Defend Democracy, Not Democrats

The strategy of combatting the right as allies of centrist Democrats faces insurmountable tensions.


During the November elections that saw Republicans gain control of the House, Democratic Party centrists exerted strong pressure on the Democratic Socialists of America to become their subordinate partners. This external pressure was matched by an internal push in the DSA away from a strategy of political independence, and towards concessions to centrist Democrats and their affiliate organizations in the name of defending democracy. This approach, recently proposed by Socialist Majority Caucus, is based on flawed premises and will lead to the eclipse of democratic socialist politics in the long run. It joins a chorus of explicit arguments for embracing the Democrats in the form of the so-called “realignment” strategy that dominated the pre-2016 DSA.

This article argues for a different approach: we should defend democracy not by subordinating ourselves to centrist Democrats but by building an independent socialist movement, wagering on the self-organization of the working class, and leaning in to the political inclinations of working-class people under 40 who consistently hold views to the left yet are not ardent Democrats. Now more than ever, the future of American socialism hinges on whether we have the courage to trace a new course amidst the crisis of American democracy.

Against the Right with the Center?

Despite the title of the SMC article (“Against the Right and the Center”) it is almost exclusively dedicated to reorienting DSA towards defeating the right. The authors even argue that “we should oppose the election of Republicans even when the opposition is still led by class enemies such as corporate Democrats.”  This approach seems reasonable because the right is one of the most visible antagonists of socialism. Wouldn’t it be easier to advance socialist politics if they were out of the picture? The Socialist Majority Caucus argues for as much when it claims that the main preoccupation of the United States working class is the defense of democracy and that “as long as working people see their primary threat coming from the right and view the Democratic Party leadership as their primary defense, that leadership will retain significant legitimacy.” The implication is that we should focus on forcing back the right for now.

However, if we do adopt the SMC approach, our organization will be forced to veer between contesting the leadership of centrist Democrats during short-lived periods of stability and defending the Democrats during virtually every national electoral cycle. This approach has been taken by Bernie, AOC, and the Squad since 2020, and while understandable, it leads to inconsistent advocacy of democratic socialist politics on the national stage. If DSA alternates between critique of and defense of centrist Democrats, we will disorient working-class people who receive more consistent messages from the two capitalist parties. 

In DSA, such an approach would also increase tensions between members involved in electoral strategy and members whose work in the labor movement, tenant organizing, and social movements sets them against the capitalist politics of the Democratic Party. For both of these reasons, the approach proposed by SMC is likely to hold back the political recomposition of the working class. 

The strategy promoted by SMC is also unlikely to be successful because centrist Democrats and the subordinate progressive current remain unlikely to invite us into meaningful “coalitions.” Their past treatment of Bernie Sanders and the Squad shows that the Democratic leadership perceives any force that criticizes them from the left as a major threat and prioritizes neutralizing and co-opting that force over any and all coalition work to defeat the right. 

The asymmetry between our own power and that of the Democratic Party also means that we represent an insignificant partner in any alliances involving Democratic leaders and our affiliated elected officials and organization. Socialist Majority claims that we can maintain our organizational independence and identity while striking up electoral “alliances” against the right involving neoliberal Democrats, but put forward no persuasive vision of how we will do so. Prior to the November midterm elections, DSA-aligned elected officials following the same approach in New York hosted joint events alongside Democratic Party centrists like Kathy Hochul. SMC may well adopt a language reminiscent of the Communist International of class conflict, anti-fascism, and “class enemies,” but in practice, their strategy is merely a return to the strategic assumptions of pre-2016 progressivism. It will have the same outcomes: powerlessness and permanent subordination to centrist Democrat leadership. 

Another flaw of this approach is the very premise that in order to defeat the extreme right, we can reliably work alongside centrist leaders. While SMC is correct that we should foster non-sectarian, bottom-up mass movements for civil liberties, social equality, and democracy, there is a difference between that approach and shoring up the Democratic Party center in every electoral cycle. For the past 20 years every short lived period of stabilization under a Democratic President has led to a new and radicalizing right — culminating in the modern Republican Party as we know it. By sapping the social basis of democracy, enacting capitalist policies that have contributed to outlandish levels of social inequality, and turning away from the working class, Democrats have both demoralized the social forces that might have kept right-wing extremism in check and created the conditions for the right turn of a considerable number of working-class people. 

SMC acknowledges that “the Democratic agenda at the national level remains constrained by a neoliberal establishment largely committed to the same politics and policies that have brought us to the current political moment.” But their call for DSA to join coalitions that include liberal capitalists, centrist Democrats, and their NGOs in order to fight the right ignores the underlying reality. Capitalists have a very good reason to prefer a political field polarized by the opposition between democracy and authoritarianism to one dominated by class conflict: the specter  of authoritarian rule allows them to condition workers to accept the status quo. Since 2016, the Democrats have exploited the “crisis of democracy” narrative to discipline the working class while refusing to do what it takes to deliver serious defeats to the right. How can DSA be meaningfully allied to a party that has a systematic stake in managing the status quo, rather than winning the battle for democracy? 

Last, the approach proposed by Socialist Majority Caucus is in tension with their own broader strategic vision. Despite gestures towards bottom-up politics, SMC’s strategic approach revolves around a group of socialist politicians and progressive allies winning elections and passing “transformative reforms” that empower the working class to organize, creating a virtuous cycle for our movement. There are significant issues involved in this hypothesis: for one, DSA grew stratospherically from 2015 to 2020 not because electeds passed legislation but because leaders agitated for socialist politics.

On its own terms, the SMC strategy will be undermined by dividing our energies between agitating for reforms against the center and combating the right alongside the center. For one, we already have seen SMC’s legislative strategy founder in the face of political opposition — not from Republicans, but from centrist Democrats. In states like New York and California the Democrats reign supreme and routinely block transformative reforms. The socialist movement currently lacks the power to impose those reforms and no amount of goodwill from helping centrists defeat the right will get us there.

Meanwhile, the reforms the Democrats do pass are typically not intended to empower the working class but to maintain a fragile political edge over the Republican Party. We’ve seen this firsthand: only months ago, the Biden administration pushed through a highly-reduced version of Build Back Better and a student debt relief package — since blocked by the courts — out of fears of an impending “red wave” in the midterm elections. Now that the Democrats have extended their foothold in the Senate and prevented the “wave,” the same Democrats have revealed their capitalist colors by forbidding rail workers from striking. The Democrats may adopt reformist tactics, but their strategy is defending the status quo. 

SMC argues that we can reorient ourselves to defeating the right and agitate within the Democratic Party to pass structural reforms, too. But by helping centrist Democrats defeat the right, we undermine one of the Democrats’ few incentives to pass reforms at all (to stave off the right). And by dividing our energies, we effectively let up pressure on the Democrats altogether. SMC’s stance that we can do it all willfully neglects the real limitations on our power.  

Meanwhile, although SMC is correct to point towards bottom-up mobilization and organization as keys to creating the forces that can successfully contest the Right, their strategy fails to grasp the tensions between that orientation and their desire to mobilize working-class people to vote for the Democratic Party against the right. The Democratic Party represents the political and economic elites in regions and cities where DSA is strongest. Self-organization from below will inevitably involve struggle that brings working-class people and the institutional structures and centrist leaders of the Democratic Party into conflict. These realities create contradictions between the bottom-up, democratic politics we want to pursue and the “broad coalition” that SMC proposes at the institutional level whenever the right threatens democracy (which it always will).

The likely outcome of these tensions is that in the name of a broad front against the right, DSA will succumb to Democratic Party pressure to discipline working-class Americans whose demands and needs are inconvenient to the aspirations of the Democratic Party and its capitalist constituency. While it could be argued that these are surmountable tensions, stronger and more ideologically coherent left-wing parties have tried and failed to overcome them. 

The last reason that defending democracy under the leadership of the Democratic Party is the wrong strategy for socialists is the following: steep competition between the Democratic Party and the radical Right offers favorable terrain for socialist organization, politics, and agitation if we have the courage to refuse capitalist blackmail and the politics of fear. In the face of Democratic Party brinkmanship, we cannot afford to be faint of heart: as uncomfortable as it is for socialists to acknowledge, every victory by the right does more to reveal the corruption and bankruptcy of the status quo than a thousand socialist exposures. If it is true that our movement grew in large part due to the 2016 and 2020 primary campaigns around Bernie Sanders, it is also true a massive number of members joined the Democratic Socialists of America in the months after the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton.  In sum, our organization has become stronger when the Republicans were a clear and present danger and has declined during brief periods of center-left stabilization. 

The Alternative: Self-organization and Political Independence

This analysis has three consequences. First, socialists should defend democracy from the bottom-up, not by one-sided surrender to the forces of the status quo whenever the right threatens. Until the working class has recomposed itself as a political force, we are not going to durably defeat the right; until then, we need to advance democratic socialist politics not least because it is unfulfilled needs under capitalism that allow ordinary workers to fall prey to nationalist and racist ideologies. In some areas, socialists should contribute directly to the struggle against the right by counter-organizing among working-class populations hegemonized by the right. In most situations, though, we will create the conditions for defending democracy by supporting the self-organization of the working class against capital through rank and file organizing in the labor movement, building social movements from below, organizing at high schools and universities, and ousting centrist Democrats from office and agitating for socialist politics. If we do not build our forces by focusing on these tasks, we will never have the power to durably defeat the right. 

Second, to the extent that our struggle against the right takes place on formal political terrain, rather than subordinate ourselves to the Democrats, we should continue to construct an independent socialist movement and identity. If Bernie, AOC, and other members of the Squad are less willing to agitate for democratic socialism on the national stage when the right threatens, DSA should take up the mantle. We need to build a credible, visible socialist organization that can help the working class cohere. Such a force would defend democracy by offering an alternative to the despair that affects millions of workers and allow the radical right to appeal to fractions of the working class.  Discrediting ourselves by seeking to save centrist Democrats — who have few enthusiastic supporters despite political polarization— is an obstacle to this task. After all, the largest bloc in U.S. politics identify as independents, not Democrats, and neither party is actually held in high esteem.

Third, DSA should limit political mobilization on behalf of centrist Democrats to a highly narrow range of cases where Republican victory would actually empower the Right to limit and undermine the institutional framework of democracy. We must not allow the Democrats to blackmail us with the argument that a defeat for Democrats anywhere is a defeat for democracy everywhere. And if we do intervene, it should be on the basis of the broadest consensus in our movement: anything less is likely to undermine our internal unity.

This path will require a lot of courage. As in 2016, when centrist media sought to blame Bernie Sanders for daring to oppose centrists of the Democratic Party and stigmatized the Left for allegedly enabling Trump, the centrist Democrats and their media outlets have no scruples about blackmailing the socialist movement and the working class and demanding unity against the Right. That is why we need total clarity about socialist strategy: to combat the right, we must build towards an independent alternative to the status quo that promises to meet the needs of the working-class majority. 

The Future Belongs to the Left

Socialist Majority Caucus correctly argues that the political crisis in the US is grave but incorrectly concludes that we should resign ourselves to bringing class conflict into the Democratic coalition for the indefinite future. This strategy is in tension with the durable centrism of the Democratic Party, its disinterest in any form of real give-and-take involving socialists, and the imperative to build DSA and empower the working class. It willfully disregards the fact that an incalculable number of socialists have joined the DSA because of our rejection of the Democratic Party after 2016. If we foist a center-left coalitional approach on the DSA, we will inevitably be forced to demoralize, discipline, and likely expel a broad stratum of our members. Collaboration involving centrist Democrats would also undermine our prospects of becoming the home of a broader current of millions of young people radicalizing towards socialism who are unsatisfied by the Democratic Party, sacrificing our future for the sake of subordinating ourselves to the Democrats.

SMC’s strategy also neglects the younger generations because it is narrowly focused on winning over older generations of working-class Democratic Party loyalists who vote consistently in Democratic primaries. SMC overgeneralizes when it portrays the attitudes and behaviors of this group as those of the working class writ large. Although this generational and political sliver of the working class has disproportionate influence on Democratic primaries, it is not and cannot become the strategic focus of a viable socialist project for the 21st century. 

Rather, our political strategy should be focused on the millions of young, diverse, working-class people under 40, particularly Millennials and Zoomers, who lean consistently liberal, secular, amenable to socialist politics, and are less keen on either of the political parties than preceding generations. These generations may overwhelmingly vote Democrat when they do vote, but the vast majority identify as independents. And according to Gallup, young people are maintaining and increasing their identification as independents as they age, resisting the bipartisan sorting that is central to capitalist blackmail of the working class. Their views on race, religion, citizenship, and gender put them on a collision course with the radical right agenda, but they still view Democrats less enthusiastically than previous generations. Notably the same young people show low approval ratings of President Biden, who is perceived as not doing enough to resolve the crisis of our institutions and retains low approval ratings, despite his student debt relief promises. 

These working class generations represent the organic constituency for a strategy of political independence over the next few decades. If we fail to become the political home for these younger generations of workers, socialism has no future in the United States; if we succeed, the future belongs to us.  While our end goal is the support of the entire working class, we should focus on building out our presence in the younger generations for now.

Luca is a member of the Bread & Roses National Coordinating Committee. He has been an active DSA member since 2018, serving as a coordinator for YDSA, a training team member for the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, and a delegate to the 2021 DSA National Convention.