous, and that the proportion of blue-collar manual workers (the old core group) has declined dramatically while the share of workers in healthcare, education, and other service occupations (the new core group), many of whom have college degrees, has exploded.

Lower-income voters in the United States, Kitschelt and Rehm observe, have tended to diverge along educational lines. Workers with higher educational attainment levels are growing as a share of the electorate and tend to vote Democratic, while workers with lower levels of educational attainment, blue-collar manual workers in particular, have become a swing group.

But it’s not just highly educated but relatively low-income workers who disproportionately support Democrats. A recent study from the Jacobin-affiliated Center for Working Class politics finds that “non-credentialed service workers are particularly amenable to progressive economic and social appeals,” and that “available voters” in this group had a higher level of support for Joe Biden in 2020 (roughly 60 percent) than any other in its survey pool.

Today’s working class is a highly variegated formation that is not trending in any one political direction. In French’s article, the class dealignment perspective is adopted to reach a desired political conclusion, not to serve a rigorous analysis of the US political landscape.

All Else is the Sea

In my original article, I argued that realignment did indeed happen in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The Dixiecrats became Republicans, and the two main parties became more polarized and internally coherent than they were before. Because of this, I argued further, the Left needs to decide whether its goal should be to push the Democrats’ realignment even more to the left so that it becomes the functional equivalent of a labor or social democratic party, with the Left and its allies in a leading position in the party’s coalition. If this isn’t possible, then the only realistic option remaining is to act as a minority faction in the Democratic coalition and work to leverage that position to the fullest possible extent.

I also argued that either approach would entail heightening direct conflict with the Democratic establishment “through primary challenges and the advancement of a strongly left-wing legislative agenda.” I did not advocate a headlong dive into state and local Democratic Party committees and other party organizations. The hollowing out of party organizations that accompanied realignment means that working to capture them may not be the best use of the Left’s time. It seems more fruitful to keep strengthening groups like DSA and democratic socialist legislative factions.

The practical steps that French suggests in his article are entirely compatible with this approach. It simply does not require distancing from the Democratic Party label, and in practice often benefits from an association with it. Here in New York, for example, DSA members in the state legislature participate in a “socialists in office” committee that is small but punches above its weight. This is precisely because there are Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature, which these socialists are part of because they have been elected to office as Democrats. The supermajority gives socialists an opportunity to win enough legislative support to pass left-wing priorities like the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) and other important bills.

These DSA members in the state legislature vote with the rest of the Democrats most of the time. Some of the time, they can organize enough Democrats to pass left-wing priorities the Democratic establishment opposes, like BPRA (they also got a healthy assist from the congressional Democrats who pressured governor Kathy Hochul to sign it). They dissent from the Democratic majority on other occasions, such as their bloc vote against this year’s state budget. In short, they are operating as a left-wing faction within the state legislature’s Democratic supermajority, and they have achieved some notable victories in a short amount of time. Why not own this successful strategy and keep pushing it further instead of looking for the exit so quickly?

French raises the specter of establishment Democrats changing party rules to ban socialists from running in primaries as justification for doing so. I am not sure whether this is legally possible since primary elections are run by state governments, not party organizations. But if it is, wouldn’t this bolster the case for pragmatic participation in party organizations to prevent it from happening in the first place? Exclusion from Democratic Party primaries would be a devastating blow to the socialist left, because of the extreme difficulty of electing independents and third-party candidates in general elections. The same goes for losing access to important campaign tools like NGP VAN software, which the socialist left probably could not build a fully-fledged alternative to.

If these eventualities could be prevented through participation in party organizations, shouldn’t we seriously consider doing so? Ensuring the fairest possible playing field among party factions may be the strongest argument for participation in bodies like state and local committees. We should not discount the possibility, however, that some such organizations might be more amenable to meaningful socialist participation — and maybe even leadership — than others. This should be treated as a tactical question subject to local conditions, not a matter of principle.

French recently published an interview in Jacobin with Michigan Democratic state representative Joey Andrews. In 2022, the state’s Democrats won a “trifecta” for the first time since the 1980s. As Andrews recounts in the interview, with unified control of state government Michigan Democrats quickly moved to repeal the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law, reinstated the prevailing wage, and restored teachers’ bargaining rights and automatic union dues deduction. He has a bill to repeal the state’s “Death Star” preemption law, which bars localities from raising wages or implementing paid sick leave, ready to go for the next legislative session. He also expresses the hope that Michigan Democrats can go beyond undoing Republican damage by codifying the right to bargain in state law, ending the misclassification of workers, and implementing some degree of workplace codetermination.

None of this would be conceivable without the Democratic trifecta, which included an influx of young left-labor representatives like Andrews, Darrin Camilleri, and Dylan Wegela, who was a leader of the 2018 Arizona public schools strike. Andrews is right to caution that Michigan’s Democratic Party is far from perfect. But these are conditions, as imperfect as they are, under which the Left can help to undo Republican damage while beginning to make positive gains for working people.

In Michigan, New York, and elsewhere, there is still a long way to go. The Left continues to face, as it always has, an uphill battle to bring more democracy, justice, and freedom to this country. We have learned many things since the watershed years of 2016–2017, including what for me has been the biggest lesson: if democratic socialists want to be effective, they need to act, for the purposes of electoral politics, as a left-wing faction in the Democratic Party. All else is the sea.