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