Socialists and the Democratic Party

Socialists should fight the capitalist leaders of the Democratic Party but try to win over its voter base to socialism.


Unfortunately, the realities of America’s two-party system mean interacting with the Democratic Party is necessary for socialist organizing. While most DSA candidates are compelled to run in Democratic primaries for strategic reasons, the goals of the Democratic Party are hostile to ours. Our ultimate goal should be independence from the Democratic Party, but we are faced with a dilemma: We must opportunistically use Democratic ballot lines to win elections and position ourselves in opposition to the capitalist elements of the party. 

What Does It Mean to Be a Democrat?

Unlike DSA and parties abroad, the Democrats don’t charge dues and are not a membership organization. They have no coherent political ideology or agreed-upon platform. Other than registering to vote, there are no litmus tests for being a Democrat. So contradictions within the party are rampant. In 2020, registered Democrats supported both reactionary billionaire Mike Bloomberg and socialist Bernie Sanders. There are registered Democrats who support a ceasefire and those who applaud the genocide in Gaza.

While many working-class people consider themselves Democrats and are consistent Democratic voters, the ideological tent of the Democratic Party is so large that calling oneself a Democrat indicates little of one’s political values or beliefs. In the age of Trump, referring to oneself as a Democrat is often used to distance oneself from the increasingly right-wing Republican Party.

But these voters who consider themselves Democrats have very little power within the party. Despite 80% of working-class people supporting a ceasefire and Medicare for All, party leadership has not prioritized achieving either of those goals and has been openly hostile to those organizing for them. 

Rather, those who are truly “in the party” are those who have the power to shape it and have a vested interest in maintaining its current political orientation. They are elected officials, major donors, and political operatives — all groups with a clear political ideology: capitalism. 

The Democratic Party serves different functions for different people. For the capitalist class, it is a vehicle to preserve their power and wealth and actively suppress working-class movements. The Democratic Party seemingly had no issue with police forces brutalizing students who disagreed with them on Palestine. For the working class, the party is nothing more than a ballot line that, while perhaps marginally improving their lives or keeping the worst from happening, has as its primary goal the preservation of the capitalist system. Despite Democrats dominating New York City politics, pro-Palestinan protesters at university solidarity encampments experienced violent and brutal repression by the NYC police. This shows that while the Democratic Party may preach values of social justice, it will condone violence against those challenging the capitalist class. Clearly, the Democrats are not a vehicle for transformative change. 

How can you be a socialist while running for office as a Democrat?

The realities of a two-party system make it much more difficult for someone who isn’t a Democrat or Republican to be elected to public office.  While we should experiment using other ballot lines in the few races where it’s strategically feasible, running in Democratic primaries will, unfortunately, need to be our primary tactic until there’s a major political shift.

However, using the Democratic Party to win an election does not mean we need to show any allegiance or loyalty to it. In fact, socialists should use the Democratic Party transactionally, as a way to win elections. This means socialist elected officials shouldn’t be in Democratic leadership, endorse candidates for internal party office, or refer to themselves as Democrats in any context other than in which column on the ballot they’ll appear.

Some may say that becoming influential figures within the Democratic Party would give us power because it would allow our elected officials to leverage their relationships with other politicians to achieve their legislative goals. But when trying to pass a bill, socialist elected officials should spend minimal time whipping the votes of their colleagues and the majority of their time rallying working-class people and building popular support. Passing legislation is an important task for socialists, but it is a tactic, not our end goal. 

Our goal in passing legislation should be to combat the ruling class, to take power and money from capitalists such as bosses or landlords, and to redistribute it to working people. However, if passing legislation means making compromises with these capitalists or their representatives in the Democratic Party, it becomes much less effective for building socialism. 

Winning socialist power does not mean gaining influence in capitalist institutions such as the Democratic Party. Since the leaders of the Democratic Party have a vested interest in preserving capitalism, building power within the party would require DSA elected officials to downplay their socialist identity. Building power within a capitalist institution will not help us create a rupture with capitalism. Gaining socialist power means credibly challenging the Democratic Party and shifting the political possibilities toward a viable working-class party. Attempting to gain influence within the Democratic Party is antithetical to building a socialist alternative, as the Democratic Party is a representative of capitalism. Transformative change will not be made by winning favor with Democratic Party leaders, rather it will be made by building working-class movements against them. 

While socialist elected officials should not participate in the party infrastructure, they should embed themselves in popular social movements alongside some Democratic politicians and voters. DSA elected officials across the country are working with Democratic colleagues to fight for public transit, improve public education, and pass housing reform legislation.

However, our electoral organizing should aim to change working-class people’s perceptions of both socialism and the Democratic Party. This means our elected officials need to be talking to registered Democrats about socialism — and not just during election season when they’re campaigning but all year round. Many DSA elected officials are already doing that, and are at the forefront of movements for Palestine and more. For example, NYC-DSA-endorsed Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani is championing the Not On Our Dime bill, which would prevent New York organizations that fund Israeli apartheid from claiming non-profit status.

Despite a U.S. Senator warning socialists to “stay out of Florida,” DSA-endorsed councilmember Richie Floyd put forward a ceasefire resolution in the St. Petersburg City Council. 

But it must be clear that any victories we win, or initiatives we take, are coming from socialists, not Democrats. The goal of our electoral organizing should be for the working class to view DSA elected representatives as socialists first and Democrats second. We want them to vote for our endorsed candidates not just because they support their platform but because they recognize that socialists, not Democrats, fight for them. This will require us to clearly distinguish ourselves from the Democrats, both by referring to ourselves as socialists (i.e., putting “socialist” on our palm cards) and by practicing socialist values. We must take confrontational stances against the Democrats, like refusing to vote for unjust budgets or supporting centrist candidates. 

Clearly distinguishing ourselves from the Democrats won’t be done in one election cycle. It’s a years-long project. However, we are already making strides. For example, DSA elected officials have demonstrated how to distinguish themselves from the Democrats through their support for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine. Immediately after October 7th, when several Democratic progressive politicians were silent or defending Israel, DSA proudly stood in solidarity with the people of Gaza, standing up for peace and justice even when it was politically risky.

Our response to those who attacked us for being anti-Zionist and supporting Palestine was not to hide our politics or pretend to be something we aren’t. Instead, we helped build a mass movement for Palestine, which has grown to unprecedented levels. As socialists, our aim should not be to compromise with capitalists in the Democratic Party, but rather to proudly fight them on all fronts. 

Alex Pellitteri is a member of DSA's National Political Committee, New York City DSA, and the Bread & Roses caucus. He was also a priority campaign representative on NYC-DSA’s Socialists in Office Committee.