By Michael A. Dover
Leo Casey's five theses, published here 1/23/2023, Jessica Benjamin’s 1/30/23 Combatting Authoritarianism: Don’t Forget Gender Politics and Abortion Rights, and Alexander Hernandez’s The Case for Re-Alignment, reprinted here 12/8/2022 from Socialist Forum, are all on target. They suggest full engagement with electoral politics should be a key element of DSA member activism. They also build upon the earlier advocacy of Susan Chacin’s It’s Time for DSA Members to Rally and Help Save Democracy.
But there are still Five Fallacies which prevent many DSA members from recognizing the wisdom of such perspectives, and the dangers of not engaging in electoral activism along with other forms of activism.
Fallacy One: Adopting these the left/center coalition strategy of the Five Theses means tailing after neoliberal Democrats instead of building socialist power.
Here is why this is a fallacy. Both at the local and national level, the results of the November 2022 and previous elections at all levels show that when democratic socialists run for office and are also qualified and personable candidates who run on a progressive and pragmatic platform, they are not only democratic socialists in long-term vision--who propose transformational changes--but also progressive pragmatists in short-term commitment.
If they demonstrate they are ready to work with other progressives and with liberals and moderates to win real reforms that can address human needs in the meantime, they can be elected and re-elected to office, even in the face of hostility by hardliners in DSA and others on the left who reject the Five Theses.
In some cases, such as the Pittsburgh election of Congresswoman Summers, the more "mainstream" Democrat and his supporters—who had opposed Summers in the primary—supported her in the general election. The bottom line is that running and sincerely seeking to elect such democratic socialists—and their introduction of critiques of contemporary capitalism—helps to build the power of socialist ideas. They move the entire political debate to the left.
Fallacy Two: Some might feel that the Five Theses mean that DSA should drop everything and liquidate itself as an independent political force in each election cycle, by merely supporting Democrats, many of whom are moderates, liberals or declared "centrists
Here is why that is a fallacy. DSA can and should decide—at each appropriate level—the extent to which we should encourage or recommend that our members support such Democrats as DSA members. However, such Democrats are also typically endorsed by the political action arms of unions, professional associations and issue-oriented groups we belong to. Sitting out the political action efforts of these groups is not an option.
Democratic Socialists should actively participate in calling for social and political action within such organizations. We should also, both as DSA members and through membership in such organizations, look to influence the platforms of those candidates, with the goal of gaining their support for progressive legislation that addresses the immediate needs of our constituencies and of working people and oppressed people specifically.
Also, by having permanent electoral campaign committees within our DSA locals—whose leadership is made of members in a variety of types of electoral action—we can reinforce the work of our other campaigns such as labor and issue-oriented campaigns.
Such electoral campaigns can encourage members to individually support candidates for office; support or oppose ballot measures and constitutional amendments; engage in voter registration, or support Working Families Party-endorsed candidates.
In my personal opinion, we may find a policy of non-endorsement of candidates builds DSA unity. It may be better if instead of debating whether to endorse particular candidates, we instead strongly encourage members to be involved in electoral action such as precinct-level canvassing, running for office, and supporting candidates without fear of censure and expulsion. This would empowers members to be independent-minded democratic socialists who will win respect across the political spectrum for socialist ideas.
Fallacy Three: The Five Theses prevent DSA from running the kinds of "cadre candidates" who can raise advanced demands and help build our “pre-party formation.”
Here is why this is a fallacy. A politically mature DSA can and must decide what kinds of candidates they should run in primary campaigns, based upon how red, purple or blue the voter base is in the areas where they are running and the nature of the race itself.
This is a tactical matter not a strategic matter or a matter of principle. In some cases, especially where there is an incumbent Democrat or Democrat-leaning non-partisan elected official, decisions have to be made based on the viability of winning such a race and the impact of the race on the possibility that our actions would end up boosting the likelihood of the election of a Republican or reactionary. Also, our commitment to what Bella Abzug called the struggle for representation of woman, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community should be kept in mind in our decisions.
In some cases, DSA could very well decide to run a candidate who runs a largely educational campaign which focuses on advanced demands and criticism of the problems of our current public policies. But it is important that the issues raised be related to the office at hand. You don't run for dog catcher by calling for the abolition of dog catchers or run for a non-partisan mayoral race down East by calling for closing of the Keystone pipeline. You do not run like a third party candidate who has complete disrespect for the Democratic Party’s registered voters, or who thinks there is a mass of independent or unregistered voters that are ready for the revolution, of only we reached out. I think that itself is a fallacy.
Fallacy Four: It makes no difference who is elected, Democrat or Republican. Given the highly unjust nature of the current system, supporting Democrats is merely supporting a lesser evil.
Here is why this is a fallacy. Thinking this way may have been more valid in periods when an entrenched MAGA-majority in the Republican party did not threaten our very democratic system. Furthermore, we must be careful, in our critiques of the flaws in our electoral processes and lack of sufficient voting rights, not to mirror the far right’s condemnation of the democratic process. We should very firmly uphold the Constitution and call for amendments, not call for fighting it or call for a new republic of some strange-to-Americans kind.
A reading of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington and its epilogue is instructive in that regard. The stakes are especially high for our very democracy at the present time. The election of Republicans will mean serious threats of growing authoritarianism and fascism in this country, growing attacks on the rights of women, and increased anti-immigrant violence and discrimination. Also, racism is at the root of MAGA Republicanism now just like it was at the roots of anti-Lincoln sentiment then.
Fallacy Five: Supporting the re-alignment strategy of the Five Theses merely postpones or even undermines the building of a worker's party which can advance a socialist revolution.
Here is why this is a fallacy. This is the least widely held fallacy among DSA members. But the hardline coalition in DSA is growing in strength and its key partners adhere to such a utopian belief system. This is pseudo-scientific socialism at its worst, often clothed in a misinterpretation of the lessons of the Marxian tradition.
For instance, as Vijay Prasad has recently pointed out, the left must avoid maximalist demands. Likewise, we must avoid absolutist interpretations of the nature of capitalism. As Kavita Krishnan has also eloquently pointed out, the essence of democratic socialism is respect for democracy, human needs and human rights.
The reality is that every major contemporary economy is a mixed economy of public, nonprofit, corporate, small business and family/household production and reproduction. The democratic socialist goal is to pragmatically ascertain the best mix of these sectors within each policy domain that can meet human needs in a way consistent with human rights, even if it means severely limiting and constraining certain property rights, particularly of monopoly and transnational corporations.
Such transformational changes are more likely during periods of rising expectations, when a foundation of progressive public policies has already been established of, and there is clamoring to advance them further and establish new entitlements and opportunities. We should work to advance the social, economic and constitutional rights enjoyed by the people, both gradually and in periods of major "omnibus" changes made possible by sustained periods of Democratic Party control of the Presidency and Congress.
This is a non-utopian means of winning truly significant advances for democratic rights and human rights. Furthermore, a commitment to such a peaceful road to democratic socialist-influenced social changes is what must distinguish DSA from hardline and far left leftist political trends of the kind which will never win majority support in the United States of America. This is the path forward for building DSA into a truly multiracial, mass voluntary association of democratic socialists who are independent of any cadre-like constraints on their freedom of action with the mass movements and electoral processes of our nation.
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