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So You Think You Can Take Over the Democratic Party?

With the nominating process now behind us, the question for supporters of Bernie Sanders both unwavering and critical is simple: What is to be done now?

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The Democratic presidential primary has finally come to an end, with the longtime frontrunner Hillary Clinton clinching the nomination. Bernie Sanders has now come out and said that he will work with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. It may have killed hopes that some leftists may have had that Sanders might still run as an independent or with Jill Stein on the Green Party ticket, but his endorsement of Hillary Clinton is far from unexpected.

With the nominating process now behind us, the question for supporters of Bernie Sanders both unwavering and critical is simple: What is to be done now?

One of the solutions that will eventually be bandied about is entryism, which is the practice of having people join a party en masse in order to engineer a takeover of the political party in question. The most famous modern example of entryism occurred within the Labour Party in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. There, members of a Trotskyist organization known as Militant attempted to steer Labour to the left by signing up to join the party and winning control over the organization piece by piece. They succeeded in having a Militant member named as the National Youth Organizer after taking over the Labour youth organization, meaning that the organization had one person on the National Executive Committee (NEC). Attempts by more moderate Labourites to expel Militant were initially unsuccessful, but after the Militant-dominated Liverpool City Council decided to run a deficit in contravention of national law, Labour eventually succeeded in expelling the organization from the party. They even went to the extent of deselecting Militant’s two MPs (more on this later).

Left-liberals and social democrats in the United States might push forward by saying that working within the Democratic Party is the best way to ensure that the concerns of the working class get heard, and that we should use the enthusiasm generated by the Sanders campaign to bring people into the party with the hopes of changing it. Let’s engage with this idea and analyze just what it would take to have this happen.

Party Structure

“The” Democratic Party is actually many little Democratic Parties all over the country. You have the Democratic National Committee; statewide party units in every state, commonwealth, and territory; congressional district party units in every state; and then you have the local party units. All in all, there are thousands upon thousands of party units, and each of them have a role in determining the direction of party ideology. The two plans presented are different, but they are mostly representative of the party structures throughout the United States.

The Minnesota Plan

The process for populating the State Central Committee of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party with activists begins at the precinct caucuses. There, you can submit resolutions to be considered at the senate district (if you live in the metro areas of the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Moorhead) or county (if you live in outstate Minnesota) conventions. You can also be chosen to be a delegate to those conventions and volunteer to serve on committees for them: Credentials, Platform, Rules, Constitution and Bylaws, and Nominations. It is at the senate district/county conventions that the Nominations Committee accepts applications for those who want to serve on party central committees at every level: senate district/county, congressional district, and state. They might also invite you to speak before the committee to find out why you would like to serve, though this is not practiced at every local convention. After deliberating, they make their recommendations for who shall serve in executive positions at the local level (typically chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer, and affirmative action officer), as well as the appointments to be made from the county/district to the congressional district and state central committees. The process repeats itself at the congressional district and state level, though the races for executive positions typically solicits more competition at those levels than at the local level.

In order for socialists to really make an effort at this in a Minnesota-style system, you would have to:

  1. Know where your senate district/county party organization holds its meetings on a regular basis so that you can be “seen”.
  2. Show up to a precinct caucus in even-numbered years.
  3. Hope that there are not so many people running for positions that you have to actually campaign to become a delegate. If there are, and you are new to the system, you might encounter a measure of opposition from those who say that you have not “paid your dues”.
  4. Have enough people to volunteer for the Nominations and Platform committees so that a left-wing agenda can be pursued, and so that left-wingers can be elected to serve on central committees and implement these changes.
  5. Have enough socialists elected to be delegates at conventions throughout the state that you are able to elect leadership that will pursue a leftist agenda in their capacities. And if your party structure is like Minnesota’s, where statewide party leadership is elected in the year following a presidential election, see #3.

Sounds like a lot, right? But Minnesota’s system is actually one where it is pretty easy to get involved: after all, this native Southerner with a heavy drawl got put on at various levels only two years after moving to the state. But what about states where the process to get elected to party offices is a bit trickier?

The Alabama Plan

In Alabama, unlike Minnesota, local and state committees are populated through the primary ballot, which is held in conjunction with the nominating process for statewide officeholders. Candidates are elected to the local party executive committees by county commission district; in Tuscaloosa County, where I lived while working on my doctorate, there are four districts. Potential committee members run in the primary by gender; all of the female candidates run in a primary and all the male candidates run in a different primary. For the State Democratic Executive Committee, candidates run for the position by state house district, of which there are 105. Just like the local contests, the primaries are divided by gender.

The chair of the Tuscaloosa County Democrats told me that “no one campaigns for these seats ever”. That is only partly true.

You see, the individuals on the ballot might not be going door-to-door asking for the votes of their constituents, but there is politicking that occurs behind the scenes. Because in addition to there being an Alabama Democratic Party, there are also two competing organizations that shape internal party politics in the state: the New South Coalition and the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC). The latter is the oldest Black Democratic organization in the South, and it has a disproportionate hold on the machinations of the statewide party organization, while the former is a kind of upstart organization that positions itself as being to the left of the ADC. These organizations do not simply sit out the elections for the local and state party executive committees, as I found out the hard way when both organizations endorsed my opponent in District 62 for the state party committee.

After the contests, however, there might still be seats that need to be filled because either a) people did not run for the party executive committees from a particular state house/county commission district or b) the makeup of the elected members of the party committee in question places them in violation of affirmative action regulations within the party. At this point, getting on the party central committees becomes a bit easier: I was able to join the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Executive Committee and become its Vice Chair for Youth Affairs by showing up to three meetings in a row. But at the state level, the opportunities to join become a bit more murky. The Democratic Party by-laws state the following:

“It is the policy of the SDEC that minority members should be represented on the SDEC in proportion to their presence in the Democratic Electorate of Alabama or in proportion to their presence in the population of Alabama, whichever is greater. The term “Democratic Electorate” of Alabama is defined as being composed of those persons who voted for the Democratic nominee for president in the immediate preceding general election and each succeeding general election for the Democratic nominee for president every four (4) years thereafter.”

“If the higher of the two percentages is not met by the number of minority members elected, then the Chair shall determine the number of minority members to be added to the State Committee to bring the number of minority members on the State Committee up to the level of the higher of the two percentages.“

That power is typically used by the Vice Chair for Minority Affairs, Dr. Joe Reed, to stack the state committee with ADC loyalists. This is possible because, well, no one contests these seats, as the Tuscaloosa County chair once pointed out to me, which means that candidates supported by the incumbent leadership and the ADC typically prevail by a wide margin. The aftermath of such a process should be obvious to anyone that has taken a glance at election results in Alabama in the last decade, or has read/heard about the antics of the state party’s leadership in the last five years.

In order for socialists to take over a party structure that operates as Alabama’s does, one would have to:

  1. Find where the local party organization is meeting and become a member, either from a particular district or at-large.
  2. Hope that there are enough vacancies at the local level where one might bring enough leftists to become members and have a controlling vote share on committee business.
  3. Find enough folks that would be willing to run on a statewide slate for the State Democratic Executive Committee. Remember, it is a man and a woman from each district so that is 210 seats. Do the same for the county committees as well.
  4. Because doing such a thing would likely cause the party establishment to run their own candidates once your plan eventually got out, you might have to actually campaign for the seat. For my race for the state committee, I raised $350. That was enough to get 50 signs that I could put up all over the district. If you raised that much for every seat, it would amount to $73,500. And that is, of course, before all the time and energy is factored into the equation. And you have to hope that there are not well-established constituency groups that could make campaigning difficult.
  5. If your slate just happens to win, but falls short of the number of minorities required to fulfill the affirmative action obligations in the state bylaws, you need to have leftists of color willing to step up and serve as at-large state delegates.

But let’s say that you accomplish this in both systems. You then get to select socialist National Committeemen and Committeewomen to vote for a chair at the national level that will reflect the new direction in the party and work to remake the Democratic Party into an organization that actually holds firm to its stated commitments to America’s working class. That would be so awesome.

Except there is one problem.

Party Organizations and Elected Officials

In his 1942 book Party Government, E.E. Schattschneider stated that the concept of a political party as an association representing all partisans was “a mere fiction” and that democracy “is not to be found in the parties but between the parties” (Schattschneider 1942, 60). This thesis purports that political parties in the American system are not things that you join, per se, so much as they are entities that you lend support to when the time is right.

This theory is most easily seen in the case of U.S. Rep. Larry McDonald (D-GA), who served Georgia’s 7th Congressional District from 1975 until his death aboard Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1st, 1983. While McDonald was a Democrat, he was also a far-rightist ideologically. He served as the national president of the John Birch Society, an organization that believed, for example, that the Civil Rights Movement was created by communists in order to undermine the United States’ constitutional order (if only). They also believed that Dwight Eisenhower, the progenitor of “In God We Trust” being stamped on all of our currency, was a secret communist. It then goes without saying that McDonald marked the right edge of the House of Representatives, with the DW-NOMINATE vote score system placing him only behind U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) as the most conservative member of the House between 1937 and 2002.

This put him at odds with the 7th District’s party organization, which was (as most party units are) much more liberal than its biennial standard-bearer for Congress. Things came to a head in 1978, when the party committee voted 10-8-1 to pass a resolution that censured McDonald for “the dishonorable and despicable act of calling himself a Democrat”. They had plenty to back up their sentiment, of course, given that the Democratic Party had started a marginal jog to its left in the late 1960s through the 1984 presidential election. McDonald was a Democratic member of Congress cut from an increasingly bygone era in Southern history, and the tension this might cause is obvious.

What happened next? Well….nothing. McDonald stated that the decision might even help him be re-elected in his district; it certainly did not hurt, as he was re-elected with 66.5 percent of the vote. Leftists could control the entirety of the Democratic Party’s entire organizational structure root-and-branch, but you would still be left with this gigantic problem on your hands: what could possibly be done about the sitting elected officials, most of whom (if not all) do not share the vision of a socialist party committed to the working class and their material interests?

In the United Kingdom, for example, constituency party organizations can do something called deselection. When this occurs to an elected official, much like it did to the MPs associated with the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party, the scofflaw in question is barred from running on the party’s ballot line for the next election. Unless an elected official is somewhat of an institution in their constituency, this typically means the end of that politician’s career. The power of deselection has helped to shape a political system that hews fairly close to the middle — or as this author and others might argue, to the right — by having a system where constituents (at times under the influence of party higher-ups) can effectively boot out an incumbent that is unrepresentative of the area without a single election being called. Additionally, parliamentary parties in the Westminster system have procedural mechanisms to make caucus members fall in line. For example, for disobeying the three-line whip — a strict and binding instruction to attend and vote the party line — on a bill that slightly expanded abortion access in Ireland, TD Lucinda Creighton was booted from her ministry in the Fine Gael-Labour government.

In the United States, however, the parties have very little power to enforce any kind of discipline due to the fact that membership in a political party is more of a sociopolitical aesthetic than any kind of binding commitment. Likewise, the institutional consequences of falling afoul of party leadership — particularly in the post-Cannon era of the U.S. House — are pretty weak, with the most severe sanctions being the stripping of committees from caucus members. That, however, would be met with a roar of protest from the media if it were to be done for reasons not having to do with official malfeasance in office. The same thing applies to the United States Senate, state legislatures, and local offices that are partisan.

So not only would socialists and social democrats have to organize to take over the party infrastructure by city, county, congressional district, and state/commonwealth/territory, but now they have to run candidates in primaries across the country. As of 2012, the average amount of funds raised for a successful House candidate was $1.6 million. The Senate? $10.4 million. And considering that this data probably includes candidates in both chambers that did not raise a lot of money due to their seat being safe for election or re-election, the cost of winning a seat in a district or state where a) you would have to run against an entrenched incumbent in the primary or general election, b) you would have to compete against establishment candidates with lots of money in this post-Citizens United political landscape in a primary or general in an open seat, or c) you would have to compete against an incumbent that has either gone independent after losing a primary (2006 Connecticut Senate) or mounted a write-in campaign after a primary defeat (2010 Alaska Senate) is probably much higher than the averages suggest.

Breaking the two-party duopoly would be very difficult, as the law has done much of the work in crafting the political structures that we have now (see Lisa Jane Disch’s 2002 book The Tyranny of the Two-Party System for a great discussion of this). And outside of the law, a part of what has held this political duopoly together is the sociopolitical consent that American voters have granted to the system time and time again. This has been evident since the immediate postbellum era, when party affinity was less an expression of policies and more an identity shared amongst people in a community, state, or region.

But today, these ancestral loyalties are beginning to fade and the yearning for a new politics is becoming more pronounced than ever. The latest Gallup poll on the subject showed that 60 percent of Americans believed that a third party was needed nationally in order to “do an adequate job of representing the American people”. Lest you think that this is some surge due to the current election cycle, a majority of Americans have stated the need for a third party in almost every Gallup poll since 2007. This system is crumbling because Americans look around and see two political parties that are enthralled with Wall Street and diffident (at best) to the concerns of the working class and the marginalized. Meanwhile, wage growth is stagnant, high-paying manufacturing jobs are being replaced by low-wage, low-stability service jobs, police brutality continues with an official imprimatur from local officials, and mass acts of violence directed at the bodily autonomy of women and the human rights of LGBTQ people go off with only the most cursory of responses (for prayers and reflection, of course) from the leaders of the major parties. That is, when they cannot pin this on the brown people who will inevitably be the targets of an ever-increasing police state.

Instead of spending the next 10, 20, 30, or 60 years trying to take over a party that has demonstrated its rank hostility to leftists and their vision for a new world, why not begin the process of building a party organization from the ground up? A party organization that works alongside movements for change rather than coopting them. A party organization that recognizes that fundamental humanity of people both domestic and abroad. Why place such a revolutionary vision of society and economy within the tight constraints of two-party politics? Because if the Bernie campaign has taught the American Left anything, it is that Democratic partisans and their allies in the media will work hand-in-hand to snuff out any challenge that could threaten the dominance of neoliberalism within the party.

We can do better. We should do better. And if we trust in the collective efforts of those committed to political, social, and economic liberation, we will do better.

Douglas Williams originally hails from Suffolk, Virginia. He is a third-generation organizer, having a grandmother who worked to integrate the schools in his hometown and a father who continues to be active in labor organizing. He earned his BA in Political Science at the University of Minnesota at Morris in 2008, as well as his MPA at the University of Missouri Columbia in 2011, where he was also a Thurgood Marshall Fellow and a Stanley Botner Fellow. He is a political junkie that follows everything from elections in Jamaica and Saskatchewan to social movements in Latin America. He is currently a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement.