Why the argument for democracy is now working for socialists rather than against them

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left.

Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive.

What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major—the major—part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.

First, you have the full-on assault on voting rights from the Republican Party. Then there’s the fact that both the current and the last Republican president were only able to win their elections with the help of the two most anti-democratic institutions of the American state: the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. In both cases, these men won their elections over candidates who received more popular votes than they did. There’s a lot of words one might use to describe a system in which the person who gets fewer votes wins, but democracy isn’t one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Any notion that anyone from that side of the aisle is in any position to even speak on the question of democratic values—again, not robust democratic values but minimal democratic values—is a joke.

Second, you have the Democratic Party. Massively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates. Massively dependent in its district-level wins on low voter turnout, in districts where the party structure resembles  nothing so much as the Jim Crow South. You have incumbents like Joe Crowley who’ve not had to face a primary challenge in so many years that, as we saw in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they don’t even know how to wage much less win electoral campaigns anymore. You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate (whose campaign I really encourage you to donate to), an incumbent, Martin Dilan, who’s trying to forgo an election simply by forcing Salazar off the ballot, with the help of, you guessed it, the least democratic branch of the government: the courts. I can imagine the DSA folks saying to these Dems: you really want to have a debate with us about democracy? Bring it on.

And last you have this very sophisticated take by Seth Ackerman, who has become in a way the intellectual guru behind the whole DSA strategy, on how the party system in America works. Right around the 2016 election, Seth wrote a widely read (and cited) piece, which has become something of a Bible among the DSA set, on how to think about a left party that can avoid some of the pitfalls of third-party strategies in the US.

Here, in this interview with Daniel Denvir, the Terry Gross of the socialist left, Seth explains how much our two-party system looks like those one-party states that socialists of the 20th century spent their lives either defending or being forced to criticize in order to demonstrate their bona fides.

Again, what I think this shows is that, maybe for the first time in a very long time, socialists have the democracy side of the argument on their side.

Here’s Seth:

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.


  1. troy grant July 27, 2018 at 3:43 pm | #

    “You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate (whose campaign I really encourage you to donate to),”

    Don’t we need to get the money out of politics instead of putting more in?

    Direct Democracy. Unrig the system:


    • al July 28, 2018 at 12:21 am | #

      So a 100,000 people donating $10 is the same as one person donating $1M?

  2. Chris Morlock July 27, 2018 at 7:21 pm | #

    Very much for the formation of a Labour party but am weary of the litmus test for membership. If it’;s based on your universal status as a working person and primarily advocates for that then it’s a winner, we can see that approach used by Bernie and it’s been nothing but positive- he’s the most popular politician in the country. He keeps the message concise and on point about economic justice and avoids ID politics like the plague.

    DSA and other left organizations have too many other policies incidental or just correlated with economic justice. I feel as if a broad based coalition of working people based on that identity is the most intellectual honest and pragmatic approach. There is an odd sense of “anti-white patriarchal imperialism, blah blah” that seems to drive left groups, which is an old and outdated narrative. You can’t win without working white people (who are undoubtedly the largest single plurality in America, and are on the road to ruin for myriad reasons) and the rhetoric and double standards against them aren’t coherent with socialism or any kind of labour movement. Bernie is there trying to convince them directly, not pontificating or dismissing them from afar. Their religious and cultural beliefs must be respected and that will lead to a universal labour movement.

    Is the left ready to make those concessions?

  3. John MacLean July 27, 2018 at 7:27 pm | #

    I’m reading The Populist Moment right now, by Lawrence Goodwyn. In the late 1800s, the Farmer’s Alliance, and eventually the People’s Party mounted a challenge to the “sectional” thinking of the Democrats and Republicans; they also had an internal communications system that included lecturers, and as many as a thousand newspapers. They tired to get through to people the need to change the money system, so that people could have access to credit and not be worn down by the crop lien system in agriculture. They tried initially to make agriculture over, from the ground up, into a cooperative, and were stopped by the banks, and then they created a “mulit-sectional” to advance the cause of what was called the “sub-treasury.” In the South, the Democrats accused them of being against “the party of the [white] fathers” and in the North they were rumored to be treasonous rebel supporters, this was called waving the “bloody shirt” by Goodwyn. The many elections that happened in the 1890s were also characterized by fraud and violence. The book is quite good.

    • John MacLean July 27, 2018 at 7:31 pm | #

      After “multi-sectional”, I meant to add the word “party.”

  4. Jim July 29, 2018 at 3:07 pm | #

    Electoral reform should be the number 1 issue in this country but isn’t going to be anytime soon. The Founding Fathers made a grave error by leaving voting procedures up to the states. That was never going to result in anything other than the corrupt duopoly we have now and voting rights denial and voter suppression, and gerrymandering. The founders made even this undemocratic system worse by mandating first past the post elections and denial of proportional representation, a form of which actually existed in Great Britain at the time. And, of course, the unjust Electoral College. Unless and until those reforms are addressed, we will never see anything but the two party-state system and probably a continuation of the popular vote loser winning.

    The GOP will never agree to even the mildest of reforms and even the Democrats won’t unless the party is taken over by the left and they win at least thirds of the states as well. I don’t see that happening anytime soon no matter just how bad things get.

  5. kaleberg July 31, 2018 at 11:55 pm | #

    I don’t think that the problem with US parties is that the government insists that they run their organizations in a particular way. Anyone with enough signatures can get on a ballot, but if you want state assistance, for example, in managing the vote for your primary or matching funding, you have to meet certain criteria.

    For example, I recently voted in the Washington State primary and had to choose from a long list of Senate candidates. The ballot allows the candidates to list their party of preference, as in “Joe Blow prefers the Shmo party”. The Democrats and Republicans were in there along with some parties that were probably named under the influence of recently legalization marijuana. I grew up in New York, and there were parties and parties. Since the Vietnam War was on, there was the Peace and Freedom Party and the Freedom and Peace Party along with the West 74th Street Party which struck me as something that sounded like a great idea over a few beers at the West 74th Street block party and cookout.

  6. b. August 16, 2018 at 9:00 pm | #

    “Leave aside for now that it is not Russian ‘meddling’ that is delegitimizing our elections but instead these fact-free allegations themselves that are doing so. How many losing candidates in 2018 will claim their victory was snatched away by Putin?”


    I am waiting for Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to take on the manufactured “Russia!” hysteria in the context that Cohen describes above.

    It is utterly pathetic how the Democratic Party is attempting to divert attention from disenfranchisement and rigged primaries, the influence of money – especially that of American oligarchs (on behalf of Israel, or their own business interests) and Saudi autocrats on e.g. foreign policy – and the other manifold dysfunctions of our democracy by pursuing the utterly self-defeating attempt to taint Trump’s election to President as engineered by Russia (and probably hoping to taint Sanders and those following in his steps in the same manner). If the Clinton/Obama apparats think they can whip up a nativist frenzy to delegitimize US elections without finding themselves at the receiving end come mid terms, they are beyond recovery.

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