A Debate on Activists and the Democratic Party

Dave Duhalde and Dan La Botz

December 4, 2011

Below is a debate between David Duhalde of the Democratic Socialists of America and Dan La Botz of Solidarity that was first published on the website Talking Union.

Where is the Beef? An open letter to Dan La Botz on DSA and the Democrats

Dear Dan,

What gives?

As a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I am puzzled and disheartened by your criticisms of our organization in your article “Occupy the Democratic Party? No Way!” This article, first published on New Politics, has gone viral on other blogs. While we can speculate why it is so popular, certainly one reason can be your strength as a writer and another is the respect you command on the radical left. Your arguments hold weight, so I believe it is important to engage you when you equate DSA’s activism with “gatekeeping” for the Democratic Party. I know this to be false, as I have been a DSA activist for nearly a decade and come out of electoral politics.

Obviously, the Democrats have shifted far to the right since the 1970s. You noted correctly that Nixon governed to the left of Barack Obama on domestic economic policies, though that had to do with the power of social movements and not any kindness on his part. I also agree that if the Occupy movement folds its efforts into the Democratic Party (which it probably won’t), all we’ve done so far might be for naught. I also know that getting an institutional left staff job does not necessarily make one an influential socialist, activist or even an effective do-gooder. Many DSAers, especially the younger activists in the organization, share these sentiments.

So where is the beef?

The portrait you paint of DSA is anachronistic. It’s also uncomradely. Many members in the Young Democratic Socialists chapter of Ohio University supported your insurgent 2010 candidacy for the Senate. They even chose to march with you at the One Nation rally in Washington, DC last fall instead of joining the DSA contingent. Many of our Columbus comrades campaigned for you – do you remember that? I do! Had you run a spoiler campaign, we might have held back our support. But your situation was a perfect storm: a race between a neoliberal Democrat and a heavily favored Republican meant you could not be accused of “splitting” the progressive vote and were in a position to get a real hearing while offering voters an informed choice. We were there for you when you needed us.

Worse, you disregard the political changes that have occurred within DSA since the 1980s, when I and a number of other members of the organization’s current leadership were still wearing diapers and watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Earlier this month, DSA’s biannual convention passed resolutions to support the re-election campaigns of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). To my mind these are worthwhile activities, though I know you probably disagree. But like most other DSA activists, I know that these electoral efforts cannot and should not substitute for building mass movements like Occupy, nor would we want to subordinate them to the electoral interests of the Democratic party. The convention did offer one workshop with Tim Carpenter of Progressive Democrats of America about the possibilities of pushing the Democrats to the left. But many other conference goers attended workshops about fighting cuts to public higher education or the roots of the economic crisis at the same time. DSA is not a one-trick pony –we even have a number of activists who share your goal of building an independent working class political party.

Convention delegates spent much of their time reflecting on and debating the political possibilities opened up by the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots around the country. I can assure you that none of these strategic discussions sought to formulate plans to turn the movement into a get-out-the-vote operation for the Democrats. We also launched plans for a mass education campaign about neoliberalism and how to fight it; to highlight the continuing scandal of widespread poverty on the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington’s classic book The Other America; and to fight the budget cuts and attacks on public sector workers that are sure to come this spring. These activities will constitute the bulk of our work on a daily basis over the next two years – not campaigning for an Obama administration or Democrats in Congress who have done far too little to deal with the crisis confronting tens of millions of workers and poor people in this country.

With all due respect, your conceptions of DSA seem to have much in common with those held by the denizens of the right-wing blogosphere. DSA is not a cadre organization. Our leadership cannot and does not want to enforce a party line among our members. Even when we have members placed in positions of influence in politics or the institutional left, we can’t force them to be DSA salts in their professional lives.

When I joined DSA, I was and stayed a registered Democrat. I liked that other members of DSA were too. Personally, I like having the ability to vote in Democratic primaries. Sometimes it is the only election that matters in a locality. But I never thought DSA had any real sway in the Democratic party, or that electoralism was the only road to socialism. If I thought that, a few meetings or reading some basic DSA literature would have quickly disabused me of that notion. Yes, DSA members could get elected to office (unlike other socialist groups). But any honest person knew they did so as Democrats and with their base of support located primarily outside the organization.

I also challenge your views about the New Deal and the Great Society. While you want to completely reject engagement with the Democrats, you refer to popular upheavals that pushed Democratic presidents to enact incomplete but not insignificant programs of reform. There is no question that movements matter most. But wouldn’t the presence of sympathetic politicians – no matter the party label – help, not hinder, the cause of social justice? DSA believes in walking on two legs: engaging in political action, in whatever form is necessary or effective, as an adjunct to street heat. We don’t believe in hopeless campaigns on behalf of parties or candidates with miniscule popular appeal. Considering the restrictive nature of our electoral-representative system, why spend time trying to building new parties when there is so much mass work and movement building that needs to be done?

To make concrete gains for working people, we have to win progressive legislation and stop reactionary attacks on our threadbare social safety net. That means activists have to engage with politicians of all parties. We don’t necessarily have to work for them, but we do have to have an ongoing relationship with the understanding that, when push comes to shove, their re-election hangs in the balance if they don’t fight for our program. When I was unemployed and desperate for an extension of unemployment benefits, I couldn’t wait for the emergence of a new working-class party to save me. I needed to push my representative to act as quickly as possible. The Democrats failed me then, but we didn’t have masses of people in the streets denouncing inequality and corporate power. Now we do, just as they did during the New Deal and Great Society. Why throw away a potential tool if it may come in handy? DSA doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket. Why do you?

This holiday, let’s not be visited by the ghost of realignment strategy debates past. Let’s pass the Christmas ham, the Hanukkah latkes, or whatever your preferred seasonal dish may be. Just hold off on the sectarian beef.

David Duhalde

Former Member, DSA National Political Committee


Did I Overstate My Case? An Open Letter to David Duhalde, the DSA and the YDS

Dear David,

I appreciate this opportunity to discuss between us—and among other leftists and movement activists—the role of the left and the movements vis-à-vis the Democratic Party. Your letter criticizing my article “Occupy the Democratic Party? No Way!” raises in a fair and reasonable way, and in a friendly tone that I appreciate, many of the central questions in this longstanding debate on the left. Other friends in DSA have raised questions about my remark, so I am glad to have this opportunity to respond. I am perfectly prepared to admit that the brief comment on DSA in my essay may have been too off-hand, too brief, too crude, or too simplistic—but I do not believe that it was fundamentally incorrect.

First, let me begin by saying that I do know today’s DSA and YDS that you describe. I am well aware that DSA and YDS members are committed activists in the social and labor movements and enthusiastically in the recent Occupy movement. I had not had much interaction with DSA members for a few years before my 2010 Socialist Party campaign for the U.S. Senate. I was pleased to find that members of the YDS in particular were virtually the same sorts of people as the youthful activists in Solidarity, in the International Socialist Organization, and in the Socialist Party. They were idealists and activists and moreover they were great folks. I found that YDS and DSA members were often critical of President Obama and of the corporate Democrats’ foreign and domestic policy. We had a lot in common.

I also found the Columbus DSA branch to be both principled and open minded, willing to meet with me and entertain the possibility of supporting my campaign. While the Columbus local did not in the end endorse me, several DSA members did work for my campaign in different ways. I also remember, however, speaking with Frank Llewellyn, your former National Director, who in a conversation at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, made it quite clear that he was committed to supporting Democratic Party candidates and would not want the question of supporting me to be brought up before the national organization.

A friend of mine in DSA in Columbus who attempted to bring before your national board the question of supporting my Socialist Party candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Ohio found great resistance. I am perfectly willing to believe that this represents something of a difference between an old guard in DSA more committed to a Democratic Party strategy and others for whom the Democratic Party is more of a tactical question. In any case I was delighted to have the support of Ohio DSA and YDS members in my campaign and to have them join in the Socialist Contingent at the march in Washington in October of that year. I recognized, however, that such support for a non-Democratic Party candidate was the exception, rather than the rule.

But let me turn to the discussion at hand. The central point made in my brief comment was that the DSA acted to bring and hold activists within the orbit of the Democratic Party, a gatekeeper in that sense. I find, reading DSA documents and observing DSA behavior both over the long haul and in recent years that the DSA’s fundamental political commitment is to strengthen the “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party as opposed to its “corporate wing.” This idea often in this language is found the organization’s principal political statements over the years. See for example: from 2008 and from 2010.

The 2010 Convention resolution on priorities concludes: “Finally, DSA will work in 2010 to insure that progressive Democrats who support many of the above items are reelected to Congress or replace right-wing Democratic or Republican incumbents. Only if the Democratic majority in Congress is not just preserved but expanded and moved to the left can any of the above progressive reforms be enacted. DSA PAC will explore hiring an organizer to help our members become more effective in electoral politics, especially in the primary campaigns where we will promote true progressives.”

Not surprisingly then, as you mention, the DSA has also promoted the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) which shares this goal of building the Democrats so-called progressive wing. Similarly, DSA has promoted Amy Dean and her “A New Blue Print for Change”, Dean’s article is all about continuing to organize and mobilize at the base, particularly the labor union base, to keep pressure on progressive Democratic Party candidates. But, be sure, it is all about the Democrats.

The DSA’s involvement in the Democratic Party in Michigan probably represents the organization’s most serious involvement in party politics. (Seth A. Maxon, “How DSA Works in the Democratic party to effect change,” In These Times. Maxon describes the deep commitment of and influence of DSA in the Democratic Party. By the way, these are not documents or accounts of DSA activities from the 1980s, they are rather documents and accounts from the last decade. The DSA’s positions and activities taken together represent a deep commitment to the Democratic Party, and one moreover without a strategic vision of how to do more than strengthen its progressive and labor elements against the corporate power that dominates the party.

DSA does not always support the Democratic Party candidates for the presidency and other high offices, of course. It is true that there are exceptional moments. In 2000 the DSA did not endorse Al Gore, the DSA Vice-Chair Harold Meyerson wrote an essay arguing “critical support for Gore,” and suggested that many or even most DSA members would vote for Gore.

To be fair, it is true that the DSA also supports some independents and candidates of other parties. The DSA Organizing Manual mentions work in politics for Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont Senator who calls himself a socialist, and also occasional support for the Greens, as well as work for the Democratic Party candidates. While Sanders and the Greens are mentioned, such opportunities are few and far between, and the fact is that most of DSA’s work is in the Democratic Party.

The DSA document, “Electoral Politics as a Tactic,” published in 2000, argues that Third Parties are virtually impossible and that work in the Democratic Party is merely a tactic, using the ballot line of an organization with no real social base. While recognizing that in 2000 some DSA members would support Ralph Nader on the Green ticket or Dave McReynolds of the Socialist Party, the document suggests that the DSA build coalitions which will work mostly in the Democratic Party.

From my reading of these documents and account it is clear that the DSA emphasizes in its work these things:

    1) DSA emphasizes working for “progressive” candidates (but, also generally voting for other Democrats while “holding one’s nose.”

    2) DSA argues that its members must join with others to strengthen the coalitions and the grassroots organizations at the base of the party. The suggestion is made that: a), this will make more possible the election of progressive candidates; and b), this will make those who are elected (progressives and others) more accountable to the base.

    3) DSA argues that its electoral work is only one part and not the largest party of what it does; that working for Democrats is not the be-all and end-all of its work.

Finally, it should be noted that some public intellectuals associated with DSA, such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West, have in the last year been outspoken critics of President Obama. Though it is not clear whether they speak for DSA or simply as individuals.

The important point is that the DSA with its emphasis on activism and its ideology of democratic socialism, together with its occasional criticisms of the Democrats, exerts a fairly strong pull on some movement activists, particularly the young. Most important, the argument that electoral work is not merely tactical, not strategic, makes such political work in the Democratic Party palatable to those who otherwise might tend to react more strongly to involvement in the party.

What I read in the DSA’s documents and what I see in the DSA’s leaders’ statements and in its leading members’ behavior over the years is a commitment to bringing people into DSA, and while working in the social movements, drawing them into the orbit of the Democratic Party. The DSA’s positions and its work suggest, of course, that those who oppose working the Democratic Party make a grievous mistake, failing to strengthen the progressive movement. The implicit suggestion is that not working for progressives strengthens the right. So, the conclusion is: stick with the Democrats. That was my point all along, that is, that the DSA acts to win people to vote for the Democrats and works to keep them from moving out of the party.

A Strategic Not a Tactical Question

The chief political difference between you and me and between the DSA and some others on the left with whom I identify (Solidarity, ISO, and the Socialist Party) is the nature of the Democratic Party. This is a question both of one’s theory as well as of one’s attitude toward the Democratic Party. It is a theoretical question, but also a question of whether or not one takes an active role in creating an independent alternative to the Democratic Party as part of the process of building an independent party of working people.

I and other like me believe that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party. We argue that capitalists provide much of the financing, leadership, program, and a significant portion of the higher level cadres of the Democratic Party. I have not found in the DSA position papers any serious analysis of the Democratic Party and its role in American politics, nothing comparable, for example, to ISO member Lance Selfa’s The Democratic Party: A Critical Analysis and nothing comparable to the papers on the Democrats and elections found on the Solidarity website.

Since we believe that the Democratic Party belongs to another class, we believe that it is impossible for the working class to wage a fight to control the Democratic Party or to use it successfully for its own class objectives. More important, we believe that working class, labor union, and social movement participation in the Democratic Party inhibits the political self-development of working people and the movements, making it impossible for them to figure out who their leaders are and what their program should be. We therefore reject participation in the Democratic Party and refuse to work in its campaigns.

We believe that during the 1930s, the Democrats under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal did not further the left and the labor movement’s struggle for a more just society, but rather found means to control the left and the unions, to moderate and attenuate the demands of the left. Many historians and other scholars have made this argument about FDR and the New Deal for decades. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party became the vehicle for saving American capitalism and at the same time for stopping a potentially socialist movement. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democrats of the 1970s succeeded in capturing and containing the radical implications of the American civil rights movement.

I imagine that there are within DSA and the YDS, especially at this moment, those who have developed critical attitudes not only toward Obama, but toward the Democratic Party as an institution. There must be those in DSA who recognize that involvement in the Democratic Party is a strategic not a tactical question. I think that it would be good and useful for DSA and YDS activists to share their thoughts about that, both so that we could explore together the alternatives and so that we could also influence each other’s analysis. Beyond that, those of us on the democratic left should be engaged in a common and more fraternal discussion of both our work in the movements and in labor and our understanding of the how to create a political expression of our movements.

That’s how I see it.

I am sure that you and I are working for many of the same causes, joining together with others in the Occupy movement, supporting the labor movement, and standing for equality of all. We in Solidarity, DSA and others on the left should continue and deepen this discussion. Once again, forgive the flippancy of earlier my remark.

In solidarity and best regards,


Dan La Botz is a member of the Solidarity Political Committee and of the New Politics editorial board. He is a school teacher, writer, and activist based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is one of the thousands of Occupy activists arrested defending the right to use public spaces to assemble and speak out against the corporate domination of American politics.