Left Turn Ahead?

You may be reading this because you are a subscriber to this blog and have received an email notice. Although our postings here are certainly informative and worthwhile, much of the SDUSA chatter takes place on a Yahoo group also named Socialist_Currents. Look for our torch logo if you are interested in joining the conversation.

The conversation this past week has been about Kshama Sawant. Ms. Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative Party; she is a software engineer who immigrated from India. She was recently elected to the Seattle City Council. What are we to glean from the fact that voters in a major American city have elected not just a Socialist, but indeed a Trotskyist, to City Council? Opinions within our ranks vary from “it’s time to embrace the S word instead of running from it”, to “the rise of a Socialist Labor third party is on the horizon”, to “our current course remains the correct course”.

Without a doubt, the political winds are changing. Polling in the past 5 years has demonstrated that young people have realized that they are pretty well screwed economically for the next 20 years or so. Which in fact means that they’re pretty well screwed for the duration. Pensions? That something your grandfather had. Paid vacation and sick days? That’s something your parents had. Hopes of upwards mobility? Forget about it. Safety net? Yeh, that’s called living in your parents’ basement. And it doesn’t matter whether these young people are Republicans or Democrats. They all know the situation they’re in.

The end of the Wall Street friendly presidents?

The end of the Wall Street friendly presidents?

It would be easy enough for us to blame Republicans, but the fact is the Democrats have been complicit. The Clinton strategy was to move the DP toward the right and capture the center. That’s where most of the voters are. This would supposedly ensure that the DP would hold power in Washington for decades. Give Wall Street whatever they want, and give the voters a liberal agenda on social issues. While 9/11 derailed that plan, the new millennium has proven both the conservative and liberal agendas to be failures. The under-30 crowd is not happy with where the “limousine liberals” have taken them.

The electoral implications of this shift were described in an excellent essay by Peter Beinart in September (before Sawant’s election) in The Rise of the New New Left

And just this weekend by Zach Goldfarb in the Washington Post in More Liberal, Populist Movement

Beinart’s piece was more on target because it focused on the economic issues and particularly on Elizabeth Warren’s attack on Wall Street. While Goldfarb also points to Warren, he errs by confusing liberalism and leftism.  This has always been a common error, but not one that a political journalist should make.  Both writers refrain from labeling anti-Wall Street positions as socialist, instead using the terms populist and liberal.  Clearly there is still reticence to using the S word.

What lessons should SDUSA be taking away from this? It is our clearly stated strategy that we mainly work within the Democratic Party to push our economic and civil liberties agendas. We have no interest in splitting the left vote when it comes to electing a president; after all, the president nominates Supreme Court justices and we have seen the criticality of that power. However, there are many other election battles other than the presidency. There are congressional elections, state office elections, and municipal elections. During the past 20 years the Left has lost many battles in Congress over Social Security, unfair trade agreements, and wars. In our states we have seen union busting from our governors and state legislatures. We have seen voting rights jeopardized in over a dozen states. There is entirely too much focus on the presidential election. The presidential election makes good press in Washington, but it’s in the legislatures where laws are passed and budgets are approved. Therefore, does it make sense for us to “trickle down” our election strategy to state-wide elections? Absolutely. In state-wide elections it is still very difficult to run a third party candidate. In my home state of Pennsylvania, election laws are so rigged against third parties that it is practically impossible. In places like PA it is still necessary for us to maintain the strategy of working inside the DP and pulling it to the left as best we can. If there is truly a socialist or social democratic groundswell, then we should be able to nominate and elect leftist candidates inside the DP. If they have the votes there is no reason for them to run away from the term socialist.  And it’s the same is for municipal elections. While small parties can have isolated victories like Kshama Sawant had in Seattle, that’s not a successful strategy for most of us. I do not expect SDUSA to change its strategy of running Social Democratic candidates within the Democratic Party.

While I support the SD electoral policy, I admit that my vision is skewed because I live in Pennsylvania.  As noted above, PA is a party machine state.  In PA, only 12% of the voters are registered Independent. These voters do not participate in the Republican or Democratic primaries. They can not therefore help pull the Democratic Party to the left in the primaries. In theory, the Independent voters could field a leftist candidate who could knock off a neo-lib Democrat in the general election— except that there aren’t enough Independents to pull that off. Yet. This was not the case for Sawant. In Washington, 40% of the voters are Independent and not tied to a party. This might indicate that our electoral strategies should vary from state to state. We should carefully monitor the rise of the Independent voter. But again I come back to the basic premise of our strategy: run as a Social Democrat where you can; run as a Democrat where you must. Still sound philosophy. Your thoughtful comments are always appreciated.

2 thoughts on “Left Turn Ahead?

  1. Nice article. I live in the Seattle area and can’t help but laud the election of a city council member claiming to be a Socialist. It’s a pity, the depth of ignorance of the American people, WRT the history of this term. It brings so much baggage with it, that it’s hard not to find appeal in such organizations as Nolabels.org. In my blog at bberardo.com/blog I mention a wonderful article that one Sheri Berman wrote entitled “Understanding Social Democracy”. It’s a challenge to dispel the fog of ignorance. Perhaps our best chances of promoting left/progressive/labelx policies/platforms is to work together, i.e. further promote coalitions. My own ignorance is substantial WRT what’s been done so far in accomplishing these but I’m looking forward to seeing such policies gain favor and will try to be a part of the solution in diminishing ignorance and promoting the greatest good for the greatest number, an old formula whose luster remains bright in my eyes. Cheers!

  2. Yes, SDUSA follows in the footsteps of Eduard Bernstein, the father of social democracy. He believed democracy would trump economics and that a majority of voters would see that restraining capitalism would be beneficial to society. America certainly adopted that idea. This was readily accepted in America because we already had a history of democracy. Unfortunately in the monarchies of Europe they had no such democratic foundation and this led them through bloody authoritarian experiments with Leninism and Nazism. I continue to assert that most Americans are social democrats, even most Republicans, although the recent vote by Republicans in the House to eliminate food stamps 100% caused me to question the morality of Republican voters.

    Berman’s essay is a good summary of social democracy; a good primer even. She misses one important piece, though. When Bernstein recognized that democracy would win the day, he also recognized that democracy is not a destination, it’s a process mechanism. While you can theorize that a majority of civilized people will vote to usher in socialism, you can’t really predict what that will look like. Contrarily, if you want to ensure certain outcomes, then you have to handcuff the process so that it can only end up in a particular place. That’s not democracy. The SD obviously sides with Bernstein; we are willing to take the chance that the good nature inherent in human beings, when coupled with democratic process, will lead to a just and humane society.

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