Issue 4

Electoral Politics and the Path to Socialism

An examination of past electoral success to carve out a vision of socialist electoral strategy with the goals of not only winning elections but building a base through “field-first” tactics outside of the established political consultancy class.

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In the five years since NYC-DSA began running electoral campaigns with the 2016 State Senate campaign of Debbie Medina and the 2017 City Council campaigns of Khader El Yateem and Jabari Brisport, and in the three years since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the 2018 Democratic primary, we have built an electoral operation with significant power in New York City politics. As we write, New York City is represented at the state level by two socialist state senators and four socialist assembly members, and at the federal level by one socialist congresswoman.

In our view, this is because of our chapter’s focus on direct voter contact, or what is colloquially known in electoral spaces as “field operations.” The most important (and most labor-intensive) aspect of field organizing is in-person canvassing focused on turning out base voters, which involves impactful conversations that increase turnout and help our candidates win. Phone calls, texts, social media posts, and other means of voter contact can be effective among certain constituencies and are a key tactic for electoral organizing, but in-person canvassing reaches voters that might be otherwise inaccessible, including elderly people, immigrants, and those who simply never answer calls or texts.  Physical presence in constituents’ communities has an inherently radical character that has been the foundation of NYC-DSA’s electoral success. 

On top of its demonstrated effectiveness at winning electoral campaigns, direct voter contact opens opportunities for base-building and develops capacity for legislative and issue-based campaigns. In-person connection with ordinary voters enables socialists to break out of our existing milieus and make serious inroads into working class communities of color, cultivating organizers to take on leadership roles in future campaigns and creating connections with existing working-class institutions like unions and tenant associations. In addition, voter contact (especially canvassing) allows for further engagement with voters that does not need to end with electoral cycles. One example of this dynamic is the leadership role NYC-DSA was able to play in the campaign for the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which was a historic defeat for the real estate industry in Albany that paved the way for further tenant organizing statewide. This dynamic is unique to socialist campaigns because our aim is to both build collective power and deliver services to working class communities, which is aided by, but not limited to, winning formal elections. Our victories may be partially explained by New York City’s high population density, but this strategy still has implications for urban DSA chapters that have not yet enjoyed sustained electoral success, especially since canvassing has empirical evidence to support its effectiveness. 

Opposed to the robust field operation that has enabled NYC-DSA’s success, are for-profit consultancy firms that promise results based on access and expertise. There are clear incentives for consulting firms to focus on communications, policy, and strategy work for their campaigns. These aspects of campaigning rely less on high volumes of collective labor and more on education, connections, and specialized expertise, and are thus easier to extract profit from. As a result, even well-intentioned consultants of the traditional kind have a built-in incentive to advocate ever-increasing spending on advertisements, mailers, and their own fees. Their labor is still valuable, but an over-reliance on their services reduces campaigns to exercises in messaging, communications, and policy design, bereft of the low-margin field operations that are difficult to profit from but crucial to success. One microcosm of this reality is Julia Salazar’s 2018 primary race, in which hostile forces were able to create a steady drumbeat of negative news stories that were highly persuasive to political media but much less relevant to actual voters, since the Salazar campaign had already built and maintained close contact with the electorate through a robust field operation. The “gatekeepers” of political media, elected officials, and party functionaries have become dramatically less powerful in our city because none of them have the capacity or inclination to build a field operation that is on the scale of NYC-DSA’s. 

As organizers who have been closely involved in political campaigns both professionally and in a volunteer capacity through the NYC-DSA Electoral Working Group, we understand the useful skills, connections, and resources consulting firms can bring to an electoral campaign. Several of us have worked as freelance consultants for socialist candidates, and we know that the line between a staffer and a consultant can sometimes be blurry. In our roles in campaign leadership, we have hired field consultants who have helped our campaigns win. However, our experience working on campaigns has led us to believe that political consultancies (especially consultancies focusing on communications, policy, and “strategy”) as they currently exist have inherent incentives to undermine and dilute the socialist character of our political movement.

Earlier in the NYC-DSA endorsement process for City Council candidates, there was a tempest in a teapot regarding the role of consultancies in left electoral politics. In particular, Emerge put out a statement outlining the candidates our caucus supported for endorsement and the reasons why we made our recommendations. One of our stated criteria was that Emerge did not support the candidates who contracted with a particular consulting firm, which led to a sustained negative reaction on the part of that consulting firm’s principals directed at NYC-DSA and its members. It was alleged that this position was an expression of racism and misogynoir because the firm is co-led by a woman of color. As socialists, we unequivocally condemn all forms of racism and misogyny and wish to clarify the reasoning behind our statement while remaining true to the content of our original critique. While this dispute may seem limited and parochial, we believe it has important lessons for electorally-minded socialists across the country in terms of choosing our alliances and understanding the pitfalls involved in over-reliance on political consultancies. 

“Progressive” political consultancies in our city operate as hybrid organizations with certain internal contradictions. First, they are capitalist organizations with a few well-paid principals who extract profit from a greater pool of temporary labor and from the work of interns and lower ranking employees. Second, they have political commitments that inherently limit their profit-making potential. Most progressive political consultancies do not take corporate clients and have ideological standards for the candidates they take on. In practice, these standards are often enforced according to the personal judgment of any given consultancy’s principals. However, as of now, there are no consulting firms that self-identify as socialist or restrict themselves to endorsing socialist candidates. A truly socialist electoral consulting operation would require explicit alignment with the socialist movement as well as an ownership and labor structure that reflects socialist values. For example, such an operation could be organized as a worker cooperative with strong accountability measures, one that empowers the lower-level organizers who are traditionally shut out of decision-making roles and rarely sufficiently resourced. 

While we support working in coalition with progressives against our mutual foes, there is an important distinction between progressive politics and socialist politics. Progressivism, as a modern ideology, has traditionally envisioned a future that is compatible with the continued existence of market capitalism. Its most popular American proponents, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, choose to emphasize that social democratic policy is not radical and is compatible with our existing political economy. While significant constraints are placed on capital under social democratic rule, the main goal of progressive social democracy is not to dismantle the rule of the capitalist class but instead to ameliorate its worst excesses. Socialism, on the other hand, seeks a more fundamental change in the power relations of capital and labor in the economy such that capital is permanently and decisively put under the control of the workers through a dialectical process of revolutionary struggle. 

In addition to the ideological differences between the social-democratic and socialist intellectual traditions, there are important practical distinctions. The traditional organizational structure of progressive political consultancies creates significant incentives to pursue tactics that are ill-suited to winning grassroots campaigns. Reliance on progressive consultants is largely incompatible with the long-term goals of our electoral work. As socialists, we should be building up our own capacities to execute on campaign necessities such as field, comms, policy, and messaging. Only then can we create an effective organizational structure that clearly articulates our message and the socialist vision to working class communities.

The guiding principles behind this electoral perspective are that: 1. “field-first” campaigns are effective for socialist candidates, 2. “field-first” campaigns create opportunities for the expansion of the socialist movement and the radicalization of the population, and 3. building field capacity creates an independent power base for socialist politics more generally. By developing the ability to reliably win elections through direct, person-to-person voter contact (as opposed to advertising through gatekeepers), NYC-DSA has also gained the ability to reliably shape and lead issue-oriented campaigns such as the campaign for Public Power, the New York Health Act, Defunding the NYPD, and other key socialist goals in our time. Progressive consultants have no incentive (and indeed many counter incentives) to use the field capacity developed in elections to continue such struggles, creating the “you only show up at election time” dynamic that has dogged core Democratic constituencies for generations. 

It is only through building independent capacity outside of the existing political consultant class that socialism can prosper in the United States and elsewhere, because those consultants are ultimately only loyal to whoever or whatever entity pays their bills and not to any broader platform or coherent political ideology. While expertise is of course valuable, a core aspect of our political project should be the democratization of political knowledge and skills, not their concentration in the hands of a few, well-connected insiders. By building “field-first” campaigns, we create the conditions to teach ourselves and others core political skills that ultimately make existing consultancies unnecessary, which is one reason why those consultancies are incentivized to under-resource field operations in favor of communications, “strategy,” and advertising. While corporate candidates cannot generate the authentic grassroots enthusiasm and collaboration that is our hallmark, so-called left-wing consultants persist in using corporate campaign tactics instead of properly resourcing the grassroots organizing responsible for the recent success of the left in the United States. Field organizing is difficult, traditionally low-paid, coded as working class, and minimally profitable, explaining why consultancies steer campaigns away from the scale of investment necessary to ensure victory. We need to turn this dynamic on its head by taking “field-first” campaigns to the national stage in order to avoid further electoral disappointments and organize on the scale necessary to meet the crises of our moment. 

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