Harris and Warren are Wrong on Reparations for Slavery

In the last few weeks, the issue of whether the descendants of black slaves should be given “reparations” has become a hot topic in the Democratic presidential primary race. It all started when Kamala Harris came out in favor of reparations, when asked about the issue during a radio interview. Soon afterward, Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro chimed in, declaring that they also supported reparations.

During CNN’s recent town hall with Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the questioners asked him whether he would support reparations for slavery, too. Sanders responded that he couldn’t answer the question without first getting clarification about what the word “reparations” is supposed to mean, since advocates have used the term in many different ways:

Many activists on the Left were very unhappy with Sanders’ response here. They believe that Sanders must come out unequivocally in favor of reparations for slavery, and that it is cowardice for him to do otherwise:

reparations tweet

But Sanders was right to demand clarification. Candidates like Harris and Warren have been muddying the waters on the issue of reparations, using the word disingenuously to refer to policies that are not race-specific. In order to adequately address this issue, we need to get clear on what kind of policy we’re actually talking about.

Historically, the term “reparations” has been understood to refer to race-based, cash reparations. That means that a cash payment would be given specifically and exclusively to the descendants of black slaves, in an effort to “bring justice” to African-Americans who are still dealing with the socioeconomic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Sometimes other types of reparations have been proposed, such as grants to “black” nonprofit organizations, but the common thread is that they are all race-based, and not universal programs. Reparations are often promoted as the best way to address the ongoing, substantial racial wealth disparities that exist in the US:

“Universal programs are not specific to the injustices that have been inflicted on African-Americans… I want to be sure that whatever is proposed and potentially enacted as a reparations program really is a substantive and dramatic intervention in the patterns of racial wealth inequality in the United States.”
— William Darity, pro-reparations economist

We know that Senator Sanders is outright opposed to this kind of race-based reparations. In a 2016 interview, he pointed out that such a policy would be “very divisive.” On this point, Sanders is exactly right. Reparations for slavery are an incredibly divisive policy proposal, and they’re something that the Left should firmly oppose.

The case against reparations

If we want to elect a Congress and a president that are committed to enacting a left-wing, democratic socialist program, we need to win tens of millions of white voters over to our side. Including reparations in our platform would make it almost impossible to do that. Polling has shown that just 6% of white Americans support cash reparations for slavery, while 79% actively oppose them. And we should expect that white opposition would only deepen as whites are exposed to the right-wing propaganda that would accompany serious push for reparations.

Source: 2014 YouGov poll

If somehow reparations for slavery were ever enacted, they would create a tremendous amount of resentment by whites, Latinos, and Asian-Americans alike. Non-blacks would view reparations as a redistribution of wealth away from themselves and their families, toward black Americans who did nothing to deserve them. Racial discrimination and hate crimes against African-Americans would substantially increase, and the whole political spectrum would lurch far to the right. The backlash would cause whatever Left government that enacted them to be voted out of office, making it impossible for us to carry out the rest of our program.

If that’s not enough, the logistical problems with such a reparations program would be immense. Because of the widespread intermarriage between African-Americans and other ethnic groups over the decades, the government would have to be in the grotesque business of determining who is “black enough” to deserve reparations payments, dredging up genealogical records to find out who is a descendant of slaves and who is not. This would only reinforce, rather than undermine, right-wing pseudoscientific racial ideologies that assert the existence of a “black race” with an essential character.

Furthermore, reparations would not do much of anything to end systemic racial disparities in wealth and income in this country, because they would leave the structure of the economy intact. Giving black families a one-time payment of a few thousand dollars might help them make their rent payments and shore up their savings for a year or two, but there would still be widespread discrimination in the job market and long-term outcomes would likely be unchanged. As Senator Sanders aptly put it, there are much more effective ways to address racism than simply “writing out a check”:

In a post-reparations scenario however, the political will for further efforts to address systemic racism would largely evaporate. The Right would be able to argue, “Hey, we already did reparations for slavery, now racism must be over.” And millions of Americans would buy into those arguments. In the long run, reparations would only harm the standing of African-Americans in this country, rather than helping them.

What about Latinos?

While the reparations debate has so far only focused on the issue of poverty among black Americans, Latinos are actually not much better off than blacks in this country. Reparations would do nothing to benefit the Latino population, so even if reparations succeeded in raising black families to the same level as white families, Latinos would be left behind as a new underclass.

racial wealth gap
Source: “The Racial Wealth Gap”, Demos 2015

The sheer fact that Latinos are roughly as disadvantaged as African-Americans calls into question the assumption, essential to the idea of reparations, that blacks are worse off because they are the descendants of slaves per se. Rather, it’s likely that both Latinos and African-Americans are disadvantaged due to similar processes of racial discrimination and the inter-generational poverty. The interests of Latinos and African-Americans are closely linked, and both of these populations would benefit from similar policies. It is totally counterproductive and wrong-headed to separate these issues, and thereby pit people of color against one another, by advocating for a reparations policy that exclusively targets one disadvantaged minority without addressing the plight of others. As Bernie likes to say, we need to bring people together, rather than dividing them up.

Reparations are probably unconstitutional

All of this is assuming, however, that a reparations act would not be struck down by the Supreme Court before it could take effect. This is not a good assumption. The Fourteenth Amendment, which stipulates that US citizens must be given “equal protection” under the law, has been consistently interpreted by the courts to severely restrict the extent to which the government can allocate any kind of benefit on the basis of race. The Court has found that any use of racial classifications must be subjected to “strict scrutiny,” which essentially means that there must be no other, narrower, or non-race-based method for achieving the same “compelling government interest.”

Strict scrutiny is very demanding. For example, in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a public university to set aside a specific number of seats in a medical school program for students of “disadvantaged minorities” in order to help them overcome the effects of discrimination:

“We have never approved a classification that aids persons perceived as members of relatively victimized groups at the expense of other innocent individuals in the absence of judicial, legislative, or administrative findings of constitutional or statutory violations… Hence, the purpose of helping certain groups… perceived as victims of ‘societal discrimination’ does not justify a classification that imposes disadvantages upon persons like [Bakke, a white medical school applicant], who bear no responsibility for whatever harm the beneficiaries of the special admissions program are thought to have suffered.”
Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 310 (1978)

Essentially, the Court is saying that it is impermissible for the government to relatively disadvantage white Americans, who have not committed any crimes, in order to “make up for” past or ongoing discrimination against minorities. This ruling is fundamentally at odds with the idea of reparations, and it is very unlikely that the Court would overturn decades of precedent by upholding such a program.

Advocates might try to defend the constitutionality of reparations by formulating the act so that it does not refer to “race” at all, but only to whether an individual is a descendant of slaves. But this is very unlikely to pass Court muster. The category “African-American” is often defined in terms of whether a person is a descendant of American slaves. Recent immigrants from Africa, or migrants from Haiti, are generally not considered to be “African-American.” Additionally, the Court has ruled that strict scrutiny must be applied to many non-racial classifications, such as national origin, so the constitutional question would not hinge on whether the reparations were strictly speaking “racial” or not.

Some reparations advocates have pointed to the example of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided cash reparations to victims of Japanese internment during World War II. They argue that these reparations prove the viability and constitutionality of reparations for slavery. But the Civil Liberties Act gave reparations only to those who were personally interned during World War II, not their children or grandchildren. Reparations for slavery, by contrast, would involve giving reparations to the distant descendants of those who were directly wronged. That is the critical legal and political difference between these two cases. It is a core assumption of American jurisprudence that children are not punished for wrongs that were committed by their parents, nor are they awarded compensation for wrongs committed against their parents.

Given that reparations are almost certainly unconstitutional, it’s simply a waste of time and resources to continue advocating for them, especially when there are many alternative policies that are compatible with the Constitution which would be much more effective at ending systemic racism than reparations ever could be.

Alternatives to reparations

Black workers in this country have the same basic needs as workers of any other race. Universal, class-based policies like a $15 minimum wage, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college tuition, and free public childcare would all disproportionately benefit African-Americans and Latinos, thereby reducing the racial income and wealth gap in this country. These are things that Senator Sanders has forcefully advocated for throughout his career. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, however, have been much less enthusiastic about these kinds of universal, social democratic reforms.

Massively expanding the stock of high-quality, affordable public housing in this country would also disproportionately benefit racial minorities. And affirmative action policies could be used, to the extent permissible under the Constitution, to ensure that public housing projects are occupied by a diverse mix of races and ethnicities. This would reduce housing segregation and help break down racist attitudes over time. Singapore’s public housing program is a great example of how this can be done.

Finally, anti-discrimination laws in employment must be much more vigorously enforced than they currently are. Studies have shown that job applicants with “black names” are around 36% less likely to get a callback than applicants with “white names,” even when their résumés are otherwise identical. There are similar findings for the results of in-person job interviews. In order to address this issue, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) must be greatly expanded, allowing it to actively investigate and press charges against employers it finds to be engaging in discriminatory practices, without first waiting to get a complaint.

If all of these measures were enacted, we would be a long way toward achieving genuine racial equality in the United States. Furthermore, these policies are much more politically viable than reparations, since they do not involve an overt redistribution of wealth from non-blacks to black Americans. It’s about time that the Left stop advocating this wrong-headed, counterproductive idea of reparations and instead fight for things that really could help end systemic racism in this country.

Nobody is More Left-Wing Than Bernie Sanders

The American Left has been celebrating for the past few days, as Bernie Sanders’ second presidential campaign has rapidly gained steam. Sanders was able to raise nearly $6 million in the first 24 hours after his announcement, and he is close to reaching 1 million volunteer sign-ups on his website. But there is a vocal minority on the Left who aren’t so happy about Sanders’ bid for the presidency. Some leftists are arguing that Senator Sanders has problematic positions on a number of issues, that he is not as left-wing as he is often made out to be, and that the Left should not support his candidacy.

This Left skepticism of Bernie Sanders is largely baseless, however. Bernie is by far the most left-wing presidential candidate in the race, and his platform represents the most transformative change that the Left can reasonably hope to achieve in the near term. Sanders’ so-called “problematic” positions— like his opposition to reparations for slavery, his refusal to endorse the “Abolish ICE” slogan, and his alleged “softness on US imperialism”— are really not problematic at all. Furthermore, we have good reason to believe that Sanders’ long-term vision is thoroughly socialist and anti-capitalist. Sanders wants to eliminate wage labor and guarantee a high standard of living for everyone. He just recognizes the merits of a gradualist approach for carrying out his socialist program.

Bernie isn’t “soft” on imperialism

Many on the Left have criticized Bernie for being “soft” on the military-industrial complex and US interventionism around the world. This issue has especially risen to prominence in recent months, as the economic and political crisis in Venezuela has worsened. Some leftists are furious at Sanders for failing to fully defend Nicolás Maduro’s nominally socialist government. Sanders has staked out a nuanced position on the Venezuela issue, criticizing Maduro for his anti-democratic moves and his refusal to accept humanitarian aid, while also opposing US sanctions on the country. But to pro-Maduro leftists, this is not enough.

bernie venezuelaThey argue that Maduro is the rightful democratically elected president of Venezuela, and that any anti-democratic moves on Maduro’s part, like banning opposition parties or ruling by decree, are either necessary evils or are being exaggerated in the mainstream media. I don’t have time to address this issue in full here, but you can read my recent blog post on Venezuela for more detail. Needless to say, there are many valid criticisms of Maduro’s regime, and his legitimacy as Venezuela’s president is seriously in doubt. It is also true that US sanctions on the country are exacerbating the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, and must be ended immediately. Bernie’s position on this issue is eminently reasonable.

Furthermore, Sanders has consistently attacked the bloated American military budget for decades, calling for major reductions in military spending in order to fund social welfare programs at home. He also has repeatedly condemned US interventionism and attempts at regime change in foreign countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that Sanders’ foreign policy positions are the most left-wing of any federal elected official.

It seems that in order to placate the most radical “anti-imperialists” on the Left, Sanders would have to advocate something close to the unilateral dismantling of the US military. But as long as there is no world government to keep the peace among nations, the idea of unilateral disarmament is simply untenable. It makes good sense for the United States to maintain a sizable army and navy, alongside a modest nuclear arsenal, in order to deter aggression from rising great powers such as China and to a lesser extent Russia. This does not mean that the bloated American military budget should not be substantially scaled back— it ought to be. But Sanders’ proposals are completely reasonable and are proportionate to the size of the problem.

Why reparations are a bad idea

Bernie skeptics often argue that Bernie Sanders has a “race-blind” approach to politics, focusing excessively on class issues at the expense of racial justice. They point to his opposition to reparations for slavery as proof of this. It’s argued that providing monetary reparations to African-Americans is necessary in order to eliminate the legacy of systemic racism in the United States.

These criticisms have gotten more intense now that Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have come out in favor of reparations. It seems that Sanders is being outflanked on the Left by Harris and Warren— candidates that don’t even identify themselves as democratic socialists. However, Sanders is simply correct on this issue. Reparations would be a highly divisive and counterproductive endeavor which would harm, not improve, the standing of African-Americans in the United States. Polling has shown that 68% of Americans, and a staggering 79% of whites, oppose reparations for slavery. Sanders himself opposes them on the grounds that they would be divisive:

The simple matter of fact is that, if the US government were to give a monetary lump sum to every African-American in this country, the vast majority of white Americans would view this as an undeserved redistribution of wealth from working-class white people to black workers. It would create a tremendous amount of resentment and would likely cause whatever Left government that enacted the reparations to be voted out of office. It’s vitally important that the Left not advocate for policies that emphasize and deepen the separation of American workers based on race. As Bernie likes to say, we need to bring people together rather than dividing people up.

Additionally, the logistical problems with such a reparations program would be immense. Because of the widespread intermarriage between African-Americans and other ethnic groups over the decades, the government would have to be in the grotesque business of determining who is “black enough” to deserve reparations payments, dredging up genealogical records to find out who is a descendant of slaves and who is not. This would only reinforce, rather than undermine, right-wing pseudoscientific racial ideologies that assert the existence of a “black race” with an essential character.

Furthermore, reparations very likely would not do much of anything to end systemic racial disparities in wealth and income in this country, because it would leave the structure of the economy intact. Giving black families a one-time payment of a few thousand dollars might help them make their rent payments and shore up their savings for a year or two, but there would still be widespread discrimination in the job market and long-term outcomes would likely be unchanged.

But in a post-reparations scenario, the political will for further efforts to address systemic racism would largely evaporate. The Right would be able to argue, “Hey, we already did reparations for slavery, now racism must be over.” And millions of Americans would buy into those arguments. In the long run, reparations would only harm the standing of African-Americans in this country, rather than helping them.

Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren’s support for reparations is merely a cynical ploy to win more votes from African-Americans in the Democratic primaries, and it certainly doesn’t make them any more left-wing than Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ platform of universal social programs would do much more for black Americans than any one-off reparations payment ever could.

Bernie is right on immigration

Some on the Left have also criticized Sanders’ stance on immigration. Bernie Sanders has been reluctant to back the slogan “Abolish ICE,” and has said that abolishing border controls is “a Koch Brothers idea.” Instead, he supports a comprehensive immigration reform package which would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants residing in the country. He also advocates an end to mass deportations, and wants to grant full citizenship to DACA recipients.

Those leftists who do want a complete and immediate dismantling of the immigration enforcement apparatus of the United States are understandably very upset about his refusal to endorse this idea. But calling for open borders and the abolition of ICE is simply a mistake. While full freedom of movement across the globe should be a long-term goal for socialists, this can only be achieved in the context of a world government which could put an end to the very large disparities in wealth between countries that we see today.

Without global political integration, unilaterally opening our borders with Latin America would likely cause a chaotic wave of mass migration that the United States would simply be unable to handle. It would also cause a brain drain in Latin American countries which would ruin their economies, thereby motivating further migration into the US, in a downward spiral. In the absence of a world government, immigration restrictions will still be necessary. Our goal should be to establish an immigration policy that allows for the successful integration of immigrants into American society, ensuring that they have access to living wage union jobs which do not push down wages for native-born workers.

This means providing legal status for the millions of law-abiding, gainfully employed undocumented immigrants in this country. But it does not mean dismantling our entire immigration enforcement system. Furthermore, the proposition of abolishing ICE and adopting an open borders policy is wildly unpopular among Americans. Advocating for it only marginalizes the Left and makes it harder for us to take power. The fact that Sanders understands this, and has chosen not to adopt it as part of his 2020 platform, is a strength, not a weakness of his campaign.

Abolish ICE
Source: July 2018 Politico/Morning Consult poll

Bernie really is a socialist

There’s a broader, more general argument that is often made against supporting Bernie Sanders: he’s not really a socialist. While Sanders has consistently identified as a “democratic socialist” for decades, there is a widespread belief on the Left that he doesn’t qualify as a socialist in the robust sense of the term, because he doesn’t publicly advocate for the collective ownership of the means of production. Some leftists even argue that Sanders is harming the socialist movement by actively sowing confusion about the definition of socialism, such as when he defines it as “having a government that reflects the interests of ordinary people, rather than… the billionaire class.”

But these concerns are misguided. First of all, democratic socialists should be very wary of defining socialism in terms of specific forms of property. If socialism is defined as “collective ownership of the means of production,” then authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union and North Korea would qualify as socialist, which is a proposition that the democratic wing of the socialist movement has always denied.

Instead, it is much better to define socialism in terms of concrete ethical goals, like the abolition of the exploitative employer-employee relationship, and the de-commodification of social goods like healthcare, education, housing, and food. Some of these goals, like the abolition of wage labor, cannot be achieved in the here and now, but must wait until advances in automation technology make them possible. Ultimately, it will likely be necessary to bring most industries into public ownership in order to fully achieve these goals, but advocating for this in the meantime can only be counterproductive.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders does advocate for forms of collective ownership of industry. As recently as 2017, he introduced a bill which would provide incentives for the development of worker-owned enterprises. But Sanders understands that simply promoting worker cooperatives or nationalizing industries won’t improve the lives of most workers. That’s why his most urgent priority is the establishment of a robust welfare state, modeled on the example of Norway and Sweden.

It is a great merit of Bernie Sanders that he understands which policy proposals will be popular among American workers today, and which will not. The calls of many leftists to “push Bernie to the left” and to “keep him accountable” simply fail to recognize the fact that Sanders’ current platform is close to the furthest left we can go without starting to alienate substantial numbers of American voters. Going further left would only harm, not help, the socialist project.

One of the ways we know that Sanders is committed to a transformative socialist vision is the simple fact that he has continued to insist on using the phrase “democratic socialism” to refer to his political ideology, even when this probably modestly hurt his short-term appeal. If Sanders was simply a moderate social democrat or a New Deal liberal, he would not have bothered trying to revitalize the term “socialism.” Clearly he sees the value in promoting the label to refer to an ideology that is opposed to capitalism. Unlike Elizabeth Warren and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie has consistently refused to identify as a capitalist:

Furthermore, Sanders has repeatedly expressed his deep admiration for the radical socialist activist Eugene Debs, who was put in prison for his opposition to World War I:

“[Debs] fought to achieve a truly democratic society in which working people, not big money, would control the economic and political life of the nation… Eugene Victor Debs remains a hero of mine. A plaque commemorating him hangs on the wall in my Washington office.” — Outsider in the White House, 2015

Debs speaking against WWI

Sanders is possibly the only member of Congress today who would be willing to associate himself with someone like Debs, who advocated for “the emancipation of the working class from wage-slavery.” This should give you an idea of just how radical Bernie really is.

For Sanders, and for millions of socialists all over the world, democratic socialism means reducing exploitation and expanding economic rights (healthcare, housing, childcare, etc.) as much as possible given our current level of technological development. Increasing automation will end the need for wage labor in the next century or so, but we shouldn’t try to rush toward that that kind of society prematurely. Getting Sanders elected President of the United States in 2020 is the first step in the long process of socialist transition.

Advocating for policies that are premature or simply inadvisable does not make someone more left-wing. It just makes them counterproductive to the socialist movement. That’s why nobody is more left-wing than Bernie Sanders.

Labor-Based Parties Are Illegal in the US — Good Thing We Don’t Need One

The United States is unique among advanced capitalist nations in that it never spawned a mass labor-based political party. Instead, early 20th century American labor unions opted for a non-partisan strategy of “pure and simple unionism” in which organized labor would lobby major political parties from the outside. Today, American labor has come to largely align itself with the Democratic Party, a loose coalition that includes wealthy donors and powerful business interests. The unfortunate result is that the American working class lacks an unapologetic political voice.

What is a labor party, anyway?

Many leftists want to remedy this situation by building a new labor-based party in the United States, modeled off those in Europe. Traditional labor-based parties, such as the British Labour Party, are founded by labor unions for the purpose of furthering the interests of working people. Unions formally affiliate to these parties, providing financial and organizational support in exchange for a large degree of control over the selection of party candidates. Labor parties also rely on a dues-paying party membership, which is given a binding say over candidate selection and the overall policy of the party. They can also revoke the party membership of sitting elected officials if they stray too far from the party platform— as happened, famously, to Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. These are externally organized parties, where ordinary people come together and recruit their own representatives to contest elections in order to gain power they don’t already have.

Labour Party

Australia Labor

New Democratic Party

But externally organized parties never really took off in the United States, for various structural reasons. In the US, property restrictions on voting rights were removed much earlier on in the 19th century than in most other places in the world. This meant that universal white male suffrage preceded the rise of the labor movement in the US. Elected officials felt the need to establish mass-oriented political parties which could mobilize voters to elect their allies to office. These internally organized parties were built from inside the state, downward into civil society. They were designed to serve the interests of the elected officials who created them. And once these parties gained a foothold, they created partisan divisions among workers that made it more difficult for labor unions to try to unite their members around a single labor-based party.

The hollowing out of American political parties


Initially, these internally organized parties were more or less controlled by elected officials and party bosses. Decisions about candidate selection were made behind closed doors by party insiders. But over the decades, pressure from popular movements began to break through this entrenched, corrupt political machine. The Progressive Era of the early 20th century saw the introduction of the first primary elections— but these were sporadic and usually non-binding. It wasn’t until the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention that the modern American primary system took shape. State governments established primary elections all across the country, and the results of these primaries were made binding. American political parties effectively relinquished their control over their own ballot lines.

Since the opening up of the primary system in the 1970’s, a new conception of political parties has entrenched itself in the minds of American voters as well as in the law. American political parties have come to be seen as state-regulated public utilities that are open to all who wish to enter, rather than private associations of voters and candidates. These “public” parties have remarkably little power, beyond making non-binding endorsements and coordinating fundraising efforts.

State laws ban traditional labor-based parties

The public utility model of political parties is legally imposed onto any party that seeks to gain ballot access in the United States. As Seth Ackerman wrote in a popular article in Jacobin magazine,

“Normally, democracies regard political parties as voluntary associations entitled to the usual rights of freedom of association. But US state laws dictate not only a ballot-qualified party’s nominating process, but also its leadership structure, leadership selection process, and many of its internal rules…” – A Blueprint for a New Party

In most states (around 47 out of 50) there are laws on the books which require political parties to participate in state-run primary elections and abide by the results. Georgia is one example:

“…all nominees of a political party for public office shall be nominated in the primary preceding the general election in which the candidates’ names will be listed on the ballot.” – Georgia Code § 21-2-151

This means that those leftists who want to launch a new labor-based political party in the United States won’t be able to escape the primary system. Neoliberal and right-wing elements could easily enter the primary race of a new labor party and use their fundraising advantage to take the party’s nomination. This isn’t just a theoretical problem— it’s something that the Green Party has actually struggled with for years.

Green Party can’t control its ballot line, either

In fact, just this year, the far-right activist James Condit, Jr. was able to enter the Green Party primary for the 2nd congressional district in Ohio. He ran unopposed and won the party’s nomination with just 43 votes. The Ohio Green Party has publicly condemned Condit and is encouraging its supporters to vote against him— but they have no legal authority to stop him from appearing on the general election ballot as the Green nominee.

CA primary funny

This problem is even more acute in states like California, Louisiana, or Washington. These states have a “top-two” primary system, where candidates from all political parties run together in a non-partisan primary, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. One side effect of this system is that candidates can identify themselves on the ballot with any registered political party they choose, as a matter of self-identification. The parties have absolutely no control. Do we really want to pour resources into getting a new labor party legally recognized, only to have blockchain startup CEOs and “transhumanist lecturers” running on its ballot line?

Given the legal structure that exists in the United States today, the project of building a new mass political party with control over its own ballot line, whose candidates are selected by dues-paying party members and unions, is simply impossible. Labor party activists would have to embark on an ambitious project of electoral reform in almost every state in the Union, fighting for legislation that would empower political parties at the expense of primary voters. This would be seen by most working people as an anti-democratic move. Leftists shouldn’t be fighting to strengthen parties— instead, we should be fighting alongside Our Revolution activists to weaken the party system even more, by establishing open primaries and eliminating superdelegates.

America’s weak party system means that we will have to work especially hard to keep our elected officials accountable. Accountability involves keeping politicians reliant on and fearful of the movements and organizations that got them elected in the first place. In countries where traditional labor-based parties are legal, the state makes it easy to maintain a modicum of accountability by allowing parties to simply revoke the party membership of those who stray from the party platform. But the American state won’t make it so easy for us. If the Left is going to build power in the United States, we will have to get very good at winning primaries, and unseating those who stray too far from our preferred policies.

A new party of a new type?

In his article A Blueprint for a New Party, Seth Ackerman rightly points out that the Left shouldn’t be obsessed with having our own, independent ballot line— what matters is that we can build up a powerful coalition of civil society organizations that can recruit and throw its weight behind left-wing candidates for public office. For Ackerman, the choice of ballot line would be a pragmatic decision, based on the local conditions.

One problem with Ackerman’s article, however, is that he doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that, in nearly all cases, the pragmatic choice is to run left-wing candidates as Democrats. Working people usually vote based on party identification, so running on a third party or independent ballot line simply makes the campaign much more difficult, with no obvious benefit. In effect, Ackerman’s “party of a new type” would be a membership organization inside the Democratic Party, seeking to capture the Democrats by winning primary elections. We should be honest about this— the project of capturing the Democratic Party is nothing to be ashamed of.

Many argue that, even if we run candidates as Democrats today, any new party should have a long-term goal of developing its own ballot line and completely breaking from the Democrats. But there’s no obvious reason why this would be a good or necessary thing. As we’ve already established, state laws mandate that the Democratic Party must abide by the results of its primary elections. In most states, Democratic leaders couldn’t close up their primaries even if they wanted to— even if they felt threatened by an insurgent left-wing movement to capture the party. Democratic lawmakers would have to try to push an electoral reform bill through the state legislature in order to end primaries, a blatantly anti-democratic move that would provoke a strong media backlash. Now that the primary system has been opened up, it will be nearly impossible for party elites to close it back up again.

Building power without a party

“[R]ather than dismissing the Democrats and pinning our hopes on a third party, the American left must rethink which kinds of goals can be accomplished in the realm of American party politics, and which cannot… The burden of the American left is to build the power of the working class without the assistance of [a] working-class party.”
— Adam Hilton, Left Challenges Inside the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is a hollow bureaucratic shell that cannot be transformed into a labor-based party. But we can’t build a new labor party from scratch, either, because American electoral law makes it impossible. The good news is that we don’t need a traditional labor-based party. We can establish an unapologetic political voice for working people by building a network of civil society organizations that can project power inside the Democratic Party. This movement would secure its hegemony by consistently winning a solid majority of Democratic primary elections across the country.


American socialists should look to the left wing of the British Labour Party as a model. Labour has been effectively captured by socialists in the last few years— and it didn’t take a “party within a party” to accomplish this. Rather, the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party consists of a loose network of civil society organizations and labor unions, informally led by a group named Momentum. Given the success of Corbynista movement, it should be even easier for a left-wing coalition to take the reigns of the Democratic Party, which is much more open and porous than Labour has ever been.

As I discussed in a previous post, the reason the Democratic Party hasn’t been captured by a Momentum-like organization yet is that the overall political conditions haven’t been favorable since the 1970’s, when the primary system first opened up. The neoliberal crisis of capitalism, the defection of Southern Dixiecrats to the Republican Party, and an eight year long Reagan presidency shifted the entire political discourse far to the right in ways that we are just beginning to recover from. Today however, working people are hungry for a new kind of politics that truly represents their interests. The conditions are ripe for the Left to capture the Democratic Party. We simply have to recognize that this is in fact our aim, and dedicate resources to achieving it.

Put Down Your Pitchforks: Why Insurrectionary Politics Doesn’t Work

The Russian Revolution continues to have a significant ideological influence on the socialist Left today, over 100 years after its occurrence. Some socialists want to, in one way or another, replicate the Russian Revolution in a modern Western country by advocating for an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. These revolutionary socialists usually argue that the history of the 20th century has demonstrated that the parliamentary road to socialism is a dead end, and that revolution is the only viable path toward socialist transformation.

Why popular movements opt for electoralism

The problem with this line of thinking is that while democratic socialism has never been attained through parliamentary means, no socialist revolution has succeeded in a Western democracy, either. In fact, there’s never been a historical example of an established parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage being overthrown by any popular revolt, socialist or otherwise. There’s a good reason for this: if a movement can convince a majority of the population to support a revolution against the government, it also has a majoritarian electoral coalition that could take the state peacefully. Popular movements tend to opt for the electoral route on this basis.

Furthermore, if the goal of the popular movement is simply to establish some different kind of democratic state with universal suffrage, it scarcely makes sense to overthrow the existing state instead of simply capturing it by electoral means. If the movement is confident that after the revolution, a majority of the population will vote it into office, it’s not clear why the revolution was necessary in the first place. It’s precisely the flexibility of democratic states, their ability to allow power to shift peacefully from one coalition to another, that make them so resilient to revolutions.

Petrograd Soviet
Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet (1917)

If, on the other hand, the goal of the movement is to replace parliamentary democracy with another form of government, different kinds of problems arise. Some revolutionaries, for example, want to mimic the Russian Revolution by establishing a kind of “soviet republic,” where workers elect delegates to a local council, which in turn elects delegates to a higher level council, and so on in a pyramidal fashion. But our limited historical experience with soviet republics is not very promising. The several layers of indirect elections make them much less accountable to the public than parliaments are, not moreso. When the Bolsheviks decided to dissolve the Russian Constituent Assembly in favor of a purely soviet government, they paved the way for Stalinist absolutism. Local soviets weren’t able to effectively discipline higher level soviets, and as opposition parties were outlawed one-by-one, the soviets became nothing more than a rubber stamp on the decisions of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg predicted this grim result in 1918:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule.” – The Russian Revolution

If we want to avoid a replay of Stalinist dictatorship, and stay true to our name as democratic socialists, we should oppose the idea of a soviet republic. And regular working people throughout history have had the good sense to reject soviets, too. During the May 1968 events in France, workers spent weeks on general strike throughout the country and occupied many factories. But the French working class didn’t demand a soviet republic: they simply demanded fresh elections to parliament, so that they could elect a left-wing government. While workplace democracy is worth supporting, it should be viewed as a supplement to parliamentary democracy, not a replacement for it.

The democratic state commands legitimacy

Another reason why popular revolutions simply don’t happen in established democracies is that, for the most part, working people in these societies don’t have sufficiently strong grievances against the state to motivate them to support a revolution. Historically, revolutions have tended to occur when the state loses all legitimacy with its citizens, to the point that the army and the police start to refuse orders from the government and side with the masses. These legitimacy crises are usually caused by bloody, convulsive wars such as World War I or World War II.

But today is by far the most peaceful time in human history. Since 1945, wars between states have declined precipitously, particularly among developed capitalist nations. While resource shortages caused by climate change might lead to a modest uptick in war in the coming decades, we shouldn’t expect a World War III any time soon. National economies are more integrated than ever before, with multinational corporations making up most of the world gross domestic product. This makes it much more difficult for states to justify wars, since the economic interests of the home country are closely tied to the economic interests of neighboring countries.

Additionally, while working people still lack the kind of economic security that socialists advocate, it must be recognized that living standards have increased dramatically since the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian workers who supported the Bolshevik insurrection were used to working 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week, in exchange for wages that assured them a deeply impoverished existence. When workers’ lives are this horrible, it’s understandable why they might support an insurrectionary overthrow of the government. Short of this, however, working people are much more inclined to simply vote different people into office in the hopes of improving their living standards.

When a popular movement wins a commanding majority in parliament, it immediately inherits all the legitimacy associated with the democratic state. As long as the elections are fair, no one can question that the new government is a reflection of the popular will. The same cannot be said of governments borne of insurrections. Revolutionary governments tend to be staffed with military figures, who use naked violence to establish their authority. Opposition voices are often censored, leading to rumbling discontent. This is not what democratic socialists should be fighting for.

The democratic road to socialism

While many social democratic parties around the world were founded on an orthodox Marxist program, which advocated a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, over the 20th century these parties began to shy away from their revolutionary roots and came to see the wisdom of the parliamentary road to socialism. Even many of the Communist Parties, which for decades were staunch defenders of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, came to realize in the 1970s that insurrection simply wasn’t on the cards in advanced capitalist nations. These “Eurocommunists” argued that a socialist transformation could be achieved through mass mobilizations of workers in support of a democratically elected socialist government.

Poulantzas old

Nicos Poulantzas, one of the leading theorists of the Eurocommunist movement, critiqued the orthodox Marxist view of the state, which held that the state is simply an institution of capitalist class rule over the workers that needs to be smashed. Poulantzas recognized that democratic states are much more flexible and dynamic than this. Class struggle occurs inside the state itself, as parties and factions representing differing social groups battle inside parliament and the state bureaucracy to shape state policy. Given this more sophisticated view of the state, Poulantzas argued that socialist parties should seek to capture the capitalist state through elections and thereby transform state institutions to make them suitable for the administration of democratic socialism.

As with any strategy, however, there are many ways in which the parliamentary road to socialism can go wrong. When socialists find themselves at the helm of a capitalist state, they are entrusted with the task of administering capitalism. With each successive socialist policy that is introduced, capitalists are made to feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state faces a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers stop investing and flee the country. This places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The historical failure of elected socialist governments to move beyond capitalism is itself a product of the tremendous legitimacy that advanced democratic states command. Things simply haven’t gotten bad enough for the state and for workers to make the economic chaos associated with a socialist transition seem worth it. This tells us two things. Firstly, this points to the crucial importance of political integration. Large, politically integrated states have much more freedom to do things that harm capital than smaller states, because they more capable of keeping capital flight under control and can hold out against a drop in foreign trade. This makes the backlash from capitalists less of an issue. Small countries like the UK, France, or Spain simply can’t go socialist on their own. The United States, on the other hand, would be a much more fertile ground for a socialist transition, as would a more politically integrated European Union.

Secondly, socialists need to be prepared to stick out for the long haul. Capitalism can only be ended in response to a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. It will likely take many decades for a crisis like this to occur, but we can be confident the rising tide of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, socialists should push the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright democratic socialist future.

Why Police & Prison Abolition is a Bad Idea

The complete abolition of police and prisons has become a popular demand on the socialist Left in recent years. Many have gone so far as to argue that “abolition” should become a central pillar of the socialist project:

“We are resolute in our conviction that the police and the prison system have no place in a socialist world. Strong, well-resourced communities don’t require repression to keep order. There is nothing democratic, nor socialist about police and prisons. The abolition of the police and prison system may seem impossible, but if abolition is unworkable, then so too is socialism.” – Praxis slate for DSA National Political Committee

When most regular people hear about the idea of abolishing the police and prisons, however, they tend to respond with confusion and disbelief. What does it even mean to abolish police? Who will protect innocent people from anti-social behavior? And don’t we need to isolate dangerous people from the rest of society? These are questions which the abolitionist movement has yet to answer in a satisfactory way.

What does prison abolition mean, anyway?

Most abolitionists recognize that even in a dramatically more just society, people will still seriously harm one another, and that society must have a way to deal with this. For example, prison abolitionist Jeannie Alexander writes in Abolition Journal:

“To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.”

This is reasonable as far as it goes. But it’s not clear what the difference is between Jeannie Alexander’s idea of “social separation” and the most humane prisons in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. Norwegian prisoners enjoy a strikingly high standard of living, with high quality private accommodations, a variety of options for entertainment and learning, and many opportunities to socialize with other inmates. The best behaved inmates even get their own home on prison property— watch!

Not only are Norway’s prisons humane, they’re effective, too. Just 20% of Norwegian prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of being released, compared to 77% in America. The Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service describes its rehabilitation-centric philosophy as follows:

“Prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more. That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.”

Socialists should look to Norway’s prison system as a model. But Norwegian prisons are still prisons, because inmates don’t have the freedom to leave. Until medical science develops some kind of “cure” for evil— a drug that would make it impossible for people to intentionally harm one another— we will have to forcibly isolate dangerous people from the rest of society until they are rehabilitated. And even with a cure for evil, we would still have to force criminals to take it.

The fundamental fact that prison abolitionists overlook is that even the most humane societies must use force to protect the social order. While we can dramatically reduce the incidence of crime by guaranteeing a high standard of living for all, it’s nevertheless inevitable that some people some of the time will engage in anti-social behavior, and when this happens society must be prepared to use organized violence (arrest, imprisonment) to neutralize the threat. Talk of “abolishing” prisons and police allows us to engage in utopian thinking, by pretending that it’s somehow possible to do away with all force and violence in the administration of a civilized society. It’s not.

Police officers are actually good

Cop AbolitionAbolitionists argue that the function of police is not to prevent individual crime, as we might naively assume— it’s to crush popular revolts and to protect the property of the rich. This means that police are an irredeemably reactionary force that must be abolished, rather than reformed.

But if the police are simply servants of the wealthy elite, it’s somewhat of a mystery why police spend most of their time preventing theft and assault, and a vanishingly small amount of time in riot gear. This idea that police only exist to protect rich people stems from a distorted understanding of how the state works and what its function is. The state isn’t inherently on any one “side” of the class struggle. Rather, the state mediates between various different social groups and tries (and often fails) to maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence among all of them. This does mean that the state will tend to protect the property of the rich— but it will also work to prevent individual crime, and it will even give protections to workers if it feels that this is necessary to maintain order. Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, working people are better off with the state than they would be without it.

Police killings are mostly an American problem

Police abolitionists contend that the violence that American police forces inflict on poor and working people, especially people of color, is an inevitable outgrowth of the institution of policing itself which outweighs whatever benefits the police might provide. The data, however, simply do not support this view. On the contrary, they show that police in other developed nations almost never kill civilians.

US vs. UK

In the United Kingdom, for example, just six civilians were killed by police from 2016 to 2017. It’s hard to imagine that any hypothetical replacement for the police that abolitionists might dream up could ever achieve a lower civilian death rate than this. In the United States by contrast, 972 civilians were killed by police over the same period— thirty-three times more police killings per capita than the UK. This tells us two things. First of all, it’s entirely possible to have a policing system that kills civilians at very low rates, probably close to the theoretical lower limit of what’s possible. Secondly, the comparatively high rate of police killings in the United States must be due to America-specific factors, rather than universal characteristics of policing itself.

One major factor is obvious: most American police officers are armed, and they are forced to deal with armed civilians much more frequently than police in any other developed nation. It should be no surprise that police killings are dramatically lower in countries where patrol officers are unarmed, such as the United Kingdom or Japan. Unfortunately, however, disarming the police isn’t on the cards in the US any time soon. Given the high concentration of guns in civilian hands in the United States, any attempt to take guns away from police would lead to an unacceptably sharp increase in both police and civilian deaths. If we wanted to disarm the police, we would first have to confiscate hundreds of millions of guns from American civilians, followed by a dramatic tightening of gun laws across the country. Given the Second Amendment and the deeply ingrained gun culture of the United States, this is a politically impossible task.

We need better police, not no police

In recent years, some Black Lives Matter activists who adhere to the abolitionist paradigm have taken up the slogan, “Defund the Police.” The idea is that, since our end goal should be to eliminate the police, socialists should oppose all increases in police presence in crime ridden neighborhoods or additional funding to police departments, no matter the circumstances. But given the evidence from the social science literature (see Chalfin & McCrary 2012) indicating that increases in police presence do indeed reduce crime rates, the idea of “defunding the police” is positively irresponsible in most cases.


Defunding the police is also very unpopular, among Americans of all races. Polling by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research has found that the vast majority of African-Americans (81 percent) would oppose any reduction in police presence in their communities, even if it meant they would pay substantially less in taxes. Strikingly, black Americans are actually more than twice as likely as whites to support an increase in police presence in their neighborhoods. These statistics clearly demonstrate that police abolitionism is an extremely fringe position among people of color, as well as the American public as a whole. The idea that it’s somehow “racist” to oppose police abolition is laughable. Abolitionists don’t speak for people of color— the vast majority of workers of color disagree with them.

How to transform the criminal justice system

Recognizing the necessity of police and prisons doesn’t mean that socialists can’t have a radical, transformative vision for the criminal justice system. The United States in particular has a serious problem with mass incarceration, and our legal system shows clear economic and racial biases. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Here are just some of the demands that socialists should be fighting for:

  1. End cash bail.
  2. End the death penalty.
  3. End mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
  4. End private prisons.
  5. Establish a single-payer legal system where everyone, including the rich, is provided with free, equal legal representation from the state.
  6. Legalize marijuana; decriminalize all other drugs. Retroactively expunge the records of nonviolent drug offenders.
  7. Mandate body cameras for all police officers.
  8. Overhaul the prison system with rehabilitation as its central goal. Norway should be a model.

The American Left would do well to take a page out of the book of the British Labour Party on this issue. Labour has taken a sharp turn to the Left in recent years, thanks to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its party leader in 2015. But the committed socialists at the head of the Labour Party clearly don’t have a problem with advocating for an expansion of the police force. Labour’s manifesto calls for recruiting 10,000 more police officers across Britain, to reverse cuts that the Conservative government has made to police departments in recent years:

Labour understands that police officers are public servants, just like teachers and firefighters, and that our communities are safer with them than without them. Let’s be more like the Labour Party.

The Left Has a Golden Opportunity to Take Over Congress in 2020

Bernie Sanders will likely run for president again in 2020. Several reports have confirmed that he is at least “considering” a presidential run, and it’s clear that many of his closest advisers, including his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, are strongly encouraging him to jump in the fray.

We should really hope that he is running, because polls going back all the way to 2015 have  shown that he is the Democratic candidate who is most competitive against Donald Trump in a general election match-up. He is also by far the most viable democratic socialist presidential candidate we are likely to see for the next several years. There is no other politician on the Left who has the name recognition, favorability ratings, experience, and activist base that Senator Sanders has.

When Sanders first started his campaign in 2015, one of his biggest stumbling blocks was his lack of name recognition, especially when compared to that of Hillary Clinton. He began the campaign with name recognition in the single digits, and had to gradually overcome that barrier over the course of the primary season. In 2020, however, he will likely have more name recognition than any other candidate in the Democratic primary race (except perhaps Joe Biden). This will make him the front runner from the start.

If Sanders does decide to run for president next year, he will likely win the Democratic nomination. If he wins the nomination, he is likely to become president. This means that a Sanders presidency in 2020 is a serious possibility, and it’s something that the Left needs to prepare for well in advance.

Sanders could enable a left-wing wave in Congress

As I argued in my last post, socialists can work toward capturing the Democratic Party by enthusiastically running candidates in Democratic primary elections. The usual difficulty with winning (congressional) primaries, though, is that they require a significant amount of financial and organizational resources. And in order to win a Congress that could actually enact a robust social democratic program, we will need to win hundreds of primary elections, in one fell swoop.

Bernie OcasioThis may seem virtually impossible, given the current limited capacities of the American Left. But a Sanders presidential campaign could give the Left the shot in the arm it needs to start winning primaries on a mass scale. Sanders could endorse and actively support hundreds of Berniecrat primary challengers across the country, turning his campaign into a movement to capture the entire federal government. He could invite each endorsed candidate onto the stage with him at campaign rallies, mention their names in the press, and use his campaign field offices to get out the vote for local Berniecrats, alongside Sanders himself. This would bring desperately needed media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteer power to down-ballot Berniecrats.

But in order to make this movement a reality, we will need to start recruiting leftist candidates for Congress well in advance— ideally right now— while ramping up our mobilizing capacity for 2020. The Democratic Socialists of America in particular, with our 46,000 dues-paying members, can play a key role. DSA should prepare to flex its muscle by passing a priorities resolution at its 2019 national convention calling on chapters to recruit or endorse over 150 democratic socialist candidates in congressional races all over the country. We should do something like this even if Sanders doesn’t run for president, but if he does, it will make winning congressional primaries all the more important.

Legislative priorities for a Sanders administration

We have a lot of work to do, and we will need to be in power for quite a while in order to accomplish it all. It will be of the utmost importance that we change state policy in ways that ensure that this left-wing wave in Congress will translate into a long term shift in the balance of class forces in American society. With this in mind, a Sanders administration will need to prioritize pushing through those policies that will make the most palpable impact on voters’ lives. This in turn will win Berniecrats a lot of enduring support going into the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

  1. Medicare for All
    Establishing a single-payer healthcare system in the United States should be the top priority of a Sanders administration. This would make a material improvement in the lives of most Americans. It would quickly become a social program that Republicans won’t dare rolling back.
  2. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour
    Increasing the minimum wage would also make a dramatic improvement in the lives of millions of Americans. This would help boost turnout for democratic socialist candidates in Congress among working-class voters going into the 2022 midterm elections.
  3. Trillion-dollar green infrastructure program
    It’s well known that the United States has some of the oldest, poorest quality infrastructure in the Western world. We also desperately need to invest in transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels. We can do both, while creating millions of living wage jobs, with a trillion dollar green infrastructure program. Those employed by such a program would become very likely Berniecrat voters in 2022 and 2024.
  4. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system for federal office
    One of the biggest hurdles to getting democratic socialists elected is the need for campaign money. Neoliberals will always tend to have a fundraising advantage, since they are able to solicit donations from business interests. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system would go a long way to correcting this imbalance and ensuring Berniecrats can keep getting elected in the years to come.
  5. Making public universities tuition-free
    Ending tuition at public colleges and universities will further solidify an already strong block of Sanders voters: students and young people.
  6. Mandating two weeks paid vacation for all workers
    American workers are among the most overworked in the world. Mandating at least two week of paid vacation for all workers will endear working people across the country to the Sanders administration.
  7. Making Election Day a paid federal holiday
    Mandating that employers give noncritical workers a paid day off on Election Day— for both midterms and presidential elections— would significantly boost turnout among poor and young voters, thereby helping Berniecrats get elected.
  8. Pass a Labor Bill of Rights
    As I discussed in my first post on this blog, the labor movement has been in decline for the past few decades, for a combination of technological and political reasons. The most effective way to revive organized labor is to enact aggressively pro-union legislation. This would include a ban on state-level “Right to Work” laws and legalizing card check union drives. A strengthened labor movement could in turn mobilize workers to vote and volunteer for Berniecrats running for elected office.

If we are able to enact even half of this agenda, it will go a long way toward rebuilding the New Deal coalition that kept Democrats in control of the federal government, almost uninterrupted, from 1932 to 1968. Back then, FDR was able to stitch together a voting block that united Northern blue collar workers, racial minorities, and rural and suburban whites based on their common class interests. And we might just have an opportunity to bring these disparate groups back together again, starting in 2020.

The Left Can Capture the Democratic Party- And Nothing Else Will Work

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.

McGovernDuring 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.

Tony Blair‘s election as leader of the Labour Party showed that member-based parties are not immune to capture by business interests

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.

Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 was made possible by the defection of Dixiecrats to the Republican Party

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.

Jeremy Corbyn Resumes Election Campaign With Press Conference On Defence

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.

Party identification

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.

Spoiler effect

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.

Angela MERKEL, Martin SCHULZ.
In Germany, a country with PR, the “grand coalition” between the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD has facilitated the rise of the far right

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.

Our RevolutionAll 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.

In Defense of Electoralism

Just last month, the Democratic Socialists of America made national headlines by securing its first seat in Congress with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Ocasio-Cortez refused all corporate campaign contributions and ran on a robust social-democratic platform that included Medicare for All, tuition-free college education, and a federal job guarantee. As a result of this victory, DSA’s membership has ballooned to over 45,000 members over the last three weeks.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t alone. Over the last year, DSA has enjoyed unprecedented electoral successes, with 15 DSA members elected to public office in the 2017 elections. These electoral victories have substantially boosted the profile of democratic socialist politics- so much so that New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has started describing herself as a democratic socialist! The vital lesson to draw from these victories is that electoral politics is an essential terrain of struggle, and that we need to focus our energies on it much more heavily going forward.

Movements vs. electoral politics: a false dichotomy

There are many in the socialist movement, however, who want to resist the conclusion that we ought to devote more of our resources to electoral politics. These activists tend to argue that “movement building” and “grassroots organizing” are the only true drivers of social change, and that electoral politics can only play a secondary role:

“If we want meaningful social change, or even basic progressive reforms, the electoral road leads us into a strategic cul-de-sac. Instead of better politicians, we need popular power — independent, self-managed and combative social movements capable of posing a credible threat to capitalism, the state, white supremacy and patriarchy.”

The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power

This view, however, depends on an overly abstract and nebulous conception of what it means to build an effective social movement. “Movements” change nothing in and of themselves. For a movement to be effective, it must be organized around concrete demands on specific institutions. These demands inspire working people to get involved in the movement, and they serve as a concrete measure of the progress that a movement has made.

The failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated the crucial need for demands. When movements lack concrete demands, they tend to quickly fizzle out without achieving much of anything. Regular people do not have patience for movements that don’t promise any material improvements in their lives.

Where does power lie?

Movements can target a wide range of institutions, but the most obvious target for working-class demands is the capitalist state. The state is the only institution in society with the ability to collect taxes, print money, and enforce laws. The entire capitalist system is at the mercy of the state for its continued existence, so if we can change state policy, we can force capitalists to do our bidding. It’s no surprise that nearly all of the concrete demands that socialists are fighting for today, like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a $15/hour minimum wage, are demands on the state. And in our society, the easiest way to change state policy is to win elections.

In addition to the state, working people can also make demands directly on employers. This is what the trade union movement has always been about: demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more job security directly from the bosses. Historically, organized labor formed the organizational and financial backbone of working-class and socialist movements. But it’s important to recognize that after a decades-long decline in membership, organized labor is now a shadow of its former self. While it should be possible to modestly strengthen organized labor in the medium term, we cannot expect it to return to the strength it enjoyed in the 1950s. The transition to a service-based economy has fundamentally disempowered labor in the workplace, and the rising tide of automation will ensure that this trend continues into the future. Ironically, the one thing that could restore the labor movement to its former glory would be a dramatic change in state policy favoring unions. Indeed, it was the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which gave legal rights to labor unions for the first time, that precipitated the first major spike in union membership in the US.

Food_not_bombsThose who are uncomfortable engaging with state power often argue for a third strategy for socialist organizing: “building the new society in the shell of the old.” This anarchist concept involves building alternative institutions like worker cooperatives, mutual aid networks, or neighborhood councils, in an effort to prepare the groundwork for an entirely new social system at some point in the future. But while alternative institutions can often be helpful, they are severely limited as a strategy for social change. Merely demonstrating alternatives to the status quo does not build the power needed to transform society in the face of an increasingly powerful state machine. Socialists need to win state power, not make futile attempts to fight the state from below.

Building a movement to win state power

Given the limitations of other tactics, building the capacity of the Left to win elections is the single most important thing socialists should be working on. Socialist, labor, and progressive organizations should run candidates for office on platforms centered around universal social programs and class-based grievances. Whenever possible these candidates should publicly identify themselves as “democratic socialists,” even if they don’t explicitly advocate for public ownership of the means of production. At this stage, it is more important to popularize and destigmatize the idea of “democratic socialism” than it is to fill it with clear anti-capitalist content.

We should strive to aggressively primary any incumbent Democrat who does not enthusiastically endorse a robust social democratic program. The Tea Party has been very successful at pushing the Republican Party far to the right, largely through the threat of primary challenges to sitting Republicans. There is no reason we can’t do the same to the Democrats. It’s not even necessary for all of our primary challenges to succeed- as long as we can make credible threats to kick Democratic politicians out of office, incumbents will be forced to support social democratic demands.

None of this will happen on its own, of course. While the Tea Party was able to rely on the generous funding of billionaires to bankroll its primary campaigns, the Left will have to get much more creative. In order to consistently win thousands of primaries and general elections across the country, year after year, we will need to build a powerful network of civil society organizations, ideally federated together into a single coalition. Organizations like DSA, Our Revolution, and Brand New Congress can play a key role, alongside progressive labor unions and other left-wing groups at the local and regional levels.

Because of the long-term decline of organized labor, we can no longer rely on unions to be the primary source of funding for socialist electoral campaigns. But the good news is that the Internet is making big money much less important. Fewer and fewer voters are watching TV ads— by far the largest expense for traditional campaigns— and social media has opened the door to mass fundraising and outreach. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was able to unseat an incumbent who outraised her 10 to 1, because she was able to effectively leverage social media and an army of volunteers. And when socialists like Ocasio-Cortez get into office, we can enact laws that will tip the scales in favor of the Left, such as public campaign financing and automatic voter registration.

The endgame

The success of Tea Party-style primary challenges in shaping state policy should tell us something about how the state functions in capitalist society. The state is not a tool directly wielded by the capitalist class to further its immediate interests, as many orthodox Marxists have argued. Elected officials and other state actors enjoy much more autonomy than this- but their decisions are constrained, pulled and prodded by the myriad social forces that threaten the state’s order, and the careers of the politicians who run it.

As we build our power inside the state, the need for a socialist transformation of society will gradually become apparent. With each successive social-democratic reform, capitalists will feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state will face a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers begin to disinvest, fleeing the country to seek refuge somewhere more friendly to business interests. When business confidence collapses, this places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: Portugal in 1974, France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The history of the socialist movement tells us that capitalism can only be ended in conjunction with a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. Such a severe legitimacy crisis has never occurred in a developed capitalist country- but we can be sure that the steady encroachment of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, our job as socialists is to build our capacities to win elections, pushing the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright socialist future that awaits us.