Social democracy at the ballot box: DSA & the Democrats

Dec. 2017 Lee Carter
Lee Carter, DSA member elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.


On Nov. 7, at least 17 members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) won elections around the country. Most notable was Lee Carter, who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, unseating Republican Majority Whip Jackson Miller. The rest mostly ran for town or city councils. All of the candidates ran either as Democrats or in non-partisan council races, and were part of a strong Democratic showing in the off-year election.

Carter’s campaign was run on expanding Medicaid, a $15 minimum wage, and limiting corporate influence in politics. Because he was vocal about running as a socialist, Carter was abandoned by the official Democratic Party and received no funding outside of his own fundraising. His program, moderate as it was, is far more radical than the majority of the city council candidates, who mostly ran on good-government principles.

Red-baiting poster put out by Lee Carter’s Republican opponent.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign, the word “socialist” has become attractive to many young people. What matters is not the word, but the content behind it. Carter’s full program could have been adopted by many liberals. For most of the city council winners, one would not have known they were socialists unless they said so.

The DSA has had many elected officials before, and has been linked to members of Congress at different times. The latest crop is only noteworthy because DSA grew from 5000 to 30,000 dues-paying members following the Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump.

For revolutionary socialists, bourgeois elections are not the way we seek to change society. There is no parliamentary road to socialism. The state is a tool of the capitalist class to control workers and the oppressed, and taking hold of it will not change who runs society. This lesson was demonstrated harshly in 2015, when Syriza took power in Greece and found itself the administrator of the same austerity it had run to oppose. Only a revolutionary overturn of the capitalist class will create a society run for human need rather than private profit.

But we do see a positive role for socialist participation in elections. They provide an opening for socialists to spread their ideas and win over supporters who otherwise would not be tuned in to political events. When they win, socialists should use their office not to administer capitalism but as a bully pulpit to advocate for and organize the struggles of workers and the oppressed. We also see the need to offer a socialist choice against the two capitalist parties.

By running as Democrats, the DSA candidates blur this line. The official stance of DSA is that its members should run as “open socialists,” but they treat the Democrats as one option among many to do so. This is a mistake.

The value of running as a socialist lies precisely in the challenge to the hegemony of the two capitalist parties. James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, said in a 1958 speech: “The unconditional break away from capitalist politics and capitalist parties is the first act of socialist consciousness, and the first test of socialist seriousness and sincerity.”Dec. 2017 Cannon

Cannon’s point remains true today. The Democrats are a corrosive force that offers pragmatism and easy victories, but at the cost of making politics acceptable in capitalist democracy. The DSA’s electoral successes are not a true barometer of the appeal of socialist ideas, but a reflection of a larger Democratic wave. Without a conscious break from the Democrats there is no commitment to moving beyond the capitalist system.

In the era of Trump, there is an unprecedented opportunity to build a mass socialist movement that will challenge capital in the belly of the beast. There is an appetite for struggle against inequality, injustice, and oppression in all their forms. But such a movement faces a tide seeking to turn anti-Trump momentum into a mere get-out-the-vote effort for the capitalist, imperialist Democrats. Only by moving against this current can the left gain the needed clarity of vision and purpose to build a revolutionary party and win.

Taking the muddled road of the DSA leads right back into the Democratic Party trap that the left so badly needs to escape.



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