Keep Our Options Open: A Response to the Young Democratic Socialists' Statement on the 2014 Elections

By David Duhalde

The New Deal coalition winning elections in the 30s / Washington

The Young Democratic Socialists’ (YDS) Statement on the 2014 Elections advocates a break from the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) and YDS’s historic orientation toward the Democratic Party. DSA’s youth leadership calls on our membership to prioritize electing explicit socialists. My young comrades also say we should disengage from the Democrats. Such a serious change in our strategy requires substantive and thoughtful debate, which began with YDS’s statement.

While much of the statement is true in principle, in practice it offers a constraining strategy that is no better than the electoral policy it rejects. DSA should not be trapped in the dogma of past electoral success and practice, which as the statement accurately notes has evident diminishing returns. But, the current statement offers some cherry-picked, out-of-context, and occasionally contradictory examples. They provide insufficient evidence to support changing our electoral strategy.

More importantly, rejecting Democrats would disconnect us from many of our allies (often more diverse than us in terms of race, gender, and class) whose only connection to socialists is DSA. Such a unilateral divorce of DSA from mass electoral movements is beyond inadvisable: it’s self-destructive. It would further marginalize our already small group away from larger organizations and coalitions in which our anti-capitalist, intersectional critique is sorely needed.

In fairness, we cannot deny the Democratic Party (and Republican Party, too) has shifted heavily to the right economically over the past two decades. The recent increase of victories and credible socialist candidacies would be unlikely without the Democrats’ move to the center. Moreover, the victory of Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant in Seattle has provided the city’s labor movement with a critical ally in its successful Fight for Fifteen. Without Sawant shaming Democrats, it is hard to imagine Washington state unions would have received the electoral support that they did.

But there is a real limitation in taking these political realities out of context. The most striking example of omissions in the YDS statement was their criticism of New York’s Working Families Party (WFP). I agree that WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo was wrong. Many in DSA (as I would have) voted for the Green, Howie Hawkins, instead of Cuomo on the WFP ballot line. The YDS statement, however, never describes the dynamics of the endorsement process. That background is critical to fully judging the effectiveness of the WFP in influencing Democrats – not just Andrew Cuomo.

First, the endorsement of Cuomo over Zephyr Teachout was extremely divisive within the party and came to a very close WFP convention vote. Our side, which supported Teachout, lost partly because the WFP leadership made a series of agreements with Cuomo. Whether or not the deal was good is easily debatable, but to omit mentioning it and the WFP’s work is improper. Second, the Working Families Party is far from perfect, but has committed to progressive politics and shifting the economic debate to the left. It is hard to imagine the city passing paid sick days legislation without the WFP. Can we say the same about the New York Greens?

Third, and most important for DSA, the YDS statement cites New York state Green Party lieutenant governor candidate Brian Jones on the 2014 governor’s race: “the strategy of pushing the Democrats to the left by voting for them was exposed as a farce.” Jones on two important levels is wrong. On a basic level, voting is a tactic, not a strategy. No left electoral project – not even the Progressive Democrats of America – believe that merely voting for Democrats will move them left. On a strategic and factual level, the bad deal demonstrated that the Working Families Party was weaker than Cuomo. The YDS statement does not acknowledge that an even weaker WFP in 2010 could not get Cuomo to concede anything. In fact, the WFP’s power has (marginally) increased while Cuomo has been in office. Regardless, none of this alone proves Democrats are unmovable with pressure.

Furthermore, the statement itself provides a wonderful and inspiring example that contradicts Jones’ thoughts: Chokwe Lumumba. Lumumba won Jackson, Mississippi’s mayor’s office as a Democrat. Lumumba, who many could argue is the to the left of most of DSA, certainly progressively pushed the Democrats in red state. Taken too literally, the YDS statement might lead one to reject Lumumba’s Democratic primary campaign. In the end, whether we run as Democrats or not, good electoral strategy will result in real victories, not just symbolic wins.

If we are to be serious about breaking the two-party monopoly, then we have to be serious about changing electoral laws first. This year, I actively supported two non-Democrats (including socialist Eugene Puryear) who had real chances to win Washington, D.C. city council seats. Unfortunately, they lost, but this opportunity was created because activists fought to have reserved seats for non-majority party (i.e., Democrats) candidates. Nowhere else I have lived had such a law. Therefore, in each place I supported Democrats if they earned my support.

It is electoral systems, such as first-past-the-post, not political will that makes it difficult for third parties to win in the United States. Until we change election rules, then there is no reason to constrain ourselves through a limited strategy. DSA and YDS members should work to elect progressives, whether or not they are members of the Democratic Party. It’s a false and limited choice to abstain from supporting Democrats altogether. Let’s continue to keep our options open.

David Duhalde was the YDS National Organizer from 2006 to 2008 and currently researches for a campaign finance reform group in Washington, D.C. He sits on the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Political Committee.

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