Brief thoughts on Socialist Electoral strategy and the Socialist…
This document was written during the International Socialist Organization’s 2019 pre-convention period in which members across the country share proposals, reports, assessments, perspectives with the rest of the organization in the lead up to the ISO’s annual convention. In light of the existential crisis of the ISO, I’m sharing these strategic thoughts on socialist electoral strategy which were brainstormed to, as concretely as possible, provide a political strategy for the socialist movement to chart a path towards a movement/political party independent of the Democratic Party. As I’m a socialist based in NYC, the analysis and strategic examples are based on conditions in NYC itself.
Brief Thoughts on Socialist Electoral Strategy
The Socialist Ballot Line in NYC
Proposal: The International Socialist Organization, and its branches, will investigate the possibility of launching a multi-year strategy to secure a Socialist Ballot line in their locality.
Brief Thoughts on Socialist Electoral Strategy
– For all the developments over the last couple of years and because of the broader trends within the capitalist economy, the political opening we see before us is likely to continue as working class consciousness is developing in contrast to efforts of the ruling class to return to stability. This political opening has created a period where we can help initiate socialist campaigns with greater possibility of significant numbers of people engaging with them directly.
– While the Democratic Party has been able to weather more serious and deeper radicalizations in the past, decades of neoliberalism’s effects on the Democratic Party place us in a new historical and political conjuncture. How much a new oppositional political movement should tie itself to a politically demoralizing status quo party should be an important question to consider.
– The new socialist movement in the US is engaging directly with electoral efforts in both Democratic party campaigns and independent campaigns. Most of those engaged in Democratic party campaigns do so under a realignment strategy while a small minority of these efforts are theorized within a Dirty-Break framework.
– It is true that any major split from the Democratic Party will presuppose fights inside the party and independent struggles/fights outside the party.
– Revolutionary socialists need to provide a strategic way forward, a concrete way for us to pave a path of struggle to a higher stage of this fight — in the process winning sections of the Left and new activists to the politics of Socialism from Below.
– For the socialist movement to consolidate its gains, it needs to cohere a movement/base around its political vision and identity. While propaganda will continue to play an important role for recruitment, the socialist movement has to be able to show it can win fights on the ground through reform campaign fights, contract battles, successful unionization drives, etc.
– A socialist ballot line, can help in consolidating the gains and relationships around the socialist movement. It would provide a better measurement of our forces and the moods of the masses for socialist demands. This will allow the socialist movement to more concretely take up the fight for a split from the Democratic party.
– The socialist movement, using the socialist ballot line rooted to independent campaigns and struggles, will have a base from which to help guide a new party, post-split, to take socialist demands and outlooks.
– Establishing a socialist ballot line can also help shift the dynamic of the mainstream media “celebritizing” socialist politicians, which is a double-sided sword. For while it gives the socialist movement a mass platform, it shifts the dynamic of our fights out of the streets/movement and into congress, where we have much less power to maneuver.
– This is something the ISO can do to contribute to the socialist movement and in the process win people to an orientation on struggle in working class communities and at the workplace and specifically, to joining the ISO.
– The fight for and use of a socialist ballot line can provide a concrete way to test our investigations/discussions for a new socialist party as proposed by Todd C.
– Previous electoral efforts for third party campaigns operated in a different period and did so without any conscious effort to establish a relationship between on the ground campaigns or an ongoing base to electoral campaigns. So arguments against the two-party system were made on an abstract basis.
– It is important to note, that while I disagree with the comrades in support of Democratic Party Ballot strategies, I don’t deny that there is sound logic to this strategy. If one is focused on the growth of the socialist left from the margins to the mainstream, if one believes that Democratic Primary campaigns can help build the ranks of socialist organizations and generate broader support for socialist ideas, then yes, it’s sound to argue for the dirty break strategy.
– One problem with dirty break strategies is that it trades a wide platform for spreading socialist ideas for the potential risk of co-optation without explaining, more concretely, how endorsing socialists on Democratic Primaries will place the ISO in a position to distinguish itself, recruit revolutionary socialists, and help lead the socialist movement towards a split from the Democratic Party. It promotes a confusing political line on the Democrats lending itself towards the disorganization of the ISO’s strategy and priorities. An endorsement doesn’t provide us with a new audience — just the audience around DSA — narrowing our own considerations of where to root ourselves as part of and contributing to the strengthening of the socialist movement.
The Socialist Ballot Line in NYC
Let me offer an example of this for New York City. To secure a ballot line for a new political party in New York, you have to collect 15,000 signatures in the lead up to a gubernatorial election. If one can secure the 15,000 signatures and receive 50,000 votes in the general elections, you can secure that ballot line for any statewide race for the next four years. The challenge, however, is that you must collect the 15,000 signatures during a six week stretch of time from mid-July to mid-August after the two mainstream parties collected their own ballot signatures. And to be on the safe side, it’s best to collect nearly double the amount of signatures to avoid the Board of Elections ruling some of them out.
As comrades have argued, democratic participation in elections in the United States creates high roadblocks and New York City is no different. If the ISO were to make this argument, it would require the full participation and narrow focus of the entire socialist left, to the exclusion of nearly every other issue, on securing these signatures. Given the socialist left’, as well as our own district, I believe this approach is unfeasible for the reasons that this argument would be made on a strictly ideological and abstract basis — “that we need a party of our own” — without an existing base to launch this process as part of an ongoing political movement.
That being said, I think there is a way for us to build up the forces and resources necessary to do this and since the next gubernatorial elections isn’t for another four years, we have some time to prepare. One way to prepare is to attempt this same strategy in local City Council races in New York City.
Whereas for a four year ballot line you need to collect the thousands of signatures, to secure a ballot line on a city council race, you only need 450 signatures. So it’s possible to build up our forces in local city council races and run our own candidates. Or persuade Dirty break socialist candidates who lost the fight in the Democratic Primaries to run on this ballot line.
With more than half (36) of all city council seats going up for election in 2021, there’s a large electoral opening for socialists in NYC with time to prepare. There are numerous approaches to taking advantage of this opening — below is one way we could prepare so as to offer a more concrete approach for our discussions.
What would best position us to prepare is organizing, ahead of time, a number of multi-year long campaigns that can come out of a series of well-organized, well-publicized socialist town halls on several issues plaguing the NYC working class — issues such as housing, transportation, jobs/labor solidarity, ecological justice, immigration justice etc. These town halls could provide a place for us to build united fronts with other socialist groups, local groups/single issue groups, workplace committees/caucuses, and most importantly, an open democratic space for new activists to join and “do something”. If we’re successful, the town halls will be a site of democratic discussion and participation, policy development and strategic assessment for the socialist movement.
In 2019, the socialists movement organizes a town hall, among many others, specifically on immigration in Queens, where immigrants make up to 70% of the population. Let’s say that one initiative launched out of this town hall is a campaign to expand full political and civil rights to all NYC residents despite their status. The argument being that if you can build a public campaign to expand the rights of immigrants at the site of their intense repression, socialists can organize an important platform for immigrants to demand their civil/political rights from the state. We may hope that the more victories secured through this fight, the more immigrants will be encouraged to engage with politics directly.
Through 2020, rather than be held hostage by the electoral cycle, the socialist movement can use it to put forward a lead and distinguish itself from the bipartisan project of American xenophobia and “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”. That year, mass canvassing organized by the town hall and campaign committee can organize to include the “non-citizen vote” into the electoral process through some political theater. The campaign could “register to vote” non-citizens and organize rallies, actions and press conferences to pressure local politicians and presidential candidates. The campaign would occupy voting centers, organize the vote and collect them to march on City Hall/Board of Elections demanding they be counted. Over the course of these actions, we would measure success by the increase of engagement of new immigrant activists and the growth of an alliance, led by the socialist movement, for full political, civil/municipal rights in NYC/NYS. The example in New York City could be taken up in several places in Chicago, the West Coast and, hopefully, wherever there are large immigrant communities.
In 2021, the town hall can rinse and repeat the approach to presidential elections to city council races. By then the campaign/ socialist movement would engage with city council candidates and pressure them to attend the campaign’s actions and recognize the non-citizen vote totals collected by the campaign. The ISO can lead an argument at the town halls and/or field a candidate of its own whose platform incorporates the demands and vision of the “democratize the vote” campaign along with the other campaigns/demands raised in the other borough/citywide socialist town halls.
Collecting the 450 signatures to launch a socialist ballot line for that city council race shouldn’t be as difficult with the base built through this “Democratize the vote” campaign. Even if we don’t run a candidate of our own but still secure the city council socialist ballot line, we can provide a strategic option for a “mini-break” for Dirty-Break socialists who lose the City Council democratic primary or who can be persuaded to stage a break and run on the socialist ballot line.
If we can do this work effectively, building up the bases through the town halls and the socialist led campaigns, it should make it much more feasible for us to secure the signatures and votes needed to secure a statewide ballot line for four years at the next gubernatorial elections in 2022.
The benefit of the socialist movement having its own ballot line, and winning it through united fronts, grassroots agitation and systematic socialist propaganda, is that it allows us to measure our influence more effectively than through a democratic primary or any other party. If through this the socialist movement becomes a real political force measured through a growth in the rate of engagement of new activists, the number of legislative victories it can secure, and how many are voting on the socialist city council/statewide ballot line — we can provide a concrete and material basis for the argument of needing a new political party. It would also provide this same path to socialists enthused by the dirty break strategy, providing the “break” aspect of the strategy with some concreteness and the ISO, a vehicle to pressure dirty break socialists into a break or at least strategic conversations about organizing said break.
Insofar as there is a political analysis of NYC/NYS politics for such an initiative — I’ll offer a brief one — the election of several left wing democrats, including DSA candidate Julia Salazar, has given NYS the Democratic-party-controlled-legislature progressives have struggled to create for decades. New York City and New York State has already seen a number of progressive pieces of legislation be put forward — recreational marijuana, NYS DREAM Act, healthcare (insurance) for all by Mayor De Blasio, are some examples of this. This progressive push is likely to continue, with the deadlock gone, giving the socialist movement the conditions necessary to chart a new political way forward while avoiding the pressures of lesser-evilism in solid Blue states.
I’m not a fan of prescriptive strategies or making arguments filled with contingencies. It’s taken me much longer than it should have to write this document and that’s because I haven’t written anything like this before nor is there too much written by contemporary socialists about strategic efforts/discussions on this level of concreteness. However, I believe the period we are in will demand more of this kind of brainstorming from the socialist movement if it intends to be a real social and political force that can rally people behind it. I hope comrades will consider these contributions as my attempt to think about how the ISO can shift the pole of momentum and participation for the socialist movement away from behind-closed-doors campaign staff meetings, celebrity-cultivated socialist politicians, and propagandistic shortcuts through an affair with the Democratic Party.
Instead, I believe we need to develop a perspective and strategy of rooting the ISO’s revolutionary socialist vision in as many workplaces and communities for ensuring, as much as possible, that any break from the Democratic Party ends in a coherent political alternative tied to a combat organization. To this end, I agree and support Todd C.’s document on Prospects for an Independent Socialist Party as it would serve as a complementary process, alongside the fight for a Socialist Ballot line, which the ISO can lead nationally. It would provide a concrete test of the criteria necessary for an attempt to launch a new socialist party.