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What Is the Democratic Party, Exactly?

People on the Left spend a lot of time arguing about what should be done about the Democratic Party — and rightly so. But first we need to understand what the Democratic Party is. Hint: it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

Democratic presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar participating in the Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mario Tama / Getty

The US left has forever been torn about how to relate to the country’s enduringly two-party system — and since the 1930s, to the Democratic Party specifically. In the post-Trump era, these questions are again in circulation, given fresh life by Bernie Sanders’s first run for president in 2016 and subsequent down-ballot efforts inspired by his run, including especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

A back and forth that is all too common on the internet left goes something like this:

“We’re making tactical use of the Democratic Party ballot line. US parties aren’t really parties!”

“Don’t you get it? The Democratic Party is much more than a ballot line. Just look at what the establishment did to Bernie in those three days before Super Tuesday!”

Interlocutors often throw around the term “Democratic Party” with imprecision, and the result is that we talk past one another. In what follows, I attempt to disaggregate “the Democratic Party” into its key component parts — its dimensions and functions, or really what it is and what it does — in the service of having more precise and productive conversations on the Left.

The upshot is that, as it stands today, using the phrase “the Democratic Party” obscures more than it reveals. The practical stakes of our collective analysis are particularly high as the Left grows and chooses in real time from the array of strategic paths to building electoral power.

Party Dimensions: Identity, Elected Officials, Organizations, and the Primary System

The twentieth-century political scientist Frank Sorauf created a fine starting place from which to build an anatomy of the Democratic Party. Sorauf suggests that political parties have three main dimensions: the party in the electorate, the party in government, and the party organization. He did not contemplate as fundamental a fourth dimension, the party electoral system — that is, the primary.

The party in the electorate can be summarized as the party identity of citizens — those who think of themselves as Democrats, and those who vote for Democrats. With the rise of survey research in the twentieth century and the gradual weakening of party organizations, this aspect of the Democratic Party has become particularly salient. However, it is also inherently more diffuse, and it is difficult to infer the state of “the Democratic Party” by aggregating individual attitudes and even behaviors.

One shift in the composition of Democratic Party identifiers is particularly important. Today, for the first time in US history, the Democratic and Republican parties are ideologically distinct, which is to say that the right-most Democrat is, generally speaking, to the left of the left-most Republican.

This was not always the case.

Not so long ago, Democrats were a coalition of urban machines and southern segregationists. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 set off a long, gradual sorting process that is only just now coming to full fruition. The New Deal and the industrial labor movement brought black people into the Democratic Party in a substantial way, but in order to pass legislation, FDR still had to negotiate with segregationists — hence, for example, Roosevelt’s reluctance to push for laws against lynching and poll taxes.

A sorting process of blacks and liberals into the Democratic coalition and whites and conservatives out of it began in that decade, but it accelerated dramatically with the emergence of the civil rights movement and the achievement of black voting rights. The response from the Right — most famously in Nixon’s Southern strategy — was an active effort to recruit conservative white suburbanites and Southerners by exploiting racial fears and resentments in an era of black militancy.

In many ways, the election of Barack Obama — and the subsequent Tea Party backlash in 2010 — completed this ideological and demographic sorting. This is the paradox of the Democratic Party: even as it has drifted rightward on economic policy in the neoliberal era, it has also become more ideologically coherent and distinct from the Republican Party. And Democratic voters are as identified as ever with the party’s ballot line.

Yet party identifiers are but one facet of the Democratic Party — in some ways, the dimension easiest to define.

The party in government refers to those elected officials who have entered office as Democrats. Think here of everyone from Chuck Schumer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to your local Democratic dogcatcher. Elected officials make and execute policy, but their positions also give them outsize roles in public perception of the Democratic Party and, generally speaking, in the operations of formal party organizations. The party in government also includes the Democratic caucuses in legislative chambers, which are simply the quasi-formal organizations that elected officials create in order to control leadership positions and set the policy agenda inside of the legislature.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking to reporters in Washington, February 7, 2019. Senate Democrats / Wikimedia.

The third dimension that Frank Sorauf offers is the party organization, which is exactly what the term suggests — however, there are many formal Democratic Party organizations, not just one. In fact, to speak of a single “party organization” generates as much confusion as it resolves. At the very least, we should think of sixty-four distinct Democratic Party organizations (although even this is a substantial undercount): fifty state parties, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the campaign committee of the current presidential nominee or incumbent makes fifty-four. Then there are ten US cities with more than 1 million residents, and each has its own “local” Democratic Party organization or organizations, typically but not always based at the county level.

But, for example, New York City has multiple county parties that are often at war with one another, and the suburbs have their own comparable machines. And, more to the point, cities with far fewer than 1 million people have county party organizations or something similar. So, we might think of sixty-four as a bare minimum. In reality, there are probably several hundred formal Democratic Party organizations, and absent investigation, there is little reason to think that those organizations function with any sort of unity — and, in some cases, the opposite.

The final dimension of the Democratic Party (absent from Frank Sorauf’s framework) has evolved over the course of the twentieth century, and is what makes possible the ballot line strategy that so much of the Left has adopted: the primary system. It is hard to overstate how exceptional the US primary system it is, and how much it undermines the core function of a party in other national contexts.

Unlike everywhere else in the world, in the United States, candidate selection for the major parties is a public, state-regulated process. As I have argued elsewhere, there are a few high-profile exceptions to this rule — especially relating to the selection process for presidential nominees — which tend to obscure our thinking about the ballot line. But in nearly all Democratic Party primary races, formal Democratic Party organizations do not have any particular technical or legal control of “their” ballot line. This bizarre fact — that the state has wrested control of candidate selection from party organizations — is why groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Working Families Party (WFP), and the Justice Democrats have been able to elect outsider candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line.

Party Functions

We can disaggregate the Democratic Party into the ballot line, the officials elected on the ballot line, those who vote on and who identify with the ballot line, and the formal organizations that have the capital-D Democrat name. But what is it that those formal organizations do, and what would they do if they were truly to function as party organizations?

In short, political parties should recruit candidates to run for office (and discourage others from doing so), provide staff and knowledge for campaigns (especially with respect to media communications and mobilizing — and transforming — the electorate), and provide money. Once they put a candidate in office, parties should be able to provide them with policy tools — a platform — strategic advice, and perhaps staff. And then the party should help to keep them in office by fighting off potential challengers. Finally, the party should be able to remove elected officials from office if they stray.

The foundation for winning office is finding someone to run for office and encouraging others not to run. Sometime, presumably early in his second term, Barack Obama started to think seriously about who he wanted to replace him in the White House. He settled on Hillary Rodham Clinton, and then he set about clearing the path for her. Left-liberals, as well as Bernie Sanders, were encouraging Elizabeth Warren to run. She ultimately declined, and — so I’ve been told by people who are active in these circles — Obama had a hand in encouraging her to wait for her turn.

Though he did not have the same leverage with Bernie, who eventually ran but lost, Obama successfully kept HRC at the front of the pack, and she eventually won the party’s nomination. Versions of this recruitment and discouragement process play out in districts across the country, every electoral cycle. Powerful Democrats recruit individuals to run for office and do their best to keep the field clear for their chosen candidates.

In some cases, this work is done by party leaders, but as party organizations have eroded, individual elected officials themselves, regardless of whether they hold positions in the party organization, tend to drive the candidate recruitment and discouragement process. Candidate recruitment is a foundational function of a party organization, but in the twenty-first-century Democratic Party, it is often done by what Frank Sorauf would call the party in government — that is, by elected officials themselves.

In Brooklyn, New York, for example, the county party was run by Frank Seddio from 2012–2020. While he had once been in office, during the time he ran the party, that was his primary political engagement. Today, the party is run by Rodneyse Bichotte, who is also an incumbent elected official in the state legislature.

Even in contexts where the Left has managed to have parties of its own, this issue of whether and how party organizations can constrain the power of their own elected officials has reared its head. In the US context, which is highly candidate- and elected-official-focused, the problem is especially pronounced.

Increasingly in US politics, party staff and know-how are housed in consulting firms and other outside entities, not in formal party organizations. For example, in 2008, when the Democratic Party in New York made a play to control the State Senate for the first time in decades, they did not know how to run serious field operations — so they outsourced the key swing districts to the Working Families Party, which did. Similarly, communications work is typically done by consulting firms, not by the party organizations themselves.

Former president Barack Obama. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Fundraising is the one aspect of party work that is still done largely “in-house.” The DSCC and the DCCC raise substantial sums of money and send it to districts where they have a reasonable expectation of Democratic pickups. There are state-level analogues to these two entities housed within or directly adjacent to state parties — in New York, for example, the Democratic Party has the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Of course, as with all aspects of the US electoral system, candidates themselves play an outsize role in their own fundraising. Nonetheless, parties do fundraise, and they deploy the money strategically to key races.

Once a candidate wins office, especially for the first time, they need support — policy analysts and other staff, an orientation to the legislative chamber they are about to enter, as well as other forms of strategic counsel. In the US system, the support is often provided, yet again, by consultants and other outside entities and especially by other elected officials, regardless of their formal role in a party organization.

Paths Forward for the Left

This brings us back to our main task: disaggregating the Democratic Party into its component parts to provide a language in which we can disagree with one another while being specific about what we mean when we say “the Democratic Party.” Are we talking about voters? Elected officials? The primary system? The fundraising money to which incumbent officials often have access? Are we talking about formal Democratic Party organizations, or the army of consultants that surround the party?

Precision matters because material analysis is the basis for sound strategy; or, put differently, strategy developed based on imprecise characterizations of the material terrain is likely to sputter and fail.

Broadly speaking, there are four basic positions in the current Left debate about the Democratic Party. A dwindling number still argue for “pure” non–Democratic Party electoral politics — a position that had broader support a few decades ago, when the Left was substantially weaker than it is today. As a general matter, they lump together all party components into “the Democratic Party” and call it a capitalist party. They have a difficult time explaining how it is that political unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could defeat Queens machine boss Joe Crowley in a party primary, and an even harder time explaining how a slate of four radical DSA candidates won office in New York State this cycle, defeating centrist Democrats, and the party leadership that had backed them, in every race they challenged. (Those who question their radicalism should watch Jabari Brisport’s speech on Juneteenth.)

The most common interlocutors of the “pure” third party set are partisans of the “dirty break” theory. Many in this orbit come out of a pure third-party tradition but were moved by a material analysis of Bernie Sanders’s run for president to advocate the use of the Democratic ballot line. They argue that a “clean break” with the Democratic Party is somewhere between unwise and impossible, but that a dirty break — that is, a break with the party that proceeds in steps over an extended period of time — is necessary. They are, in a sense, operating “inside” the Democratic Party for some conscribed but undefined period of time, after which they will break to form a party of their own.

Partisans of the dirty break are typically juxtaposed to those who belong to the “realignment” tradition — the idea that the sorting process that took place between the 1930s and today could lead to “the Democratic Party” becoming left-wing. Realignment suggests that the path to fuller democratic control of the economy and society runs directly through “the Democratic Party.”

Finally, there is a fourth Left approach to electoral politics, of which I count myself a member: agnosticism. As I have written elsewhere, it is clear that there is not a serious path to electoral power outside of “the Democratic Party” in 2020. The primary system in many ways provides a more favorable terrain than even proportional representation, for which the Left often longs but which was, we should not forget, historically a reform championed by the owning class. In the primary system, we first contest against the center, and if we win, we contest against the Right in a head-to-head match, forcing much, if not all, of the center to unite behind us.

While there are strategic differences among groups like DSA, the WFP, and Justice Democrats, especially with respect to how the Left should orient to general election fights between centrist Democrats and far-right Republicans, they share the same organizational approach to the Democratic Party ballot line: they recruit, run, and fund their own candidates, independent of, and in opposition to, Democratic Party organizations and elected officials. In short, they treat the ballot line like the electoral system that it is — and they act like political parties.

For better or worse, the future is open. I would be completely unsurprised if the path to democratic socialism runs through “the Democratic Party,” but I would be equally unsurprised if the US party system cracks up, as it did in the 1850s.

In many ways, the task for now is as it’s always been: assessing the material terrain and developing a strategy appropriate to it. Given the lay of the land, this needs to start with a sober, concrete analysis of what “the Democratic Party” is — and what it is not.

Only such an assessment can lead to sound strategy, and only sound strategy can lead to the power we need.