In last week’s post, I argued that the most urgent task for the Left today is to build our capacity to win elections. This week, I’ll be tackling a controversial related topic: the relationship of the Left with the Democratic Party.
Why the Democratic Party can be captured
The modern Democratic Party, with its reliance on state-run primaries and its lack of a binding party platform, is very peculiar compared to political parties elsewhere in the capitalist world. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, political parties have dues-paying members who vote in internal elections to determine who will be the party’s nominee in any given race. Because these “closed” parties can pick and choose who they will accept as a member, it is exceptionally difficult for outside forces to capture them.
Before the late 1960’s, the Democratic Party was even more closed than these European parties. While some states held primary elections, these primaries were non-binding, and party bosses would frequently intervene to select their preferred candidate against the wishes of primary voters. And since the Democrats had no dues-paying members, there was no direct way to put a check on the decisions of party elites.
The opening up of the Democratic Party
This system began to change in 1968. During the 1968 presidential primaries, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly chose anti-Vietnam War candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. But party leaders felt that these anti-war candidates would do poorly in the general election, and at the party convention they selected the moderate Hubert Humphrey as the party’s nominee. This enraged rank-and-file party activists, leading to rioting and clashes with police during the party convention.
Reformers inside the Democratic Party gained the upper hand when Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. They were able to convincingly argue that the existing system wasn’t working, and that a more open, democratic candidate selection process would produce more competitive nominees. Party leaders decided to make primary elections binding— thereby eliminating their own ability to veto the will of primary voters. Not wanting to be outdone by the Democrats, the Republican Party decided to follow suit soon afterward.
During the 1972 Democratic primaries, voters chose the left-wing anti-war candidate George McGovern— someone party elites never would have approved of under the old system. McGovern lost badly to Nixon in the general election, but by that time Democratic Party leaders weren’t able to roll back the opening up of the primary system. Voters’ expectations about how parties ought to work had shifted, and if the Democrats tried to revert to the old system, they would have be open to powerful criticism from Republicans in the media for being “anti-democratic.”
Can the Democratic Party become a “working-class party”?
Because American political parties are bound to the results of state-run primary elections which are open to the public, they no longer have direct control over their own ballot lines. This means that party bureaucrats have very little power beyond making endorsements (which are non-binding) and directing fundraising dollars to candidates.
What it means to “capture” an American political party, then, is simply to build a network of civil society organizations that is powerful enough to win a solid majority of the party’s primary elections, year after year, across the country. In the process, voters’ expectations about what the party ought to offer them will shift, making it more difficult for candidates backed by the old coalition to get elected. And since party bureaucrats are either directly elected during primaries, or appointed by elected officials, a coalition that won a majority of party primaries could quickly capture the bureaucracy as well.
There is no reason to believe that left-wing and working-class elements could not form a coalition capable of becoming the dominant force in the Democratic Party. But because of the openness of the primary system, an American political party can never be sealed off from outside forces. It will be a constant battle for the Left to maintain its dominance in the party by fighting off primary challenges from neoliberal candidates, who will tend to have a fundraising advantage. This is the downside of the post-1968 reforms: while they make it possible for the Left to capture the party, they make its re-capture by business interests easy, too.
If we wanted secure our gains by transforming the Democratic Party into a more traditional labor-based party, we would have to take steps to eliminate the primary system and restrict the franchise in internal elections to dues-paying members and trade unions only. Needless to say, this would be a very bad look politically. Republicans, who would presumably retain the primary system, would slam us in the media for opposing party democracy. It’s not even clear that “closing up” the party would be desirable, assuming that we can maintain the organizational capacity to win most Democratic primary elections. Closed party structures don’t offer much protection from neoliberal takeover, anyway— the rise of the centrist “Blairite” faction in the British Labour Party in the 1990’s demonstrates this.
The lesson we need to learn is that modern American political parties are empty vessels that turn votes into seats in office. Leftists shouldn’t try to make them into anything more than this— the tasks of mobilizing voters and volunteers can be performed by civil society organizations working outside the party system itself.
Why haven’t the Democrats been captured already?
If the Democratic Party is so susceptible to capture by outside forces, why hasn’t the Left succeeded in capturing it already? The answer largely has to do with the broader political and economic climate of the past forty years. Capturing the Democratic Party first really became possible in the early 1970’s, when primary elections proliferated and were made binding. But soon after this the neoliberal period began, in which “squeezed” profit margins and a high rate of inflation caused firms and the state to become much less responsive to pressure from the labor movement. This made it much more difficult for left-wing Democrats to get into office and make good on their promises.
Around the same time, Southern “Dixiecrats” began to leave the Democratic coalition, which severely damaged the electoral viability of Democrats on the national level. And after twelve years of right-wing Republican governance under Reagan and H.W. Bush, neoliberals like Bill Clinton were able to credibly argue in the 1990’s that the Democratic Party must lurch toward the center in order to become competitive again. It wasn’t until well after the 2008 Great Recession that conditions became ripe for more left-wing social democratic politics to become relevant again inside the Democratic Party— and they were introduced by a little known independent senator named Bernie Sanders.
It is striking to note that, even though the Democratic Party and the British Labour Party have very different institutional structures and historical origins, they both went through roughly the same kinds of ideological shifts, in response to similar social pressures, from 1945 to the present day. Given that Jeremy Corbyn and his friends were able to succeed in capturing the Labour Party, it should also be possible for the American Left to capture the Democratic Party, which is a much more open and porous institution than Labour has ever been.
Why third party politics doesn’t work
While many on the Left try to argue that it’s impossible to capture the Democratic Party, few of them even bother to make the case for why it would actually be easier to build a new third party than to take over an existing one. There’s a good reason for this: attempts to build new mass political parties in opposition to the Republicans and Democrats have never gotten very far in the United States.
One reason for this is party ID. The political science literature on elections has shown that voters’ personal identification with political parties is the single most reliable predictor of who they will vote for in general elections, and this is especially true in countries with longstanding, entrenched party systems like the US. Most voters are working-class people who have little time to research each candidate in detail— so they use candidates’ party identifications to get a general idea of what they likely stand for.
Because of this, candidates running on Democratic or Republican Party ballot lines can effortlessly win thousands of votes based on party identification alone. Any third party or independent candidate will needlessly have to work much harder to earn those votes, by convincing thousands of partisan Republicans and Democrats to ditch their preferred party on the basis of the individual candidate’s merits. In contrast, using the Democratic Party ballot line is a proven method for electing socialists, as we’ve now seen with Ocasio-Cortez and the several other DSA primary victories in the past year. We shouldn’t make it gratuitously harder to get leftists elected— it’s hard enough as it is.
Possibly the most important reason why third parties have never taken off in the United States is something called spoiler effect. The spoiler effect occurs when there are three or more candidates in an election, where voting for the best candidate (say, a Green) takes votes away from the more viable second-best candidate (a Democrat), thereby facilitating the election of the worst possible candidate (a Republican).
The spoiler effect is a very powerful disincentive against voting for third parties. And when third party candidates do end up throwing the election to a Republican, they suffer tremendous media and voter backlash. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, it turned out that the Electoral College hinged on just a few hundred votes in Florida. Since Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won thousands of votes in that state, it was clear that if Nader hadn’t run, Al Gore would have become president instead of George W. Bush. Whatever credibility Nader had previously was destroyed.
Any serious third party that doesn’t limit itself to contesting elections in liberal cities will face this kind of problem almost every time it runs a candidate. The most successful labor-based party ever in the US, Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, is an exception that proves the rule— they exploited major party primaries to get their foot in the door in the state government.
The two-party system is actually good
Many advocates of the third party strategy argue that the American two-party system constitutes an unacceptable restriction on democracy that must be replaced with a more pluralistic multi-party system. But if our goal is to make the state do things that benefit workers, and to ultimately transform the economy in the direction of democratic socialism, the evidence we have from other countries suggests that a multi-party system would actually harm the Left, rather than help it.
In countries with proportional representation (PR) and several viable political parties, it’s nearly impossible for any one party to gain an outright majority in parliament. This forces parties to join together in coalitions and make compromises. While this may sound good in the abstract, it makes it much more difficult to get any kind of radical socialist program enacted. Multi-party systems also force the Left to split its resources between multiple competing left-wing parties, rather than focusing on one common slate of candidates and legislative priorities. The ideal for the Left is to realign the American party system in such a way that there is one right-wing capitalist party, and one left-wing social democratic or socialist party.
Pathway to party capture
Civil society organizations like DSA need to strongly orient themselves toward electoral politics, and in particular toward running corporate money-free, democratic socialist candidates in Democratic primaries. The success of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates that it is possible to win with this strategy. But in order to capture the party on a reasonable time scale— we don’t have all century, folks— we will need to think big. Winning primaries against as many establishment Democrats in Congress as possible should be a top priority in the 2020 election cycle.
All of this will be greatly helped along if there is a viable democratic socialist candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020. Such a candidate would be able to endorse and actively support hundreds of down-ballot democratic socialist primary challengers, turning their presidential campaign into a movement to capture the entire federal government. Luckily, we already have one man who would be able to play this role— and his name is Senator Bernie Sanders.