Many in DSA will argue that a focus on electoral work in the Democratic Party is the most effective way to reverse the growth of authoritarian white supremacy and its increasing extralegal violence. After all, the emergence of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party would seem to offer both an opportunity to push the Party to the left, that is, towards the model of social democracy, and a chance to take up positions in the Democratic Party by becoming a permanent, institutionalized activist base for its progressive wing. To refer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, however, forces us to confront yet another problem: in what sense does such a wing actually exist in practice, that is, as something more than a name applied to (or claimed by) a very diverse group of elected officials?
Just as important is DSA’s increasing orientation to the Democratic Party, practically and politically, motivated by the perception of opportunity, which in turn suggests that it is powerful enough to affect the Democratic Party and has the capacity to take advantage of this opportunity? With the collapse of the Sanders campaign and no other choice than to support Biden (albeit unofficially and without any formal endorsement), as the far right emerged in the aftermath of BLM newly energized by Trump’s appeal to prevent the stealing of the election, work in the Democratic Party at all levels appeared to many in DSA to offer the most effective, if not the only, way to stop Trump and build the progressive wing of the Party. But it also represented a retreat from the increasing violence of far-right attacks, as attendance at BLM demonstrations dropped.
It was in this context that Kyle Rittenhouse killed two men and severely wounded another, which occurred against the backdrop of mobilization in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23, 2020, spirited but small enough to embolden a local militia to send an armed detachment to protect commercial property. In fact, 2020 witnessed over 2000 far-right demonstrations, an increasing number of which were counter-demonstrations aimed at BLM and Antifa. As the election neared, attention shifted to Trump and to the renewed efforts to slow the spread of Covid (masks, school closures, and other safety measures), the number and size of far-right actions increased substantially.
It was around this time, the last few months of 2020, that the Left ceded the streets in nearly all instances to the far right. The explanation for this, however, does not lie solely in the sense of urgency surrounding the 2020 elections; just as the far right had retreated in the face of the massive demonstrations led by BLM in June 2020, the Left, intimidated by the violent tactics of groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, and fearful of the increasing participation of armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, began to shift activities away from rallies and demonstrations, even in cities considered hostile to far-right politics.
The retreat from confrontation was clearly the only rational course of action. The problem was rather that the retreat was not recognized as such, that is, it was not a tactical retreat carried out as part of a broader strategy (unless we consider electing Biden a strategy) and did not lead to serious preparation for conflict either at the most advantageous moment for the Left or if the Left is forced to defend itself and conflict is unavoidable. There was and is no such preparation. Instead, at the very moment the Republican Party has come dangerously close to establishing the conditions, legal and extra-legal, at the state level for imposing its candidate as US president against a majority vote, even when this majority is reflected in the electoral college, much of DSA acts as if we are in a juridically normal state, in which laws are generally obeyed and enforced. In fact, at the moment that the forces of the far right have been de facto exempted from so many laws that it is difficult to keep track, laws permitting violence against demonstrators are multiplying across the nation – including deadly violence by means of motor vehicle or firearms, even in cases involving threats to property alone.
The Democrats’ Response to the Challenge of the Far Right
Can DSA count on the Democratic Party to at least protect itself from the very real threat of seeing its electoral victory stolen? Is the Party prepared for a level of calculated voter suppression sufficient to prevent Democrats from winning an election? More to the point, can DSA count on the progressive wing to save the Party from its own lassitude and gross political incompetence? It’s not clear that the groupings in DSA most committed to the project of transforming the Democratic Party or building a socialist tendency within it have explained (or even fully acknowledged) the serious weaknesses of the progressive caucus.
I’m referring not simply to the recent house votes on Israel’s Iron Dome (seven votes against and two abstentions) or the Infrastructure Bill, when progressives couldn’t muster more than six votes to oppose it. More importantly, the balance sheet of the progressive caucus’ alliance with Biden to achieve New Deal-type reforms shows that this alliance has proven incapable of securing the passage of the very legislation that was held up as the reason to elect progressive candidates in the first place! But what of legislation to stop the increasingly bold and widespread attempts at voter suppression and election tampering, to adequately address the threat of climate change, or to bring about universal healthcare and establish a social safety net? Several of these urgent reforms were blocked only by the Republicans’ use of the filibuster, which a significant number of Democrats have shown no inclination to abolish. And it’s an illusion to think that these failures are due to the actions of two rogue Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrstin Sinema.
A number of Democrats now say that they supported even a gutted Build Back Better package only because it included relief for the upper 10% of income earners (the SALT deduction). This particular measure means a loss of hundreds of billions of dollars, and is listed as the second most costly provision in Build Back Better. Now that the bill has passed the House, its most important components will certainly undergo further reduction, with the tacit support of a number of Democrats, and the acquiescence of even more.