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Democracy and the Socialist Revival

At a time when Democrats and Republicans flout even basic democratic standards, it's socialists who have become democracy's greatest champions.

A woman enters a voting site to cast her ballot in primary elections on September 25, 2001 in New York City. Mario Tama / Getty

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy — not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism — plays out right now on the Left.

Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive.

What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major — the major — part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.

First, you have the full-on assault on voting rights from the Republican Party. Then there’s the fact that both the current and the last Republican president were only able to win their elections with the help of the two most anti-democratic institutions of the American state: the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. In both cases, these men won their elections over candidates who received more popular votes than they did. There’s a lot of words one might use to describe a system in which the person who gets fewer votes wins, but democracy isn’t one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Any notion that anyone from that side of the aisle is in any position to even speak on the question of democratic values — again, not robust democratic values but minimal democratic values — is a joke.

Second, you have the Democratic Party. Massively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates. Massively dependent in its district-level wins on low voter turnout, in districts where the party structure resembles  nothing so much as the Jim Crow South. You have incumbents like Joe Crowley who’ve not had to face a primary challenge in so many years that, as we saw in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they don’t even know how to wage much less win electoral campaigns anymore. You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate, an incumbent, Martin Dilan, who’s trying to forgo an election simply by forcing Salazar off the ballot, with the help of, you guessed it, the least democratic branch of the government: the courts. I can imagine the folks in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) saying to these Dems: you really want to have a debate with us about democracy? Bring it on.

And last you have this take by Seth Ackerman, on how the party system in America works. Right around the 2016 election, Ackerman wrote a widely read (and cited) piece, which has become influential among the DSA set, on how to think about a left party that can avoid some of the pitfalls of third-party strategies in the US.

Here, in this interview with Daniel Denvir, the Terry Gross of the socialist left, Ackerman explains how much our two-party system looks like those one-party states that socialists of the twentieth century spent their lives either defending or being forced to criticize in order to demonstrate their bona fides.

Today, maybe for the first time in a very long time, socialists have the democracy side of the argument on their side.