Capture the Democratic Party? More Likely Be Captured! Is there An Alternative?


A recent analysis and call to action from Bernie Sanders sent to the “Our Revolution” e-mail list is illustrative of the difficulties in “taking over” the Democratic Party. He says:

“We need a Democratic Party which becomes the political home of the working people and young people of this country, black and white, Latino and Asian and Native American … all Americans.”

The Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission must: (1) make the Party more democratic, and the presidential primary more fair by reducing the number of super-delegates; (2) ending “closed primary systems” in which voters have to declare party preference far in advance of the primary election, and; (3) supplement caucuses with some kind of additional procedure that allows those who can’t attend an opportunity to vote.

And he concludes, “we must institute long-needed reforms in the Democratic Party.

He’s right: if the strategy of progressives is to reform the Democratic Party, they must attend to instituting “long-needed reforms.” Doing that is a lengthy, time-consuming process that requires the commitment of time, talent and money, and attention to details. That’s why he is both right and wrong.

The second difficulty in taking over the party is that having control has little to do with the process of running a candidate as a Democrat—as Sanders’ campaign itself demonstrates. There is nothing in the internal structure of the Party that prevents Joe Blow or Susie Que from declaring him/herself a Democrat, assembling the money, campaign professionals and feet-on-the-street volunteers for a campaign, and then running in a Democratic Party primary.

The idea that Party rules can keep money out of politics flies in the face of both past experience and, more recently, a series of rulings by the U.S Supreme Court that treat the expenditure of vast amounts of money as a matter of free speech.

We need to take over the Party, Sanders says, because:

“People are hurting in this country…Our job is to create an economy and government that works for all of us, not just the 1%…”, and;

“The Democratic Party [must be] prepared to take on the ideology of the…billionaire class…who are undermining American democracy and moving this country into an oligarchic form of society.”

Without taking over the Party, he warns that we cannot address the fundamental issues of social and economic justice or climate change.

Other Possibilities

The industrial union movement of the 1930s (Congress of Industrial Organizations —CIO) was organized independently of any political party. The civil rights movement of the mid 1950s-mid-1960s was organized outside the Democratic Party. The same is true of the gay/lesbian, women’s, immigrant rights, disability rights, senior citizen and other efforts that extended rights, power and material benefits to previously marginalized, exploited and discriminated against groups.

For the most part, once having built their power base outside the framework of the political parties, these movements and organizations choose to enter electoral politics and “join” the Democratic Party. Instead of capturing it, it captured them. The lessons to be learned from the cooptation of independent movements and organizations are abundant. If you’re not already convinced of that, nothing I can say will convince you.

In my lifetime, I watched up close and personal how that happened in Mississippi—where in 1963 I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and continued full-time in SNCC until the end of 1966. From 1961 – 1964, SNCC built from the bottom-up the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). At the 1964 Democratic National convention, MFDP challenged the seating of the Mississippi racist regular party. It made national news, but lost. At the opening of Congress, MFDP challenged the seating in the House of Representatives of the elected Mississippians. More than 150 members of the House voted for this challenge, but it, too, lost. The MFDP campaigns probably had as much to do with the passage of the Voting Rights Act as did the Selma-Montgomery March.

The Democratic Party concluded that MFDP was too independent, and proceeded to undermine and weaken it by means of a two-part strategy. First, an alternative was created—the Mississippi Democratic Conference (MDC). By the time of the 1968 national convention, MDC controlled three quarters of the delegates; MFDP had the remaining one quarter. Second, the expenditure of poverty program funds had the effect (and intent) of coopting the SNCC-initiated and -led civil rights movement there. The movement was enmeshed in the MFDP. Except in a few counties, it had not built a base sufficiently autonomous from electoral politics to withstand the two-part strategy of marginalization and cooperation.

Just To Be Clear…

This doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is not an arena for struggle. In many cases, though not all (for example, where a local party is deeply enmeshed in corruption, the Republican Party, a third party or an independent effort might be a better vehicle), I think it is the most likely one. But making it an arena for struggle is different from becoming enmeshed in its internal workings. As Sanders himself demonstrated in his Democratic primary race for the presidential nomination, an apparatus can be built outside the framework of the party. Just as his independent campaign mobilization apparatus used the party as a vehicle, so is it possible for independent ongoing organization to use it to further its agenda, which might include running or supporting candidates.

But there are other ways of entering electoral politics that should be carefully considered as well.

“Fusion,” the strategy of the Working Families Party (WFP), is one. WFP is a third party that endorses Democrats, occasionally a Republican, and in some cases runs its own candidate. If you vote, for example, for a Democrat under the WFP ballot listing you at once play in the “lesser-of-two-evils” reality of American politics but, at the same time, let the Democratic Party know that you are a to-its-left independent, and strengthen a third party.

“Partisan non-partisanship”. In this case, an organization presents its political agenda to candidates, and asks them, “Where do you stand on the people’s issue(s)?” It then demands “yes” or “no” answers to questions that make clear where the candidate stands. Examples might be:

Do you support Medicare-for-all? Yes or No

Do you support $15.00 living wage? Yes or No

Do you support Dodd-Frank? Yes or No

Do you support a “path to citizenship” Yes or No

A more detailed definition of what “support” means can be part of the process of interviewing or otherwise judging the candidate. But this is crucial: the organization that asks these questions has to be trusted by voters; it has to have roots that go more deeply than social media, paid mass media or even enthusiastic but here-today, gone-tomorrow canvassers. Only a year-round organization that does more than electoral politics can dig those roots.

The organization then engages in a large-scale voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drive in which voters learn where politicians stand on issues that mean the most to them. If it is respected, and the drive a serious one, vote totals will demonstrate that a politician cannot afford to ignore this organization’s political agenda and win. Efforts such as this were undertaken in past years with success in Chicago (the CAP organization) and New Orleans (by ACT).

Large public accountability sessions are another way of making candidates define themselves in terms that they otherwise might want to avoid. In front of several thousand people, candidates are asked “yes/no” questions on key issues. A candidate who refuses to come to the session is a “no”. These events often gain major media attention. Some years ago, San Antonio’s COPS illustrated the power of this approach. The organization sponsoring the event then engages in the same education/registration/GOTV campaign identified above.

Finally, you can build an officially non-partisan political organization that directly endorses candidates. The Richmond (CA) Progressive Alliance (RPA) did that. Over a careful building process that took roughly ten years, the organization developed sufficient trust among the electorate to take over the Richmond City Council in 2016. In congressional districts where the choice was a clear one, ACORN did that in a number of electoral campaigns across the country by registering and turning out low-to-moderate income citizens who typically don’t vote but who, when they do, overwhelmingly support Democrats.

These approaches can be taken in national, state and local races. The core idea is to retain your autonomy while playing politics in the framework of “lesser of two evils” because that is the realistic framework in which you have to play if you want your vote to count in winner-take-all elections, or even worse if you don’t want your vote to have the effect of electing the worse of the two evils. And note: don’t do any of these unless the numbers you can deliver are substantial and demonstrable. If otherwise, you simply advertise your weakness.

None of these strategies require that you put all your marbles in electoral politics. Quite the contrary, their success depends upon your organization having a life and vitality that is separate from electoral politics. The activities engaged in as part of that independent life make the organization’s name mean something to voters…and to members.

Just as running third party candidates in national elections is a mistake because it is a wasted vote and, possibly, a vote for the greater evil, so is it a mistake to make capture of the Democratic Party the strategy of people interested in bringing about fundamental/transformational/substantive change in American politics. Something has to be built external to the Democratic Party that has a life independent of electoral politics, for which engaging in elections is a tactic to be used along with other tactics.

A Moral and Cultural Struggle

I have elsewhere in Stansbury Forum discussed the character of mass based organizations that I think are the best vehicles to build power external to the Democratic Party. Their building blocks are religious congregations, union locals, and civic, interest and identity groups that are deeply rooted in values that challenge the present dominant culture.

These building blocks contrast sharply with the inevitable character of major political parties in a winner-take-all system. Ideological parties in a parliamentary system can be transformational in outlook and still win seats in the government. Trades take place in parliament. Major parties in the U.S. are transactional. They are forums within which interest groups make trades in order to create electoral and governing majorities.

The struggle in which we are now engaged in the United States is not simply one of political program or collective bargaining issues. It is a deeply cultural and moral one that requires a counter-culture to challenge the existing status quo.


About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, View all posts by Mike Miller →

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