Democracy And Political Parties In The U.S.

Or, what does it mean to be a Democrat? A while ago, this life-long Democrat noted the following about the Democratic Party:

I’ll remind readers that I’m a life-long Democrat, have donated to Democrats, and have volunteered for multiple Democratic campaigns. Hell, I once registered absentee to vote in a Democratic municipal primary. I’ve also never missed an election. So don’t bring that you’re a Johnny-come-lately BernieBro crap here.

Being a Democrat isn’t like joining a union. In a union, there are formal benefits, such as group negotiation, union legal representation, and so on. There are often informal benefits, such as getting help from your brothers and sisters when you face a personal crisis, such as a family tragedy, or unemployment. But what do I get for officially being a Democrat, other than a shit ton of junk snail mail and email? It makes me laugh to think that my local Democratic party is going to show up and help me when I face a crisis. From a rank-and-file perspective, the Democratic Party is an electoral brand, nothing more. Even the Democratic Socialists of America will fix your tail light for free. But Democrats?

That’s a prelude to something Seth Ackerman recently said in an interview (boldface mine):

The most fundamental element here is the question of what it means to have a political party. What is a political party? People on the Left talk all the time about the Democratic Party: Is it good? Is it bad? Can you change it? Who’s in control? Often people talk about the Democratic Party as if it were a party in the normal sense that’s used in other countries. But it really isn’t.

In most places in the world, a political party is a private, voluntary organization that has a membership, and, in theory at least, the members are the sovereign body of the party who can decide what the party’s program is, what its ideology is, what its platform is, and who its leaders and candidates are. They can do all of that on the grounds of basic freedom of association, in the same way that the members of the NAACP or the American Legion have the right to do what they want with their organization.

In the United States, that’s not the case at all with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We’ve had an unusual development of our political system where, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bosses of the two major parties undertook a wave of reforms to the electoral system that essentially turned the political parties into arms of the government, in a way that would be quite shocking — you could even say “norm-eroding” — in other countries.

If you took a comparative politics class in college during the Cold War, it would have discussed the nature of the Communist system, which was distinguished from a democratic system by the merger of the Party and the state, becoming a party-state. Well, the United States is also a party-state, except instead of being a single-party state, it’s a two-party state. That is just as much of a departure from the norm in the world as a one-party state.

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules. And of course when we say state governments, who we’re talking about the Democrats and the Republicans.

So it’s a kind of a cartel arrangement in which the two parties have set up a situation that is intended to prevent the emergence of the kind of institution that in the rest of the world is considered a political party: a membership-run organization that has a presence outside of the political system, outside of the government, and can force its way into the government on the basis of some program that those citizens and members assemble around.

Which leads me to wonder why Democrats can’t do what the DSA does (boldface mine):

Each year, landlords in the city submit between 30,000 and 50,000 eviction filings in DC housing court, trapping tenants in a complex and intimidating legal system that rids them of their homes with frightening efficiency. Tenants often don’t show up for court and are evicted by default. Sometimes tenants aren’t even informed that they are facing eviction and have no chance to advocate for themselves. Many renters don’t know where to go for legal help. Many don’t know their rights. But what if people pushed back, the organizers wondered? What if tenants started clogging up that too-efficient court system?…

The chapter started sending out 10 to 20 volunteer canvassers each weekend to do long days of door-knocking at rental units across the city. They hit roughly 200 doors on any given weekend, encouraging tenants to defend themselves from eviction. They wrote an organizing manual to guide their efforts. And they chose an aggressive name for the campaign: They called it Stomp Out Slumlords.

“While we obviously want to help individual tenants avoid eviction, our project has an immediate political goal: to disrupt the operations of D.C.’s landlord-tenant court, and, as far as we can, end eviction in the city,” the chapter wrote in a recent report on the campaign. “Landlords need the threat of eviction to do business. We want to make that business impossible by preventing them from evicting tenants.”

It’s also a powerful way to organize a political base, explains Cea Weaver, a member of NYC DSA’s steering committee as well as its housing working group. “As socialists, our goal is to build working-class power—whether at the polls, in our homes, or in our workplaces. New York tenants are a millions-strong constituency that cuts across lines of race, class, gender, and age. Many of us may vote as workers, students, or parents, but if we unite as tenants, we represent an unstoppable political force.”

While it’s a step too far to expect professional Democrats to do something this involved and intelligent (multiple steps, probably), the very least the Democratic political class could do is stay out of the way of the grassroots organizations–absolutely no more ACORNs–even if that means they might, on occasion, violate the Iron Law of Institutions, and cede some of their power to rank-and-file Democrats.

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One Response to Democracy And Political Parties In The U.S.

  1. Gingerbaker says:

    I’d settle for a Democratic Party that stands for something.

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