The US left today is grappling with a challenge it hasn’t faced in many decades: how to marshal widespread disenchantment with the political and economic status quo, combined with a sudden spike in Americans’ openness to democratic socialism, into a political movement capable of gaining and exercising power. In other words, the ascendant, but still adolescent, US left is at last struggling with questions of strategy.
In this paper, we take up one set of strategic issues, specifically around the relationship between elections and the broader left pursuit of power. US socialists have struggled with two primary questions in their debates around electoral strategy: First, what type of organization is best suited to our goals? Second, how does a responsible and effective left relate to the Democratic Party?
Of course, these questions aren’t new, but our unique political moment today has reignited old debates. Since the 1990s, a “movementist” approach toward political action has dominated the left-wing activist scene. This approach is skeptical of centralized organization and ambivalent or hostile toward elections. In general, the activist left of the last several decades has preferred street protests and demonstrations to electoral campaigns. While these horizontally organized mobilizations were often successful in generating media attention, they largely failed to translate protest into power, or their demands into policy. On the other extreme, sectarian organizations have taken a messianic approach to political organizing, characterized by a hyper-centralized and largely antidemocratic organizational model that sees itself as the primary vehicle for radical social change. Sectarians have avoided all contact with the Democratic Party and insist that the road to power is through the activities of their own organizations, independent of any others.
Somewhere between these poles is what is often called the inside-outside approach. The “inside” and “outside” refer to the Democratic Party. This orientation is much friendlier toward elections, recognizes the constraints imposed upon socialists by the electoral system, and understands that the state must be a central arena of struggle for any serious socialist project. Yet accepting these premises leaves open a number of questions: Is the goal to “realign” the Democratic Party toward more progressive aims? Or, instead, do advocates aim to “break with” or exit the party? And, if so, how and under what conditions?