After Bernie: It’s Time to Start Talking About a Democratic Socialist Party

We all felt a deep sadness as Bernie Sanders announced the end of his campaign, along with gratitude for all his work fighting for socialist policies. The COVID-19 pandemic brutally underlines just how necessary Bernie’s policies are. It’s painful to even contemplate the presidential race being between the Wall Street Democrat Joe Biden and the right-wing demagogue Donald Trump, especially after Bernie came so close to a historic victory.

But the socialist movement has never depended on one campaign or one leader, and it never will.

As Bernie’s supporters pick up the torch to carry on the momentum, an important debate has developed about what the new socialist movement should do now. A series of Jacobin writers have identified a number of themes we fully agree with:

Despite Bernie’s defeat, the left has made huge strides in popularizing socialist ideas. As Bhaskar Sunkara points out “the core of the Sanders platform has become common sense for millions of Americans.”

We need to close the gap between the widespread support for left-wing policies and the weakness of working-class and socialist organizations. “While a majority now support policies like Medicare for All, our movement itself is not yet a majority of society. Getting there will take a lot more work and organizing over many years,” explains Eric Blanc.

Continue electing socialists and building unions and social movements. Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht write: “we need more candidates running in class-struggle elections—campaigns that clarify that capitalists are our enemy, raise the expectations of the working class and help build its capacity to fight beyond the electoral realm—and pushing to decommodify basic goods in our lives like healthcare, higher education and housing. We need more protests and strikes, more fights against the tiny minority in the capitalist class.”

Join DSA. Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht argue “we need those candidates and those initiatives to all meet under one roof: a socialist organization. Not all of the people who join these fights will be socialists, but with a strong socialist organization, we’ll be able to pull them together to build the kind of working-class strength that can transform the world. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have emerged as exactly such an organization.”

These are all very valuable take-aways from Sanders’ pioneering campaign.

Yet we believe a crucial point is noticeably absent—the task of building an independent working-class party. While Eric Blanc does mention that “the need for an independent working-class party has never been clearer,” unfortunately he offers no strategy to begin taking steps in that direction. We believe the time has come to lay the groundwork for a Democratic Socialist Party.

Sanders supporters just came into direct collision with the conservative establishment that dominates the Democratic Party. The primary exposed the stark contrast between the Democratic leaders’ determination to defeat left-wing challengers and their timidity toward Trump. Budding democratic socialists in Sanders’ base are questioning the viability of Bernie’s strategy of reforming the Democratic Party. Now is the time for socialists to provide a frank answer to these questions.

While many people, including us, recognize it would be premature to turn our backs on the battles taking place around the Democratic Party, it is also the case that activists are increasingly sensing that the cross-class coalition of the Democratic Party is politically unsustainable. For the left to make fundamental progress, sooner or later it will require a rupture with the capitalist-dominated Democratic Party. While we should be strategic about the timing and conditions for such a break, we must also speak clearly about this coming split and take active steps to politically prepare the ground for it.

If the socialist left does not offer activists a vision for building an independent working-class party, there is the danger that a section of them will get frustrated and #DemExit out of politics altogether. We need to fight to avoid their energy being dissipated through self-isolating tactics by inspiring them with a viable path to politically overcome the negative influence of the Democratic Party.

Deep Organizing

Sanders’ defeat in the Democratic primary demonstrates in our view the need to organize in a more sustained and systematic manner to build conscious support for left-wing politics and to develop powerful organizations deeply embedded in working-class communities. As Sunkara writes: “Sanders fell short on the last part of his mission—mobilizing the coalition his political revolution counted on.”

Bernie’s campaign had a tremendous impact. But there are real limits to how much can be achieved in one (or two) electoral campaigns. Extending and deepening our support requires an ongoing organization that lasts beyond any one election cycle, that builds political roots in unions, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, pointing people toward social struggles and electoral campaigns that raise expectations and illuminate the role of the capitalist system.

All of this points to the necessity of a political project that links together our different struggles and systematically raises consciousness, while building working-class and left-wing institutions. A working-class party is a political expression of this self-organization of the working class—and an essential vehicle for advancing it further.

When we advocate forming a political party, we do not mean just an electoral project. We mean a democratic, member-run organization engaged in all the struggles of the working class and oppressed people. We need a force that builds grassroots power outside of capitalist institutions, while also using the platform of any elected position to spread our ideas, organize, and mobilize.

Of course, simply launching a new party is no shortcut. The fundamental task remains—we must overcome the political influence that the Democratic establishment and capitalist media have over wide sections of the working class and middle class. But working toward the formation of a left-wing party is definitely part of the strategy necessary to accomplish this task.

Using the Democratic Ballot Line to Overcome It

Eric Blanc also argues that there is a need for an independent working-class party, though he emphasizes that “we’re not yet strong enough to stop using the Democratic ballot line any time soon.”

Under the current conditions, in some cases it makes sense for socialists to support left-wing candidates running on the Democratic ballot like Bernie’s primary campaign, or to run socialists on the Democratic ballot line as DSA has done.

Forming a new party does not mean we should abandon this kind of tactical flexibility. Whether to run on a Democratic, Independent, or Democratic Socialist ballot line needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But forming a Democratic Socialist Party would create a democratic process where its members could collectively discuss and decide which tactic to use. It would also mean that when we use the Democratic ballot line, it would be clearly linked to building our own independent party which aims to develop its strength in preparation for a rupture with the Democratic Party.

It is worth considering the case of AOC’s re-election in this light. There are few socialists who would disagree it is of vital importance for the left to re-elect AOC in 2020, or would disagree with AOC running in the Democratic primaries in order to appear in the general election on the Democratic ballot line. To do otherwise would be a gift to the Democratic establishment by handing the Democratic ballot line over to AOC’s opponents.

Nonetheless, we need to find strategic ways to begin to move beyond our dependence on the Democratic ballot line and build the political support up for AOC to no longer run as part of the same party as Joe Biden.

Why shouldn’t DSA (or a future Democratic Socialist Party) utilize New York state’s “fusion voting” laws to draft AOC to appear on the ballot on both a “Democratic Socialist” ballot line as well as the Democratic Party ballot line? This would avoid carelessly throwing away the Democratic ballot line while opening the space to highlight the idea of building our own party.

In other cases it is entirely practical to run socialist candidates independent of the Democratic ballot line. Let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders has run successfully as an independent in Vermont for four decades. Kshama Sawant, whose election to the Seattle City Council in 2013 pioneered the new wave of socialist electoral politics, was elected and re-elected twice independently of the Democratic Party. And the breakthrough election of six socialists to the Chicago City council last year included Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez running as an independent, along with the other socialists running as Democrats.

And getting socialists elected is only one part of the challenge. All too often, left-wing candidates take office and then drift to the right under social and political pressure. We need a party to hold our elected officials accountable.

Next Steps

To be successful, forming a new party requires political preparation, a critical mass of supporters, and good timing. The rest of 2020 will not be the most favorable time to launch a new party, given progressives’ overwhelming focus on kicking Trump out in November.

But the end of Bernie’s campaign is a moment of reflection for his supporters about the lessons of his defeat, and it has stirred up well deserved anger at the Democratic establishment. This is a time that calls for a serious discussion within the new socialist movement on the limits of working within the framework of the Democratic Party and our strategy to build toward an independent workers party.

DSA, with its 60,000 members and its important role in the Sanders campaign, has a key role to play in this. DSA should open up a broader discussion on the left about a future beyond the Democratic Party by appealing to Bernie, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Labor for Bernie unions, Our Revolution, and others to come together at conferences in early 2021, after the presidential election is over, to begin discussing forming a Democratic Socialist Party.

Some DSA members, including the authors of this article, have begun a petition advocating this. One key place to debate this will be  at the DSA National Convention later in 2021. These conferences and educational debates, along with a drive for DSA to grow to 100,000 members, can lay the groundwork to form a Democratic Socialist Party.

Mimi Harris is the Co-chair of Seattle DSA.

Philip Locker is a member of the Seattle DSA Local Council, and he was the Political Director of Kshama Sawant’s 2013 and 2015 independent Seattle City Council campaigns.

Evan Seitchik is the Co-chair of Boston DSA.