The left in the United States has a complex and convoluted relationship with the Democratic Party. Some see using the ballot box as a way to push for a progressive agenda, emphasizing “electability,” i.e. focusing on candidates and policies that are more likely to win come election time. Others believe that this strategy takes away from direct action by focusing limited resources on unreliable political candidates and limited measures that do not fully resolve social issues. The argument for at least some focus on electoral politics is bolstered by the fact that popular left-wing goals, including Medicare for All and the fight for a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage, require legislation to be enacted. Moreover, the Republican Party is a neofascist, xenophobic, fear mongering, extreme right wing party. While Democrats are, at best, a corporate-dominated center-left party with a history of attacking its left flank, they represent the only viable alternative to the far right Republican agenda. Supporting Democrats, given the alternative, is important. After all, Democrats are the only other political party with real power in a system designed to accommodate the existence of only two parties.
The Democratic Party has been called “the graveyard of social movements” because connecting social movements with establishment party politics often corrupts and distorts those movements. For example, while supporters of the Democratic Party are more likely to be supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is clear that the party itself is not a friend of the movement—especially after most House Democrats (including the “progressive” Keith Ellison) recently supported the Protect and Serve Act of 2018. This bill is known colloquially as a “Blue Lives Matter” bill, offering unnecessary additional protections for law enforcement officers on top of the myriad legal protections they already receive. These bills are reactionary responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and make it harder to protest against police brutality. Clearly, the Democratic Party does not always put the interests of its constituents first. By supporting bills that make it harder to protest, Democrats are actively working against left wing efforts to end police brutality and harassment, which disproportionally impact people of color. Democrats eat their own.
For those on the left who do choose to work with the Democratic Party, one obvious way to pressure elected officials is by challenging centrists in primary contests and/or running left wing candidates in general elections. This has been done recently with successes in areas that are not traditional liberal bastions, including Virginia, where socialist Lee Carter beat the Republican establishment with little help from the state Democratic Party, and Pittsburgh, where two young women socialists beat members of the Democratic Party machine in the primary.
Despite these successes, many on the left continue to be wary of directly supporting the Democratic Party because of the party’s history of coopting left-wing movements, watering down their demands, and forcing progressive activists to settle for less in the name of “political realities.” A recent example of this is the differences between Bernie Sander’s Medicare for All healthcare bill and former Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s Medicare X. Sanders’ single payer proposal would create a national healthcare service that offered everyone access to medicine. Kaine’s plan allows for a government insurance option for those who could not afford private coverage. This program would still include co-pays, making it hard for those on limited incomes to pay for coverage, an issue that Medicare for All is designed specifically to fix. Not surprisingly, the less comprehensive Medicare X is being touted as the more realistic option, despite also leaving large numbers of people in a precarious financial situation.
The Democratic Party has been called “the graveyard of social movements” because connecting social movements with establishment party politics often corrupts and distorts those movements.
The recent focus on Democratic Party infighting between the left and center obscures the reality that this is nothing new. One can even look at the most famous collectivist reforms in American history during the New Deal and see that it was filled with compromises that were designed to prop up capitalism in the face of legitimate threats from alternative economic systems, including Soviet communism, as well as more moderate socialist and labor reform efforts. When faced with the choice of supporting the robust safety net offered by socialism, the Democratic Party chose to merely limit the excesses of capitalism, ensuring that systemic exploitation and oppression continued. Similar to today, the party was dominated by economic and social elites with ties to industry and a natural proclivity for conservatism. The few who did reject this, including Vice President Henry Wallace, were isolated or kicked out of the party altogether.
Being stuck in the two-party framework has long been a source of consternation for leftists. Despite repeated attempts to either move the party in a left wing direction, or separate entirely, the Democratic Party remains a monolith that dominates left leaning politics in the United States. The Bernie Sanders campaign revealed several truths to those of us on the left in America. The first is that socialism is no longer a dirty word in American political discourse. Many Americans, especially younger Americans, are willing to at least entertain the arguments that socialists are making about income inequality and a revival of the American social safety net. Recent primary elections have bolstered the argument that young Americans especially are turning away from the dominant neoliberal political paradigm. While Sanders lost the primary, the excitement around his campaign has continued and a new American socialism has emerged, this one hoping to correct some of the race and gender issues that plagued previous socialist movements.
The other lesson from the Sanders campaign has been that the corporate interests that dominate the Democratic Party will work very hard to maintain their control over the party. Despite the energy generated by the Sanders campaign, and the failure of the mainstream Democratic Party to prevent the election of a neofascist to the office of President, the Democratic Party has worked to limit the influence of the left. While the Democratic Party is very interested in using the energy of the left, the party collectively is not interested in any substantial change in legislative strategy or personnel that would cause major donors to depart.
When the Democratic Party establishment is threatened, it instinctively punches left, making it extremely difficult to build a sustained progressive movement within the party. Take, for example, the ongoing campaign for governor of New York between artist and activist Cynthia Nixon and current governor Andrew Cuomo. When the left wing Working Families Party (WFP) endorsed the upstart Nixon, who is running to the left of Cuomo, they faced an intense backlash. Cuomo, a powerful political force in New York State, demanded that unions not endorse Nixon or they could “lose his number.” In response, several of WFP’s major union supporters withdrew their support from WFP. At the same time, however, Nixon’s involvement has driven Cuomo to the left on many issues including marijuana legalization. In this case, as the left is threatening the party establishment, Democrats have struck back both by trying to limit the influence of the left financially and by taking left wing ideas and promising to act on them. Both work to minimize the influence of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Progressive organizations inherently do not have deep pockets because few corporate donors are willing to support left wing causes, which are generally opposed to the goals of the moneyed elite. Additionally, promising reforms and enacting reforms are very different things. Andrew Cuomo has a history of making progressive promises that remain largely unkept.
So, does the Democratic Party corrupt progressive activism by taking away necessary and limited resources and diverting them to watered down “pragmatic” goals that show only a minimal return on the investment of time and resources? There is certainly a sizable contingent on the left who make that argument. There will always be an inherent tension between leftists and the Democratic Party because of differences at a fundamental level. The left is anti-capitalist and views capitalism as a major impediment to human advancement. The Democratic Party is a capitalist party. In the words of Nancy Pelosi: “We (America) are capitalists and that is just the way it is.” While it is certainly true that the United States is a capitalist country right now, the left collectively seeks to move beyond capitalism to a less exploitative economic system. Pelosi’s statement is just another piece of evidence that Democrats are out of step with the left.
While the Democratic Party is very interested in using the energy of the left, the party collectively is not interested in any substantial change in legislative strategy or personnel that would cause major donors to depart.
At its core, the Democratic Party is not interested in the kind of major systemic reforms that are required to bring about a socialist vision of equality. This is why the left should not invest entirely in the Democratic Party and should continue to work outside of party structures whenever possible. However, using the Democratic Party to gain access to the levers of political power must remain one tool out of many to build coalitions. While the Democratic Party in and of itself does not offer an ideal platform, leftists can use a place in the party to advance progressive causes.
At the end of the day, it is the job of Democratic Party leaders to win as many elections as possible. While this is something that the party seemingly forgot during the Obama administration, Democrats are making more of an effort to run candidates in areas that they had given up on in the early twenty-first century. For leftists, that means more opportunities to spread a populist message. The party could take on a more populist ideology supporting reform efforts to make the lives of average people better or move even further to the right under the guise of trying to appeal to Republican voters. The option they choose depends on the efforts of activists both inside and outside the party who work for a truly progressive agenda.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
Pingback: Pragmatism v. Purity?: The Left and Elections – The Anti-Capitalist