Building Electoral Power

If working people are going to create a new democratic socialist society that works for everyone, we need to take political power. This means taking electoral politics seriously—both in terms of winning specific elections and in terms of winning democratic socialist political majorities that can create a new set of social and economic rules.

Unfortunately, people may vote once or twice a year, but capitalists vote every day through the stock market and the labor market. They have the power to threaten their opponents’ livelihoods or reward those who protect their privileges. That is why elections alone are not enough. Socialists must also play a role in organizing the working class through labor unions, community organizations, and social movements. Our political candidates and campaigns must be used to inspire confidence in and build all forms of working-class political action.

But even though it isn’t sufficient by itself, winning elections is key. We cannot claim to speak for the majority and act in their interests if we cannot win individual elections, and if we cannot win individual elections, we certainly can’t win a majority of people to our vision for a new society.

At DSA’s 2017 national convention, delegates voted to make electoral work a top priority. The National Electoral Strategy passed by the National Political Committee fleshes out that mandate by focusing on how DSA chapters can use this work to expand their own capacities, electoral and otherwise. Now is the time for every DSA chapter to start recruiting candidates for local office. Already, DSA has elected candidates across the country, from Montana to Virginia. These victories don’t give us a governing majority anywhere, but they do help us develop the skills necessary to win. By building up an independent campaign apparatus capable of putting candidates in office (or removing them from it), we establish a fighting political arm of the socialist movement that can take on the far right with a more inspiring vision for the future than what the Democratic Party mainstream has to offer.

A case in point is the New York City DSA, which endorsed two candidates in 2017. In both of those campaigns, DSA members trained and managed their own canvasses, printed their own literature, campaigned openly as members of DSA, kept copies of all data from the fieldwork, wrote their own press releases, and insisted on canvassing in the areas targeted as strategic not just for the campaign but also for DSA’s own expansion. When DSA members joined the staff of campaigns, they stepped down from their decision-making DSA roles, to ensure that the campaign would always be accountable to the organization instead of the other way around.

NYC-DSA’s candidates’ campaigns gave members a chance to work alongside working-class groups on issues of concern to their members. DSA member Jabari Brisport’s city council campaign focused on a crucial affordable housing fight in rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He didn’t win the election, but he did win the endorsement of New York Communities for Change, a major tenant organization, in its first-ever endorsement of an openly socialist candidate. NYC-DSA is taking a similar approach in 2018, as it canvasses for Julia Salazar’s State Senate campaign in the Democratic primary while organizing to form tenant associations to fight for universal rent control in her district.

When DSA-backed candidates do win elections, they can make big changes in people’s lives. Gregorio Cesar won a city council race in Austin, Texas, and joined DSA a year later. Cesar led a huge mobilization to make Austin the first Southern city to pass paid sick leave—an immediate benefit to 200,000 workers. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a DSA member who holds elected office in Chicago, Illinois, uses his position to counter Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials by notifying community members when immigration raids are happening.Recently, he was voted off the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus after he used a parliamentary procedure to delay approval of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million police training academy.

Having members in office gives DSA opportunities for coalition building and for implementing policies that strengthen the capacity of the working class to fight. Elected officials have access to resources in terms of staff and funding that are otherwise out of reach for many community organizations. As more DSA members are elected, the organization will have to navigate the tensions of being in power and developing the accountable, democratic structures we want to see in the future.

Building a working-class socialist movement capable of taking power means we must reach well beyond our own membership. Across the United States, there are working-class majoritarian political projects developing, especially at the municipal level. DSA members and candidates should learn from groups such as the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California, New Haven Rising in Connecticut, and Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. In Richmond, the RPA majority has been able to lead the state in pushing wage increases, rent control, and even using the threat of eminent domain to fight bank foreclosures. That majority has been maintained for more than a decade, even as candidates backed by Chevron oil consistently outspend them ten to one. DSA locals in California have now endorsed former Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin in her run for lieutenant governor.

These coalitions force DSA to consider its role in the broader progressive movement. For instance, Chokwe Antar Lumumba has pledged to make Jackson, Mississippi, the “most radical city in the world.” His organization is deeply rooted in the black radical tradition, but he doesn’t identify as a socialist. As we continue to interpret and further develop a national electoral strategy, DSA chapters and, eventually, our national organization will have to decide how much weight to place on campaigning for self-identified socialists and how we see our role in a broader working-class movement.

In most of this country, unions and community groups do not operate within self-consciously working-class electoral coalitions like the RPA, which means DSA members should have an eye to building such coalitions. A single victorious candidate expressing our values can be the catalyst for many organizations to join a more ambitious political project, as long as we remain committed to advancing the material needs of their members.

The deck is stacked against working-class politics due to unfair ballot access rules, a growing wave of voter-suppression laws, and the flood of corporate cash that the billionaire class can unleash into the electoral process whenever its interests are threatened. Building a democratic socialist movement requires understanding these challenges and overcoming them. Every DSA chapter can advance our national priority by taking the steps to develop an independent electoral apparatus capable of putting our own candidates in office and holding them accountable to our beliefs.

But we shouldn’t stop there. DSA chapters should begin to assess the balance of power in their area at the local, state, and national level. We should plan not just for the next city council elections, but to build an enduring socialist majority in the years and decades to come. ϖ