By Ann Robertson
The reason we have arrived at different conclusions about how to relate to the DP stems from the fact that we are operating in fundamentally different frameworks. Our side does not start with the category of the left but with the working class. We do not believe that capitalism can be reformed; it must be abolished because it is based on the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class. Capitalism contains a fundamentally perverse logic: in order for capitalists to survive competition, they must keep wages and benefits low. We believe that only the working class can abolish capitalism because capitalism cannot survive one day unless workers are willing to go to work and take orders. When we are atomized we have no power; when we are organized, we have all the power.
I want to begin with some history. Back in 1976 Michael Harrington, one of DSA’s founders, debated Peter Camejo on the very issue that we are debating today: should we be participating in the Democratic Party by supporting Democratic Party candidates. Peter Camejo argued forcefully that we should not. Michael Harrington, of course, was on the other side and presented the classic lesser evil argument: While the Democrat Jimmy Carter had his flaws, Harrington argued, he was certainly better than the Republican Ford. Let me quote Harrington: “If Ford wins, do you think the trade union movement is going to become more militant? … Don’t you understand that defeat demoralizes people? Defeat convinces people that you can’t beat city hall. If Ford wins, it will be understood by every political person in the United States and the world as a move to the right and people will act accordingly.”
But here are how things played out after Carter won the election. He immediately executed an about-face from his campaign rhetoric and embraced the neoliberal agenda. He cut corporate taxes, cut spending on social services that the working class depends on, raised defense spending, started deregulating key industries, including finance, signed into law the Hyde amendment, which barred using Medicaid funds for abortions, and invoked Taft-Hartley on striking miners, who responded in this way : They defied the injunction, they stayed out on strike, and they said: “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it.”
Four years later, when Reagan challenged Carter for the presidency, Reagan asked this simple question of the American public: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? And the American working class answered no. Fourteen percent fewer union households voted for Carter in his race against Reagan than voted for Carter four years earlier in his race against Ford. The American working class was worse off, and Carter lost his bid for a second term.
This trend has been continuing ever since. The position of the working class has been in a constant state of decline.
Here is how Robert Reich, life-long Democrat and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, has described the role of the Democratic Party:
“It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump.”
“Democrats have occupied the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and for four of those years had control of both houses of Congress. But in that time they failed to reverse the decline in working-class wages and economic security….
“They stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.”
We can entirely agree with Harrington when he argues that defeat demoralizes people?” Yes, it is demoralizing when the Republicans win and undermine the working class. And we can even grant that the Democrats are better than the Republicans. But it is even more demoralizing when the Democrats – the so-called friends of labor – win and again we are worse off afterwards. This is what we have been witnessing for decades, and this is what the lesser evil strategy has gotten us.
There is a second argument in support of running DSA candidates on the DP ballot line while criticizing the DP. I strongly disagree. This approach harms us more than it helps:
1. Our working-class power is derived first and foremost from organizing ourselves and putting up a collective fight for our interests, not from voting people into office while we remain atomized. The civil rights legislation got passed because of massive demonstrations, not by electing people to office. The huge worker upsurge in the 30s was responsible for us winning the right to organize and social security.
2. Elections will not by themselves create working-class power, but by running as socialists we can use them to educate people about how capitalism is not in the interests of the working class, how it is destroying the planet, making it unfit for human life and all life, how the DP is corrupt, and how it is a capitalist party that is first and foremost aimed at creating conditions favorable for capitalists to make profits. But when we run on the DP ballot line as Democrats, we undermine our critiques and make ourselves look like hypocrites by denouncing Democrats while running as one. And we are implicitly sending a message to the working class that we do not have confidence they, alone, can rise up and lead a revolution.
3. Perhaps worse, running on the DP ballot line has resulted in us seriously blurring class lines, muddling basic socialist concepts, and confusing people, including ourselves. We in DSA end up calling people like Sanders and AOC socialists, which they are not because they do not support abolishing large, private corporations, and they do not support the creation of a government run by the working class. That is why they are ok running in the DP. They think socialism is something along the lines of the New Deal. But as long as large corporations are allowed to exist, you can make all the corporate reforms you want, but once the working class sits back and relaxes, the corporations will slowly erode and revoke the reforms that we won. This is what history has taught us time and again.
4. The way to stop Trump is not by electing Democrats. That is what got us Trump in the first place, as Reich argued. The way to stop Trump is by massive street demonstrations, massive strikes, and by creating an independent, working-class party where we educate people about all that has been going on. This is how the people of Puerto Rico got rid of their corrupt governor.
5. One final point: When we organize ourselves and struggle collectively in solidarity in a democratic movement where everyone has an equal voice in deciding policy, where we are not just fighting for ourselves but for demands that are just and that are in the interest of the entire working class, where we stop acting as isolated individuals, and instead where our first principle becomes supporting one another, then we begin to create a new culture with a deep sense of community – and that is how the West Virginia striking teachers described their experience – and we begin to take the first steps towards revolutionizing our society. This is exactly what the people of Puerto Rico are doing. Once they built a sense of solidarity through massive street demonstrations, they proceeded to maintain the spirit of solidarity by creating People’s Assemblies, which are self-governing institutions along the same lines as the Soviets, which is a huge step in the direction of revolution. This is the kind of road we should be taking.