It seems to me that one of the most surprising turns of modern American politics is the incredible impact of Ron Paul’s presidential runs within the Republican primary popularizing and legitimizing libertarian ideology. His first run in 2008 seemed quixotic and faced great odds, but it gave him free face time on morning shows, a chance to debate more moderate Republicans on television, and served as a lightning rod around which scattered libertarian-minded activists and peaceniks could gather. His second run in 2012 showed him leading the pack in Iowa in some polls, and the Republican party faces a major challenge of reincorporating its rebellious right wing (just look at Rand Paul’s recent filibuster or the collapse of sequester negotiations).
The fact that the socialist left doesn’t try something similar by running explicitly socialist candidates in Democratic primaries boggles my mind. I highly recommend that socialist groups consider pooling resources to run a challenger in the next Democratic presidential primary.
There would be such enormous benefits to such an action:
- Serve as an immediate point of unity and common project. There’s a lot of talk on The North Star about a potential basis for unification of leftist tendencies. An explicitly socialist primary challenger could serve as something that both highly reformist groups like the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and revolutionarily-oriented groups like Socialist Alternative and Party for Socialism and Liberation that aren’t entirely opposed to elections as a tactic in all circumstances could get behind. Socialist-leaning Greens and progressives could quickly rally behind such a candidate. Combining the activist abilities of the revolutionary groups with the funding resources available to older more reformist groups could provide the necessary resources to get a candidate on the ballot and into the debates. Post-Occupy, there are many populists, socialists, labor activists, and progressives looking for another common project that can bring diverse currents together into the formidable force that Occupy temporarily was. The state has made it clear that in-the-streets action will for the moment not be tolerated. A primary campaign may serve as a way to continue to push the 99% vs. 1% messaging in a more mainstream and “acceptable” way in order to build functional organization and train activists who could be used to later take things back to the streets in a more effective way.
- Break through the media barrier to force the contrast between the mainstream corporate-funded Democratic Party and the real needs of the people into the spotlight from a leftist perspective. When Obama is equated with socialism and the left in the popular media, and where the right is free to take on all economic criticism of the administration, then the frame of discourse is constrained to the point where working people think centrist Democratic politicians are the best they can get. A forceful campaign by a primary challenger, no matter how successful, can put the real left alternative in front of people’s eyeballs and remove some of the populist cover employed by the Democrats. A truly socialist primary candidate could push Transitional Program-type ideas like a shortened working day, nationalized health care, nationalization of energy, easier union organizing, legal support for workers’ control, and funding for the unemployed to form cooperatives into the national spotlight. A political campaign may not be a viable way to take power at the moment, but it could be a powerful messaging and recruitment tool.
- Begin the process of rehabilitating and explaining the word “socialism.” If 36% of Americans feel favorably towards socialism, doesn’t it make sense to do something of a high enough profile to help them understand what that word means and push their imaginations towards a new frontier? For the rest of Americans who feel unfavorably towards that word, a principled defense of the idea that is visible enough to reach average people could go a long ways towards defusing some of the anti-communism and red-baiting which serve as a barrier to social change in America. Simply running a candidate within the mainstream political system will serve to make the word more acceptable and less frightening to Americans.
- Provide the nucleus for a truly mass party. If we are ever to see socialist change in our lifetimes, then socialist parties need to get much, much bigger, and quickly. They need to embrace a full range of ages, races, ethnicities, and geographic locations, and break out of the small sect mentality that keeps the left isolated and impotent. Ron Paul’s early forays into national politics weren’t terribly successful at gaining actual political power initially, but they proved invaluable to libertarian activists in broadening the audience for their message and creating a political force that almost looked like it might capture Iowa in the last Republican primary and is reshaping the face of American conservatism. A successful socialist candidate could lead large sectors of the working class out of the Democratic Party and into a new type of politics. Some socialist groups will cling to ideals of purity and intimate smallness and opt out of any such truly mass party. But they will swiftly be rendered insignificant by the socialists who are actually willing to attempt a party of the masses, for the masses.
- Allow a large payoff for a concentration of resources. By focusing on the primaries, activists can concentrate their resources on areas like Iowa and New Hampshire, thereby allowing an outsized impact for our small resources. Primaries allow for a national spotlight without having to conduct a national campaign.
Now, I can imagine several objections to this plan:
- It won’t be revolutionary enough. Particularly if groups like CPUSA and the Democratic Socialist of America were involved, the rhetoric of the candidate would be radical but still reformist in content. I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing. If you expect the American people to go from neoliberalism directly to communism, then I’m afraid you’ll never see a successful leftist social movement develop. The idea behind such a campaign would be to begin a process that could eventually lead to a party that enacts revolutionary social change. But this won’t happen immediately. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people need to be brought into the process of struggling against the capitalist orthodoxy of the two major parties, building working class organization, and theoretically envisioning the way forward. As the process develops, hopefully the organization will move in a more radical direction, particularly if genuine radicals are involved from the beginning, take key roles, and conduct constant education and agitation throughout the process. But we can’t start at a truly revolutionary mass party at this moment. We need something we can bring large numbers of regular people into first.
- This will simply divert resources into the Democratic Party and facillitate co-option. This is of course a powerful objection, but not a fatal one. If we ran the right candidate, preferably someone with a track record of involvement in a radical socialist organization and the labor movement, that individual could use the entire campaign to target and expose the betrayals of the mainstream Democrats. At the conclusion of the campaign, he/she wouldn’t need to endorse the winner, but could condemn the winner and urge the formation of a new party. Co-option should be a concern from the beginning, but I believe the benefits of a primary campaign outweigh the risks.
- It won’t be successful. Of course it won’t be, if by successful you mean the next Democratic candidate for president will be an avowed socialist. Ron Paul never won the primaries. He shifted the terms of a debate, galvanized a movement, and helped put his son in a position where he may be a serious contender for the next president. Why can’t socialists avail themselves of the same benefits of the primary system?
- We can never get enough agreement to launch this project. I find this hard to believe. I can think of at least four good-sized socialist organizations that would not find something like this out of the range of possibility. We don’t need absolutely everyone who calls themselves a socialist to come on board, just enough to get the project rolling.
- We simply won’t have enough resources to get on the ballot. This is probably the most serious objection, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. There’s tremendous energy on the left right now to power the necessary ground work, and at least some socialist organizations have sufficient financial resources to at least begin a fund-raising campaign. Particularly if we can tap the pockets of some disgruntled progressives and former Democratic Party activists, I think we could at least get onto the ballot and into the debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, even if a nationwide campaign proves cost-prohibitive.
Dissatisfaction with the economic and political system has rarely been higher in our nation’s history. The ideas of socialism are starting to regain popularity in the mainstream of society. This is the perfect time to raise the message to a national platform, and the Democratic primaries would be a way to do this that would allow for a tactical concentration of resources and reach hundreds of thousands of potential new activists.
J.B. studies and works in Baltimore. He’s an open minded socialist perpetually rethinking his political beliefs, but he’s decided they lie somewhere in the broad space between anarchism and social democracy. He has few definite answers, but he does have hope that a society fundamentally based on cooperation and equality can be at least partially realized in his lifetime.