As Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office on January 20, what are the prospects for the US left in the years ahead? Today’s Left is in a challenging place: strong enough for other forces to care about what it thinks and does, but too weak to shape political outcomes. Biden’s steady stream of conservative cabinet picks are but the latest reminder of this.
Recent years have seen impressive campaigns and mobilizations, most notably the 2018–19 teachers’ strikes, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs. But the teacher mobilizations have yet to spark broader labor resurgence, as many had hoped. Much of the energy of Black Lives Matter dissipated into a hollow focus on diversity and representation, while police have continued to get away with murder and local governments have walked back promises to defund their police departments. And the Democratic Party establishment put an end to the Sanders campaign.
At the same time, we shouldn’t diminish these movements’ very real accomplishments. The teachers’ strikes brought mass strikes back into the public eye in a way not seen in decades, while also shattering the mainstream consensus around charter schools and privatization of public education — particularly the idea that charters are a solution for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter protests brought more substantial racial justice demands like “defund the police” from the margins to the center of mainstream political discourse. Even though the demand generated significant pushback, it could not be ignored.
And while Sanders’s presidential campaign foundered, it created a platform for mainstreaming key universal policy demands like Medicare for All, College for All and student debt forgiveness, a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and the Green New Deal, among others.
More broadly, the Sanders campaign created space in the US political landscape for the idea of socialism on a scale not seen in at least fifty years. We can see this in polling data showing that roughly 40 percent of Americans have a favorable view of “socialism,” however defined; the number jumps to nearly half of those under age fifty.
Organizationally, we can see this in the spectacular growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose membership has skyrocketed from 5,000 to 85,000 between 2015 and today. This makes DSA the largest US Left organization since at least Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, or maybe the Communist Party of the 1940s, depending on how one defines membership. While there are plenty of criticisms of DSA worth considering, the sheer growth and size of the organization is a central fact that any discussion of Left strategy in the United States today must take into account.
It is crucial to keep these twin realities in mind as we gear up for organizing under a Biden administration. On the one hand, the Left remains weak. On the other hand, it is stronger and operating on more favorable terrain than it has in decades — in no small part due to the crisis of political representation we’re now in the midst of.
In this context, the US Left faces a challenge it hasn’t faced in decades: how to engage in socialist politics on a mass scale. The crux of the problem consists of avoiding the twin dangers of co-optation and marginalization: either making alliances and programmatic concessions in an effort to expand one’s base of support in a way that undermines one’s ability to advance socialist politics; or retaining organizational independence and programmatic cohesion in an effort to advance socialist politics in a way that undermines one’s ability to expand one’s base of support.
It’s a tricky balancing act. There is no set formula for determining the right mix of organizational alliances and programmatic cohesion, and the right mix varies depending on the political and historical context. What’s more, there are few models to point to. The current Left landscape is full of organizations primarily focused on quixotic quests to pressure the Democrats from the left, as well as those with more radical programs but consigned to the political margins.
We have also seen waves of mass mobilizations on an unprecedented scale in recent years, particularly with #Occupy and Black Lives Matter. They have transformed political discourse around issues of inequality and racial justice but have struggled to consolidate movement gains after the mobilizations fade. But even historically, we have seen some mass organizations like Students for a Democratic Society implode into marginality. Meanwhile, the Popular Front politics of the US Communist Party in the 1940s effectively led it to function as a satellite of the Democratic Party in its quest to present communism as the “Americanism of the twentieth century,” weakening it well before McCarthyism nearly eradicated it.
Today, the question of how to engage in socialist mass politics hinges on figuring out how to engage with people outside our self-selected group of committed activists and organizers in ways that create new layers of activists and organizers. And since the central strategic goal of anything attempting to be a mass socialist movement needs to be creating a collective working-class actor capable of fighting for socialism, those layers need to be rooted in the broad, multiracial, organized working class.
Electoral Politics and DSA
Up to now, DSA’s, and, by extension, the US Left’s, primary means of engaging in mass politics has been through electoral politics. This includes issue-based campaigns like Medicare for All or taxing the rich, as well as candidate-focused efforts, most notably the Sanders presidential campaigns, but also congressional and state-level campaigns.
Most of these have involved supporting candidates running on the Democratic Party ballot line. This is old hat for DSA, which, before its rebirth in 2016, sought to serve as the “left wing of the possible,” i.e., the left wing of the Democratic Party. Today’s DSA leaders and organizers, by contrast, view their electoral work as part of an effort to redefine what is politically possible.
Rather than resigning themselves to working within the Democratic Party in perpetuity, many DSA members argue for using the Democratic Party ballot line as a necessary tactic to reach a mass audience. This, they argue, presents the opportunity to run “class struggle candidates” who can sharpen class divisions, raise working class demands — and potentially win. Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the expanding “Squad” are the most prominent examples of this type of candidate. The goal is a so-called “dirty break” from the Democrats and the eventual establishment of a labor or socialist party, something the United States has famously lacked.
This approach has been criticized as being a capitulation to lesser-evil politics, essentially a more radical-sounding way to repackage the politics of the old DSA for a new generation. Critics saw the outcome of the 2020 campaign as a vindication of their viewpoint. The Sanders campaign succumbed to the weight of the Democratic Party establishment, leading Bernie to endorse and campaign for Biden the corporate Democrat. And some leading DSA members openly called for a vote to “defeat Donald Trump,” effectively advocating a vote for Biden. In so doing, these critics argue, they repeated the same argument heard every election cycle that “this time is different” and that the Republicans’ loss would be objectively better for the Left than his election, justifying a vote for the lesser evil — exposing DSA’s electoral strategy as another effort to keep the Left firmly in the Democratic Party fold.
It is certainly possible to read the campaign results this way, particularly if one is predisposed toward skepticism of any form of engagement with the Democratic Party. Still, there are some peculiarities suggesting that something other than warmed-over lesser-evilism is at work.
Most notably, DSA’s membership has continued its steady upward trajectory. Between the time that Sanders suspended his presidential campaign in April 2020 and the November 3 election, DSA added 25,000 members, growing from 60,000 to 85,000. Organizers expect another post-election spike around Inauguration Day.
These new members are likely not trained Marxist cadre with a deep understanding of the urgent need for a break with the Democrats in order to form a workers’ party. (Indeed, how could they be, without having been exposed to such ideas before joining a group like DSA?) Still, there are easier ways to resign oneself to the bankrupt status quo than to join a socialist organization. Leftists should ask ourselves whether it’s better or worse for the Left as a whole to have tens of thousands of new people who self-identify enough as socialists to find and join an organization — especially one where their political analysis of the contours of American politics and Marxist practice can be significantly deepened.
Likewise, a core tenet of the critique of lesser-evilism is that the focus on elections distracts from building the mass movements that can be schools of class struggle, while retaining false hope in the idea that meaningful change can come from electing the “right” people. This can certainly happen, and it does point to real limitations of elections as tools for socialist organizing.
Engaging With the Democratic Party
But is it reasonable to suggest that this has been the overall effect of Left engagement with electoral politics via the Democratic Party over the past five years? Has campaigning for and electing more self-described socialist legislators running as Democrats led to increased faith in the Democratic Party as an agent for social change? Has the energy devoted to these campaigns been at the expense of building movements and otherwise organizing for socialism outside the electoral arena?
If so, were there plausible alternative projects toward which this energy should have been directed, and that could have done more to build broad social movements or socialist organization? At a fundamental level, is it plausible to imagine the explosive growth of the US left over the past five years — not just DSA but the entire ecosystem of Left organizations, publications, blogs, and podcasts — absent this electoral work?
These are empirical questions. I am open to evidence suggesting that the answer to these questions is “yes,” though I suspect that such evidence would be hard to find. Regardless, these are the kinds of concrete questions that would have to be answered in order to evaluate the merits of DSA’s electoral strategy, rather than simply developing a critique based on strict adherence to first principles such as “it is wrong under all circumstances, at all times, and in all manners to engage with the Democratic Party.”
This is not to dismiss the pitfalls of electoral work. The relatively short time frame of election cycles encourages short-term thinking and takes the existing political landscape for granted instead of trying to change it. The candidate-centered model of US political campaigns can and does foster illusions that change comes from electing charismatic, powerful leaders instead of the patient, day-to-day work of organizing and movement building. The primary forms of campaign activity, such as canvassing, phone and text banking, rallies, and online communications, prioritize fairly shallow, brief, one-off interactions with relative strangers: make a pitch, elicit information, and make a specific ask, usually to vote. There may be some follow-up conversations, but usually there are not. These are not the kinds of long-term, relationship-building activities necessary to make movements.
Still, the past five years have shown that electoral work has its upsides for the Left. Candidate and issue campaigns create a relatively organic venue for engaging in political discussions with large numbers of people. While conversations with the broader voting public may be short and constrained, campaign organizations can bring people together in a more sustained fashion, creating opportunities for forging deeper organizing relationships. Their relatively formal structure also creates opportunities for people to plug in at different levels of commitment. Additionally, campaigns allow participants to develop concrete skills that are transferable to other types of organizing, like having organizing conversations, running meetings, public speaking, persuasive writing, event planning and publicity, strategizing, research, and more.
These upsides have played a key role in DSA’s growth, especially when tied to candidates like Sanders and AOC, who can articulate socialist ideas and class politics in a way that appeals to millions of people. They also at least partially explain DSA’s membership composition, which does not reflect those of the working class as a whole. Much of the problem of DSA’s composition is an artifact of the historical separation between the Left and the organized working class in the aftermath of World War II. But some is also a function of the kind of work that DSA does. Simply put, DSA tends to attract the types of people more likely to get involved in electoral campaigns. These people tend to be whiter, more educated, and more professionalized. As impressive as DSA’s recent membership growth has been, it will be difficult to make the transition to a broader mass politics without breaking out beyond this layer.
Socialist Mass Politics
This is what makes socialists’ work in the labor movement an essential complement to electoral work as part of a strategy for engaging in socialist mass politics. Indeed, there cannot be a new socialist mass politics without a militant, revitalized labor movement. And there cannot be a revitalized labor movement without a workplace-based layer of Left leadership.
Rebuilding this layer will begin to address DSA’s composition problem, as it will help reestablish the lost link between the Left and the organized working class. Facilitating members’ efforts to find jobs in key industries as part of a broader rank-and-file strategy can help with that process. But ultimately, as I have written elsewhere, “the goal must be to expand the ranks of workplace-based militants and socialists, not simply to reallocate the existing set.”
Bridging the labor-Left divide has been an ongoing problem for decades, but it will take on renewed importance with a Democrat back in the White House. For though Biden will not lift a finger for actual pro-labor policies, he will likely make a show of consulting with top labor leaders. The temptation will be a return to bargaining with political elites for meliorative half-measures, when winning necessary demands like adequate COVID relief payments, access to PPE for essential workers, rent cancellation, just vaccine distribution, and more will require mass pressure from outside. It is too late to have forces in place for this immediate fight, but the COVID example suggests how workplace organizing and electoral politics could combine to advance key political demands.
Keeping these limitations in mind, what is clear is that the Left will have to organize and fight as hard or harder under Biden as it has under Trump. Those on the Left who advocated a vote for Biden in the November election did so under no illusions that he would do anything remotely progressive or pro-worker. Rather, their argument was simply that organizing against a Biden administration would be better than organizing against a reelected Trump administration. This may be true, but the question remains as to how to take advantage of the more favorable organizing terrain. That, too, is an empirical question, one that will be tested over the course of the weeks and months ahead.