Groundwork to a Socialist Party: A Democratized Caucus within the Democratic Party


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by Alexander Kolokotronis and Sam Nakayama

 

(Image of vTaiwan process from pol.is)

 

Since its first major upticks in membership, the question of Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) electoral activity has loomed large. How should socialists relate to the Democratic Party? Should establishing or operating as a third party even be an aspiration? And how can we even get there? How do we at least keep our options open? Once seemingly sectarian debate topics, are now live political questions. Some have called for establishing a third party. Others see mass volunteer canvassing as a vehicle to contest for power within the Democratic Party whilst pushing it to the Left. There is another option, hitherto unexplored in the United States: a democratized caucus within the Democratic Party.

While many in DSA have looked to the U.K. Labour Party and Scandinavian social democracy, more relevant answers may come from elsewhere. DSA’s electoral activity has gained clout with Congressional primary victories from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rasheda Talib. The flames of contention over DSA’s electoral activity have been fanned by NYC DSA’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon for the New York gubernatorial race, and by Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Andrew Cuomo. Traditional social democratic party mechanisms and structures are appearing less relevant.

DSA National Director Maria Svart asserts that at the heart of democratic socialism is the cardinal principle to “democratize everything.” If electoral activity is itself supposed to perform a democratizing function, then more relevant insights and applications can be derived from elsewhere: the Pirate Parties of Iceland and Germany; the Net Party in Argentina; the municipal “confluences” proliferating throughout Spain; and the Taiwanese legislative agenda-setting system of deliberation. These electoral organizations and models of participatory governance can inform the structure of DSA’s inside-outside strategy in relation to the Democratic Party.  

A democratized caucus would operate according to principles and recent innovations in online and face-to-face participatory democracy. More specifically, it would be a caucus consisting of democratic socialist electeds who operate as something closer to mandated-delegates: voting the positions determined by constituents themselves through deliberative democratic processes. This could fulfill multiple tasks: create a distinct identity for elected democratic socialists from those beholden to the capitalist class within the Democratic Party; and facilitate the necessary consciousness-raising and political education to continuously push the Party to the Left or even fully breakaway from it.

 

DSA’s Existing Inside-Outside Strategy and Practice

Posing the question of socialist electoral activity is not to imply that DSA has taken no position on these matters. With a few exceptions, DSA has largely operated according to an “Inside-Outside Strategy” in relating to the Democratic Party. This inside-outside strategy has been an attempt at sustaining bottom-up pressure and therefore an informal accountability culture within the Democratic Party. It is also rooted in prior failures of all-in inside attempts at transforming the Democratic Party, as well as all-out attempts at constructing a third party. Since DSA is not the first leftist organization to attempt to enter the Democratic Party, it's important to remind ourselves of concerted left-wing efforts to realign the Democratic Party over the last fifty years.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was a first attempt by the New Left at realigning the Democratic Party on a state-by-state basis. The goal was to replace white supremacist Dixiecrat southern parties with black-led multi-racial working class party formations. The MFDP sought official recognition over Mississippi Dixiecrats by being seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. National party leaders prevented this from taking place. Further efforts were made again with Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 unsuccessful presidential primary run, largely based on his opposition to the Vietnam War. George McGovern’s 1972 successful bid for the party nomination resulted in a massive loss to Richard Nixon. Ultimately the New Left’s last gasp at party realignment occurred with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s. This was an outgrowth of the New Communist Movement (NCM). Attempts were then made outside of the Democratic Party. Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party presidential election run continues to be a source of tension among left-liberals, with George Bush’s slim but decisive margin of victory in Florida. Over thirty years after the Rainbow Coalition, NCM participants remind us of the shortcomings of their strategic entry into the Democratic Party. Nearly twenty years after Nader, the Left is continuously reminded of dead-ending third party politics on the national stage that lacks locally built-out party apparatuses.

There is also a more practical dimension to the inside-outside strategy. At the time of the 2017 DSA National Convention many believed it was far too early to provide more substance to the inside-outside approach. It wasn’t altogether clear how fast, if at all, self-identified socialists could achieve electoral victories, let alone make an electoral dent. It was not clear who the socialist candidates would be. Nor was it clear what many of the platform positions of National DSA and its local chapters would be. Many also did not want to get bogged down on the question of platform, for fear of sectarianism and distracting from on-the-ground outreach and activity. Socialism had momentum, and it was better to act now and focus on the larger questions later. Better to not put the cart before the horse by attempting to answer questions that themselves needed further clarification.

Positions on DSA’s electoral activity have ranged from vague involvement to hardline opposition. The latter is simple: running within the Democratic Party risks co-optation and eventual total absorption. The former is more varied. One position is that DSA should support candidates that move the Democratic Party to the Left. This characteristically means supporting DSA members who challenge centrists in Democratic Party primaries. NYC DSA’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon has complicated this position. Significant precedent has now been set to endorse candidates that are not themselves DSA members. This has left a number of DSA members uncomfortable and even more unsure about the form and content of the electoral question. For a number of DSA members opposing the endorsement this has been a confusing and sometimes irritating ordeal. Some have argued that a city chapter should not be able to endorse a statewide candidate on its own accord. That even as NYC DSA engaged in an internal democratic process on the question of endorsing Nixon, there is an issue of boundary and scale. In other words, NYC DSA endorsing Nixon effectively constitutes a city chapter speaking for an organization that holds a statewide membership. Therefore, even as the internal process of the chapter was democratic, in a larger framing it was anti-democratic because it affects members of DSA who were not involved in the NYC chapter’s vote.

What is telling in all of this is an observation from Dan La Botz that those for endorsing Nixon possessed “greater political unity”, while those in opposition “did not form a coherent political view.” An incoherent opposition to the Nixon endorsement is reflective of the lack of clarity around what it takes and means to construct an independent socialist workers’ party. Nonetheless, there are important expressions of “No to Nixon”. These are broader issues of: capacity depletion; false consciousness and ideological miseducation; as well as unaccountability.

Therefore, electoral activity should minimally not result in these above things, or even result in their opposite. That is to say, electoral activity should be a means of capacity-building; consciousness raising and ideological education; and leadership accountability. This includes building the capacity and raising the consciousness necessary for opening up the possibility of an independent socialist party. And yet this can only occur by acknowledging real-time constraints. DSA is not a political party, so it cannot run candidates on its own ballot line. Nor does it have the capacity to yet threaten taking on its own independent party status. Through a number of these high-profile races, it is clear that DSA is increasingly positioning itself as the left-wing of the Democratic Party. The contrast between the the Julia Salazar and Nixon campaigns is particularly instructive in this regard. Despite facing massive institutional opposition and a last minute media firestorm, exhaustive and thorough DSA organizing gave Salazar the edge in her New York City electoral district. On the other hand, at the statewide level, DSA was unable to field the resources to carry Nixon to victory over the entrenched Cuomo machine.

Like movements of the past, DSA runs the real possibility of a dire conflict over the character of the organization’s electoral politics. At present, DSA chapters often allow space for many types of organizing, from electoral, to tenant organizing, to prison abolition. Yet, more electoral success will create significant powerful factions that see electoral politics as a way to connect to financial resources and power. Such factions may simply decide that playing within the limited scope of the two-party system is the best way to survive and reproduce, and convert DSA into just another Democratic Party front like the Rainbow Coalition. A front that is to be discarded when political winds shift, or even worse, to take the form of an impotent social democratic party of technocrats, like Greece’s Syriza. Nonetheless, whatever one’s position on electoral politics, it is clear that DSA’s electoral success is bringing in new members by the thousands. As a result, the largest looming question over DSA’s electoral activity is what the organization’s relationship is to the Democratic Party. Since Bernie Sanders’s run, proposals have been put forward that pave the way to a democratized socialist caucus, and in their gaps also demonstrate the need for such a caucus.

 

Proposals for a Dual-Party

The inside-outside approach has been conceptualized in different ways. DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus member Mason Herson-Hord writes that the dual-party is an organization in which “its platform, its policies, its leadership…rest in the democratic decision-making of a dues-paying mass membership.” It is an organization that “drafts its own candidates, funds them, and runs them in Democratic primaries to build its power without counterproductive focus on maintaining an independent ballot line.” In conceptualizing this as a “dual-party”, Herson-Hord provides naming, titling, and greater bandwidth to an independent electoral approach advanced by Seth Ackerman.

In Jacobin Magazine Ackerman asserts that “A true working class party must be democratic and member controlled.” Following Ackerman’s assertion of democratic member party control, he writes that such an organization must be “independent—determining its own platform and educating around it. It should actually contest elections. And its candidates for public office should be members of the party, accountable to the membership, and pledged to respect the platform.” The party platform is key, as within a democratic member controlled organization the policy platform is a production of the membership itself. In other words, it is a production of the popular classes themselves. According to Ackerman, none of this has to do with having a separate ballot line.

Seeking a separate ballot line was where the 1990s U.S. Labor Party made a mistake. By positing itself as formally independent from the Democratic Party, “the Labor Party had to start with the assurance that it wouldn’t play spoiler politics and that it would [first] focus on building the critical mass necessary for serious electoral intervention.” Upon noting the Labor Party’s failure to mount any significant electoral challenge, as well as repressive electoral laws in the United States, Ackerman wisely asserts that “We have to stop approaching our task as if the problems we face were akin to those faced by the organizers of, say, the British Labour Party in 1900 or Canada’s New Democratic Party in 1961. Instead, we need to realize that our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore. Rather than yet another suicidal frontal assault, we need to mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency. In short, we need to think about electoral strategy more creatively.” This is evident in the context of New York State, where one might make a more direct comparison to the “United Front” parties of the People’s Republic of China. These parties are wholly controlled by the reigning Communist Party. In New York State, the Working Families Party (WFP) is often held up by trade-unionists and their academic supporters as a potential challenger to the mainstream Democratic Party. Yet, WFP often veers to the right in key moments, currying favor with the establishment come general election. During the run-up to the 2018 Democratic Primary, the WFP endorsed Joseph Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He was still on their ballot line for the general election.

This brings us back to Ackerman. For all the talk of democratic member control of electoral activity, Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a New Party” is largely focused on machinations and devices for selecting those who will ultimately be the real decision-makers. Yet, as Ackerman himself notes, the problem with “prevailing” progressive and Left challenges within the Democratic Party is that they “cede all real agency to professional politicians.” Ackerman does not provide a full alternative to this last but critical dimension. Ackerman offers significant insights on electoral restrictions and how to bypass them. He also effectively argues for democratic member organizational control, the possibilities for mounting electoral guerrilla insurgency, and the importance of policy platform. Yet, gaps remain in Ackerman’s proposal for building and endowing base-level membership with real effective agency. That is to say, how to maximally ensure that members are an electoral organization’s “sovereign power”, as he states members should be.

With municipal, state, and national electoral success of DSA members the question of accountability and member control is taking on a different content and form. One less based on PAC money, and more on a growing base of socialists. Therefore, the question is how to accord the principles and positions put forward by Ackerman with an orientation towards capacity-building; consciousness raising and ideological education; and leadership accountability. A smart strategy will expose the latent contradictions between the democratic rhetoric of the Democratic Party and its actually-existing practices that put power in the hands of party bosses and functionally demobilizes ordinary people. Regarding this, one option that has not yet been stated or explored: a democratized caucus within the Democratic Party.

 

Another Electoral Politics is Possible: Designing a Democratized Socialist Caucus

Whatever strategic approach is taken moving forward, one thing it must endow socialists with is options. The worst position for any agent or actor is that of being backed into a corner. Providing oneself with a sense of choice, and making choices available, is what has made even many anarchists critically supportive about recent social democratic electoral victories. The key component to this, however, is that such available choices accord with growing autonomy and remaining within a socialist framework.

Ocasio-Cortez strongly gestured at this when asked if she would support a Joseph Crowley nomination to represent her district. Ocasio-Cortez shocked and impressed many, stating “I represent not just my campaign, but a movement. We govern ourselves democratically. So I would be happy to take that question to a vote (our emphasis) and respond in the affirmative or however they respond.” Socialists should take this up, and adopt this notion as a guiding organizational principle for electoral activity. It is the constituency and movement that should possess agency. For all the talk of socializing healthcare, Ocasio-Cortez’s comment paints a picture of how representation itself can be democratized and socialized.

In what sense can this be an organizational principle for socialist electoral activity? With the election of a small but budding array of democratic socialists at different levels, there is talk of forming a “sub-caucus” within the Democratic Party. A socialist caucus, if you will. Some have half-jokingly remarked about a possible formation of a “Congressional Socialist Caucus”. Whatever the case, caucus building does not on its own accord amount to party-building, and certainly not to building mass organization. This is whether in terms of “realigning” the Democratic Party, or in building capacity for breakaway from the Democratic Party by putting its internal contradictions on full display.

A democratized socialist caucus means bringing the two together: member or constituent governance of an intra-party caucus. Such a formation can operate as a nascent vehicle for building an alternative to the Democratic Party. Or at least, it can make this logistically available through building capacity for breakaway and formal autonomy. The conceptual and practical tools for this are not to be found in the UK Labor Party or in Scandinavian social democracy. Here DSA leadership and members would be wise to look at new forms of party or electoral organizations around the world.

The Pirate Party in Berlin, Germany has structured itself according to “liquid democracy.” Specifically, “anyone (Pirate or not) can approach the Pirate Party board with a proposal concerning the city-state of Berlin. The proposal is then entered into the Liquid Feedback software and voted directly upon by the members of the party. The board is less a decision-making entity and more an administrative arm of the party.” Furthermore, through a platform called Liquid Feedback, “each Pirate can decide yes or no. If the Pirate is not interested or unfamiliar with the topic, he can delegate his vote to another Pirate, whose vote on the matter then counts as two, and so on.” Applied to the representative of a district or ward, they would simply vote in city council, in congress, or in parliament according to the judgment made by the participatory decisional process.

Whatever the bizarre public fallout and decline of the German Pirate Party, in Iceland the Pirate Party has been a mainstay political force also operating according to liquid democracy. In Argentina the Net Party formed after founders were unable to find an existing political party to utilize their online decision-making platform DemocracyOS. While it has yet to attain elected office, Net Party leaders have helped disseminate ideas about liquid democracy in the Anglophone world.

Contrary to the rocky electoral upswings and implementation of liquid democratic processes of the above, Spain and Taiwan have been host to more successful mass deliberative and participatory processes. Both in terms of levels of participation, internal horizontality, and policy-influence and outcome. In Spain, activists have made inroads within Barcelona and Madrid city governments, rolling out various neighborhood and online platforms for participatory budgeting, participatory urban design, citizens’ initiative, and creating spaces for stimulating civic life. These institutional-forms lend insight to what DSA elected officials could experiment with on the local level.

In Taiwan, the growth of participatory democracy came out of the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which saw a twenty-three day occupation of the Taiwanese Legislature in opposition to a trade deal with China. Organizer-technologists worked together to develop a system called vTaiwan that allowed for patient online consensus building with a minimum of trolling. Discussions appear first online, with comments—but no replies. Instead, participants can vote to agree or disagree with comments, and a machine-learning system clusters comments to show where divides or consensus exists. As noted in Technology Review, “Although there may be hundreds or thousands of separate comments, like-minded groups rapidly emerge in this voting map, showing where there are divides and where there is consensus. People then naturally try to draft comments that will win votes from both sides of a divide, gradually eliminating the gaps.” Discussions have gone from the online space into face-to-face discussions, notably over the status of Uber in Taiwan, involving “academics, industry experts, and representatives from...stakeholders.” Consensus reached online in the Uber discussion eventually led the Taiwanese government to adopt “new regulations along the lines vTaiwan had produced” with its volunteer citizen administrators. The Taiwanese government has adopted a similar system called Join, overseen by Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister a “leading hacker and Sunflower activist.” Both systems run on the Polis web platform.

Taiwan is an especially salient example of direct democratic deliberation given that the island did not have direct presidential elections until 1996. Taiwan was under single party rule via martial law from 1949 until 1987. If a young bourgeois liberal democracy like Taiwan can take significant steps towards direct democracy, surely an avowedly democratic socialist organization with fifty-thousand members can do the same.  

DSA could hire multiple staffers to administer processes that operationally draws on both vTaiwan and Liquid Feedback. These are processes that do not require a giant bureaucracy, but rather few staffers. Taiwan possesses over twenty-three million people. There is no reason a high energy fifty-thousand member organization cannot invest resources in experimenting with inclusive participatory processes at a variety of scales. These can be an entire ecology of participatory democratic processes and mechanisms for constituent-control. This goes beyond keeping electeds accountable. It creates innovative forms for scaled up radical democracy. If democratic socialist electeds are truly committed to a self-governing movement and “democratizing everything” then implementing different forms of constituent-control is necessary. Furthermore, the elected democratic socialist representative and attendant organizers would be opened up to devote their time to facilitating political education and socialist consciousness.

Inside-outside strategy presumes that socialists can minimally sustain a capacity to choose whether to operate inside or outside the Democratic Party on a given issue or campaign. With the continuous consciousness-raising and ideological education of constituents, socialists should strive build capacity such that they are not constrained by opposing forces and pressures within the Democratic Party. A democratized socialist caucus could be the groundwork to an independent socialist party, or an organizational form altogether different from traditional party politics.

 

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