There’s No “There” There

Point/Counterpoint: Running for County Committee

by Chris Maisano

Some NYC-DSA comrades propose that socialists should run for seats on Democratic Party County Committees. I respectfully disagree. Despite its name, the Democratic Party is severely lacking in democratic structures that could allow socialists to educate, agitate, and organize in a meaningful way.

Instead, we should continue to run socialists on Democratic ballot lines--and independent socialist lines whenever feasible--- while building DSA as an independent, democratic, and participatory political organization.

As the political scientist Adam Hilton observes, party organizations in the U.S. exist primarily to help individual candidates raise money, seek votes, and win office. They lack formal dues-based membership structures, institutional mechanisms to hold officeholders accountable to the party platform, political education and training departments, or anything else that could help working people develop our collective capacities to challenge the power of capital and ultimately run society. In this sense, they are fundamentally different from the mass membership-based political parties one finds in most other countries. The prospect of transforming them in this direction is very unlikely.

One central argument for entering County Committees is that they choose the party’s nominee in special elections, and that one of three current state legislators was sent to Albany through such elections. The theory is that County Committees could provide socialists with a shortcut to winning power in state government. While government power is something we want to achieve, socialist legislators can only push a radical reform agenda through Albany if they have a powerful mass movement at their backs. The effective appointment of state officeholders through low-visibility, low-turnout special elections is unlikely to help build such a movement.

Finally, participation in the institutional structures of the Democratic Party would further blur the distinctions between us and them. Backing socialists on the Democratic line has so far been worth the risks because it has helped build our forces and make DSA less marginal . We could jeopardize these advances, however, if we identify ourselves too closely with a party whose dominant orientation is still neoliberal. We shouldn’t provide the Democratic establishment with opportunities to portray itself  as more “progressive” than it is. Our political identity is an important resource that we must protect.

The fundamental task of democratic socialists is to organize working people into a mass movement and subsequently into a political party that develops our ability to win what Marx and Engels called the “battle of democracy.” Everything we do as a group should be oriented toward achieving that goal. Comrades proposing entry into Democratic County Committees doubtlessly do so with the best of intentions. But this approach is not likely to bear fruit. Let’s keep building NYC-DSA instead.