There is a common sense about democracy in the United States.
We elect people to government. By and large, we allow them to do their work. If we like their work, we re-elect them. If we do not like their work, we sometimes get angry, but that anger is mostly confined to the ballot box every two to four years. The power and agency afforded to one in this system is largely based on class: the wealthy are sought out for consult and decision-making, while the working class is almost entirely shut out of such channels of power completely.
This common sense complicates the everlasting tensions between the Left and the electoral process.
On one hand, the crafting of this two-party system is not natural, and is the product of a long line of decisions taken by the privileged and powerful to limit the acceptable realm of solutions to the problems plaguing our society. Barriers such as onerous signature requirements and the lack of alternative electoral options — such as fusion voting or proportional representation — means the choice that one is presented with on their November ballot often constitutes shades of the same. As such, socialists are right in denouncing the American political process as a kind of sham: democracy for the bosses and authoritarianism for the worker.
Yet national mythologies and common senses are rarely formed without at least some acquiescence from the working class, and it is no different with the electoral process. The truth of the matter is that, for now, the ballot box is the way that a plurality of the working class marks their political preferences. Because of this, socialists cannot afford to completely dismiss the electoral process, lest we be out-of-touch with the class that we seek to elevate, liberate, and emancipate.
So then, what is to be done?
A declaration of independence for the working class
There are many positives to be drawn from Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. The biggest one, of course, being that discussions about socialism are now becoming a part of the political mainstream. People who might have been afraid to publicly identify as socialist from fear of backlash or social isolation — remember that politics is as much social as it is anything else — are now signing up to join socialist organizations at a clip unseen since the days of Eugene Debs.
These new members are, in many cases, having a radicalizing effect on the organizations they have joined. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), for example, voted to leave the moribund Socialist International and supported resolutions calling for the abolishment of prisons and the disarmament of the police, as well as backing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian justice. These are organizational stances that would have been thought impossible coming from the DSA just two years ago, but with the organization having its youngest, most diverse, and most left-wing rank-and-file in its history, this is only the beginning of where the DSA could go.
But the work of the official organization that came out of the Sanders campaign — Our Revolution — is a bit different. Most of their work is still aimed at moving the Democratic Party to the left: supporting primary challengers to recalcitrant centrists, getting people elected to state and local Democratic Party organizations, and sounding the alarm about the defective processes within the party for ensuring that a certain level of actual democracy exists within the party.
The problem with that — as I have written here before — is that the Democratic Party is less of a party and more of a voluntary association. There are internal structures, but they are by-and-large meaningless. There is no way to withhold endorsement from elected officials who do not follow the party’s platform without spending millions of dollars in a primary. And, as we saw in 2016, the party has little power to exert any kind of influence over their top nominees. Unless, that is, I missed Hillary Clinton campaigning on a single-payer platform and a $15 an hour minimum wage.
This is a problem with American democracy in general, however, and the formation of one more left-wing party will not change that given the barriers that upstart parties face. Perhaps, then, it is time to reexamine the party form as a means of political organization, which is an argument that I will lay out in the very near future. But for now, given these challenges, it is time to consider a balance between abstentionism and electoralism.
Base-building must be the watchword
There are many threats that the working class faces; the threats are especially acute for those who are additionally marginalized and oppressed by virtue of who they are. In particular, fascist violence is on the rise, aided and abetted by a fawning media so desperate for a story that they were willing to bolster today’s white supremacists before a national audience in a way unseen in decades. As the violence spreads from New York City and College Park to Portland and Charlottesville, it is clear that we will not be able to vote this out of existence.
But that does not mean that we should completely leave the electoral arena. What is needed, then, is a refocus of our attentions towards what Louis Brandeis once referred to as the “laboratories of American democracy”: local governments.
On a selective basis, socialists should engage in local electoral politics. The number of seats on city councils, school boards, soil and water conservation districts, mosquito control districts, and many more offices that go uncontested are staggering, and signal a profound disconnect in the one area of democratic accountability that common sense tells us should be functioning.
We should be connecting these candidatures, however, to a level of political education and solidarity. For this reason, electoralism can never be a force for leftist change: the political party exists to impose discipline on its members and to win elections. Our charge is much larger, and more systemic, than that. But as one of many means of base-building, the electoral endeavors in early 20th-century Milwaukee, as well as those in the present-day like Richmond, Jackson, and Seattle show us the power of elections when the arena is one that is closest to the people that we are trying to serve.
Our work as socialists, at its core, is the expansion of democracy into as many areas of public life as possible.
We must go beyond the ballot box and declare that the shop floor be democratic. Education must be democratic. The allocation of public resources must be democratic. The expropriation of private resources for public good must be done democratically. When the Klan and their media-feted white supremacist fellow travelers come to town, we must turn out in force and make the commons a democratic arena by any means necessary. When they — and a disappointing number of people who are debatably on the Left — cry about “free speech”, we must respond that speech with anti-democratic and genocidal aims must be combatted not by the state but by the people, and that popular mobilizations with that aim are a hallmark of democracy.
Limiting the conception of the franchise to elections has been good for limited numbers of people, namely those whose wealth and accorded prominence earns them an automatic seat at the table. It is good for the corporations whose million-dollar lobbyists have the political muscle to kill policies that would make this world a little more equal and a little safer. It is good for the soulless political mercenaries who jump from campaign to campaign looking for nothing more than a paycheck and a notch on their belt. And it is good for those who end up occupying those high offices to do the dirty work of the wealthy.
It is time for something different. The construction of a new society requires that solidarity and democracy must be at the forefront of everything we do. No ballot alone is large enough and strong enough to carry that.