1. History: Since the Civil War, movements on the left have won major political victories only when they were able to convince, pressure, and/or force leaders of one of the major parties to take their side on a particular issue. That most abolitionists joined the Republican Party was essential to eliminating slavery and to winning citizenship for black people. Labor unionists signed up nearly 9 million new members between 1933 and 1945 with the aid, tacit and active, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats who controlled the White House, Congress, and several key state governments. Responding to the protests of the black freedom movement, the (mostly) liberal party led by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson backed the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Open Housing laws of the 1960s. Then a bitter split among Democrats helped end the Vietnam War. On rare occasions, left parties such as the Socialists and Communists were able to nudge their “capitalist” counterparts to enact such reforms as unemployment compensation. But not a single radical party ever mustered enough support to enact the far-reaching changes it longed for.
2. Social Forces: Every contemporary group of Americans whose ends leftists support seeks to advance those goals, in part, through the Democratic Party. That includes: advocates of citizenship for undocumented immigrants, activists for civil rights, feminists, union organizers, prison reformers, and environmentalists. If you neglect the Dems—or simply denounce them—you are saying, in effect, that the carefully considered strategies of all these people who are trying to transform the nation for the better are simply mistaken. But those groups understand something left sectarians forget or never learned: politics is about assembling the social forces on your side to defeat those who oppose them. It’s what the Italian Marxist theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci called “a historic bloc” engaged in a “war of position.” In the past, the Democrats have, sometimes, been a vehicle that helped fight that conflict—most recently, for marriage equality. It would be self-defeating to ignore the possibility that it can be used that way again.
3. The Other Party: It has been almost 130 years since Frederick Douglass called the Republican Party “the sheet anchor of the colored man’s political hopes and the ark of his safety.” Since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the GOP has become the Grand Oppressive Party, one whose leading figures—and the billionaires who finance them—want to reverse nearly every gain that was made during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to advance the public welfare. So, for now at least, the Republicans are our enemies. It is not always true that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. From 1941 to 1945, Joseph Stalin was just a necessary ally in an unavoidable war against an even more monstrous and aggressive tyrant. But, today, any leftist who discourages people from engaging in electoral politics or wastes her vote on a third party is doing her bit, however small, to help Republicans win. In the United States, national elections (and most state and local ones too) really are a zero-sum game.
4. Opportunities: Yes, the Democrats are a “capitalist” party. Barack Obama could not have become president without the aid of obscenely rich people, and Hillary and Bill Clinton have cultivated the Davos set for decades. And, yes, most Democratic candidates will shift to the right on many issues if that will help them win a close election.
The point, however, is to change that. Despite having “friends” on Wall Street and among the CEOs and CIOs in Silicon Valley, the Democrats are also an institution that’s quite open to participation by individuals and groups at nearly every level—from county committees to campaign staffs to elections of delegates to the quadrennial nominating convention. That means there are plenty of opportunities to nudge, or push, the party to the left. Take the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which, full disclosure, was co-founded by Stephanie Taylor, a history grad student at Georgetown on whose dissertation committee I serve). The PCCC promotes and helps raise donations for Democrats whose political stands it applauds: debt-free college, expanding Social Security, passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling, and more. The organization led the effort to persuade Elizabeth Warren to run for the U.S. Senate and currently claims almost 1 million members.
5. No (Serious) Alternative: It would be wonderful to belong to and vote for a party that stood unambiguously for democratic socialist principles, articulated them to diverse constituencies in fresh and thrilling ways, and had the ability to compete for every office from mayor to legislator to governor to senator to president. But not many Americans speak Norwegian.
In the United States, there are innumerable obstacles to starting and sustaining a serious new party on the left: the electoral laws work against it, most of the media would ignore it, the expenses of building the infrastructure are prohibitive, and the constituency for such a party doesn’t currently exist. A majority of Americans do say they would like to have a third party to vote for. But at least as many of those people stand on the right as on the left, and many others just despise “politics as usual” and seldom, if ever, vote. In the meantime, a tiny, existing left-wing party can run a famous individual for president who manages to win enough votes to tip a critical state to the Republican nominee. In 2000, if just one percent of the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had, instead, chosen Al Gore, George W. Bush would have remained in Texas. And the United States would probably not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Bernie Sanders knows all this—which is why he decided to run for president as a Democrat.
For Americans on the left, whether to vote and canvass for Democrats, and perhaps run for office as one, ought not to be a matter of principle. It’s a pragmatic question: can one do more to make the United States a more just and humane society and help people in other societies by working inside, as well as outside, the party, or by ignoring or denouncing it? Of course, leftists in the United States should continue to do what they have always done: stage protests, build movements, educate people, lobby politicians, and create institutions that try to improve the lives of the people whom they serve. But political parties are essential to a healthy democracy. And right now, the Democrats are the only party we have.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by David Marcus, click here.