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.
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.
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.
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.