Socialists and the U.S. Political System

By Joseph M. Schwartz

Michael Harrington often quipped that the problem with American socialism is that it would be American socialism. By this he meant that socialists in the United States cannot simplistically import lessons learned from Europe, Latin America, or Africa. We live in a continental nation of 50 different states, and, thus, 50 distinct political systems. We also operate within a republican constitutional structure that our “founders” consciously devised to make radical democratic change difficult. If we are to be effective, we have to understand and grapple with the structural biases built into our system. These involve our famous system of checks and balances and separation of powers, plus states’ rights and electoral procedures that are biased in favor of a two-party system.

A Conservative Constitution

Conservatives are correct about one thing: the U.S. constitutional structure is that of a republic more than a democracy. The founders explicitly feared that a majority of indebted small farmers would use their political power to inflate away their debts and threaten the power of slaveholders and bankers. So they wrote a constitution that enhanced the power of educated elites and made rapid democratic change difficult to achieve. To pass legislation in the United States, one must gain a super-majority in both legislative chambers to avoid the possibility of an executive veto. In a unitary parliamentary system, by contrast, if a party gains a majority in the legislature it can implement its program rapidly, as the legislature appoints the executive, and the courts do not have strong powers of judicial review.

The U.S. Senate, indirectly elected by state legislatures until 1913, undemocratically grants equal representation to each state regardless of population. This shored up the power first of the slave states and later the mining and railroad interests in the mountain West. In addition, the courts in the United States have more power to overturn legislation than in any other democracy. And with the exception of the Warren Supreme Court (1954-1970), courts have usually been on the side of corporate property and privileged minorities.

The Constitution is extremely hard to amend; a successful amendment must gain the support of two-thirds of each chamber of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures. Constitutional “political process” issues (for example, Citizens United) mostly engage the imagination of educated and economically secure progressives. Look at the white, college-educated base of Common Cause and People for the American Way.


The United States is as politically, culturally, and economically diverse as all of Europe. State and local governments are primarily responsible for financing education, transportation, public housing, and social welfare. The federal government is largely a military machine, plus an old-age public insurer. Expenditures on “defense” and on Medicare and Social Security account for close to 75% of the annual federal budget. Most federal social welfare programs require states to contribute half the funding and allow the states to control program eligibility. This is because the Southern Democratic plantocracy during the New Deal wanted to deny income-support programs to African Americans.

In our single member legislative district electoral system, left constituencies are disadvantaged by being more concentrated geographically than are conservative voters. People of color, immigrants, unionized workers, and liberal white-collar workers live disproportionately in large cities, state capitals, college towns, and inner suburbs. Here, progressive Democrats and even open socialists can run competitive electoral races, particularly in nonpartisan local campaigns. But small cities, outer suburbs, exurbia, and rural areas are Republican-dominated and elect the majority of state legislators. The bias in favor of Republican state legislative rule accentuates the negative effects of the geographic maldistribution of left constituencies and too often grants Republicans control of congressional reapportionment. Today, Republicans control every branch of 25 state governments, including the once-Democratic pro-labor states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Republicans also use blatant voter suppression tactics to preserve their advantage in state politics.

On the other hand, the diversity of our major cities and their growing number of immigrant voters has helped elect relatively progressive Democratic mayors and city councils in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and elsewhere. Radicals, though, must still build social movements around housing, immigrant, and low-wage justice issues to offset the power of downtown developers and real estate interests who constrain even the best of elected officials. The left also must recognize that state government’s major role in funding urban public education, housing, transportation, and public workers’ pension funds means we cannot achieve social democracy in one city. Who rules state government profoundly affects what is possible at the municipal level.

Hope in Times of Social Instability

Yet the barriers to social change posed by our constitutional structure should not overwhelm us with pessimism. The history of the United States is punctuated by radical reform periods: Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the civil rights era. Militant social movements can make major gains when ruling elites prove incapable of solving major social crises. During these periods a moderate reform party temporarily controls all three branches of government, in part because it incorporates into its electoral coalition some of the protesting constituencies and part of their political agenda. Periods of conservative reaction often follow these periods of radical reform, with the left having to play defense.

The democratic reforms that the left defends to this day mostly came into existence during the New Deal (1934-38) and the Great Society (1964-66). In those very brief periods the Democrats controlled all three branches of the federal government, and an integral part of their governing coalition consisted of immigrant labor activists in the 1930s and black voters within the Northern Democratic Party in the 1960s. During the New Deal, militancy by the Congress of Industrial Organizations forced the federal government to implement Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and a national right to organize unions. The power of white Southern planters within the Democratic coalition also meant that the New Deal excluded from its major programs domestic workers and farm workers (that is, blacks and Latinos living in the South and Southwest).

Militant civil rights protests in the South forced Democrats in the 89th Congress of 1964–66 to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and Food Stamps. By 1966, however, Republican gains among Northern white voters opposed to school and housing integration created a congressional coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans that halted further social progress. The left has been fighting a defensive battle to preserve these gains against the politics of corporate mobilization and white conservative populism ever since.

Building Independent Left Capacity

Today, the bipartisan corporate elite cannot deal with rampant inequality, wage stagnation, mass immigration, and continuing, often violent, racial exclusion. In response to this governing crisis, social activists have built fledgling social movements against the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration and for low-wage justice and the rights of undocumented immigrants. Socialists should help fuel these movements, while raising within them “non-reformist” anti-corporate demands for massive public investment in clean energy, infrastructure, and in our inner cities, funded by progressive taxation on corporations and the wealthy. Such movements helped spur the election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, as well as left independent campaigns for local office such as socialist Jorge Mujica’s in Chicago.

Viable third parties are not impossible to build at the state level; but they must be able to capture governorships and build legislative majorities to deliver for their constituencies, as the Progressive Party (Wis.) and the Farmer-Labor Party (Minn.) did during the Progressive Era down through the New Deal. But even here, these independent parties had to cooperate with Democrats in Washington and with Democrats in their own state legislature to pass legislation.

Only in the United States does the state and not the parties themselves control party membership. Thus, U. S. political parties are peculiarly open and amorphous. Anyone, regardless of political views, can register as a Democratic or Republican primary voter. Bernie Sanders can remain a registered “independent” in Vermont while running in the Democratic primaries for president. Our open primary system means that social conflict often runs through our major parties rather than around them.

Single electoral districts, plus the absence of proportional representation and parliamentary coalition governments, combined with direct election of executives (with legislative veto power) provide major structural incentives for electoral activists to build a “catch-all” two-party system—broad coalitions of diverse constituencies that cobble together electoral majorities. But those coalitions are often riven by internal conflict. Thus, in the Republican Party the libertarian Koch brothers duke it out with small-town Christian fundamentalists on social issues, and in the Democratic coalition the nationally dominant neoliberal corporate political elites often clash with the trade union, progressive, and black and Latino sections of the party.

Regardless of where socialists stand on the first-party-versus-third-party question, unless the left can build a multiracial, anti-corporate political coalition that can intervene independently in electoral politics, the left will too often be taken for granted, even abused, by party elites. The Moral Monday movement in North Carolina prefigures this type of “neo-Rainbow” coalition rooted in communities of color, the feminist and LGBTQ communities and progressive labor activists. DSAers can help build these coalitions at the local level so that the left can punish right-wing Democrats in primaries and withdraw support from such candidates in general elections. These types of coalitions will be best situated to demand the removal of private money from politics.

The Democratic Party national elite remains dominated by neoliberal corporate interests. This is reflected in both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s strong support of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, even though 75% or more of Democratic Congress members are likely to vote against it. The surprisingly broad financial and volunteer support for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign reflects the dissatisfaction of the party’s more progressive grassroots base with the Clinton coronation. Although Sanders’s program does not call for full democratic control of the economy, his social democratic platform calls for economic redistribution to fund a Nordic-style welfare state. DSA’s role in this movement is to make clear to volunteers and interested voters that the fight for Sanders’s program must continue after the campaign is over. That can best happen if people join and build DSA. Socialists should also help build a political trend that backs Sanders but presses him to speak out more explicitly against the New Jim Crow and in favor of an expedited path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The divergent bases of the two parties pose social contradictions that the left should work to exploit. The near-extinction of white conservative Southern Democrats and northeast moderate Republicans means that the two parties—and their representatives—are more ideologically distinct than ever. The nativist Republicans receive 92% of their vote from whites. The Democratic base, in contrast, reflects the emerging electorate, with 48% of the Democratic presidential vote in 2012 coming from voters of color. We need a neo-Rainbow coalition, such as Jesse Jackson’s in 1984 and 1988. The labor, black, Latino, and progressive base of the Democrats could either push the party left or lay the institutional groundwork for restructuring our current party system.

The Sanders campaign represents a unique opportunity for DSA activists to legitimate our democratic socialist politics with a wide and diverse audience. Our main political task is to build a much stronger DSA. But in doing so our locals should help to construct local multiracial, progressive coalitions that can back credible antiracist and anti-corporate candidates, including open socialists. The militant socialist presence within that coalition must contend that the coalition’s goals can be fully achieved only if we democratize control of our economy. And we should advance transformational reforms (such as a financial transactions tax) that advance that goal. The left can only challenge the pro-corporate leadership of the Democrats if the power of political organization forces opportunistic politicians to respond to their constituents rather than to their donors. The organizing needed to accomplish this goal must be grounded in a sophisticated understanding of the U.S. state and of the complex relationship between social movement organizing and electoral politics.

Joe_Schwartz_AID.png Joseph M. Schwartz is a vice-chair of DSA and a member of its National Political Committee. He teaches political science at Temple University and is the author of The Permanence of the Political and The Future of Democratic Equality.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Showing 6 reactions

commented 2015-07-03 18:56:03 -0400 · Flag
I’ve known Raymond Barglow and some of the others in the East Bay DSA for years. Raymond is a good guy. I doubt he’d describe the East Bay chapter as particularly active.

About a dozen years ago, I spearheaded an effort to bring together socialist groups in the East Bay to work together to meet, put on events together and issue joint statements. We called it the Socialist Unity Network.

Raymond and others in the DSA chapter were into to it. SUN brought together locals of five socialist organizations: DSA, ISO, Solidarity, SP, and the CCDS, of which I’m a member. The local of the Peace & Freedom Party was an official observer organization. I got to know Raymond a bit during this period and we’re still Facebook friends.

SUN didn’t get off the ground. Among the reasons was that while the locals of these chapters had greater and lessor affinities for working together, there was no support from the national leadership of any of the organizations.

I share this to let you know that I’m aware of the East Bay DSA and have good relations. I’m not sniping at DSA.

I still favor a strategy of building socialist unity in action. I do not believe DSA, nor CCDS, nor ISO, nor the CPUSA, nor any single socialist group will develop a mass activist base on its own.

We must deal with the question of disunity, disorganization, antagonism, and outright hostility among the groups of what little that exists of the organized socialist movement in the U.S. I believe that this is a prerequisite to developing a mass base for socialism in our country.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign currently provides an opportunity to unite many socialists in a way that’s connected to a mass base, but we must go way beyond building an electoral campaign organization.
commented 2015-07-03 15:55:47 -0400 · Flag’re extrapolating from one case only…San Francisco, a city in which DSA has been very weak for over a decade..

..the Bay Area may or may not be good turf for a sane socialist org.. precisely because sects abound it can be tough turf on which to compete.. so many sober socialists concentrate on “mass work” as a result

we have a modest, somewhat active group in East Bay (mostly folks in Richmond and Berkeley, not enuf in Oakland, unfortunately)…it’s older, so they do a lot of stuff thru senior/labor coalition work…check them out…

DSA has strong, visible locals where we have a skilled core of activists who know the politics of that geography…DSA is often the most active and most visible socialist group in those areas.. true of Atlanta, Greater Detroit, Washington, DC; Philadelphia, Austin TX, less so San Diego, Sacramento, greater Chicago, list goes on…

but, our activist presence is uneven, as is the case for all volunteer national political groups with local chapters…if DSA isn’t your cup of tea join then build another local socialist org..but an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms..

finally, DSA has very few academics among its activist ranks and even among our overall membership..and some of our locals (philly, DC) are now run by folks in their 20s..we’re growing fastest in that age cohort..

we used to have more college faculty, but adjuncts are too overworked and ours are primarily involved in their union drives.. and tenured radicals often are hyper-focused on cranking out obscure academic articles…

only 5 out of 100 delegates at last convention ever taught university…only 5% of our members in recent survey said they worked around universities and colleges..many more are social service and health are workers, K-12 teachers, union activists and staffers, community organizers, fact, our median family income was $60K…not what a tenured academic makes, for sure..(nearly 2000 out of 6500 members filled out the survey, so it’s pretty representative)

Joseph M. Schwartz
Department of Political Science
Temple University
commented 2015-07-03 14:33:47 -0400 · Flag
Hello again Jonathan,
One point. When you write about the SF Bay area, we do have an active local in East Bay. You could join in there. You can locate them here on the dsa website. I hope you join and advance socialism in the Bay Area.
commented 2015-07-03 14:16:59 -0400 · Flag
Thank you for your reply Duane Campbell. That you admit that there is no active DSA chapter in San Francisco speaks volumes to the nature of the organization. The S. F. Bay Area is perhaps the most progressive place in the country. We’re loaded with activists, organizations, and social movements. There are proportionately at least as many socialists here in the Bay Area compared to anywhere else.
commented 2015-07-03 14:00:16 -0400 · Flag
Thank you for your response.
You are correct that the piece on Socialism and U.S. politics does not deal with how to build a strong left organization. That discussion is very lively and engaged in DSA. We are currently redrafting our strategy.
Your characterization of DSA as mostly academics is incorrect. That is not who are membership nor our leadership is. In fact we have too few academics rather than too few.
As per your question of how to organize an active DSA in San Francisco. That is a great task. We have a person who will be glad to work with you to organize a local. We need one.
Sign up on the new members webinar on this page. You will be contacted. Indicate your interest. We need some organizers in SF to organize our many members there.
Duane Campbell. editor
commented 2015-07-03 11:18:10 -0400 · Flag
How does a talking society like DSA, filled with academics and intellectuals, become a strong organization of socialist militants? That’s a question this article avoids.

I live in the S.F. Bay Area, where there are many DSA members, but virtually no DSA activity. How to transform sheep into wolves? It needs to be one heck of an act of alchemy.

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