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Breaking Away From the Democrats

Saturday, we at the North Star in a panel co-sponsored by Verso Books, wrapped up a session on DSA and the Democrats: For Independent Electoral Politics. We on the North Star editorial board were open in our advocating that DSA fully break from the Democratic Party and for DSA, along with others, such as the militant wings of labour, help to form a new political party completely independent from the Democrats.

The room, mostly DSAers, was a mixed bag. Some felt that the Democratic primaries are the only option for socialists electoral action. Some know how fruitless working inside the Democratic Party is, but felt we were a bit dismissive of how many people had come into organizing because of Bernie Sanders and that he was someone who educated people. Not sure if we can say such around the issue of Palestine, on which Sanders has been horrid. What is important to note was that the discussion was quite comradely without any of us in the independence camp watering down our message in any way. Our panelists, fellow North Star editor Mark A. Lause and DSAer and former New York City Green candidate Jabari Brisport certainly did justice to the topic. Unfortunately, DSA National Political Committee member Dele Balogun was scheduled to appear but was unable to attend. No one’s mind on either side was changed, but we were able to explore the issue in detail.

Below are a few realizations that I drew from the panel as well as ideas I had going in about how we go forward:

We need to run fewer candidates. Decentralization and localism operate in contradiction to serious and viable political organizing: The Green Party runs candidates all over the country. A few have more than $5,000. Most have less. Many have tumbleweeds in the bank. Kshama Sawant would not have won her Seattle City Council seat if Socialist Alternative was running numerous candidates all over the country at the same time. Our resources are scant and too spread out, and we have to work in the political system that we have, not the one that we wish that we had. Donations should go to a national party and the national party, with leadership repping many factions so that there are not accusations of favortism, can decide on which 3-4 candidates in an election year run and get money. The GPUS already does this, but it does not mean much as no one in the Party really follows its lead. So what happens is that the few candidates that are selected get a few hundred dollars, or maybe a grand or two from national, and not much comes of it. I’ll cite another example: in 2004 in Baltimore City, the Greens had a very successful fundraiser on a ship at the Inner Harbor downtown. A few grand was raised and the original plan was to place an ad in the local alternative paper highlighting all of the candidates running that year. This did not occur, so what happened was that the money was divided between each campaign with each candidate getting roughly $200. This crippled the potential of publicizing the candidates and the Party at a serious level, and $200 did not really do anything for each of the campaigns. Efforts are constantly diluted like this, killing any real potential. Resources must be pooled on a national level if we are to see any real success. Decentralization is good for locals to choose which struggles to engage, but it is a death knell for success. Socialist Alternative understands this: the rest of us need to get wise, which brings me to my next point…

The people at the session who currently do not want to break from the Democrats need to see concrete examples of success with third party candidates who run wholly independent from the Democrats: We were lucky to have Jabari Brisport on our panel, a candidate for NYC City Council who garnered 29% of the vote running against a Democrat. Think of the potential if we had the above model of starting out by running 3 to 4 candidates across the country and all Greens and other supporters were encouraged to send money to Brisport and only 2-3 other candidates. Think about how much more successful his campaign could have been. He could have possibly won. If efforts in a new political party were spent wisely and on few campaigns, there could be wins and successes. This would help to peel off many socialists from the fruitless efforts running and supporting progressive Democrats and working within the Democratic Party.

There needs to be rules and accountability in any new political party:  The New York State Green Party, arguably the best Green Party in the entire country, passed a resolution in the mid-2000s banning the state party from supporting Democrats and Republicans. A similar proposal came before the national party and it was not adopted. All of this occurred after the disastrous 2004 Cobb “safe state” campaign. Partly because the New York State Greens were not fearful to actually lay down a political identity and impose some actual rules on who their party can support, they have run some of the strongest campaigns in the country. Compare this to the South Carolina Green Party that runs Democrats on their ballot line and openly advertises this. One of the South Carolina delegates attempted to raise funds for a Democrat running on a Green ballot line on the Green National Committee forum over a year ago. Would such be tolerated in the Democratic or Republican parties? Would Debbie Wasserman Schultz allow Democrats to raise funds for Republicans or Greens? Such is tolerated in the Green Party, where there is really no accountability on any level.

Both New York and South Carolina are two of the few “fusion” states left where a candidate can runs on multiple ballot lines. Such has led to the the New York Working Families Party of New York being just another ballot for Democrats instead of a viable political alternative. It has also led to South Carolina being one of the weakest Green Parties in the country partly because they embrace fusion.

While there needs to be rules and accountability, a new political party should not have a position on every single issue: I again use the Green Party as an example here because it is the largest left party that the US currently has. Presently, some Greens have proposed a change in the platform treating prostitution not as the oppressive, patriarchal act against women and children that it is, but as regular work. I’ll take on the politics of that argument and dismantle the proposal another time, which is not hard to do. I only bring it up here to ask: why bring it up at all? We can all agree on jobs, healthcare, civil rights, an alternative to capitalism. Why compel the Party to take on this issue which is going to result in people leaving the Party and further fragment an already shrinking pool? Most of the candidates who run for office are smart enough to have this figured out, but the Green Left, usually a good and sensible force at the national level are operating like a socialist sect that want to impose a rigid program on every single issue by forcing this, and they have their politics inside out on this one, but regardless, this approach with never build a mass party.

While the above is not an exhaustive list on what needs to be considered, the reality is that the Democrats will continue to disappoint and there is enough dissatisfaction with the Democrats within DSA to press this issue again in the future. Bernie Sanders may have brought people into the movements, but at the end of the day, the Dixon/Black Agenda analysis of Sanders being a sheepdog stands. And Bernie Sanders played that role well, which is why there is currently so much resistance to fully breaking from the Democrats. Electing progressive Democrats will result in capitulation and co-optation, and more will be ready to come over and help to build a new political party. The opinions in the room on Saturday as well as within the wider areas of DSA as a whole will change. The idea of a new political party independent of the Democrats is currently popular among a minority, but in the long term, will grow and hopefully succeed. It certainly is not dead.

Brandy Baker is in the editorial board of The North Star, where this article originally appeared. Her play Under the Knife, opens July 6 at the Toronto Fringe Festival. 

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Brandy Baker is a Green National Committee delegate for Maryland.

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