- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
American leftists are stuck in a conundrum. On the one hand, our two major parties are dominated by corporate interests — including the Democrats, who are currently tasked with (and failing to) meet the challenge of opposing the openly reactionary and wealth-worshipping Republicans.
On the other, our country’s laws governing third parties are the most restrictive of any established democracy, making ballot-line challenges to the two major, corporate-dominated parties arduous, if not impossible. We seem doomed to either quixotic, ineffectual third-party challenges, or getting sucked into the conservatizing force field of the Democratic Party.
In a 2016 article, Jacobin executive editor Seth Ackerman proposed another way. He argued for creating an independent organization that functions in key ways like parties in other countries around the world, with an official membership, a binding platform, and clear mechanisms to ensure fealty to that platform from candidates and officeholders running under the organization’s banner — all things the Democratic Party currently lacks.
The issue of whether to run on the Democratic ballot line or something else, he argued, should be secondary: left candidates should run as independents when it makes sense to and Democrats when it doesn’t. But our principal concern should be creating that party-like organization — not what’s listed on a ballot line.
In the wake of successful challenges to the Democratic Party leadership by insurgent candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the explosion in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Daniel Denvir of Jacobin’s The Dig podcast spoke with Ackerman about the ideas in that article and the path forward. You can subscribe to Jacobin Radio here.
Your article “Blueprint for a New Party” argues that the institutional nature of American electoral politics is such that we have to think beyond this debate that we’ve had forever on the Left about whether we need a third party or should work to transform the Democratic Party.
The way we do that, you argue, is by building a militantly democratic and independent party-type organization, while opportunistically hijacking the Democratic Party ballot line when we need to. Explain what the problem is with the American electoral system and what your solution is.
The American electoral system is off the charts in its uniqueness, structure, and institutional setup — to the point that almost all of the basic concepts and terms used in democratic politics throughout the world tend to have a different meaning in the American context.
The most fundamental element here is the question of what it means to have a political party. What is a political party? People on the Left talk all the time about the Democratic Party: Is it good? Is it bad? Can you change it? Who’s in control? Often people talk about the Democratic Party as if it were a party in the normal sense that’s used in other countries. But it really isn’t.
In most places in the world, a political party is a private, voluntary organization that has a membership, and, in theory at least, the members are the sovereign body of the party who can decide what the party’s program is, what its ideology is, what its platform is, and who its leaders and candidates are. They can do all of that on the grounds of basic freedom of association, in the same way that the members of the NAACP or the American Legion have the right to do what they want with their organization.
In the United States, that’s not the case at all with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We’ve had an unusual development of our political system where, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bosses of the two major parties undertook a wave of reforms to the electoral system that essentially turned the political parties into arms of the government, in a way that would be quite shocking — you could even say “norm-eroding” — in other countries.
If you took a comparative politics class in college during the Cold War, it would have discussed the nature of the Communist system, which was distinguished from a democratic system by the merger of the Party and the state, becoming a party-state. Well, the United States is also a party-state, except instead of being a single-party state, it’s a two-party state. That is just as much of a departure from the norm in the world as a one-party state.
In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules. And of course when we say state governments, who we’re talking about the Democrats and the Republicans.
So it’s a kind of a cartel arrangement in which the two parties have set up a situation that is intended to prevent the emergence of the kind of institution that in the rest of the world is considered a political party: a membership-run organization that has a presence outside of the political system, outside of the government, and can force its way into the government on the basis of some program that those citizens and members assemble around.
Even though your analysis parts ways with the orthodox third-party approach, that approach is entirely right about the fact that this is a two-party cartel system designed to exclude them.
That’s absolutely true. And you can see that in the way that the two parties have set up the rules regarding how other parties get on the ballot. The United States is the only democratic country in the world where two governing parties automatically get on the ballot, and every other party has to petition to get on the ballot with an enormous series of obstacles, such as signature requirements. And then the two parties send their lawyer goons to strike those petitions off and keep the other parties off the ballot.
We’re used to this kind of stuff in the United States; it’s considered the cost of doing business if you’re operating on the margins of the mainstream political system. But in other countries, again, that sort of thing doesn’t exist.
So the attitude of supporters of the purist third-party approach is absolutely correct. But then it’s a question of what do you do about it, and that’s where I part ways with a classic third-party approach.
You call for the “electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency.”
I want to see the Left organize to the point that it can strategically and consciously exploit the gaps in the coherence of the system in order to create the equivalent of a political party in in the key respects: a membership-run organization with its own name, its own logo, its own identity and therefore its own platform, and its own ideology.
The membership and leaders and candidates of that party would go out and present their message to the electorate. Just as the Democrats distinguish themselves from the Republicans, this organization would distinguish its political vision from the existing visions of the mainstream parties.
The question is how you fit that within the institutional setup that we have now regarding how the government regulates parties. We’re seeing initial steps being taken by people who, I think, have this ultimate vision in mind. Until we get to the point where we actually have the strength at the national level to frontally challenge the mainstream Democrats and Republicans with that kind of cohesive organization, how do we get to that point? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
If you don’t have candidates who are visibly contesting for power under a different political stripe, then it’s hard to convince rank-and-file voters and ordinary people that you you have a distinct vision and they should care about it. So, that’s where the Catch-22 comes in.
I think what we’re seeing now with Ocasio-Cortez and so many other candidates at the state and local level, are attempts, especially by members of Democratic Socialists of America, to take the first steps of having candidates operating under an alternative banner — somewhat tangentially, but still pretty palpably.
Every article about Ocasio-Cortez mentioned that she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, that she’s a democratic socialist. That is a major step towards the goal of having an alternative political vision beamed into the consciousness of a larger electorate in a way that is very difficult to do when you don’t have candidates with a chance of winning running under that kind of banner.
What we haven’t seen yet is a membership organization with an organic relationship with these candidates, and a consistent ideological and programmatic coherence.
Something that would look more like an actual political party, like the Labour Party in the UK?
Exactly. The Labour Party is an actual membership organization. You can go to your local Constituency Labour Party and become a member, you have your party card, you have the right to vote on agenda items. Because of the nature of that party, the left wing of the party was able to project their candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, to the head of the party in 2015. And then he was able to impose and cultivate a new ideological and programmatic identity for the party. That’s because there are levers of power within that party that allow Corbyn and those who have won those fights within Labour to actually impose discipline.
We don’t have that yet. The Democratic Party itself doesn’t have that yet because it’s an institution that prevents any kind of a democratic membership from imposing discipline. And of course they’ve set up the whole institution to make it so that nobody else can either.
That’s the problem we need to overcome. So far, with DSA, we don’t have the wherewithal quite yet. But we are taking the initial steps of creating a distinct political identity and having candidates who can project that political identity to a larger audience.
This independent power is so critical because, otherwise, we’re not opportunistically seizing the Democratic Party lines. We’re just running people as Democrats. This is the style of politics that organizations like MoveOn get stuck in: a candidate-centered approach where the base wields little real power.
You write, “In this party-less model of politics, it’s the Democratic politician who goes around trying to recruit a base rather than the other way around.”
That’s right. And that’s the goal of the system as it’s set up right now, to ensure that it’s a candidate-centered system. Because that gives the candidates and officeholders the maximum freedom to act as brokers between different constituencies.
Within the Democratic Party, that’s traditionally been about acting as a broker between different business constituencies and various progressive or working-class constituencies. The idea is, ”We’ll give a little bit to this side and a little bit to that side.” And they balance. Ultimately it’s up to the candidates and officeholders to strike the balance. That’s why I say American political parties are not membership organizations — they are essentially associations of officeholders. And the point of the organization is to strengthen each individual officeholder, to empower each politician vis-a-vis their own base.
A real party reverses that. In a real party, it’s the membership who have control over the resources that the politician needs. And they use their control over those resources as leverage to ensure that the candidates they put into office actually pursue the program that the membership wants.
At this point, we’re not yet in a situation where we have the power or the political wherewithal to set up those kinds of mechanisms with these candidates nationwide. Now, it’s true that this new wave of candidates got where they are through the work of members of DSA or other progressives in their districts, and they’re going to need to keep the loyalty of those activists no matter what they do.
But if you look at the history of left-wing electoral politics in this country, it’s full of examples of betrayal. Or times changed, certain politicians’ positions became more precarious and they had to look for alternative sources of support. Right now, we are in an upswing for the Left. But times change. There are upswings and then there are downswings.
At some point in the future, we’re going to be in a downswing again. At that point, any politicians that we’ve managed to elect are going to find themselves under a lot of pressure to find alternative sources of support and therefore to pursue alternative policies to the ones that we want them to pursue.
That’s the situation where you get betrayal. So, it’s at that point that you really want to have institutional mechanisms for maintaining control and leverage over the politicians that you’ve put in positions of power.
And that’s what political parties historically have been and are supposed to be: the institutional mechanisms whereby ordinary people can collectively exert control over some cadre of politicians and the messages those politicians present to the public and the programs that they vote for in office. If we lack that, if we fail to build those mechanisms, then I fear we will find ourselves back in the same situation we were in the 1970s or ‘80s.
There were politicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s who came out of those movements, who sincerely talked great talk, and were put in office by radical activists. As times changed, they took a different direction, and the Left had no means to control them.
This is one reason why there’s a growing emphasis within DSA to restrict political endorsements to members of the organization. That bewildered some people like my mother, who texted me during the Alabama Senate race and asked why DSA wasn’t supporting Doug Jones.
But there’s no real distinction between a proto-party organization like DSA and a group like MoveOn, if you just endorse any candidate that’s better than the other candidate.
Absolutely. And right now those debates are happening intensely within DSA, within all the different chapters, and they’re very healthy debates. The question is, what are the criteria that need to be upheld in order for a DSA chapter or for DSA itself to endorse a candidate?
My view is that there’s a balance that needs to be struck, but you want to err on the side of stringent rather than loose criteria — if for no other reason than that there are already plenty of progressive organizations that have those looser criteria, and are happy to support any candidate who’s better than the Republican or better than the average Democrat. There’s MoveOn. There’s Indivisible. There’s Justice Democrats, whoever.
If you’re a member of DSA, if you feel strongly that we should support this or that candidate even though they’re not a socialist or a DSA member, by all means you have the right, as an individual, to work on those campaigns. But if DSA is going to actually project a distinct ideological and programmatic identity that doesn’t currently exist in mainstream politics, it’s going to have to err on the side of stringency.
My view is that being a member of DSA, calling yourself a socialist, that’s pretty minimal. Because being a member of DSA doesn’t require you to support any particular platform on penalty of expulsion or anything like that. It’s not a Leninist organization. It doesn’t exert much discipline over individual members.
So, to at least to describe yourself as a socialist, accept that label, and identify with the organization — those are pretty minimal requirements. One day, hopefully, we can get to a point where the requirements are more stringent than that.
It’s not even that I don’t think that groups to the right of DSA have a role to play in endorsing these lesser-of-two-evil candidates. There are candidates in Rhode Island this year who I will likely be voting for, but who I would not want Providence DSA to endorse.
Exactly. You have to keep separate in your mind the different objectives that you want to pursue when you’re in electoral politics. On the one hand, you may just want to make sure that the policy coming out of the government is the least bad possible. But if you restrict yourself only to that objective, then you end up on the treadmill that we’ve been on the last several decades where it’s always the lesser evil, which means that you’re not giving yourself any means to make the lesser evil any better.
I think the impulse out of which this massive surge in DSA’s membership came was this feeling, coming out of the 2016 election, that that approach was bankrupt. So now we’re seeing tentative trial-and-error efforts by members of DSA to figure out what exactly that means in practice.
The possibility of this more independent base of power was expressed by Ocasio-Cortez. In her debate with Crowley, when he asked her if she would endorse him in the general election should he win the primary, her response was that she would have to go back and ask the people who backed her to democratically make that decision.
I represent not just my campaign, but a movement. I am proud to be endorsed by organizations like Democratic Socialists of America, the Movement for Black Lives, Muslims for Progress, and so on. And as a result, we govern ourselves democratically. So, I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote, and respond in the affirmative, or however they respond.
That is a fantastic answer. Historically, as our political system developed, because we don’t have the normal party mechanisms, there was always this bizarre confusion within the parties, since they don’t impose any kind of discipline. They have no membership that can impose discipline on their politicians, so they had to figure out what is the minimal requirement to be Democrat or Republican in good standing.
In the nineteenth century, they came up with the standard that was called “party regularity.” That meant you didn’t have to be for or against anything. You could be a Nazi. You could be a Communist. Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you always support the Democratic candidate in the general election. That was the baseline.
It’s a clever system because it ensures that loyalty is always transferred to whatever the current image of the party is. If you require anybody who is running in a Democratic primary to pledge to blindly support whoever wins the primary, even if it’s somebody who doesn’t believe in any of the things that you believe in, then you’ve abandoned the independent political identity that you’re trying to project — not just in this particular election, but in the political system as a whole. You’ve thrown it away and said, “I relinquish my political orientation and those of my constituents and supporters to whatever and whoever the Democratic Party happens to be today.”
The answer that Ocasio-Cortez gave there is exactly the right answer.
Because there’s a lot of people who tend to vote Democrat for whom that question that Crowley asked is tricky. They’ll say, “Yeah, isn’t it your responsibility if you’re running in a Democratic primary to endorse Crowley or whoever ends up winning that primary because they’re the Democrat?” And that’s not an obviously easy question for Ocasio-Cortez to answer. But the answer she gave is exactly the right one, because it’s grounded in the democratic ideal of her vision of politics.
She says, “I have to go back to the people who supported me and ask them what to do.” I think that is the precise ground on which candidates need to be answering that question, because it then throws the question back to Crowley: “Well, who are you asking? Who’s the constituency that you’re consulting with when you make these kinds of political decisions?” And the answer, obviously, is just himself and his cronies.
And she reveals in that moment that what he’s proposing is this boss-to-boss transactional thing.
Exactly. She shows that the relationship that Crowley wants to portray himself as having with his own electorate is not the relationship he actually has.
Your argument is not that the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party” should take over and transform the Democratic party into a working-class party, because that’s actually impossible, given that the Democratic and Republican parties are not even parties. But there are problems with the third-party-exclusive approach.
If the Democratic and Republican parties are de facto appendages of the state, because those two ballot lines are the exclusive institutionalized means to winning state power, an absolute refusal to use those two ballot lines is more akin to an anarchist position because it refuses any attempt to win state power.
That’s right. I don’t think we should be dogmatic on either side of the equation. I think we should treat the system as it exists with the contempt that it deserves.
These are really just pretenses — the idea that there’s this party whose internal election you’re voting in when you vote in a primary, or that this is a level playing field where every party gets a fair shot. We shouldn’t dignify that pretense by taking it seriously, by saying that casting a vote or running a candidate on this particular ballot line is somehow “joining the Democratic Party.” Instead, part of the strategy needs to be that as we run these candidates and project our message, we also need to incorporate within that a critique of the electoral and political system itself.
And part of that is to be very open about how flimsy and transparent this whole setup is. So, if the law says that you have to do things like register as a Democrat, we’ll do those things — because that’s what the law says, because that’s what we need to do to put our message out to the public. But we’re not doing it because we actually buy into the idea that there is some “Democratic Party” to which one can have loyalty or be a member.
On the other hand, there’s also the potential for dogmatism on the other side. There are situations in which it would make sense to run independent candidates.
That’s how Bernie came to power in Vermont.
Exactly. There are many districts and races all around the country where where it would make sense to do that. That’s actually an excellent way to show our lack of dogmatism about the whole system.
I was very involved in the Nader 2000 campaign as a high school student. And after years of being involved with and then observing and knowing third-party people — people whose political program is based on engaging in a third party like the Green Party — one of the major ironies is that while third-party people are so marginalized as fringe characters by the media, you will not meet people who more sincerely believe in the story that American democracy tells about itself, and who believe that by highlighting the contradiction between that story and the ugly reality, that everything will just change all of a sudden.
Yeah, the system exerts this strange effect so that in some ways it’s more powerful and more effective in constricting the choices to the two major parties by making it just possible — not on a level playing field, but just possible — to get a third party on the ballot by jumping through a tremendous number of hoops and then having very little chance of success.
A friend of mine made a joke years ago: “The Soviet Union never would have collapsed if they’d decided that instead of one party, they’d have two parties that agree about everything except abortion.”
In some ways, the possibility of having third parties has this strange effect where it ends up attracting, like a magnet, people whose vision of politics often takes a very literalistic form, where if you don’t like the Democrats and the Republicans — which is great, we all agree — then obviously the thing you have to do is fight the way they’re fighting, on their terrain. To say, well, they have a ballot line, so we’ll take a ballot line, and we’ll do all the things that they do, just like they do it—
But in a way that’s structurally built to permanently marginalize them.
Exactly. So it looks like they’re competing with the major parties in form, but in substance, they’re not. And since it attracts people who have that attitude towards politics, it becomes more about the ritual of putting the third party’s name on the ballot and announcing that you’re the alternative than it is of actually organizing people, knocking on doors, doing all the kinds of things that Ocasio-Cortez did.
An irony here is that for third-party movements of the Left, especially for Marxists who are third-party absolutists, this is all premised on an idealist rather than a materialist understanding of electoral politics.
The ritual of inscribing the party’s name on the ballot substitutes for the actual political work of talking to people, putting your message out there, organizing people, having meetings, and so on. That’s certainly not what Marx meant when he urged the workers to form their own party. He wasn’t talking about the ballot line because that did not exist at the time.
As much as Democrats, to this day, like to blame Ralph Nader for everything, I think it’s pretty clear that Bernie running as a Democrat was a far more potent threat to their power, and that blaming Nader is more of a political-ideological exercise to legitimate them than an actual explanation for what happened in 2000. Then you have Bernie, running in their party, and they’re still livid.
On the one hand, the conclusion you have to draw is that they don’t ultimately care about spoiler versus non-spoiler. They’re going to oppose any challenge to the leadership of the Democratic Party, whether inside a Democratic primary or outside.
On the other hand, when you compare those two approaches, Nader versus Bernie — the other side is going to hate on you either way. But you have to ask the question: which one ended up being more effective?
I was there at Madison Square Garden when Nader had his big rally. I paid my $20. It was kind of exciting for a day, but at the end of that whole process, one had to stop and think, what exactly did we accomplish?
Which was a question not asked often enough, because it was these cynical liberals making the argument that it’s Nader’s fault that Bush was elected. But then the Left finds itself defending against that, and no one’s asking the question, what did we accomplish and can we do this better?
But I also want to emphasize the other side. Yes, Bernie ran in the Democratic primary, so he didn’t take the Nader route. But on the other hand, Bernie didn’t adopt all of the other trappings of being a Democrat. He didn’t identify as a Democrat. Had he been a more opportunistic politician, he very easily could have switched his party registration in Vermont to Democrat. Which wouldn’t have any real effect, but it would be a symbolic gesture that would announce, “I consider myself a Democrat.”
He could have done a lot of things to symbolically associate himself more closely with the Democratic Party, and he deliberately chose not to do that. And that was smart and wise, both from a long-term point of view — because it tremendously increased mass awareness that you could have alternative politics in this country that were not just Hillary Clinton versus Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.
And also in the short term I think it helped him, too, because this country has developed this extremely tribal, polarized political confrontation between these two party identities that often end up being empty identities — symbols that one half of the country fights the other half about.
Look at how Republican voter ideology has been utterly transformed by having Donald Trump at the head of the party.
Exactly. That shows the emptiness of it. I say half versus half, but it’s not even that. These are relatively small percentages of the country who are actively, emotionally engaged in these partisan political fights that you see on MSNBC versus Fox, while huge numbers of people look at it with disgust. They see it as empty partisanship. When Bernie was running in the Democratic primary, he could have easily come to be seen by ordinary voters being introduced to him for the first time as just another Democrat on the Democrat team, fighting the fight for that party.
But instead he deliberately took a step back from associating himself with the party and said, “I am critical of the Democrats and Republicans.” That, again, is one of those steps — like what Ocasio-Cortez did in that debate — that you can take to shape an alternative identity that is viable in the mainstream.
You have this system where, on the one hand, it’s 100 percent, wall-to-wall, two parties and only two parties. And yet when you look at opinion polls, public opinion about the two parties has never been more negative. In fact, the percentage of people who are unwilling to call themselves a Democrat or Republican is at a record high.
Yet it has no effect whatsoever on the actual political system, which gives you an indication of how rigged the system is. But it’s a way of being rigged that is very tricky to confront.
Those kinds of steps — accepting that you’re going to have to run on another party’s ballot line, but at the same time showing that you’re not just another member of that team — those are the steps you have to take to get to the point where we can actually have a full, formal institutional identity in a way that we can’t now.
If this independent force on whatever ballot line takes power, then electoral reform that breaks the two-party system has to be a priority.
Historically, that’s how electoral reform has tended to happen. Proportional representation, which many people would like to have, came to other countries, not because one day politicians just decided this was a good idea. Almost all countries originally had our system, which is first-past-the-post. And then so-called third parties would start competing with those mainstream parties and the danger of splitting the vote became a threat to the mainstream parties, to the incumbent parties.
Once you start having a third political identity that can exist on a mass scale, then it becomes a threat to the mainstream parties. And they start to say, “Oh, no, we can’t split the vote with them, we’ll be wiped out. We need to have some way where people can vote in a more proportional way or more rational way, so that we don’t lose everything if the vote is split.”
A lot of people ask me why I didn’t say anything in my article about the need for electoral reform. I’m all for electoral reform. That would be great. Obviously, I’m totally against the system that we have now.
But it’s the cart-before-the-horse issue.
Absolutely. For one thing, it’s absolutely impossible to really organize around it in most cases. It only becomes possible to organize around it once the political crisis has happened that shows everyone the need for electoral reform. Then people start saying, “How can we deal with this problem?”
In other countries, it was when a labor party was organized. It would challenge the liberal party and the party would say, “We’re never going to win another seat again by splitting our vote in this way unless we change the political system through something like proportional representation.”
To start by going to ordinary voters and having this very abstract plan for how this other voting system is going to work — it sounds good on paper, but in practice it never goes anywhere. It’s really not possible to organize people around these kinds of procedural issues. You first have to plow your way into the system, cause a crisis, and then the crisis will help you get the electoral reform you want.
In your article, you emphasize that unions are key to building this independent electoral power. But in the Ocasio-Cortez case, unions did not flock to her candidacy. Do you think that might begin to change?
Unions absolutely have to be central to this project if it’s going to move beyond ones and twos. Getting Ocasio-Cortez nominated in the Bronx or getting a couple candidates in Western Pennsylvania in state legislatures, which happened a few months ago from a DSA chapter there — those victories are really important. They build morale, they put socialist politics into the mainstream.
But they are obviously nowhere near the scale that’s needed to exert a sea-change in American politics.
There are something like 3,000 state legislative seats in this country. And at the end of this electoral cycle, if all goes well — if you include Lee Carter in Virginia and those candidates in Pennsylvania and so on — we may have half a dozen. That’s obviously far less than a percentage point. It’s not enough.
If we are going to scale this up to the point where it becomes a truly national political phenomenon that rivals the Democrats and Republicans, there’s absolutely no way it could happen without a central, large core of labor support. Because only trade unions have the institutional scale, the contacts with millions of ordinary voters who are not already politicized, not already ideologically on the Left.
Now, you don’t need unions to get those ones and twos elected — Ocasio-Cortez proved that and so did these other candidates. Once you get that person elected, they can serve as a kind of a platform. As socialists in the nineteenth century used to say, Ocasio-Cortez can “talk to the workers through the window of parliament.” She can be kind of a tribune figure. That is a very useful role. But labor is not, at this point, in a position to be supporting these kinds of insurgencies.
Historically, it’s always been when labor is strongest and most confident and growing that it had the confidence to support political insurgencies. When it’s on the defensive, it has little choice but to cling to whatever resources it already has, and part of those resources are labor’s relationships with incumbent politicians. What we’re going to need is more of what we saw in the last few months with the strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma and other states, involving teachers. Those were grassroots rebellions of the kind that in the past have led to sharp movements to the left among unions, where they would then take the step of supporting insurgent candidates. But it’s going to have to be a lot bigger, because we’re going to need a lot more resources.