The “Class Ceiling”

Political Money and the Primary Election as Class Project

October 27, 2022

In This Feature

FOR ALL THAT HAS BEEN WRITTEN about left election strategy since Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020, there has been remarkably little analysis of the primary election system for congressional, state, and local elections. The Democratic Party ballot line is often assumed to be little more than a state-sponsored point of entry to political power. Chris Maisano, for example, expresses a commonly held view that “traditional party organizations at state and local level are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out” and, hence, “cannot defend themselves and their incumbents.”1Chris Maisano, “A Left That Matters,” Jacobin 40 (Winter 2021): 10. In fact, while the Democrats may lose general elections, they have done a spectacular job for decades of using the primary system to defend “themselves and their incumbents” from internal challenges. There is a lot more to the contemporary Democratic Party than its hollowed-out “traditional party organization,” and more to primaries than a ballot line. The role of the party in the electoral system has been changing, as big money and capital establish a stranglehold on the electoral process.

“House election patterns confirm that the United States has entered an era of nationalized, polarized, party-centered electoral politics that is very different from the candidate-centered world of the 1970s and 1980s,” concludes a recent text.2Gary C. Jacobson and Jamie L. Carson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, 10th edition (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2020), 256–57. As a result, “Parties are centrally involved in recruiting candidates” and “few primaries are competitive races,” argues another.3Roger H. Davidson et al., Congress and Its Members, 17th edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2020), 65. Today’s parties are composed of interlocking networks of party committees, office holders, a select corps of party-connected campaign consultants, and stables of wealthy donors who are also “policy demanders.” All of these play a direct role in “party-preferred candidate” campaigns, even if the media focus is still on the candidate rather than on the less visible work of the party, its consultants, and wealthy backers.44. Hans J. Hassell, The Party’s Primary: Control of Congressional Elections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 12–16.

To get a better understanding of just how this nominating system actually works, we will look at its political and class origins and contemporary operations. In doing so we will see that the Democratic primary “ballot line” is anything but a simple state-run exercise in democracy. From its origins in undermining parties, disenfranchising workers, and individualizing voting, to its current money-drenched, business-managed races, the primary has been an elite class-based and class-biased institution.

 

The Direct Primary: A Ruling Class Project

The direct primary for congressional, state, and local elections as a means of nominating party candidates was a product of the Progressive Era from 1903 to 1917.5The presidential primary system was not widespread until the 1970s and is different in many ways, including the election of convention delegates rather than candidates, its high visibility, and its national character. Prior to this, parties chose their candidates at local and state face-to-face caucuses and conventions also sometimes called “primaries.”6Alan Ware, “What Is, and What Is Not, a Primary Election?” in Robert G. Boatright, Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections (New York: Routledge, 2018), 17–38 Mass participation and high turnout of eligible male voters, including, for a time, many African Americans, characterized US politics in the late nineteenth century as did internal party factionalism and local “bosses.” As industrial capitalism took root following the Civil War, increased class conflict and rapid demographic changes created new problems for the rising industrial and financial elites. Mass agrarian and labor-based third parties enabled by a culture of mass participation, along with the growing numbers of immigrant and working class voters, and even the rise of socialism, seemed to threaten their class privilege and culture.7Arthur Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 1996), 13–48. For a more detailed account of the Progressive efforts and reforms, see Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 14–26.

The electoral reforms advocated by mostly old money Progressives (and won in almost all states by 1917) were sold as steps toward greater direct democracy and an end to corrupt political bosses. They delivered neither. In fact, as Allen Ware has shown, many machine bosses backed these reforms for their own reasons.88. Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Furthermore, the “golden era” of the urban machine would last into the 1960s and 1970s.9Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemma of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Concerning the real goals of these reforms, political scientist Martin Shefter argues “The central thrust of Progressivism was an attack on the political party…and an effort to create an executive establishment to supplant the party in this pivotal position in the American political system.”10Martin Shefter, Political Parties and the State: The American Historical Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 77. Specifically, asWalter Dean Burnham wrote, the reforms were meant to eliminate the older practice of “party-activist control of nominations and platforms through the convention.”11Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970), 72. For the period’s industrialists, as historian Samuel P. Hays put it bluntly, “political reform was an instrument of political warfare.”12Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism: 1885–1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 152–58. The political reforms, including the direct primary, were an elite class project.

The major reforms included voter registration, residency requirements, the direct primary, and in the South, the notorious poll tax, literacy test, and the grandfather clause.13Burnham, Critical Elections, 71–90; Walter Dean Burnham, “The System of 1896: An Analysis,” in Paul Kleppner et al., The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981); Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), 64–95; C. Van Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1971), 321–49. In addition to reducing the immigrant, Black, and working class vote, the object of these reforms was to further fragment participation by replacing popular face-to-face involvement in nominations with individual acts of voting in the isolation of the polling booth. This they did.

The emergence of major parties with no membership able to elect leaders or nominate candidates was a product of the direct primary.

In a massive study of US political parties at the turn of the century, prior to the Progressive reforms, Moisei Ostrogorski estimated the two major parties could mobilize as many as four million volunteers (out of an electorate of sixteen million) from their local party organizations, clubs, and caucuses for presidential elections.14Moisei Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1902), 292. Even if these figures are exaggerated, it is clear there was more to the old party system than a few dozen machine bosses. The loss of direct participation and the emergence of major parties with no membership able to elect leaders or nominate candidates was a product of the direct primary. As face-to-face party meetings, caucuses, and conventions to select candidates were made redundant or replaced by the primary election, the active base was effectively demobilized. This left parties with a far smaller number of machine “ward heelers” and precinct captains for limited campaign purposes—positions that became less important as parties changed.

Left-wing political scientist Arthur Lipow wrote of the results of the direct primary, “only in America is it true that direct membership in the parties does not exist except in the sense that individuals register their party preference with an agency of the state or are habitual voters for one or another party.”15Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy, 20. When asking how to define party membership, Maurice Duverger, the pioneer in the study of electoral systems, wrote, “For American parties it even has no meaning.”16Maurice Duverger, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (London: University Paperbacks, 1964), 61. What remained was a ruling party elite and a largely individualized electorate.

As a consequence, voter turnout in presidential elections plunged from 79 percent to 49 percent from 1896 to 1924, while in congressional midterms it fell to 31 percent by 1926. With the growth of unions, the rate of turnout would eventually increase to an average of roughly 64 percent nationally during the 1950s, but then fall to around 60 percent for presidential elections and 40 percent in congressional midterms. In 2020, we saw a highpoint of 66 percent, but it has never come close to the pre-reform period.17Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 156; Piven and Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote, 54–56, 125, 160–61; Burnham, “System of 1896,” 169. As a result of the effective disenfranchisement of significant numbers of working class voters, “Better-educated, wealthier, and older people are clearly overrepresented in the electorate.”18Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 158.

In congressional primaries, the average national turnout seldom exceeds 20 percent of eligible voters. Consequently, the primary electorate is even more distorted toward middle and upper class individual voters.19Bipartisan Policy Center, 2018 Primary Election Turnout and Reforms (Washington DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, November 2018), 6, 22–24; Matthew J. Geras and Michael H. Crespin, “The Effect of Open and Closed Primaries on Voter Turnout,” in Boatright, Handbook, 134. Table 1 shows the relative income and education levels of voters in the 2018 Democratic House primaries compared to the average for the districts in which they voted. Democratic voters in the $100,000-plus category account for nearly 40 percent of the total, compared to 30 percent in the district. At the lowest income level of $50,000 or less, the proportion is reversed.20Both of these categories can include small business owners. These business owners, however, are far more likely to register and vote Republican, so the figures in Table 1 are a fair proxy for class. On average Democratic primary voters were far more well-to-do and educated than the district population.

Far from opening the nomination system to competition from challengers, the direct primary saw a decline in the rate at which incumbents in the House of Representative were defeated in primaries from an already low 3.5 percent per election cycle during the Progressive Era itself to two percent in the 1920s, then to an average of 1.6 percent from the end of World War Two until today.21Stephen Ansolabehere et al., “The Decline of Competition in US Primary Elections, 1908–2004,” Michael P. McDonald and John Samples, eds., The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics (Washington DC: Brooking Institution Press, 2006), 81–83; Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 38–39. Not surprisingly, while the politics of primary challengers have shifted from time to time, the average number of primary challenges per cycle has not shown any upward trend over the years.22Sam Levine, “America Faces Greater Division as Parties Draw Safe Seats for Congressional Districts,” The Guardian, February 12, 2022; Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasanti, “Taking the Voters Out of the Equation: How the Parties are Killing Competition,” New York Times, February 6, 2022; FiveThirtyEight, “What Redistricting Looks Like in Every State; Robert G. Boatright, Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014), 17, 63, 222–23; Davidson et al., Congress, 65. Turnover in the House comes mostly from retirements and open seat primary contests, which averaged about 11 percent of seats over the last five election cycles (though closer to 13 percent in 2022).2323. Ballotpedia, “Primary Election Competitiveness in State and Federal Government, 2022,” June 23, 2022.

That the goals of the direct primary were antidemocratic and aimed at maintaining the power of capital and its professional middle class allies is beyond doubt. To understand how this operates in the post-machine, post-candidate-centered era we need to examine the major changes in elections and party functioning of the last few decades. My analysis will focus on the Democratic Party and the House of Representatives with the understanding that the trends in the Senate and state legislatures are similar in most regards.

 

The “Class Ceiling”: Political Money and Party Formation

The most obvious change in US elections has been the obscene levels of money that have further corrupted the entire electoral system in the last few decades. Looking at House midterm elections, the total amount spent by both parties to fill 435 seats rose from $280.5 million in the 1990 election cycle to nearly $1.7 billion in 2018—an increase of six times over (to $3.9 million per seat). This money, however, is unevenly distributed between primary challengers and incumbents, the latter of whom have enormous advantages in funding provided by the Party and its wealthy donors. By 2020 the average raised by House primary challengers was $417,796, while that raised by incumbents was $2.7 million, six-and-a-half times that of challengers.24Boatright, Primaried, 109; OpenSecrets, “Incumbent Advantage,” 2020 cycle. Amount “raised” doesn’t include “outside” spending from Super PACs. Although money doesn’t always bring victory, primary candidates that spend the most win 79 percent of the time.25Adam Bonica, “Professional Networks, Early Funding, and Election Success,” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 16, no. 1 (2017): 153–71. And where there are large amounts of money, the footprints of wealth and capital are sure to be found.

The driving force behind this escalation of political spending was first and foremost the enormous amount of wealth accumulated by members of the US capitalist class in the last few decades. This included the rise of super-rich high tech entrepreneurs, financial bottom feeders, and private equity asset strippers, many of whom profited from systemic instability.26Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse:, 62–66 The share of wealth (net worth) in the US held by the top one percent rose from 23.5 percent in 1989 to 32.2 percent at the end of 2021 after the 2020 Covid–19 slump. In 2021 alone, the top one percent gained $6.5 trillion in wealth.27Robert Frank, “Soaring Markets Helped Richest 1% Gain $6.5 Trillion in Wealth Last Year, According to the Fed,” CNBC, April 1, 2022; FRED, “Share of Total Net Worth Held by the Top 1% (99th to 100th Wealth Percentiles),” St. Louis Fed, March 18, 2022.  Thus, members of the capitalist class were increasingly able to splurge on an unprecedented scale in the hopes of achieving favorable election outcomes whatever their partisan or ideological preferences.

This was no backroom conspiracy. It’s just the way capital approaches competition: money in hand as in Marx’s famous M-C-M formula in which money is invested in order to make more moneyonly in this case it’s for the accumulation of political outcomes rather than commodities for the market. Along with increased spending on lobbyists, which itself grew by more than 150 percent from 1998 to 2021 (to $3.7 billion), political donations to candidates and parties were seen as an even better investment in shaping politics and policy favorable to capital or one of its factions.28Statista, “Total Lobbying Spending in the United States from 1998 to 2021,” February 21, 2022.  The development of high-priced, high tech campaign consultants that garner a considerable share of this spending simply followed the money. But it is capital that has driven the trend.

The financial escalation of elections began with the rise of corporate Political Action Committees (PACs) in the 1970s enabled by reforms and court rulings that increased legal political spending. The number of PACs soared in the late 1970s and early ’80s from six hundred in 1974 to two thousand by 1979 and four thousand by 1984.29Adam Sheingate, Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 168–72. This was a decade when economic crisis returned and capital went on the political offensive, led by organizations such as the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce. Corporate PACs that contributed to incumbents of both parties rapidly outstripped their labor counterparts, neoliberalism made its debut, and the Democrats began their turn to the right.30Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988), 127–46; Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill & Wang, 1986).  Corporate PAC disbursements in federal midterm elections grew twenty-five times overfrom $15.2 million in 1978 to a whopping $404.8 million in 2018.31Federal Election Commission, “FED Releases Final Report on 1977–78 Financial Activity of Non-Party and Party Political Committees,” April 24, 1980, 4; FEC, PAC Table 1, 2002, https://www.fec.gov/resources/campaign-finance-statistics/2002/tables/pac/PAC1_2002_24m.pdf; FEC, PAC Table 1, 2018, https://www.fec.gov/resources/campaign-finance-statistics/2018/tables/pac/PAC1_2018_24m.pdf.

As the personal wealth of capitalists soared, however, corporate PACs were bypassed by large individual donations from the super-wealthy. In the 2018 midterms, for example, the top eight super-rich individual donors alone (five Democrats and three Republicans) surpassed corporate PAC totals—by $422 million to $404.8 million.32OpenSecrets, “Who are the Biggest Donors?” 2018 cycle.  A mere 196 such donors were responsible for 80 percent of individual Super PAC contributions in presidential elections up to 2012. As large individual donations grew, the proportion of all traditional PAC spending has declined from 35 percent of all Democratic congressional expenditures in 2002 to 19 percent in 2018.33Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 3–10, February 8, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/multi-chapter-report/vital-statistics-on-congress/. All sources of election spending from the Federal Election Commission and OpenSecrets won’t be cited separately except where citation seems necessary. As the base of super-rich donors grew, by 2018 Super PACs alone spent $822 million in attack and support ads in the midterms, up from $125.3 million in 2010. In the presidential year of 2020 the total reached over $2 billion.34OpenSecrets, “Outside Spending,” Super PACs, 2010 and 2020 cycles.  OpenSecrets reports that, by 2020, in terms of traditional PACs alone, business outspent labor by six to one. Including both PACs and all business-derived donations, however, “business interests dominate, with an overall advantage of about 16 to 1.”35OpenSecrets, “Business-Labor-Ideology Split in PAC and Individual Donations to Candidates, Parties, Super PACs and Outside Spending Groups,” 2020 cycle.

In an effort to catch up, the number of small donations solicited by some candidates of both parties rose by the mid-2000s, largely enabled by the Internet. By 2020, however, they still provided only 22 percent of funds spent on all federal candidates, with almost half their total amount going to the presidential races.36OpenSecrets, “2020 Election to Cost $14 Billion, Blowing Away Spending Records,” October 28, 2020; OpenSecrets, “Total from Small Donor Donations, Current Candidates Only,” January 31, 2021.  By the 2018 congressional midterms, some seven million small donations of $200 or less were, as a Brennan Center report put it, “drowned out” by fewer than 3,500 large donations of $100,000 or more, which accounted for a disproportionate 40 percent of the value of all individual contributions in that cycle.37 Ian Vanderwalker, “The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors Thanks to Citizens United,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 10, 2020.  Crucially, in terms of political influence, while the millions of small donations are for all practical purposes anonymous, big contributions are highly visible to those they benefit, whether individual candidates or Party committees.

Wealthy donors are highly partisan and have financed the polarization of politics. In this arms race of political spending, Democrats do as well as or better than Republicans. By 2010, congressional Democrats had already outraised Republicans by over $200 million from all sources. In 2020, Dems outraised Republicans in Presidential, Senate, and House races.38OpenSecrets, “Elections Overview,” 2020 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2020 cycle.  In House and Senate 2022 midterm races, Democrats were also ahead in business donations in both total amounts and average contributions.39OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2022 cycle. This reflects a shift of business money from Republicans to Democrats that began well over a decade ago—before Trump or even the Tea Party—with retail, insurance, and real estate donations increasing to well over half for House Democrats, while finance, private equity, and securities and investment funded Democrats at more than 60 percent by 2022.40Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Major Industries Shift Contributions from Republicans to Democrats ahead of Election Day,” OpenSecrets, November 2, 2018; Lauren Helper, “Democratic Party Outraising Opposition,” OpenSecrets, October 4, 2010; OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2022 cycle.

Looking specifically at wealthy individuals, OpenSecrets revealed that fifty-three of the top one hundred super rich donors gave millions exclusively to Democrats in both 2018 and 2020.41OpenSecrets, “Who Are the Biggest Donors?” 2018 Cycle; OpenSecrets, “Who Are the Biggest Donors?” 2020 cycle.  As to the impact of small donations, by 2020, still only fourteen out of 537 congressional candidates of both houses (eight Democrats, five Republicans, one Libertarian) got half or more of their funds from small donations of $200 or less, and only forty-one received a third or more.42OpenSecrets, “Large Versus Small Individual Donations,” 2020 cycle. In other words, the rise of money in congressional elections has been driven by capital and its wealthy members who favor Democrats as much or more than Republicans, while large numbers of small donors struggle to catch up with little success.

 

The Party Enters the Primaries Loaded with Wealthy Donor Dough

The machine is gone, the county organization is often hollowed out, but the Democratic Party is there in force intervening before, during, and after the congressional primary. According to one study, “Contrary to previous assumptions, parties are not impartial bystanders, but rather key players that influence the primary process and outcome.”43Hans Hassell, “Party Control of Party Primaries: Party Influence in Nominations for the US Senate,” Journal of Politics, 78, no.1 (2015): 76. And the Party is better organized than ever to do this in a more top-down, wealth-dominated fashion. The Democratic Party’s top national committees are well staffed and funded at $1.8 billion as of 2020, most of its office holders secure with large war chests.44OpenSecrets, “Political Parties,” Democratic Party.  It commands an army of Party-connected and tech savvy campaign consultants and has created close networks of regular wealthy donors. All it lacks is a membership and any semblance of democratic structures.

All the Democratic Party lacks is a membership and any semblance of democratic structures.

These networks of pols, pros, and donors are linked to the Party’s congressional committees, which “continue to operate as a central mechanism for the coordination of donations to preferred candidates.” For Democrats in the House of Representatives this is primarily the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or DCCC (pronounced “D-Triple C” or by insiders simply “D-trip”).45Hassell, Party’s Primary, 12–13, 56–59; Getting Primaried, 48–50. To say that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party is not just a matter of ideology or acceptance of the system, but of the financial lifeblood of the Party organization itself that allows it to intervene directly as well as financially in primary contests. The DCCC illustrates this clearly.

The DCCC raises money from individuals, industries—notably finance, investment, and real estate (FIRE) and big media—and from House members. A good deal of this comes from small donations, much of it through ACTBLUE or political consultants, and thus are essentially anonymous. But almost half comes from larger donations from well-to-do individuals, businesses, and PACs, including those in healthcare, oil, gas, and coal, as well as from media, finance, private equity, and Silicon Valley. Lobbyists for healthcare and energy interests, for example, raised $440,000 for the DCCC in just two months in 2019.46Andrew Perez and Alex Kotch, “Health Industry Lobbyists Pump More Money into Democrats’ Congressional Campaign Arm,” Sludge, April 23, 2019; Alex Kotch and Andrew Perez, “As It Works to Stifle Primary Challengers, DCCC Takes More Money from Corporate Lobbyists,” Sludge, April 3, 2019; Federal Election Commission, “DCCC Financial Summary,” 2020 cycle; Federal Election Commission, “DCCC Raising,” 2020 cycle.  House members are expected to pay “dues” to the DCCC, which in the 2020 cycle ran from $150,000 depending on committee membership up to $1 million for the House Speaker. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) was told by DCCC officials, money raised online does not count toward “dues.” In other words, the DCCC wants House members linked to wealthy donors. Members sometimes fall behind in payments, and a few like AOC and “the Squad” don’t pay at all—though as of 2020 about 80 percent did so on time, and the amount received was over $34 million. To help enforce this system, members receive “points” according to their contributions or for campaigning for fellow members which can help them get favored committee appointments. House members are also given targets for raising additional funds for the DCCC from the usual wealthy suspects.47Ryan Grim and Aida Chàvez, “Here’s How Much the Democratic Party Charges to Be on Each House Committee,” The Intercept, September 3, 2019; OpenSecrets, “Top Industries,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 2020 cycle; Federal Election Commission, “Political Party Data Summary Tables,” 2019–2020, Table 5, Member Contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Nancy Pelosi’s Victory Fund, for example, donated $20 million to the DCCC in 2020 and $18.6 million as of March 31, 2022. Her fund, in turn, receives its money from well-to-do donors or PACs in a variety of industries with securities and investments at around $5 million in both years.48OpenSecrets, “Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund Top Donors,” 2020 and 2022 cycles.  In April 2022, drawing on Silicon Valley, Pelosi raised $4.4 million directly for the DCCC in a single rich donors’ San Francisco fundraiser.49Max Greenwood, “Pelosi Hosts Largest Individual Donor Fundraiser in DCCC History,” The Hill, April 21, 2022.

Flush in funds, having raised $345,784,504 with an operating budget of $164 million in 2020 alone and a staff of more than two hundred, the DCCC plays a major role in House elections.50OpenSecrets, “Total Raised, Democratic Congressional Campaign Cmte,” 2020 cycle.  Table 2 shows the increasing proportion of Democratic House campaign spending in midterms that has come from the DCCC itself between 1990 and 2018. By 2018, DCCC funds accounted for almost a third of all Democratic House election spending, rising from 6.3 percent of the total in 1990 to over 30 percent by 2018. So, in financial terms alone the infrastructure and role of the Party have increased visibly and significantly in the last three decades, funded primarily by big business and the well-to-do.

The DCCC, in turn, contributes to both state parties and individual candidates. Its contributions to state parties can be large, while direct cash grants to individual candidate campaigns are mostly in the modest $5,000 to $10,000 range. What it provides for favored candidates are, in the words of political scientist Hans Hassell, “three resources that, while found in abundance within the party network, are scarce outside of that network.”51Hassell, Party’s Primary, 27–33. These are professional campaign consultants and staff, media access, and networks of wealthy donors. Some DCCC funds are provided to support candidates directly. For example, in 2020, it spent “$90M on paid media in congressional districts across the country to protect the Democratic House majority.”52DCCC, “DCCC Chair Maloney Announces New Additions to DCCC Team,” February 3, 2021.  In addition to its own interventions, candidates purchase campaign management services by hiring DCCC-approved consultants.53Davidson et al, Congress, 80–81. In this way, elections have become essentially a business.

These political consultants are highly partisan and work for one party or the other. The Democratic firms are effectively a part of the Party’s contemporary infrastructure. Two of the largest firms actually “run the coveted organizing, voter file, and compliance tools that the Democratic Party relies on to build power.”54Akela Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts Under New Private Equity Owner,” The Intercept, May 10, 2022. They are profit-making companies that drive up campaign costs by basing part of their fees on the amount of TV or social media ads they buy. Digital fundraising services to help pay for this are also one of their major sources of billings.55Ryan Grim and Rachel M. Cohen, “The Democratic Party’s Consultant Factory,” The Intercept, April 6, 2021; Justin Miller, “How Political Consulting Became a Multibillion Dollar Racket,” The American Prospect, January 8, 2016; Lakshmi Narayanan, “5 Best Political Consulting Firms,” Callhub, April 5, 2022; Sheingate, Business of Politics, 210. Many Democratic firms also work for corporations. Bully Pulpit Interactive, one of the top ten Democratic consultants, works for both Joe Biden and McDonalds and describes itself as “an outcomes agency at the intersection of business, politics, and policy.”56Bully Pulpit Interactive, https://www.bpimedia.com; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts.”  Another top Democratic-connected consultant, Global Strategy Group, was employed by Amazon to oppose the Amazon Labor Union’s ultimately successful recognition election at the company’s Staten Island warehouse.57Donald Shaw, “DCCC Vendors Work for Corporations Lobbying Against Democratic Policies,” American Prospect, May 23, 2019; Adam Sheingate, Business of Politics, 197; Julia Rock, Walker Bragman, and Andrew Perez, “Amazon’s Union-Buster Consultants are Also Consultants for Major Unions,” Jacobin, April 13, 2022.

Not coincidentally, the political consultant industry took off in the 1970s as corporate political money increased. In 1970 only about 20 percent of House candidates hired a consultant; by 1978 it was half and by 1992 two-thirds, with 85 percent of incumbents using a consultant firm. By 2012, following the upward trend of political spending by the wealthy, the consultant firms in this “multi-billion-dollar business of politics” took in $8.9 billion working for candidates up and down the ballot.58Sheingate, Business of Politics, 2, 3, 10, 155.

Offering far more than publicists, advisers, and pollsters did before the 1970s, most political consultants today provide digitally driven, data-intensive methods of targeting voters for media and canvassing. Many of these consultants employ DCCC veterans. While Democratic candidates are now “allowed” to use “outside” outfits like the Justice Democrats, it is still firms in the Party’s DCCC Directory of vendors that the DCCC expects its preferred candidates to employ. Almost all do—including members of the Squad. Furthermore, the Party specifies how the candidates it backs spend their money more generally, according to a Party memo obtained by The Intercept.59Ryan Grim and Lee Fang, “The Dead Enders: Candidates Who Sign Up to Battle Donald Trump Must Get Past the Democratic Party First,” The Intercept, January 23, 2018.

The rise of these high-cost political consultants has, in turn, reinforced the role of the party as a wealthy donor conduit in elections. As Adam Sheingate summarized it:

The changing character of political work, especially by increasing reliance on relatively costly techniques like media, polling, and direct mail, place a premium on the capacity to raise large amounts of money. This has a centralizing effect on American politics as the national party committees and, more recently, Super PACs, have become important brokers in the collection and distribution of campaign contributions from wealthy donors.60Sheingate, Business of Politics, 210.

The Party leadership also provides direct access to funds for favored candidates through its networks of well-to-do donors. In interviews, political scientist Hans Hassell found that “party elites, leaders, and candidates all indicated that direct party messages are highly influential in encouraging donors to give or to refrain from giving to party-preferred candidates.” Furthermore, as one of them told Hassell, “the donors are all connected to each other.”61Hassell, Party’s Primary, 32. Some of this money travels through the corridors of “dark money” or “outside” expenditures from Party-connected Super PACs, some via Party committees, while some goes directly to the “party-preferred candidates,” increasingly for primaries.

One way to measure how much of the total Party spending goes to the primary is to compare the total amount in the cycle to that spent by March 31 in the early phase of the congressional primary season. Table 3 shows this for selected midterm years since 1990. Both total and early spending by the DCCC have grown astronomically since 1990, but the proportion of early spending has more than doubled. By March 31 in the 2021–2022 midterm cycle, the DCCC had raised $177 million.62Ballotpedia, “Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”  To defend its favored incumbents, the DCCC was spending a great deal more money in the primaries where the electorate was smaller and even more composed of “better-educated, wealthier, and older people,” intensifying the elite class nature of the Party and the primary.

Favored primary candidates don’t just receive money. In a sort of socialization ritual, they must also beg for it themselves and even recruit donors. In an Intercept investigation, Ryan Grim and Lee Fang describe how prospective primary candidates are required to solicit from the Party’s wealthy donors if they hope to get Party support.

On the most basic level, it involves candidates being asked to pull out their smart phones, scroll through their contact lists, and add up the amount of money their contacts could raise or contribute to their campaigns. If the candidate’s contacts aren’t good for at least $250,000, or in some cases much more, they fail the test, and Party support goes elsewhere.

The consequence of this and the whole funding process, Grim and Fang write, is obvious: “Prioritizing fundraising, as Democratic Party officials do, has a feedback effect that creates lawmakers who are further and further removed from the people they are elected to represent.”63Grim and Fang, “Dead Enders.”

This intimate relation between wealthy donors, Party committees, campaign professionals, and preferred primary candidates who together form the core of the Party personnel is a major factor in perpetuating the preponderance of well-to-do Democrats in Congress. Measured by net worth (excluding residence) in 2018, ninety-six of 226 Democratic House members were millionaires or multi-millionaires. Another twenty-seven were worth between $500,000 and $999,999. A mere nineteen lacked any net worth, usually due to debts from mortgages or campaign loans. The median net worth of a House Democrat in 2018 was $425,000 compared to $118,200 in the country. A profile of the current 117th Congress reveals that not only had 94 percent of all House members completed a college education, but 67 percent had a degree beyond a bachelor’s, compared to 38 percent and 14 percent respectively for all US adults over 25.64 Congressional Research Service, Membership of the 117th Congress: A Profile, February 22, 2022, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 3, 5; US Census, Table A–4: “Detailed Years of School Completed by People 25 Years or Older, 2000–2021”; David Hawkings, “ Richer than Ever: But Mostly at the Top,” Roll Call, February 27, 2018.

In sum, contemporary US congressional primary elections are, in effect, business operations characterized by a generous flow of corporate and wealthy donor money to Democratic Party committees and/or Party-related Super PACs, PACs, or dark money committees, onto Party-preferred candidates and Party-connected for-profit campaign consultants. This business-like flow of money, organization, and campaigning rests on an electorate that is disproportionately well-off and which, in turn, elects politicians who are even more well-to-do. No wonder a 2014 study of the relative influence on government policy of “average citizens” and “economic elites” found that “average citizens’ preferences continue to have essentially zero estimated impact upon policy changes, while economic elites are still estimated to have a very large, positive, independent impact.”65Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Paged, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (September 2014): 575. Clearly, electoral democracy has been undermined and only massive social upheaval from below can disrupt this pattern.6666. Moody, Impasse, 108–29.

 

Party Intervention in Candidate Selection and Primaries

The major electoral object of the Democratic Party’s direct intervention in the primary, aside from keeping big donors happy, is to maintain the image and politics of the Party as a whole close enough to the political center to hold its more moderate and well-off competitive or swing districts and win competitive Republican ones in order to gain and maintain a majority. Therefore, the DCCC sees direct involvement in primaries as its right. In the face of criticism about some of its 2018 primary interventions, DCCC press secretary Tyler Law told Vox, “We have been clear all cycle that we reserve the right to get involved in primaries to ensure that there is a competitive Democrat on the ballot in November.”67Ella Nilsen, “The DCCC’s controversial meddling in 2018 primaries, explained,” Vox, May 3, 2018. This included pressuring candidates seen as not moderate enough to be competitive to drop out of primaries and opposing left-wing candidates even in safe seats.

Since the majority of Democratic incumbents are secure and well integrated into the Party’s donor networks, direct intervention is focused mainly on districts where there are serious primary challenges to an incumbent or competitive open seats. The process is largely one of political “natural selection” as “the party organization is designed in part as an incumbent protection system.”68Hassell, Party’s Primary, 175. Anyone with the money and resources can enter a primary by gathering petitions and so forth. But the idea that the Party plays no role in candidate selection before and during the primary, or that the primary is in any way a level playing field is simply wrong. Its interventions are both open and behind the scenes.

The main public DCCC involvement in candidate selection these days is focused on two programs: the Frontline program to defend vulnerable candidates and Red to Blue to win competitive Republican-leaning districts. Both programs favor Party centrists. They are chosen by the DCCC, which is chaired by Sean Patrick Maloney, a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition (NDC) group in the House, as were the previous two DCCC chairs. As Maloney says about the Party’s right to intervene in primaries, “the DCCC is prepared to protect our majority by recruiting compelling candidates.” After some shifting of choices there were thirty-seven members for the 2022 Frontline program, twenty-four NDC members, five conservative Blue Dogs (three of whom were also NDC members), five members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and six unaffiliated members selected by the DCCC. The current Frontline group is chaired by Ami Bera of California, who is also a New Democrat.69DCCC, “DCCC Announces Members of 2021–2022 Frontline Program”; New Democratic Coalition, newdemocratcoalition.house.gov/members; DCCC, “2022 Frontline Members”; DCCC, “DCCC Announces 20121–2022 Districts in Play,” April 6, 2021; Blue Dog Coalition, “Members.”  Not only does the DCCC pick and dump candidates, it consistently favors centrists.

In the case of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, DCCC selection of candidates comes well before the primary. Michael Sainato reported of the 2018 Red to Blue effort, “the DCCC’s support comes before candidates have even won their primary races, in many cases against progressive candidates,” some of whom were urged to drop out. Sainato cites such direct interventions in Utah, Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nebraska, and Iowa. These interventions were coupled with a directive to other candidates to refrain from attacking DCCC nominees and even go on unity tours after the primary.70Michael Sainato, “Democrats Openly Back Establishment Candidates for 2018 Primaries,” The Real News, January 15, 2018.

In their 2018 investigative report on primaries for The Intercept, Grim and Fang cite twelve examples of direct DCCC or Party intervention against progressives beyond just the Red to Blue project—only two of which overlap with Sainato’s list. The authors also summarize what they found in their investigation, particularly in relation to blocking progressive newcomers:

Yet, across the country, the DCCC, its allied groups, or leaders within the Democratic Party are working hard against some of these new candidates for Congress, publicly backing their more established opponents, according to interviews with more than 50 candidates, party operatives, and members of Congress. Winning the support of Washington heavyweights, including the DCCC—implicit or explicit—is critical for endorsement back home and a boost to fundraising. In general, it can give a candidate a tremendous advantage over opponents in a Democratic primary.71Grim and Fang, “Dead Enders.”

Due to the unusually large number of Democratic House retirements along with aggressive redistricting, the 2022 House primaries are more competitive than usual with thirty Democratic open seats and several incumbent-versus-incumbent contests.72Ballotpedia, “United States House Democratic Primaries, 2022 In light of this, and the election of left candidates in the last two election cycles, the Party leadership has upped its defenses. One new addition to the Party’s capital-backed bastions of internal protection is the Team Blue PAC. This semi-independent PAC is led by Hakeem Jeffries, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus; Josh Gottheimer, a member of both the NDC and Blue Dogs and leader of the nine House moderates who helped undermine the Build Back Better legislation; and Terri Sewell, another New Democrat. Jeffries is a nominal member of the CPC as well as of the NDC and, as Chair of the Democratic House Caucus, is a Party team player and consistent supporter of centrist incumbents. Team Blue was formed to support “members of the House who are facing strident electoral challenges” in their primaries, including from “extremists and other outside forces”73Team Blue PAC, “Who We Are.”—and, as Jeffries told Rolling Stone, to protect against ostensible distortions of the incumbents’ record by the “hard left.” Team Blue is funded by corporate PACs including the National Association of Realtors, American Financial Services Association, the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers, New York Life Insurance, UnitedHealth Group, Comcast, and UPS among others.74OpenSecrets, “Team Blue PAC Contributions to Federal Candidates,” 2022 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Team Blue PAC to PAC/Party,” 2022 cycle. Fundraising figures available for AOC and Omar only.

In the 2022 cycle, Team Blue PAC has endorsed and contributed to five incumbents facing primary challenges from the left. These include Shontel Brown (OH), who beat Sanders’s campaign cochair Nina Turner by nearly two to one in her May 3 primary; Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ), who won by 84 percent on June 7 against Imani Oakley, who was backed by the Black Lives Matter PAC; Dina Titus (NV), who defeated Sanders’s 2020 state cochair Amy Vilela by 82 percent on June 14; and Danny Davis (IL), who beat Justice Democrats’ candidate Kina Collins 52 to 45 percent on June 28.75Kara Voght, “Top House Democrat Unveils Plan to Beat Back Progressive Rebellion,” Rolling Stone, February 16, 2022; Insider NJ, “Black Lives Matter PAC Endorses Imani Oakley for Congress,” March 7, 2022; Zachary Smith, “Where Shontel Brown Ran Strongest in the 11th Congressional District Primary,” cleveland.com, May 4, 2022; Branko Marcetic, “Nina Turner Was Defeated Last Night, But Not All is Lost, Jacobin, May 4, 2022; Ballotpedia, “June 14, 2022, Election Results.”  Team Blue also backed centrist Carolyn Maloney (NY), but redistricting threw her into a race with fellow incumbent mainstreamer Jerrold Nadler.

A new like-minded “dark money” group, Opportunity for All Action Fund, run by Clinton–Obama–DCCC veterans and located in the office of the Pelosi-associated House Majority PAC, is heavily funded by Michael Bloomberg and other media and hedge fund bosses. It spent nearly $400,000 on outside support for Davis, Payne, and Titus.76OpenSecrets, “Opportunity for All Action Fund Recipients,” 2022 cycle; Akela Lacy, “New Dark Money Group Spending Against Progressives is Suspiciously Well Aligned With Powerful Democrats, “The Intercept, June 8, 2022. In 2022 there has also been an escalation of Party-connected, big-donor Super PACs that specifically oppose those they regard as too progressive. These include Linkedin billionaire Reid Hoffman’s Mainstream Democrats, crypto-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s Protect Our Future, and American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s United Democracy Project. These have backed mainstream Democrats against relatively more liberal challengers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Texas.77Federal Election Commission, “Mainstream Democrats PAC,” 2021–2022; Andrew Perez and David Dayen, “Democrats are Still Boosting Antiabortion Congressman Henry Cuellar,” Jacobin, May 10, 2022; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts”; Elena Schneider, “Where Megadonors are Spending Big Money in the Shape the Democratic Party’s Future,” Politico, May 16, 2022; David Sirota, “The Democratic Party’s Leadership is Trying to Destroy Progressives,” Jacobin, May 17, 2022.

While the increased defense of incumbents was all too effective, with so many open seats, progressive candidates endorsed by either the Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, or Bernie Sanders won six out of two hundred and seventy primaries and one runoff out of several as of June 28: two open seats in the Chicago area where turnout was low and older; two open seats and one runoff in Texas; one open seat in Pennsylvania; and one challenge in Oregon where redistricting weakened Blue Dog incumbent Kurt Schrader—the only Democratic incumbent beaten by an outside left challenger.78Ballotpedia, “United States House Democratic Party primaries, 2022”; Ballotpedia, “US House Endorsements by Bernie Sanders, 2022”; Our Revolution, “Endorsements”; Justice Democrats, “Candidates.”  Greg Casar (TX) and Summer Lee (PA), who won open seats, were the only self-identified democratic socialists.

The Democratic House leadership aggressively backed the antichoice Henry Cuellar over the pro-choice challenger even after the leaked anti-Roe opinion on the Supreme Court.

After a recount in an incredibly close runoff contest in Texas between pro-choice challenger Jessica Cisneros and anti-abortion, pro-oil, pro-gun incumbent Henry Cuellar, state officials called it for Cuellar by 289 votes. The Democratic House leadership, including Pelosi and Jeffries, aggressively backed the antichoice Blue Dog Cuellar over the pro-choice challenger even after the leaked anti-Roe opinion, while all but a handful of self-identified progressives in the House refused to buck the leadership and back Cisneros.79Felicia Sonmez, Mariana Sotomayor and Mariana Alfaro, “Rep. Henry Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros Locked in Tight Battle in Texas,” Washington Post, May 25, 2022; Ally Mutnick and Sarah Ferris, “House Dems Shun Primary Fight against Anti-abortion Incumbent,” Politico, May 23, 2022; Julio Ricardo Varela, “Why is Pelosi Desperate that this Pro-NRA, Anti-abortion Democrat Stay in Office?” MSNBC, June 4, 2022; Roll Call, “Key Results for Tuesday’s Primaries in Seven States,” June 7, 2022; Roll Call, “At the Races: Not Too Pumped,” June 23, 2022. While progressives made advances in open seat contests, if anything, the Party’s incumbent capital-supported defense systems appears strengthened. There are only four primary challengers endorsed by Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, or Bernie Sanders in the remaining House primaries, all of which are open seat contests: one in Tennessee, two in New York, and one in Rhode Island.

Party intervention in primaries is not limited to the DCCC, the House Caucus, other national Party-connected committees, or Super PACS. State Party officials also routinely intervene in the selection process in both state legislative and congressional districts before the primary elections. Hans Hassell, who worked for the Democratic Party in Minnesota, writes:

Working directly for the state party organization and with the network of party elites that cycled through and around the party apparatus allowed me to start to see how the party was involved in the process long before the primary election was held late in the summer.80Hassell, Party’s Primary, xiii–xiv.

The rate at which state legislative incumbents have been defeated in recent years averages about three percent with Republican officials suffering the most by far.81Ballotpedia, “Heart of the Primaries: Democratic Edition,” June 23, 2022. As one study demonstrated, “By the end of the century, almost all state parties had permanent headquarters, professionalized and specialized staffing, and ample budgets.”82Douglas D. Roscoe and Shannon Jenkins, Local Party Organizations in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), 2. Here, too, wealthy donor connections are key. According to Politico, in 2020, “Some of the top givers in the Democratic Party—people known for writing six- or seven-figure super PAC checks—have turned state parties’ donor rolls into a who’s who list of mega-givers from New York to California.”83Elena Schneider, David Siders, and Zach Montellaro, “State Democrats Mount Big Comeback in 2020,” Politico, July 30, 2020.

The Democratic primary “ballot line” is thus anything but a simple state-run exercise in democracy. From its origins—in undermining parties and disenfranchising workers—to its current money-driven races, the primary has been an elite institution. And while the Party’s centers of power have shifted upward, its apparatus is neither “moribund” nor passive. Primary challengers are routinely sidelined before the primary or defeated in it far more often than not. The few that do win come up against the closely related DCCC and Democratic Caucus ruled by the Party’s well-to-do centrist regulars. Hence, they soon find their progressive goals buried in the congressional labyrinth of centrist leaders, Speaker-favored committee chairs, the wealthy donor dependence of their colleagues, and Party-centered priorities.84For an example of this in terms of taxes on the wealthy, see Tobias Burns, “Despite Popularity, Taxes on the Wealthy Struggle to Find a Foothold in Congress,” The Hill, May 7, 2022.  Because the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has focused its electoral activity almost exclusively on running candidates as Democrats, this reality has had implications for the growth of the socialist movement in the US.

 

Purgatory or Dead End?

The Winter 2022 issue of Jacobin has taken notice that America’s new socialist movement has gotten “stuck,” or as the journal metaphorically suggests, it has become “The Left in Purgatory.”85Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Left in Purgatory”; Jared Abbott and David Shor, “The Coming Democratic Minority”; Natalie Shure, “The End of the Honeymoon”; and Chris Maisano, “The Liminal Left’s Bid for Power”; all in Jacobin 44 (Winter 2022). This includes a halt in the growth of DSA and a reported loss of nineteen thousand due-paying members as of February 2022; the fading of the Bernie bounce as more of those he endorses for the House lose than win; and the “end of the AOC honeymoon” with increasing adaptation to the norms of rightward compromise and expected Party functioning by those socialists who won election to the House as Democrats two to four years ago.86Shure, “End,” 19–25; New Majority (formerly DSA Observer), “Report: February 2022 NPC Meeting.”

The attraction of electing self-proclaimed socialists to office in the US (of all places) for a Left long in the wilderness is easy to understand. Yet the new thousands in this socialist left who joined in the wake of the Sanders 2016 campaign can hardly be comfortable with the fact that, with the Democrats in office, the Squad and Bernie were reduced to being the best defenders of the tattered remnants of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program rather than tribunes for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Or that the Party itself rests increasingly on the good will of the super-rich. Neither should the fact that the Democratic Party has been unable or unwilling to pass a single major reform in over half a century even when holding both the White House and Congress go unnoticed. Nor that the leading bastions of urban Democratic rule for generations such as Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York are among the most racially segregated and poverty-ridden cities in the US. Surely, all of this this speaks to the end of the electoral honeymoon.

A socialist left who joined in the wake of the Sanders 2016 campaign can hardly be comfortable with the fact that the Squad and Bernie were reduced to being the best defenders of the tattered remnants of Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ program.

To explain the impasse of the socialist left itself, several of the major articles in the Winter 2022 issue of Jacobin observe that this new movement is trapped in the largely millennial cohort of the college-educated, if downwardly mobile, middle or professional managerial class. While this class faction is more diverse than ever, it is numerically, socially, and organizationally incapable of providing the power needed for the Left to make a breakthrough. In an examination of the Working Families Party, for example, Ross Barkan concludes somewhat facetiously, “There simply aren’t enough college graduates to be the backbone of any left-wing third party.”87Ross Barkan, “Working Class Politics Without the Working Class,” Jacobin 44 (Winter 2022), 72. And certainly not enough to break through the class ceiling of the Democratic Party primary, much less its embedded internal power structure.

As an antidote to this class dilemma, Jacobin founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara suggests, “We might feel more confident about the prospects for the left if…there had been deeper inroads made among workers.”88Sunkara, “The Left,” 10. Chris Maisano takes this a step further and warns, “the real but limited gains we’ve made could be lost if we don’t make lasting inroads with broader sections of the working class.”89Maisano, “Liminal Left’s Bid.” Certainly, the Left’s slender roots in the working class via the downward slide of millennials and now Gen Zers from university to the lower rungs of today’s labor market limbo are not enough to break the impasse.90While it is true that millennials and Gen Zers are generally more liberal than their elders, it is sobering that the proportion of millennials who voted for Donald Trump rose from 31 percent in 2016 to 39 in 2020 and Gen Zers shifted from 43 percent to 48 percent in his favor after four years of observing Trump in office. Ruth Igielnik, Scott Keeter and Hannah Hartig, “Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory,” Pew Research Center, June 30, 2021, 12.

The social power of the working class, as Marxists have argued for generations, requires the independent self-organization of working class people in massive numbers themselves, not just friendly “representation” in Congress or “at the table.” Many DSAers in this educated cohort are playing a significant role in new union organizing at Starbucks, Amazon, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, and other labor struggles. And in contrast to elections, they are doing so alongside majorities of fellow workers, many of whom might have had a year or two of college, but who are from more proletarian life circumstances. Together, they are “making inroads” and building real workers’ power.91Noam Scheiber, “The Revolt of the College-Educated Working Class,” New York Times, April 28, 2022.

While DSA formally supports such labor work, its practice as a national organization—as well as its official position that it “commits to making electoral politics a priority for the next two years” and to do this “chiefly on the Democratic ballot line”—point to more of the same emphasis on electoralism via the Democratic primary.92DSA Convention Resolutions 2021, “#8: Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority).” This convention’s “#5: Building Working Power to Win Democratic Socialism” is all things to all people in the debate over labor strategy. To be sure, among electoral enthusiasts there has been talk about organizing working class-based “party surrogates” on the edge of the Democratic Party, or “class struggle elections.” Maisano even argues “that large-scale class formation will, for the foreseeable future, run largely (though not exclusively) through electoral politics.”93Maisano, “A Left,” 9. In practice, however, it is increasingly DSA chapters with their limited class base that act as the “machine” or the electoral organization.94For example: Neal Meyer, “New York DSA Stood Strong Against an Establishment Counterattack on Tuesday,” Jacobin, June 30, 2022; Alex Pellitteri, “We’re Stronger When DSA’s Politicians and Members Work Together,” Socialist Call, February 22, 2022.  In any case, as actually conducted today, Democratic primary elections are not a promising site for building working class organization much less “large-scale class formation.”

It’s not that today’s digitally driven congressional campaigns don’t engage in door-to-door campaigning by volunteers even on a large scale at times or GOTV “voter mobilization,” but that, as most union organizers know, no matter how necessary, “campaigns” and “mobilizations” are, they aren’t the same thing as permanent democratic grassroots organization. Furthermore, primary election “mobilizations” are relatively brief in duration, limited in active working class participation, often professionally guided by digitalized micro-targeting of voters, and hence top down.95Roscoe and Jenkins, Local Party, 13. And inevitably, those targeted for media attention or a visit (even when younger) are disproportionately the same middle class people most likely to vote—perhaps even for a socialist challenger.96For a positive but revealing look at how this worked even in AOC’s 2018 primary campaign see, Zaid Jilani and Ryan Grim, “Data Suggests that Gentrifying Neighborhoods Powered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Victory,” The Intercept, July 2, 2018. As one Jacobin observer put it frankly in terms of electoral “headwinds” facing DSA in New York politics, “The friendliest territory for DSA remains … affluent enclaves home to young progressives.”97Ross Barkan, “After Years of Advances, New York’s DSA Faces Electoral Headwinds,” Jacobin, April 20, 2022. And the number of those places are limited.

While there have been self-described socialists in Congress as Democrats for decades,98Aside from Sanders, this includes DSA members John Conyers, Major Owens, and Ron Dellums, and ex-DSAer Danny Davis. the Squad was, nevertheless, something unique in US politics: initially a group of young women of color with distinctly left-wing politics and for some a socialist identity in the heart of American government. All too soon, however, Squad members became caught in the web of the Democratic Party’s Caucus with its centrist leaders, “points” system, legislative whips, and its network of well-to-do pols, pros, and donor “policy demanders.” Under the centrifugal pressures of this context, the Squad soon ceased to act together on various issues, retreated into the politically amorphous CPC, saw their agenda buried as they defended Biden’s program, split on Israel/Palestine or police funding, and more.99Caitlín Doherty, “Two Atlantic Lefts,” New Left Review 133/134 (Jan/Apr 2022), 145–47; Shure, “Honeymoon,” 21–25. As a consequence, the electoral honeymoon is, indeed, over, and the expanded Squad has also turned to the top-down electoral methods of those they hoped to replace.

When AOC launched her 2018 longshot challenge as an outsider, she had just $50,000 to splash, one Justice Democrats’ staffer to start with, and a list of former Sanders volunteers to help out.100David Freedlander, The AOC Generation: How Millennials Are Seizing Power And Rewriting The Rules Of American Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021), 85, 102; Jilani and Grim, “Gentrifying Neighborhoods.” By contrast, AOC approached her 2020 reelection primary as a true Democratic incumbent with a war chest of about $10 million to start. She won handily like most incumbents. Nevertheless, despite her charisma, political appeal, and recognition as an incumbent, she still received only 19 percent of the votes of registered Democrats in her district.101New York State Board of Elections, “Certified Results from the June 23, 2020 Primary Election,”https://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/elections/2020/Primary/CertifiedJune232020StatePrimaryResults.pdf ; New York State Board of Elections, “Voter Registration as of February 21, 2020,” https://www.elections.ny.gov/EnrollmentCD.html.  Also indicating a lack of an ongoing grassroots base is the fact that, of the total of $21 million she raised in the 2020 election cycle, mostly from small donations to be sure, less than one percent came from her district.102102. OpenSecrets, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Contributions by Geography, 2019–2021.” Nor was there any working class organization to show for it—just staff-led NGO-style district “case work” and workshops more socially conscious than average.103For a positive account of this, see Liza Featherstone, “New York’s Elected Socialists Are Building a Movement,” Jacobin, November 3, 2020.

Lacking an organized mass base beyond the local DSA membership, yesterday’s congressional rebels have turned to conventional and costly Democratic campaign consultants and methods. Among AOC’s top four 2020 campaign vendors—which consumed almost half of the total $21 million she raised—were Facebook, Middle Seat Consulting, Win Creative, and Financial Innovations Inc. The latter three are consultants regularly employed by mainstream Democrats from Biden to Bloomberg, Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the DCCC.104Middle Seat, “Our Work.” Middle Seat was an “outsider” group that has joined the mainstream, working for Beto O’Rourke for Senate and the DNC in the Biden Victory Fund in 2020 as well as for progressive incumbents.  Obviously, these outfits have no interest in permanent working class organization.

Other Squad members employ some of the same Democratic Party consultants, including the digital outfit NGP–VAN. This Democratic favorite is an integral part of “party infrastructure” and runs the DNC’s massive digital voter and donor file. Its current general manager, Chelsea Peterson, was formerly a DCCC field director. Its leading customer in 2020 was the DNC at $3.5 million, followed by Biden for President and just about every major Democratic candidate from Bernie Sanders to Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. Running up to their 2022 reelections, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush turned to some of the same Party regulars, including NGP–VAN.105Sheingate, Business of Politics, 189; 190–91, 196; OpenSecrets, “Vendor/Recipient: NGP–VAN,” 2020 and 2022 cycles; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts;” OpenSecrets, “Jamaal Bowman Expenditures,” 2022 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Cori Bush, Expenditures,” 2022 cycle.

Squad members and other progressives attempt to get around the outsized costs of these Party-connected consultants and still avoid corporate money by soliciting lots of small individual donations. Inevitably, however, they turn to Party-favored digital bundlers such as ACTBLUE which is actually run by NGP–VAN. Furthermore, the dependence on Party infrastructure firms and the substitution of money for face-to-face organization is evident as incumbent Squad members are forced to raise huge amounts just for fundraising itself. For Ilhan Omar it was $682,942 and AOC $2.1 million in 2020, just in order to spend bundles of that and more on these top-down Democratic consultants.106OpenSecrets, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Expenditures,” 2020 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Ilhan Omar, Expenditures,” 2020 cycle.

Reflecting this lack of a grassroots organization, as we saw in AOC’s case, only a small proportion of what is raised comes from people within the Squad’s own districts. In 2020 it was 1.5 percent for Rashida Tlaib, five percent for Jamaal Bowman, 5.6 percent for Ilhan Omar, 6.9 percent for Cori Bush, and 13.8 percent for Ayanna Pressley.107OpenSecrets, “Expenditures,” 2020 cycle. They are, on the one hand, trapped in the Democratic Party’s high cost electioneering networks and internal structures while, at the same time, dependent on the generosity of a cash-poor, nationwide socialist left that has itself hit the wall and, as things stand, lacks the infrastructure and class base to make a major breakthrough.

While some on the Left are willing to face up to this forward march of democratic socialism halted, there is resistance to considering that it is precisely the Left’s Democratic Party electoralism that is a major cause of this stagnation and class isolation.108Ashley Smith and Charlie Post, “The US Left at a Strategic Impasse,” Tempest, January 10, 2022. Aside even from the contradiction involved in trying to build a socialist current in a party dedicated to defending capitalism and US imperial dominance, there is hardly a less promising place in which to expand the social base for socialism when its primaries remain a site shunned by millions of working class people of all races. There are no “party surrogates” or “class struggle elections,” much less any electorally generated “large scale class formation” in sight. Just “The Left in Purgatory.”

Yet the exit from this class purgatorial dead end is painfully obvious. Seek those workers where they are. And that is first and foremost in the workplace, the site of immediate conflict in the social relations of capitalist production. The workplace, despite the reality of racial and gender inequality, is the most integrated space of working class concentration. Just listen to what the activists of the Amazon Labor Union have to say about this—or the thousands who attended the June Labor Notes conference in Chicago.109109. Justine Medina, “How We Did It,” Labor Notes, April 1, 2022; Angelika Maldonado, “Here’s How We Beat Amazon,” interview by Eric Blanc, Jacobin, April 2, 2022; Alex Press, “The Beating Heart of the Labor Movement Was at Labor Notes,” Jacobin, June 22, 2022. The workplace is a site of daily if often subterranean conflict with capital, a launching pad of periodic upsurges, and a potential source of working class power.

Of course, workplace organizing faces its own problems. Chris Maisano isn’t wrong when he writes “the obstacles to workplace organizing have increased since the 1980s.”110Maisano, “A Left,” 9. Nevertheless, there are new developments and obvious places to start: among unionized workers, particularly those fighting to change their union or preparing to strike at UPS, those in the process of getting organized at Amazon or Starbucks, and eventually those in the corridors and metropolitan concentrations of the logistics system now in crisis. We have recently seen an increase in worker self-activity beginning with the teachers’ upsurge of 2018 and 2019, and the 2021 and 2022 uptick in union and even non-union strikes, contract rejections, new organizing, and other signs of grassroots worker initiative. What makes these struggles so important is that they have come from the self-activity of the ranks themselves.111Kim Moody, “Payback Time: Class Struggle Beckons the Left in 2022,” Spectre, February 16, 2022; ILR Workers Institute, Labor Action Tracker, Annual Report 2021. Whether making direct contact with workers in motion involves being active in your own union, changing jobs, organizing mass support for worker actions, or providing some worker-friendly education and analysis, there is plenty to be done. And there are thousands of DSA members already engaged in this or related rank-and-file or grassroots work.

It is participation in ongoing struggles of working class and oppressed people that radicalizes activists beyond the Left’s highly educated base—and it is where the future for a mass socialist movement in the US lies. This includes the potential for effective independent, grassroots working class political action and organization, particularly in today’s growing majority of one-party congressional, state legislative, and city council districts where there is no “spoiler” problem. Purgatory, as recent popes have proclaimed, is not a place but a condition in which one needs to change oneself in order to seek salvation. The Left, including DSA, cannot “make” the social and workers’ upsurge needed to break through its current arrested condition. But it can change its direction and prepare its activists to participate in an increase in worker self-activity and social upheaval—and even help organize it by being in the right place.

  1. Chris Maisano, “A Left That Matters,” Jacobin 40 (Winter 2021): 10.
  2. Gary C. Jacobson and Jamie L. Carson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, 10th edition (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2020), 256–57.
  3. Roger H. Davidson et al., Congress and Its Members, 17th edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2020), 65.
  4. Hans J. Hassell, The Party’s Primary: Control of Congressional Elections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 12–16.
  5. The presidential primary system was not widespread until the 1970s and is different in many ways, including the election of convention delegates rather than candidates, its high visibility, and its national character.
  6. Alan Ware, “What Is, and What Is Not, a Primary Election?” in Robert G. Boatright, Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections (New York: Routledge, 2018), 17–38.
  7. Arthur Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 1996), 13–48. For a more detailed account of the Progressive efforts and reforms, see Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 14–26.
  8. Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  9. Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemma of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  10. Martin Shefter, Political Parties and the State: The American Historical Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 77.
  11. Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970), 72.
  12. Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism: 1885–1914 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 152–58.
  13. Burnham, Critical Elections, 71–90; Walter Dean Burnham, “The System of 1896: An Analysis,” in Paul Kleppner et al., The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981); Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), 64–95; C. Van Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1971), 321–49.
  14. Moisei Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, 2 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1902), 292.
  15. Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy,
  16. Maurice Duverger, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (London: University Paperbacks, 1964), 61.
  17. Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 156; Piven and Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote, 54–56, 125, 160–61; Burnham, “System of 1896,” 169.
  18. Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 158.
  19. Bipartisan Policy Center, 2018 Primary Election Turnout and Reforms (Washington DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, November 2018), 6, 22–24; Matthew J. Geras and Michael H. Crespin, “The Effect of Open and Closed Primaries on Voter Turnout,” in Boatright, Handbook, 134.
  20. Both of these categories can include small business owners. These business owners, however, are far more likely to register and vote Republican, so the figures in Table 1 are a fair proxy for class.
  21. Stephen Ansolabehere et al., “The Decline of Competition in US Primary Elections, 1908–2004,” Michael P. McDonald and John Samples, eds., The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics (Washington DC: Brooking Institution Press, 2006), 81–83; Jacobson and Carson, Congressional Elections, 38–39.
  22. Sam Levine, “America Faces Greater Division as Parties Draw Safe Seats for Congressional Districts,” The Guardian, February 12, 2022; Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasanti, “Taking the Voters Out of the Equation: How the Parties are Killing Competition,” New York Times, February 6, 2022; FiveThirtyEight, “What Redistricting Looks Like in Every State; Robert G. Boatright, Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014), 17, 63, 222–23; Davidson et al., Congress, 65.
  23. Ballotpedia, “Primary Election Competitiveness in State and Federal Government, 2022,” June 23, 2022.
  24. Boatright, Primaried, 109; OpenSecrets, “Incumbent Advantage,” 2020 cycle. Amount “raised” doesn’t include “outside” spending from Super PACs.
  25. Adam Bonica, “Professional Networks, Early Funding, and Election Success,” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 16, no. 1 (2017): 153–71.
  26. Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse:, 62–66
  27. Robert Frank, “Soaring Markets Helped Richest 1% Gain $6.5 Trillion in Wealth Last Year, According to the Fed,” CNBC, April 1, 2022; FRED, “Share of Total Net Worth Held by the Top 1% (99th to 100th Wealth Percentiles),” St. Louis Fed, March 18, 2022.
  28. Statista, “Total Lobbying Spending in the United States from 1998 to 2021,” February 21, 2022.
  29. Adam Sheingate, Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 168–72.
  30. Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988), 127–46; Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill & Wang, 1986).
  31. Federal Election Commission, “FED Releases Final Report on 1977–78 Financial Activity of Non-Party and Party Political Committees,” April 24, 1980, 4; FEC, PAC Table 1, 2002, https://www.fec.gov/resources/campaign-finance-statistics/2002/tables/pac/PAC1_2002_24m.pdf; FEC, PAC Table 1, 2018, https://www.fec.gov/resources/campaign-finance-statistics/2018/tables/pac/PAC1_2018_24m.pdf.
  32. OpenSecrets, “Who are the Biggest Donors?” 2018 cycle.
  33. Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, Table 3–10, February 8, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/multi-chapter-report/vital-statistics-on-congress/. All sources of election spending from the Federal Election Commission and OpenSecrets won’t be cited separately except where citation seems necessary.
  34. OpenSecrets, “Outside Spending,” Super PACs, 2010 and 2020 cycles.
  35. OpenSecrets, “Business-Labor-Ideology Split in PAC and Individual Donations to Candidates, Parties, Super PACs and Outside Spending Groups,” 2020 cycle.
  36. OpenSecrets, “2020 Election to Cost $14 Billion, Blowing Away Spending Records,” October 28, 2020; OpenSecrets, “Total from Small Donor Donations, Current Candidates Only,” January 31, 2021.
  37. Ian Vanderwalker, “The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors Thanks to Citizens United,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 10, 2020.
  38. OpenSecrets, “Elections Overview,” 2020 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2020 cycle.
  39. OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2022 cycle.
  40. Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Major Industries Shift Contributions from Republicans to Democrats ahead of Election Day,” OpenSecrets, November 2, 2018; Lauren Helper, “Democratic Party Outraising Opposition,” OpenSecrets, October 4, 2010; OpenSecrets, “Money to Congress,” 2022 cycle.
  41. OpenSecrets, “Who Are the Biggest Donors?” 2018 Cycle; OpenSecrets, “Who Are the Biggest Donors?” 2020 cycle.
  42. OpenSecrets, “Large Versus Small Individual Donations,” 2020 cycle.
  43. Hans Hassell, “Party Control of Party Primaries: Party Influence in Nominations for the US Senate,” Journal of Politics, 78, no.1 (2015): 76.
  44. OpenSecrets, “Political Parties,” Democratic Party.
  45. Hassell, Party’s Primary, 12–13, 56–59; Getting Primaried, 48–50.
  46. Andrew Perez and Alex Kotch, “Health Industry Lobbyists Pump More Money into Democrats’ Congressional Campaign Arm,” Sludge, April 23, 2019; Alex Kotch and Andrew Perez, “As It Works to Stifle Primary Challengers, DCCC Takes More Money from Corporate Lobbyists,” Sludge, April 3, 2019; Federal Election Commission, “DCCC Financial Summary,” 2020 cycle; Federal Election Commission, “DCCC Raising,” 2020 cycle.
  47. Ryan Grim and Aida Chàvez, “Here’s How Much the Democratic Party Charges to Be on Each House Committee,” The Intercept, September 3, 2019; OpenSecrets, “Top Industries,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 2020 cycle; Federal Election Commission, “Political Party Data Summary Tables,” 2019–2020, Table 5, Member Contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
  48. OpenSecrets, “Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund Top Donors,” 2020 and 2022 cycles.
  49. Max Greenwood, “Pelosi Hosts Largest Individual Donor Fundraiser in DCCC History,” The Hill, April 21, 2022.
  50. OpenSecrets, “Total Raised, Democratic Congressional Campaign Cmte,” 2020 cycle.
  51. Hassell, Party’s Primary, 27–33.
  52. DCCC, “DCCC Chair Maloney Announces New Additions to DCCC Team,” February 3, 2021.
  53. Davidson et al, Congress, 80–81.
  54. Akela Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts Under New Private Equity Owner,” The Intercept, May 10, 2022.
  55. Ryan Grim and Rachel M. Cohen, “The Democratic Party’s Consultant Factory,” The Intercept, April 6, 2021; Justin Miller, “How Political Consulting Became a Multibillion Dollar Racket,” The American Prospect, January 8, 2016; Lakshmi Narayanan, “5 Best Political Consulting Firms,” Callhub, April 5, 2022; Sheingate, Business of Politics,
  56. Bully Pulpit Interactive, https://www.bpimedia.com; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts.”
  57. Donald Shaw, “DCCC Vendors Work for Corporations Lobbying Against Democratic Policies,” American Prospect, May 23, 2019; Adam Sheingate, Business of Politics, 197; Julia Rock, Walker Bragman, and Andrew Perez, “Amazon’s Union-Buster Consultants are Also Consultants for Major Unions,” Jacobin, April 13, 2022.
  58. Sheingate, Business of Politics, 2, 3, 10, 155.
  59. Ryan Grim and Lee Fang, “The Dead Enders: Candidates Who Sign Up to Battle Donald Trump Must Get Past the Democratic Party First,” The Intercept, January 23, 2018.
  60. Sheingate, Business of Politics,
  61. Hassell, Party’s Primary,
  62. Ballotpedia, “Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”
  63. Grim and Fang, “Dead Enders.”
  64. Congressional Research Service, Membership of the 117th Congress: A Profile, February 22, 2022, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 3, 5; US Census, Table A–4: “Detailed Years of School Completed by People 25 Years or Older, 2000–2021”; David Hawkings, “ Richer than Ever: But Mostly at the Top,” Roll Call, February 27, 2018.
  65. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Paged, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (September 2014): 575.
  66. Moody, Impasse, 108–29.
  67. Ella Nilsen, “The DCCC’s controversial meddling in 2018 primaries, explained,” Vox, May 3, 2018.
  68. Hassell, Party’s Primary,
  69. DCCC, “DCCC Announces Members of 2021–2022 Frontline Program”; New Democratic Coalition, newdemocratcoalition.house.gov/members; DCCC, “2022 Frontline Members”; DCCC, “DCCC Announces 20121–2022 Districts in Play,” April 6, 2021; Blue Dog Coalition, “Members.”
  70. Michael Sainato, “Democrats Openly Back Establishment Candidates for 2018 Primaries,” The Real News, January 15, 2018.
  71. Grim and Fang, “Dead Enders.”
  72. Ballotpedia, “United States House Democratic Primaries, 2022.”
  73. Team Blue PAC, “Who We Are.”
  74. OpenSecrets, “Team Blue PAC Contributions to Federal Candidates,” 2022 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Team Blue PAC to PAC/Party,” 2022 cycle. Fundraising figures available for AOC and Omar only.
  75. Kara Voght, “Top House Democrat Unveils Plan to Beat Back Progressive Rebellion,” Rolling Stone, February 16, 2022; Insider NJ, “Black Lives Matter PAC Endorses Imani Oakley for Congress,” March 7, 2022; Zachary Smith, “Where Shontel Brown Ran Strongest in the 11th Congressional District Primary,” com, May 4, 2022; Branko Marcetic, “Nina Turner Was Defeated Last Night, But Not All is Lost, Jacobin, May 4, 2022; Ballotpedia, “June 14, 2022, Election Results.”
  76. OpenSecrets, “Opportunity for All Action Fund Recipients,” 2022 cycle; Akela Lacy, “New Dark Money Group Spending Against Progressives is Suspiciously Well Aligned With Powerful Democrats, “The Intercept, June 8, 2022.
  77. Federal Election Commission, “Mainstream Democrats PAC,” 2021–2022; Andrew Perez and David Dayen, “Democrats are Still Boosting Antiabortion Congressman Henry Cuellar,” Jacobin, May 10, 2022; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts”; Elena Schneider, “Where Megadonors are Spending Big Money in the Shape the Democratic Party’s Future,” Politico, May 16, 2022; David Sirota, “The Democratic Party’s Leadership is Trying to Destroy Progressives,” Jacobin, May 17, 2022.
  78. Ballotpedia, “United States House Democratic Party primaries, 2022”; Ballotpedia, “US House Endorsements by Bernie Sanders, 2022”; Our Revolution, “Endorsements”; Justice Democrats, “Candidates.”
  79. Felicia Sonmez, Mariana Sotomayor and Mariana Alfaro, “Rep. Henry Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros Locked in Tight Battle in Texas,” Washington Post, May 25, 2022; Ally Mutnick and Sarah Ferris, “House Dems Shun Primary Fight against Anti-abortion Incumbent,” Politico, May 23, 2022; Julio Ricardo Varela, “Why is Pelosi Desperate that this Pro-NRA, Anti-abortion Democrat Stay in Office?” MSNBC, June 4, 2022; Roll Call, “Key Results for Tuesday’s Primaries in Seven States,” June 7, 2022; Roll Call, “At the Races: Not Too Pumped,” June 23, 2022.
  80. Hassell, Party’s Primary, xiii–xiv.
  81. Ballotpedia, “Heart of the Primaries: Democratic Edition,” June 23, 2022.
  82. Douglas D. Roscoe and Shannon Jenkins, Local Party Organizations in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), 2.
  83. Elena Schneider, David Siders, and Zach Montellaro, “State Democrats Mount Big Comeback in 2020,” Politico, July 30, 2020.
  84. For an example of this in terms of taxes on the wealthy, see Tobias Burns, “Despite Popularity, Taxes on the Wealthy Struggle to Find a Foothold in Congress,” The Hill, May 7, 2022.
  85. Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Left in Purgatory”; Jared Abbott and David Shor, “The Coming Democratic Minority”; Natalie Shure, “The End of the Honeymoon”; and Chris Maisano, “The Liminal Left’s Bid for Power”; all in Jacobin 44 (Winter 2022).
  86. Shure, “End,” 19–25; New Majority (formerly DSA Observer), “Report: February 2022 NPC Meeting.”
  87. Ross Barkan, “Working Class Politics Without the Working Class,” Jacobin 44 (Winter 2022), 72.
  88. Sunkara, “The Left,” 10.
  89. Maisano, “Liminal Left’s Bid.”
  90. While it is true that millennials and Gen Zers are generally more liberal than their elders, it is sobering that the proportion of millennials who voted for Donald Trump rose from 31 percent in 2016 to 39 in 2020 and Gen Zers shifted from 43 percent to 48 percent in his favor after four years of observing Trump in office. Ruth Igielnik, Scott Keeter and Hannah Hartig, “Behind Biden’s 2020 Victory,” Pew Research Center, June 30, 2021, 12.
  91. Noam Scheiber, “The Revolt of the College-Educated Working Class,” New York Times, April 28, 2022.
  92. DSA Convention Resolutions 2021, “#8: Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority).” This convention’s “#5: Building Working Power to Win Democratic Socialism” is all things to all people in the debate over labor strategy.
  93. Maisano, “A Left,” 9.
  94. For example: Neal Meyer, “New York DSA Stood Strong Against an Establishment Counterattack on Tuesday,” Jacobin, June 30, 2022; Alex Pellitteri, “We’re Stronger When DSA’s Politicians and Members Work Together,” Socialist Call, February 22, 2022.  
  95. Roscoe and Jenkins, Local Party,
  96. For a positive but revealing look at how this worked even in AOC’s 2018 primary campaign see, Zaid Jilani and Ryan Grim, “Data Suggests that Gentrifying Neighborhoods Powered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Victory,” The Intercept, July 2, 2018.
  97. Ross Barkan, “After Years of Advances, New York’s DSA Faces Electoral Headwinds,” Jacobin, April 20, 2022.
  98. Aside from Sanders, this includes DSA members John Conyers, Major Owens, and Ron Dellums, and ex-DSAer Danny Davis.
  99. Caitlín Doherty, “Two Atlantic Lefts,” New Left Review 133/134 (Jan/Apr 2022), 145–47; Shure, “Honeymoon,” 21–25.
  100. David Freedlander, The AOC Generation: How Millennials Are Seizing Power And Rewriting The Rules Of American Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021), 85, 102; Jilani and Grim, “Gentrifying Neighborhoods.”
  101. New York State Board of Elections, “Certified Results from the June 23, 2020 Primary Election,” https://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/elections/2020/Primary/CertifiedJune232020StatePrimaryResults.pdf ; New York State Board of Elections, “Voter Registration as of February 21, 2020,” https://www.elections.ny.gov/EnrollmentCD.html.
  102. OpenSecrets, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Contributions by Geography, 2019–2021.”
  103. For a positive account of this, see Liza Featherstone, “New York’s Elected Socialists Are Building a Movement,” Jacobin, November 3, 2020.
  104. Middle Seat, “Our Work.” Middle Seat was an “outsider” group that has joined the mainstream, working for Beto O’Rourke for Senate and the DNC in the Biden Victory Fund in 2020 as well as for progressive incumbents.
  105. Sheingate, Business of Politics, 189; 190–91, 196; OpenSecrets, “Vendor/Recipient: NGP–VAN,” 2020 and 2022 cycles; Lacy, “Democrats’ Major Campaign Tech Firm Shifts;” OpenSecrets, “Jamaal Bowman Expenditures,” 2022 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Cori Bush, Expenditures,” 2022 cycle.
  106. OpenSecrets, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Expenditures,” 2020 cycle; OpenSecrets, “Ilhan Omar, Expenditures,” 2020 cycle.
  107. OpenSecrets, “Expenditures,” 2020 cycle.
  108. Ashley Smith and Charlie Post, “The US Left at a Strategic Impasse,” Tempest, January 10, 2022.
  109. Justine Medina, “How We Did It,” Labor Notes, April 1, 2022; Angelika Maldonado, “Here’s How We Beat Amazon,” interview by Eric Blanc, Jacobin, April 2, 2022; Alex Press, “The Beating Heart of the Labor Movement Was at Labor Notes,” Jacobin, June 22, 2022.
  110. Maisano, “A Left,” 9.
  111. Kim Moody, “Payback Time: Class Struggle Beckons the Left in 2022,” Spectre, February 16, 2022; ILR Workers Institute, Labor Action Tracker, Annual Report 2021.
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From its origins in disenfranchising workers, to its current money-drenched, business-managed races, the primary has been an elite class-based and class-biased institution.

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