Realignment— The Sequel

“I’m back, like an old pair of shoes you thought you threw away”. Johnny Cash

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Last year when Bernie Sanders decided to run as a Democrat, he resurrected the question of third party or independent candidates for president. When he ran for mayor and member of Congress he ran as a socialist or independent, but for president he is running as a Democrat. One year ago this month I met Bernie at the Keystone Progress Summit in Harrisburg, PA. At that time he was unannounced and was traveling around the country examining the climate for his potential campaign. I had an opportunity to briefly talk with him about how he would run. I told him that Social Democrats USA would welcome his entry into the race, although we were still months away from endorsing anyone. I also commented that in a “Democratic machine” state like Pennsylvania he would have a lot of trouble winning as a third party candidate, and I suggested that running as a Democrat would be best. He joked that his staff had discussed this topic once or twice, implying that HOW to run was as big a question as SHOULD he run.



Many sisters and brothers on the left feel that we should have a party of our own— a party of labor and progressives that would field candidates against corporatist Democrats. And they further argue that every time a candidate like Bernie Sanders decides to run as a Democrat, he or she thwarts the effort to create such a party. Well, the truth is that we did have an independent left party for decades. And it didn’t work. We were never able to get Labor and Socialists on the same page long enough to field a candidate who would beat both Democrats and Republicans. Members of the working class are often conservative in their social attitudes, contrary to the positions of socialists. And even though attempts were made to pull socialists and labor together in a unified party, by 1960 most leaders of the Party had abandoned the idea of fielding candidates. At the national convention that year they adopted a policy of “realignment”. The center piece of that policy would be exerting Labor and Socialist influence within the Democratic Party to pull the party to the left and to force out any right wing tendencies, i.e., Dixiecrats. There is a great article this month in Jacobin magazine on the topic of realignment. Paul Heideman describes the history of realignment in wonderful detail invoking all our favorite players including Shachtman, Harrington, Rustin, Reuther, and Meany. He writes that in the 1950s, “The way might then be clear, Shachtman reasoned, for labor and its liberal allies to take over the party, transforming it into something like a European social-democratic party”. Not everyone bought into the idea. Proponents and opponents pitched back and forth through the 60s, until Harrington was elected SP Chair in 1968. He was a realigner, but unfortunately the Vietnam War created a new division between socialists and labor. Former allies Shachtman and Harrington were now on opposite sides. The realignment plan never really came to fruition. In a last gasp effort the AFL-CIO did endorse Mondale in advance of the 1984 primaries as a show of unified labor influence in the DP. In the decades since then, labor has become weaker. The social democratic faction in the DP has struggled to keep its head above water while the DP leadership agreed to cuts in social programs, a negative growth minimum wage, investment bankers ruining our economy, and a foreign policy that includes perpetual war. We have a Democratic Party that is driven from the top, ever reminding us that the DP is not a membership based party. The Democratic National Committee drives the bus and the voters are told to get on the bus. No one at the DNC asks the passengers where they would like to go.



Because realignment didn’t produce the desired results, there have been recurring calls for the creation of a new left party. Are conditions better now than they were 50 years ago? Was our failure to unite labor and political action the only reason realignment didn’t work before? Michael Goodhart, a local poli-sci professor here in Pittsburgh, once told me that it was because of some guy named Maurice Duverger. His contribution to our story was his theory that winner-take-all voting systems lead to two parties, whereas proportional voting systems tend to create multiple parties. In other words, third party candidates are viewed as spoilers and that causes voters to gravitate towards the least-worst candidate of the two major parties. We have seen this “spoiler” candidate in a number of elections and most leftists are not prepared to split the left vote and hand a victory to the Republicans. Last month I had a short on-line discussion about realignment with Jason Schulman and David Duhalde of DSA and Bhaskar Sundara, editor of Jacobin. At one point I commented that Harrington had recognized the validity of Duverger and supported realignment; Jason responded that Harrington and Duverger were both wrong. To that I can only respond that I don’t see any evidence that a new left party would be successful, especially one that is membership based. If we can’t muster enough support to become a majority of the DP, then we don’t have enough support to build a new party in a winner-take-all voting system. And if I may throw salt into the wound, the Tea Party has already demonstrated that realignment works. Rather than run as third party candidates, Tea Partiers were smart enough to form a “party within the party” and became a major influence in the GOP.

When charting a path forward, it always helps to take a look at where you’ve been. In 1972, the Socialist Party changed its name to Social Democrats USA. It is not insignificant that we dropped the word “party” from our name. As discouraging as it is, we are not going to field candidates except in some rare cases of a local or regional election where the general population is already leftist and the contest is only between corporate democrats and social democrats. (Actually, now that I think about it, that describes Hawaii and an independent Social Democratic Party could probably have success there). Although realignment did not work in the past, there is no viable alternative at this time. Our National Committee remains committed to the realignment policy of the Shachtmanites. Roger Heller, a UAW political activist in Michigan and a SDUSA NC member, believes the Sanders campaign has created the momentum needed to establish a permanent Social Democratic Caucus within the DP. We need to harness the energy being created by the Sanders movement and not let it evaporate after November. However, be assured that if Bernie doesn’t win the DP nomination, there will be more cries for the creation of a new progressive/labor party and the abandonment of realignment.

6 thoughts on “Realignment— The Sequel

  1. I certainly have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I yearn for a true and robust Social Democratic Party, totally different from the corporatist Democratic Party. But on the other hand, I am afraid that that “true and robust” Social Democratic Party may not work out at this time. Or would it?
    What do we do then?
    First, unify the social-democratic movement under one umbrella organization. Second, emphasize organizing at all levels, from the local neighborhood to the national level. Third, Choose local and state offices in which to field candidates and support other candidates for the other offices and/or work within, but autonomous from, the Democratic Party. Fourth, work with other “third parties”, regardless of their ideology, in areas that are of common benefit. As an example, try to have the different states adopt fusion voting. That can benefits all minor parties.
    Now, some may say “that is what we have been doing for years”. The problem is that I don’t see it. I will say more: I have contacted ‘progressive’ organizations in the past, Americans for Democratic Action and Social Democrats USA among them, but have never received a reply – not even a reply.
    What does that mean? That there was someone in West Palm Beach willing to start even if only a small cell of social-democrats to hopefully do our part in creating that robust and vibrant social-democratic movement. There could have been others, but now we don’t know, because nobody bothered to reply and to encourage them. And there could have been others in Tampa, in Charleston, in Hartford, in Denver. But we don’t. We do have Tea Parties.

    • Jesus, I am sorry that we didn’t respond to your query. Below, from my so-called SD Manifesto document, Principle 10 of our Enhanced Statement of Principles endorses your proposal. However, what is needed is for a Local in your area to be organized and begin this process, Please stay in contact do we can discuss it further.
      The realities of American Politics make running independent
      Socialist candidates for public office (frequently) a gesture in futility. It was around this
      issue that divided the Socialist Party in the 1960s into two factions, The Labor Party and
      later the Debs Caucus, supporting traditional independent Socialist campaigns or the
      creation of an independent labor party, and the Realignment Caucus, which supported the
      SP working with the labor movement in the Democratic Party in order to transform it into
      a real social democratic party. The revived SDUSA will continue to ally ourselves with
      the pro-labor forces of the Democratic Party and work to strengthen Social Democratic
      ideals in the DP. Nevertheless, when appropriate, individual Locals or State
      Organizations, may run third party candidates (or fusion) candidates, under the name
      Socialist Party of (state name), or Social Democratic Party of (state name).
      The SDUSA,
      as a hybrid organization, somewhere in between being a political party or only a
      political advocacy group, is willing to experiment with different democratic
      processes on the local level. As a result, both sides of the old political strategy debate
      of the 1960s should be able reunite in harmony in the revived SDUSA, as they will
      be free to pursue their separate tactics, determining which approach is the best,
      while working toward the common goal of building a stronger democratic
      socialist/social democratic movement in the United States.

    • Fusion ballots or instant runoff ballots would allow smaller parties to participate. A change of voting systems has to precede the growing of a Social Democratic Party in each state.

  2. One problem was that a left party would split Democratic voters, handing elections to Republican candidates. But now we have the Green Party on the left and Libertarian Party on the right, both of which attract voters from the two main parties (the Libertarians are actually more successful). If or when Sanders endorses Clinton, Bernie’s supporters could vote Green, with the expectation that Republicans who can’t vote for Trump will vote Libertarian or for some Christian party. We could end up with a real multi-party system.

  3. The entrenched neoliberalism of the Democratic Party means that transforming it into a left party is untenable. But at the moment, it is the only realistic place for socialists to have a significant impact. It is necessary for socialists to work there because that is where the constituents of the working class for the most part exist, and it is these constituencies out of which we have any hope of building a viable third party. Absent a strong labor movement, building a working class-based mass party with the power to win against the other two main parties is near impossible on a national level for now. This speaks to the need for those on the left to be working to build back labor, whether through organizing efforts of the existing unions, or whether it involves new innovative approaches to unions. It also speaks to the need for leftists to consider how a left coalition made up the constituencies mentioned can begin to express itself electorally at the local and state level independent of the Democratic Party. In this might be the nascent formation of a third party. It would be perhaps a hybrid of endorsing candidates who were Democratic progressives and putting forward some sponsored independents in select winnable races. What I’m describing here is a long slog. It is clear at this moment that projecting a third party (particularly one devoid of a real base) is impossible. But it is equally clear that to create a powerful left movement, it cannot be contained within the existing corporatist Democratic Party. We need to roll up our sleeves for the heavy lifting ahead.

  4. SocDem Party need to use the momentum Sanders has now, and after the election get him onboard, to aim for getting candidates into the local adminstrations, the house and senate, and gain experience. Then find a candidate for the next presidential election.

    The USA deserves a third party. The best option to get that is to use the popularity of Bernie Sanders for all it is worth!

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