[UPDATED] United States: Towards multi-racial municipal socialism (plus response)

By David Duhalde

September 6, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Organizing Upgrade — A 21st century socialist in the United States must leave two mindsets in the last century. It is time to say good-bye to what I call the “1968 paradigm” and the limited dichotomy “socialism from above” versus “socialism from below.”

Instead, we should develop strategies to build multi-racial municipal socialism. This new tendency is usurping the historic relevance prior socialist electoral orientations such as white ethnic-based sewer socialism. Rather than trying to form some united front that does not exist, the left needs to turn out voters for down-ballot socialists in swing states. Such local success can have national impacts.

Recent victories (and losses, too) provide socialists with a unique opportunity to reassess our electoral strategy and how to implement it in this country.

1968 paradigm, 2019 pandemic and 2020 presidential election

The ‘1968 paradigm’ is what I call the liberal-left fear that any race-based uprising with violent elements – even if justified – helps Republicans in elections. This belief has historic precedent, particularly Richard Nixon using “law and order” rhetoric to win over many white voters to defeat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election. Therefore, progressives sympathetic to the struggles for Black rights would lessen their support for rebellions turning violent in the fear these responses would lead to GOP electoral victory.

Yet history shows that popular support persists for mass demonstrations even with property damage. Today’s uprising so far appears to be no exception. For a host of reasons, support for the Black Lives Matter uprisings remains high. The simple truth is actual mass rebellions hurt incumbents – not a particular party.

The shift of the paradigm and the pandemic have tremendous impact on how socialists should relate to the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump’s disproval ratings are at historic highs because of his handling of the pandemic. The shift in energy toward Joe Biden means socialists can re-examine where to best deploy our scarce resources.

But the pandemic has not only changed Trump’s chance but how people campaign and how the race will be won. Effectively, door canvassing has all but been eliminated. Face-to-face voter contact is a crucial tool for cash poor but volunteer rich organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Biden’s campaign is not nearly as sophisticated in phonebanking and textbanking as the Sanders campaign, which also makes it harder to recruit new volunteers for other campaigns.

But Biden was able to defeat Sanders in the Democratic Primary without a good volunteer infrastructure. How? Biden enjoyed several advantages Sanders’ enthusiastic base could not overcome: (1) popular name recognition with the Democratic (especially Black) voters, (2) support from the party establishment, and (3) sympathy from the media. The 2020 campaign will largely be decided by TV ads and how each presidential candidate is covered by the press. This means that efforts to buoy support for Biden necessitates spending large amounts of money on digital and TV advertisements. Such ad buys required deep pockets any socialist organization is unable to do even if they wanted to.

Socialism from above vs. below and today’s realities

Thus, under these unprecedented presidential election conditions, I am going to push against the traditional “socialism from above” (SFA) and “socialism from below” (SFB) approaches to White House runs. These frames, made famous by Hal Draper’s essay, provide a binary of historic socialist approaches to electoral politics.

SFB views building a working-class party separate from capitalist parties as the primary electoral goal. There are varying strategies and timelines to achieve this, but the central aim is creating a party that the masses will join, vote for and control. SFA views such party building as secondary to mobilizing within mass movements and building a socialist electoral current from within. From the SFA lens, defeating the right-wing takes precedence over other socialist electoral aims. How this plays out today is that SFB adherents oppose DSA endorsing Biden where SFA would be more sympathetic to critical support if not an outright endorsement. Both of these worldviews face serious limitations in today’s elections.

For example, in “Socialist Strategy and the Biden Debate,” Max Elbaum offers a SFA take with limitations. I agree with Elbaum that socialist activism in the 2020 elections should center around the countering collapsing of democratic norms and the expansion of voter suppression; we both are excited about the shift in public opinion on race and policing; and each want Biden to resoundly defeat Trump and that a Democratic administration would be better for working people.

But Elbaum’s essay fails in a few key ways.

First, Elbaum says DSA should join the anti-Trump front as a junior partner. But there is no such front. There are groups that are working against the president’s re-election. But they are not coordinated in any particular fashion in which smaller groups such as DSA, WFP, and Our Revolution could join. (The latter two groups had also not endorsed Biden at the time of Elbaum’s essay.) Especially without canvassing, there is little DSA could contribute to such a coalition. Given the media dynamics dominating this election, it remains unclear how DSA could meaningfully – not symbolically – change anything by endorsing Biden. (If DSA wants to help defeat Trump, a down-ballot strategy like Elbaum and I support would be good but doesn’t necessitate uplifting a fictional formation.)

Second, Elbaum critiques leftists that focus on local struggles as voluntarists out of touch with reality:

There are leftists who …argue that socialists should still abstain from the electoral battle against Trump. Rather, we should focus on other battles to build up left power. That kind of orientation might be practical in the short term for a small organization. But on the level of strategy it substitutes the voluntarist notion that the left can set the agenda and timetable for mass struggle for a materialist perspective that recognizes that underlying trends and political forces far more powerful than ourselves set the conditions that we must deal with. In doing so it fosters a stronghold, “if you build it, they will come” approach to politics that would consign the left to the margins as the struggles of millions pass us by.

Elbaum correctly rejects the SFB “cart before the horse” hopes of a mass worker party before masses of workers have joined. But Elbaum misses a key point. Left organizations, including the DSA, are too small to influence the national presidential race in a general election. DSA chapters, however, can win decisive local races. This is where the left should focus its energy.

Multi-racial municipal socialism and a better 2020 socialist electoral strategy

The best things DSA can do to defeat Trump in the fall are to continue building multi-racial municipal socialism, and to encourage people to turn out for Democratic candidates backed by DSA – even in safe districts – in swing states.

This can lead to higher Democratic base turnout, which helps Biden, and also builds momentum for our electeds that will work to fight austerity and for mass action regardless of who is in the White House.

This is a realistic strategy, as shown by the sweep of “DSA for the Many” New York State legislative candidates plus two congressional victories (alongside one loss that still outperformed expectations) and a growing cluster of municipal and down-ballot socialist recent victories in places such as the metro area of the D.C. and Philadelphia, and Maine. (Plus pre-existing ones in Chicago and other cities large and small.) The majority of these candidates were black and people of color. Furthermore, they, unlike Elbaum suggests, are activists that were involved in mass struggles that involved millions. Nothing is passing them by.

With a Biden victory, it is critical to have elected socialists in place to fight austerity and for a recovery for working people. We especially want a multi-racial coalition of socialists and POC-led community groups that reflects the working and poor people that need the most protection in the pandemic and economic recovery. A future Biden administration will face immense pressure from the business community and neoliberal forces. We can counter their strength if we build a movement where we have leverage. A Trump re-election would only increase the need for organizing a restive population against the austerity and cruel policies his administration will continue to implement.

This strategic decision to focus down ticket and not on the presidency and realpolitik decision based on our strength; not a decision that fits easily in either a rejection of the Democratic Party as SFB advocates would want nor the movement toward ultra-left marginalization that those closer to the SFA tradition would fear.

Regardless of who wins the White House this November, socialists need to prove we can govern at a local level before voters trust us with higher office. A big test of how voters will treat us at upcoming polls is how our electeds and our organizations handle the COVID recovery, economic crisis, and racial justice uprisings. These voters aren’t going to remember who DSA, WFP, or Our Revolution endorses much less tweet about. Those kinds of voters are the millions we should care about. They’re the ones I am fighting for.

David Duhalde is a long-time democratic socialist activist starting a campus activist with what is now called Young Democratic Socialists of America. Since then, he served as DSA’s National Youth Organizer and Deputy Director. Duhalde also served as political director of the Bernie Sanders-inspired Our Revolution. Today, he is the Vice-Chair of the DSA Fund, a 501c3 educational nonprofit, and also serves on the DSA’s Steering Committee of the International Committee.

Response by Max Elbaum

I appreciate many of the ideas in David Duhalde’s piece Toward Multi-Racial Municipal Socialism. I especially agree with his critique of tendencies that would diminish support for the uprising to defend Black lives because of fear of negative electoral consequences. The notion that the left should do that was not the lesson that the section of the left I have been part of for 50 some years drew from the battles of 1968.

At the same time, I think Duhalde’s critique of my piece Socialist Strategy and the Biden Debate mischaracterizes my argument. My article did not take issue with the idea that DSA could make its main electoral contribution in 2020 by focusing on turning out votes for down-ballot candidates. It was a critique of DSA’s decision that as a national organization it would resist incorporating a vote-to-defeat Trump message into that work and would take no part in any alignment where calling for a vote for Biden to beat Trump was a point of unity.

Duhalde’s article is explicit about the importance of beating Trump: he writes that both he and I “want Biden to resoundly defeat Trump and [we agree] that a Democratic administration would be better for working people.” And part of his argument for focusing on local electoral races is that these priorities would be “the best things DSA can do to defeat Trump.”

What is not said is that while he holds these views, they are not the position of National DSA. DSA’s view remains the “Bernie or Bust” position adopted at its 2019 Convention. Even as the racist and anti-democratic actions of the Trump administration escalated, when a proposal was offered to the national leadership to “ask members in swing states to consider voting for Biden” (not to endorse or vote for him, but just to consider the proposition), it was voted down 13-4. And the fact that it was even raised for discussion was criticized by the original author of the 2019 “Bernie or Bust” resolution as a violation of democracy within the organization.

Further, at the time my article was written, motion toward partnerships, coordination and common messaging among different progressive groups in an anti-Trump effort was apparent. Steps in that direction are accelerating as the racism and lies from the Trumpified GOP have increasingly turned into a one-note “Get your guns, the Black are coming” campaign. I doubt the UnitedAgainstTrump effort, which includes the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Mijente, Black Voters Matter and other groups, will be the last to emerge. But unless DSA’s policy is changed, as a national organization it stands aside from such efforts.

It seems to me that incorporating an explicit vote-Biden-to-beat-Trump component into DSA policy would be a plus for both the left overall and for DSA. Tapping into the anger at (and fear of) Trump in key constituencies, adding that message to the top-priority work done at the local level strengthens, not weakens, those efforts. Such a stance would facilitate building closer relationships with the many progressive groups and circles, especially those rooted in communities of color and in labor, who are going all-out against Trump. It can make a difference in the outcome in a few battleground states. That policy would align with, and strengthen the hand of, the vast majority of elected officials that Duhalde correctly says will be key to demonstrating that socialists and other radicals can be effective at solving the real problems their constituencies face.

All these steps are completely consistent with the anti-Trump politics that infuse Duhalde’s article. I hope that the perspective in his article over time becomes the national policy of DSA.