The Democratic Dilemma: Interview with Lance Selfa

The Democratic Party plays a unique role in the life and death of social movements in the United States. For socialists, the question of how to relate to the Democrats has been central at least since the New Deal period of the 1930’s, if not before. In this interview, Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, discusses the structure of the US political system, the role of the Democrats as gatekeeper and obstacle, though not a definitive barrier, to the development of third parties and independent politics.


AS: Could you frame the current political moment and explain why it’s important to talk about the Democratic Party?

LS: You’re coming to the end of a two-term Democratic Presidency that started in the midst of an economic collapse. That had many people thinking it would be the possibility of the beginning of a new-New Deal. A lot of people were talking about a “New Deal” when Obama first came into office. Obama really, in my opinion, did have the possibility of rewriting political history in the way that FDR did back in the 1930’s; he was a historical figure in his own right just because he was the first African American President.

But it was pretty clear, if not during his campaign then certainly not long after he got into office, that he was dedicated to saving the banking system and the neoliberal political and economic agenda. What you ended up with was a situation where after eight years, people’s living standards have actually declined since the time Obama came into office and so there’s a lot of dissatisfaction out in the population. Very few people actually felt that their lives have gotten any better; a lot of them feel like their lives have gotten a lot worse. There’s pretty much a bipartisan commitment to this way of governing, both Democrats and Republicans.

You have this open office now where Obama is leaving and you have no direct succession. Hillary Clinton is generally thought of as the heir apparent to Obama on the Democratic side. There’s an open free-for-all clown show going on in the Republican side, with 17 candidates, all of them shrinking before Donald Trump. And then of course you have former independent Bernie Sanders running in the Democratic primary because he tries to relate to the fact that he knows there are millions of people out there that want something different than the same old establishment politicians who promise you something and deliver nothing.

That’s kind of the political moment: it seems unstable at this point, but we’re also a year ahead from when the real decisions are going to be made. A lot could happen between now and then, and if I were betting at this point I would assume that we will end up with two mainstream candidates; if not Hillary Clinton, then someone just like her. I’d be surprised if Trump ended up on the Republican ticket, but then again if you have two mainstream candidates running against each other, will the population really respond to that after all the years of dashed hopes with Obama?

AS: That’s a good place to transition and talk about the lack of alternatives. Let’s start at the beginning and ask, why doesn’t the United States have any working class or socialist parties?

LS: It’s kind of a staple in American political science and among historians to have these long historical, structural, sociological arguments for why the United States is unfertile ground for social democratic or labor parties. There’s the famous book written nearly one hundred years ago by the German socialist Sombart called “Why is There No Socialism in the United States?” There are a lot of theories put out there: because the United States didn’t have a feudal tradition; because universal white men’s suffrage came fairly early in the US so there wasn’t a fight for the working class to get the ballot in the same way there was in other countries; or the United States has first-past-the-post elections; its not a parliamentary system; it has a multi-ethnic population; the impact of slavery; etc. There are elements of truth in all of those arguments, but what people who use them to make a case against socialism in the United States suggest is that there is something structurally different about the US that makes it unsusceptible to socialism. Sombart’s conclusion was that because the United States was considered a prosperous country where ordinary people could make it in a generation or two, socialism never had much purchase here.

A lot of that is mythology, first off. But as we were talking about earlier, the gap between the rich and the poor being its most extreme since the 1910’s where its well documented that there isn’t very much social mobility anymore, so that argument doesn’t hold much water.

When you put all that aside and look at the historical fact that in the early 1900’s, when the Socialist Party of America was a factor in the political system, when Eugene Debs won millions of votes, the United States wasn’t actually different at that time from other countries who developed socialist or labor parties as a major party later down the road. There are a lot of more historically specific arguments about why things didn’t break through in the United States at that time, but I think one thing we can definitely say today looking at the present is that the Democratic Party has managed, at least since the New Deal, to pose itself as a kind of populist opposition and has succeeded in coopting a lot of social movements that would have been the foundation of a labor or social democratic party.

In the 1930’s, when we did have the upsurge and breakthrough towards the formation of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), you had the possibility and an open discussion in a lot of unions that they would form a farmer/labor or some kind of third party alternative. That discussion was closed soon after through a number of historical maneuvers, but essentially because the leaders of the CIO decided that they would rather be junior partners in the New Deal coalition than they would be leaders of a labor party.

That’s kind of where we ended up. There have been various attempts since then to form third parties or run independent candidacies with various degrees of success, but I think that when you’re talking about the major social forces that could actually create a labor or social democratic party, its that period of the 1930’s that’s crucial for us to think about. That’s the time that the Democratic Party gets another wind where it actually becomes identified as a party with labor and the working class, where previously it had pretty much been identified with the slave South.

AS: For the purpose of this discussion, I was hoping to focus on some of the structural issues for the difficulty of forming a third party, because in my opinion they come us less. People usually latch onto the sociological reasons why it’s tough to break from the Democratic Party, despite the polls that say people are more open to socialism. We have a history of American radicalism, but it’s always had a difficulty finding its political expression. I was wondering if you might talk about some of the rules of the game that discourages third parties from forming or obstructs third parties’ success? The spoiler system is something that’s most commonly known, but could you explain how the US political system works and its consequences for independent politics?

LS: The one thing I will say about that is that in just about every country and any political system when the dominant parties get to a certain point they write the rules so that they stay on top. Just take it today: in the states where Republican Governors and Legislatures have taken over they’ve passed these voter ID laws to make it harder for people to vote. That disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. At the same time in other states they’ve gone even farther and they’ve tried to do away with public sector unions, which are often the main source of the foot soldiers and the money for the Democratic Party. Even just at that level, you can see how the manipulation of the laws can actually be done in such a way as to disadvantage one group of voters and push over the pillars of the Democratic Party to keep Republicans in power. When leaders of the political parties get into a position where they can actually rewrite the rules to benefit themselves, they will do it. Here in Illinois for example, we have a Democrat dominated government, which was engineered that way as well through redistricting and so on. I think the Republicans play that game more effectively, but the Democrats do it as well.

How that affects third parties or opposition parties is that you find that there are very arcane rules that have been written over the years that really only the two main parties can fulfill. They’re the only ones that have the breadth of membership or the legal firepower to fulfill various rules about getting signatures in disparate parts of the state, being able to withstand challenges from your opponents about legitimate signatures and whatnot—that’s the small scale nuts and bolts of how the parties operate together to keep challengers away from the ballot. There are other places that have had some electoral reform that may open the door to maybe somewhat more progressive or oppositional parties over time, but I think those are some of the factors that go into play.

In terms of the other structural question, we have what is called a “first-past-the-post” system where whoever wins the plurality in a particular district or election is the winner. It may turn out that some left of center third candidate draws votes that might otherwise go to the Democrats and a Republican can be then be elected, even if the Republican hasn’t gotten over 50% of the vote. That’s true, but there’s nothing sacrosanct about that that says that therefore a particular left of center party is then precluded, because although it’s a parliamentary system Britain’s elections work the same way. It doesn’t automatically mean that there can’t be some kind of labor party, new democratic party, socialist party or whatever.

Now of course the Presidential election in the United States, what Noam Chomsky calls the “quadrennial electoral extravaganza,” that we’re in the middle of right now, there is a structural issue that I think anyone who has a small d-democratic bone in their body would be in favor of getting rid of would be the electoral college. That’s a holdover from the 1700’s and has produced a situation in the US at least four times where the person who lost the popular vote ended up winning the presidency. In 2000, Ralph Nader won 2.7% of the vote and was blamed by the Democrats for costing Al Gore the election in Florida. I think that’s a completely bankrupt argument, but its an argument that enough people believe that it has intimidated people about the possibility of building something to the left of the Democrats. “The Democrats may be terrible, but we’ll stick with them because the Republicans are even worse.” That’s another way that even though the politics of lesser-evil-ism doesn’t necessarily flow from the structural considerations, I think that its so hardwired into liberals and Democrats that it really would take quite a bit of effort and social movements to shake it loose.

AS: I wonder if it might be helpful to do some comparative politics. The United States constitution doesn’t specifically recognize parties as part of the functioning of government, so the set of laws regulating parties end up being cobbled together. By contrast, in Britain, people will vote for a party and not a candidate. Could you explain how those differences affect politics in the US?

 LS: When a lot of people think “What is a political party?” in the kind of high school civics way, they think it’s a group of individuals, average citizens, voters who get together to debate and discuss the issues of the day and come up with positions and platforms. They go to the elections, run on those platforms and try to get people to vote for them, that sort of thing.

That’s the conventional civics idea of what a party is, but in most countries, and the US is no exception, political parties are mostly formations by economic-political elites who then go out and try to convince people to vote for them. Its not as if it’s a bottom-up thing, its more of a top-down thing.

The partial exception in the history of capitalist democracy is the labor and social democratic parties of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. You actually had membership parties: people would join them and they would participate in all sorts of social organizations that were connected to the parties themselves who form almost states within a state. The archetype here would be the German Social Democratic Party. Even membership parties didn’t preclude the development of a cast of professional politicians that ended up dashing the hopes of the ordinary working people who were members of it.

The Democrats can’t even be compared to those social democratic parties. A person is a Democrat if they vote for the Democratic Party, but then the following election they can vote for a Republican. They may get an email every now and again if they happen to sign up on the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s mailing list, but its not as if they are local Democratic Party clubs where neighborhoods get together to debate issues. It’s generally a marketing operation and a fundraising machine that exists as a political party in this country.

The other question is what is a party good for? You could probably paper your wall with the Democratic promises of all the major things that have been promised and have never had any possibility of being pursued, because in a lot of cases they’re electoral documents, they’re not governing documents. It’s important that we think of political parties, especially the mainstream capitalist parties (the Republicans and the Democrats), mostly as networks of essentially business people who figure out ways to get the business agenda through all levels of government.

Partly because the Constitution was put together to form a centralized state, but crucially because it was designed to protect the institution of slavery, that leads to us having a federalist system. There are multiple access points for business to intervene, from local to state to federal, to get their interests through.

The other thing is that unlike most other countries we don’t have a centralized elections institution or agency to run elections. So you have this rickety election system where over 3,000 counties are in charge of making elections happen. There is no national set of standards that are enforced—there’s not even a right to vote in the constitution! It’s all determined at the state level. Fifty years ago, that meant that black people were barred from voting in mostly Democratic controlled states in the South. That’s one of the legacies that we are left with in terms of the kind of ramshackle operation that is the US electoral system.

AS: What you’re pointing to is kind of a network of electoral machines that raise money and prepare individual candidates for election. That presents an interesting problem because they don’t have a central platform, so if you go to the Democrats’ website they don’t have a list of positions the party holds in common. So any Democratic candidate can take any position they want. You end up with this slippery thing then because you can’t definitively point to what’s wrong with the Democratic Party’s positions as a rule. Do you think that that ambiguity about what the Democrats stand for plays a role in the Democrats’ hegemony? That you can never really pin them down…

 LS: Yeah I think that’s true. Historically what the Democrats have stood for was slavery; then after the Civil War they stood for white supremacy; then after New Deal in the 1930’s forward they were associated with labor; from the 60’s on they were associated with Civil Rights and women’s issues and so on. It’s definitely a chameleon. The Republicans have also changed: the party of Lincoln is now the party of Jefferson Davis. The parties have shifted over time in pretty major ways, and yet when you look down the list of things they support comparatively there are quite a few issues where there isn’t much difference between the two parties, especially on foreign policy.

In terms of how the lack of a program for the Democratic Party both helps them maintain their hegemony and also discourages alternatives from the left, yes the ambiguity does help because both major parties are these catchall formations so that even though they have a political agenda formed by the business people that fund them and run them, they’re always trying to millions of ordinary people who really don’t benefit from the business operation to vote for them. So both parties have these cross-class coalitions of people that vote for them. In the Democrats specifically, because they’re not held to anything, when they get into office there isn’t any real accountability from the Democratic base, there’s nothing that holds the politicians to the positions that they run on. The Party therefore becomes rhetorically open.

Now you have a situation where especially in the primaries every candidate talks about how they’re going to fight for working people; how the billionaires are running our system and we have to combat that; they are going to make it easier to organize unions; they’re for women’s right to choose; for LGBT rights; for bringing up the questions around Black Lives Matter and so on. And yet when Hillary Clinton gets into office (if that’s what ends up happening), you know that they’re not actually going to act on most of those things. There will be a few symbolic things, but the idea that Hillary Clinton would go to the wall to make it easier to organize unions? Forget it! It’s not gonna happen.

That’s because the people who really run the Democratic Party aren’t interested in promoting unions, and they’re the ones who give her the money. The fact that there isn’t a party platform that anyone can hold someone to means that politicians can promise whatever to get elected and then not act on any of those things when they are in office.

Recently, there were where they went back through something like 2,000 political issues over the last twenty years based off of votes in Congress. To the extent that they could tell from public opinion data as to what the public thought about different issues and then what became law, they showed that the opinions that were most closely associated with the richest 10% of the population were the issues and positions that were actually passed and through Congress. The issues associated with the majority of people, that other 90%, were never acted on, were defeated, or were never talked about. It gives you an idea of what kind of system we’re involved in, no matter who’s in office.

AS: While we’ve been talking about the Democratic Party as being flexible, loosey-goosey, allowing candidates to take any number of positions, some people then argue that we can use the Democratic Party for the left. I’d like to talk about the other side of the party, because as you say there are some institutions or power players that really shape the course of the party. Could you lay that out?

LS: That relates directly to Bernie Sanders’ run. Sanders is drawing out big crowds and the people that are coming to those events are really electrified by what he’s saying about taking on the billionaire class, protecting social security, fighting inequality and so on. Those are the key questions of the day that people are relating to. But I find it next to impossible to believe that Bernie Sanders could be selected as the Democratic Presidential candidate.

There’s a recent article by Arun Gupta, where he goes through all the reasons why it is very unlikely that Sanders could be elected and why Hillary or some other mainstream candidate would become the nominee. Just in general, the huge amount of money that elections cost and Bernie is being drowned out by magnitudes of hundreds in the amount of money that Hillary is raising. The structural part of the Democratic Party plays a role: what they call the “super-delegates”, who are basically Democratic politicians and leading figures who can essentially veto a particular candidate if they get enough support within the convention. There’s a whole block of about 1/5th of the delegates who are super-delegates and can intervene to make sure the mainstream candidate wins, even if democracy breaks out in the Democratic Party. Then there’s the fact that the Democrats and the Republicans are both wired into the media, so the media will be used to put out dirt against Sanders or talk about how he can never win. That’s a list of examples for why even though as we talked about the Democrats might seem like this ramshackle operation that doesn’t really have a centralized program and so on, it still does have enough of a wiring into the way that the political and economic system works that party elites make sure that they get what they want at the end of the day.

One other thing I’ll say is that if you look at the semi-recent past when Howard Dean ran for President in 2004, he was the only candidate who really came out there in tune with the Democratic voting base against the disastrous war in Iraq. He was very popular leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Right before the Iowa caucuses, some shadowy organization, which as it turned out was put together by Robert Torricelli, a corrupt US Senator who got handed out of office, assembled millions of dollars from different Democratic donors to put out this set of advertisements on TV and radio that equated Dean with Osama bin Laden. Within a week or two, Dean’s candidacy was torpedoed. He was out of the way and it was open for John Kerry.

Further back in 1934, Upton Sinclair ran as a figure somewhat like Sanders in that he was a socialist who ran in the Democratic Party for the Governorship of California. He won the Democratic nomination on a fairly populist, left of center program and was very popular. What happened? The Democratic Party, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), formed a third party to siphon votes away from Sinclair and then gave money through the back door to the Republicans to make sure their candidate would win. Because the two-party system is so committed to maintaining that duopoly they would support a Republican before they would support a Democrat who would break the mold and campaign on a more social democratic platform. That’s what Sanders faces and that’s our history.

AS: One of the biggest dividing lines on the left is whether or not to support the Democratic Party. Some of this is about the discipline of pragmatic politics, but as far as the far left goes, I wonder if you could explain what the issue is among socialists and give your perspective.

LS: Starting in the 1930’s, you had a situation where quite a few of the the main rank and file activists who built the trade unions were communists and socialists. They were the people most committed to building the labor movement. In theory, they were also all committed to building a political vehicle to the left of the Democratic Party. For a lot of reasons, predominantly because of the Communist Party USA’s fealty to Stalin and Russian foreign policy, which at that time was promoting an alliance between the Soviet Union and the so-called western democracies against Hitler, the Communist Party became one of the main forces in the unions and the movements pushing people into the Democratic Party fold. The left wing version of the lesser of two evils has pretty much been the dominant argument on the left ever since. It comes up every election year and its pretty powerful, because the people who in theory should be advocating for an independent party or working class alternative, quite large numbers of them end up arguing the opposite when elections roll around.

Even though I think that there is a lot of sentiment for an independent alternative, in the sense that the average person really thinks that the mainstream politics, politicians, Congress and so on are bankrupt, and they would respond to an alternative if such a thing could be presented to them in such a way that they were able to grasp onto it, the problem is that there just isn’t the institutional backing you would be required to have to make a go of a real third party. Though the attacks on labor have led to a situation where the labor movement is trending downward in membership, its losing its money and institutional clout, its still most likely the place where the institutional support for some kind of labor or third party would come from. Yet, with a few exceptions the labor union leadership is probably the most committed to sticking with the Democrats no matter how many times the Democratic Party has kicked sand in their faces.

So the lesser evil argument has staying power with the institutions that would be most likely to form the basis of a third party. There are plenty of leaders who say we would love to have some kind of alternative to the Democrats, but now’s just not the time, because if we try and fail we’ll get Scott Walker in office. That’s certainly a powerful argument, but its an argument that means you’ll never actually make the attempt to build a third party because there’s always the possibility that you’re gonna lose. No labor or third party that I know of in other countries has ever started as the number one party; it usually starts as a small thing with a few percentage points and then grows.

AS: Moving from here to there, how do you relate to movements, activists and ordinary people who, as you say would likely be interested in an alternative but not seeing one lend their support to the Democrats? You can see the limitations through the Democratic Party, but rejecting it out of hand to most folks means you could end up alienating yourself. I wonder if you’ve got some thoughts on walking and chewing gum here?

LS: Yeah, right. It may be easier to talk about the Sanders thing that’s in front of us now. I think that if you’re talking about relating to people that are interested in Sanders for all the right reasons, the main thing is discussing their interest in him and asking them what they like about Sanders? I don’t think it’s a personality thing. I think its because they’re interested in protecting Social Security and in favor of a $15 minimum wage, and single-payer health care. Once you get there, then you gotta say what is it gonna take to get those things? They may say, “Voting for Bernie,” but if you have a discussion about how social change has happened in the past and what it could look like in the future, you’ll see that there’s a limitation to what someone like Sanders could do even if by some miracle he became the nominee of the Democratic Party. If you look at the history of the Democrats and their own failure to follow through and the fact that they’re pretty much all bought and paid for by Wall Street, its not gonna be likely that the Democrats are gonna carry out any of those points. They had the Democratic President, the legitimacy and almost super-majorities in both houses of Congress in Obama’s first term in 2008, and the best we got out of that was Obamacare, which was Richard Nixon’s plan for healthcare. It was the Republican opposition put up against what Clinton tried to pass in the 1990’s. The idea that having a Democratic majority again would actually pass single-payer? C’mon. We’ve been through this.

A real mass movement from below actually is the best shot at moving towards the positions people like from Sanders. We didn’t get trade unions in the 1930’s because FDR suddenly woke up one day and he would grant the right of trade unions to form, it was because they basically went out and formed themselves and then put pressure on the government to respond to it. Similarly with Civil Rights in the 50’s and 60’s, the government had to react because people were in motion and pressing for their rights. If you completely keep the discussion of how we’re gonna get social change in just the rubric of the elections or whatever, then you’re undercutting or really limiting yourself to a broader discussion about what really has led to positive social change in this country.

AS: To finish out, what is our alternative? If someone accepts all the arguments that you’ve put out and you won’t allow yourself to be intimidated by the two-party system, what do socialist politics help steer you towards in the United States in 2015?

LS: One of the arguments that would be thrown against that would probably be thrown against a lot of what I’ve said would be along the lines of, “You people are utopians, you can’t get around the idea that there are elections, you’re not really interested in politics, you’re apolitical syndicalists.” That’s not true. The bottom line of what socialists have argued since Karl Marx is that the working class needs its own political alternative. That goes all the way back to the Communist Manifesto; its not like this is a new argument.

We would like a political alternative so people can vote for what they want instead of constantly voting with the idea that they’re voting against something worse. Ultimately, we’d like to see a socialist party that would be a viable thing to choose from when elections roll around, but not just that. We’d want an activist party that would be part of the social movements that could organize people to fight for their own interests in everything from the fight against racism to the Fight for 15. We also realize that that’s not in the cards now.

For the recent past, the question of actually getting people to see the possibility of an alternative to the left of the Democratic Party is such an important question that I think to the extent that its possible to be part of something in 2016, I would advocate for that. Right now, probably the viable thing along those lines would be the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein. The Green Party, though its not a socialist party, it is a party that really puts out the idea that we need something independent and to the left of the Democrats. That would be something I would advocate for. That’s not the end of the story.

For people that are committed socialists, it’s a lifetime battle. You’re involved in all kinds of struggles from the local level to the national. You’re committed to organizing yourself and the people around you to the struggle. Socialists are always in the thick of it, and that’s the only way to be.

Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History and an editor of the International Socialist Review.

Andrew Sernatinger is an independent socialist activist based in Madison, Wisconsin and hosts the podcast Black Sheep.

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