Anti-imperialism and the Fight to Democratize the US Are Connected

The movement for Palestinian national liberation would be stronger if the US was actually a democracy. That’s why fighting to democratize the US is key to anti-imperialist strategy.


When asked if she agreed that President Biden is supporting a genocide in Gaza, DSA-endorsed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refused to say yes. While she recognized that those who accused Israel — and Biden — of genocide were “appalled at the violence and indiscriminate loss of life,” she still asserted that Biden is “without question… the strongest nominee” to defeat Trump. In other interviews she has similarly attempted to sell Biden to her supporters, working to lower expectations by praising his supposed accomplishments. 

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, also endorsed by DSA, has taken a much different approach. Unlike AOC, Tlaib has publicly called Israel’s war a genocide, reminding Biden that “[t]he American people won’t forget” where Biden stood, and that unless he backs a ceasefire he shouldn’t “count on us in 2024.” AOC’s attempt to reconcile movement politics with remaining unconditionally supportive of Biden is not only morally wrong, but a strategic blunder. Tlaib demonstrates a possible alternative. 

For over four months, the Biden Administration has funded and defended Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza. A majority of Americans — and even larger majorities of Democrats — have declared support for a ceasefire after watching the massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted. Fifty percent of people who voted for Biden in 2020 believe Israel is carrying out a genocide. Millions of young people are abandoning the party

Despite her conflicted loyalties — to the pro-Palestine movement on the one hand and the Democratic Party on the other — AOC is part of a small group of politicians, led by Tlaib and Cori Bush, committed to a ceasefire. Nonetheless, AOC’s refusal to call Israel’s war a genocide and her public support for Biden is a symptom of American politics’ phantom limb: there is no political party to represent the majoritarian movement for a ceasefire in direct opposition to the policies of both the Democrats and Republicans. 

As the 2024 election approaches, it seems that voters will be forced to choose between the genocide abroad that Biden is already supporting, and the domestic crackdown that Trump is promising. The few progressive politicians fighting for a just world are trapped on the same team as the administration steering us toward injustice. So in addition to building the movement in the streets we must also take action to dislodge the Democratic and Republican parties’ chokehold on politics. We must capture the energy of the anti-war movement, agitate for a new independent working-class party, and organize for reforms to our electoral system that would allow such a party to thrive.

Protest and Politics

US politicians seem both immensely powerful and completely disinterested in addressing working people’s needs, leading many workers to disengage from politics altogether. Many on the Left also conclude that elections cannot deliver progressive change, and that only action outside the state can win a more just world. 

There is a kernel of truth to this: without a powerful and dynamic working-class movement outside of formal politics, capitalist politicians are unlikely to bend to popular will. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with simply pressuring capitalist politicians. A foundational principle of Marx’s socialist strategy was that alongside strikes and protests, working-class movements must organize political parties and run working-class tribunes against capitalists and their politicians. Any hope of transforming economic relations ran through the workers’ movement first coming to political power.

Political action in the US is especially necessary to end our country’s foreign policy of imperial domination. From the French Revolution inspiring elements of the Haitian Revolution, to Olaf Palme’s government in Sweden supporting national liberation movements and opposing fascism, to Portugal’s Carnation Revolution opening the doors to ending Portuguese colonial occupation, political change in the heart of empire has been crucial to enabling  anti-imperialist struggles in the colonized world.

Currently, our protests and actions are an attempt to convince the US government that supporting Israel is not in its interests: end support for the occupation and the incessant disruptions will end. And vast numbers of people imply the threat of election challengers. Unfortunately, the American electoral system insulates most politicians from the threat of being easily unseated. Combined with the “strategic commitment” of the American ruling class to Israel, our elites seem intransigent to our direct actions. 

It will be difficult to shift political power away from those enabling the ongoing genocide, and toward a pro-ceasefire, anti-occupation politics. Despite the disconnect between the opinions of Democratic voters and the administration’s unwavering support for Israel, the Democratic establishment seem intent on committing what increasingly looks like collective political suicide. Fortunately for them, but unfortunately for the rest of us, they have a particularly anti-democratic ace up their sleeve — the two-party system.

The “Lesser-Evil” Trap

Biden and the Democrats can reject the popular will of their own voting base while holding those same voters at gunpoint with the threat of a Republican victory. When this doesn’t work and Democrats lose an election, pundits and consultants avoid taking responsibility, and instead fault the voters who didn’t get in line.

The two-party system incentivizes a big tent front against the Republicans, including workers and tenants but also bosses and landlords — social groups that we know have opposing interests but are often papered over in the name of defeating the Right. For many, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult pill to swallow that Biden is an imperfect candidate but still the lesser evil while his administration bankrolls an ongoing genocide. 

Support for Biden is below 40 percent, especially low among younger voters and dwarfed by disapproval ratings above 55 percent. The decline is even more stark among Muslim and Arab voters, a voting bloc that could tip the presidential election in key states like Michigan. In the beginning of November, only 16 percent of Muslim and Arab Democrats said they would vote for Biden’s re-election on the spot. A growing effort of grassroots activists and local politicians in Michigan are encouraging voters to cast “uncommitted” ballots in the upcoming Michigan primary. A group of rank-and-file teachers in the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, have been organizing to rescind the union’s endorsement of Biden. Biden even has higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings among Black Americans. Without a viable pro-ceasefire choice, these voters have nowhere to go.

The US’s two-party problem is in large part the product of how we do most of our elections — single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes wins. Independent candidates and third parties find difficulty gaining mass support due to the “spoiler effect,” which is all the more exacerbated by our presidential system and the winner-take-all Electoral College. Voters who would have preferred to vote for a third option are more likely to vote for the mainstream party with politics similar to their own, in order to avoid accidentally electing the mainstream party they’re most opposed to. 

Not everywhere in the US is subject to these electoral conditions and the pernicious spoiler effect. Elections in California use a non-partisan “jungle primary” system, and Alaska and Maine  have adopted ranked-choice voting for congressional representatives. According to new research, 171 congressional districts are non-competitive Democratic strongholds, meaning in some of these districts socialists could run independent campaigns without a spoiler effect, and work to become the second major party in the district. 

Alongside these independent races, and our continual efforts within Democratic Party primaries, we can work to build the pro-ceasefire movement into a durable independent political vehicle. But just running for office won’t be enough to fundamentally reshape American politics. We must fight to transform our electoral system. 

Breaking the Two-Party System

Other democracies around the world have abandoned single-seat, winner-take-all voting systems in favor of proportional representation. A proportional representation system elects multiple representatives per district, awarding seats proportional to the fraction of the vote that each party receives. This system guarantees representation to smaller parties, provided that they can reach a defined vote threshold, and would allow us to run as principled anti-imperialists outside of the Democratic Party with a high degree of certainty that we would win seats, without the risk of vote-splitting.

Left-wing movements in other countries show that it is possible to fight and struggle for proportional representation and that this reform can make the state more democratic. In Chile, following the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, two political coalitions — one center-right and one center-left — dominated politics in a more-or-less two-party system. Mass student movements rose up against austerity and neoliberalism in the early 2010s, sending some of its leaders into office as independent leftists in 2014. In 2015, the movement and its small foothold in Congress, helped win reforms to the Constitution that expanded the electoral system’s proportionality. Two years later, the emergent independent left, led by Gabirel Boric and other former student-leaders, won 17 percent of seats in congress, breaking apart Chile’s two-party system. Similarly, trade union activists and socialists within New Zealand’s labor party successfully won proportional representation in the 1990s, which in turn helped end the conservative National Party’s anti-democratic chokehold on politics. 

Imagine a world where we ran principled pro-Palestine candidates for Congress on a democratic socialist ballot line, supported by unions, community groups, and membership organizations opposed to Biden’s support for Israel’s genocidal war, and were guaranteed seats by proportional representation. These elected officials would be accountable to and representatives of the movement for a ceasefire and Palestinian liberation and we would not have to spend our energy and resources lobbying them. With a clear independent organizational identity uniting them, they would also act as a lightning rod, rallying the millions of Americans currently abandoning the Biden administration and demonstrating that an alternative exists beyond abstaining, casting a lesser-evil ballot for Democrats, or defecting to the Republicans.

Democracy at Home to End Imperialism Abroad

Luckily, efforts to win a more democratic political system in the US are not starting from scratch. At the federal level, Congressman Donald Beyer has already introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would establish multi-member proportional representation districts for congressional elections. It’s essential that socialists spearhead the fight for this legislation, explicitly framing it as a battle for democracy, to break up the two-party system, and to allow an independent working-class party to flourish. 

Across the country organizers are forming ad hoc coalitions to fight against US support for Israel’s genocide. For many of us in these coalitions, it’s confusing to figure out what we should do next. But to break this impasse in the longer term, our burgeoning pro-ceasefire movement must work to channel popular sentiment toward building a more democratic political system that would enable antiwar organizers to run independent of the elite pressures that exist within the Democratic Party.

We should continue to protect the few pro-Palestine elected officials we have. We can educate members within our unions and union reform groups on the importance of reforms like the Fair Representation Act. Where the spoiler effect is absent, we can run loud and proud campaigns independent from the Democratic Party that act as a clear rallying cry to workers abandoning support for the establishment.

US support for Israel’s genocidal campaign has destroyed the political legitimacy of our government in the eyes of millions of people. We cannot resurrect the tens of thousands of innocent civilians martyred in this genocide, but we do have an obligation to those who live on. Without a political expression of the anti-war movement and an overhaul of our political system, the warmongers can and will continue to rule. We wager on the power of ordinary people to end oppression when they see it happening anywhere in the world. Our task as organized socialists is to push beyond the groundwork laid by popular pressure to undermine the imperialist project from within the state, and to build a political system that unleashes the power, bravery, and resolve of ordinary people.

Abdullah F. is a LA DSA member. Oren Schweitzer is a member of NYC-DSA. They are both members of DSA's Bread & Roses caucus.