Let’s talk about divorce
Does Biden’s lame response to the Supreme Court mark the end of the line for the DSA’s strategic reliance on the Democrats? Daniel Lazare argues for a break
Social democrats are very upset with the US Democratic Party - understandably so, given the party’s weak-kneed response to the Supreme Court’s overthrow of Roe v Wade, the epic 1973 ruling establishing the right to an abortion.
Expressions of anger and dismay are coming in from all quarters - journalists, members of Congress and ordinary people in the street. A video of a young protestor complaining that “my rights shouldn’t be a fundraising point” for the Democrats has gone viral. “They have had multiple opportunities to codify Roe into law over the past 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and they haven’t done it,” the protestor went on. “And if they’re going to keep campaigning on this point, they should actually do something about it.”1
On Capitol Hill, Cori Bush, a black congressional Democrat from St Louis, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, said that the Democratic leadership was “doing the opposite” of fighting. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA flag-bearer from New York, said that the Supreme Court was facing a “legitimacy crisis” and that Joe Biden’s response has been limp because he is “historically weak” on the abortion question. The DSA itself put out a statement declaring:
The leadership of the Democratic Party have proven time and time again that they cannot be depended upon to save us. Despite many opportunities to codify Roe v Wade into law, the Democrats in Washington failed to act. Nor can we rely on our judicial system to guarantee us civil rights. Now more than ever, we need to build a vibrant, militant, majoritarian socialist movement to defeat Republican minority rule, win legislative power, and build a better world that guarantees healthcare as a human right, including the right to free abortions on demand without apology.2
Then there’s Jacobin, the DSA’s unofficial flagship publication, which these days is fairly overflowing with contempt. “Observers of American politics should by now know the Democratic Party is a feckless, corrupt institution incapable of meeting the challenges of our time - congenitally averse to fighting for its principles, to the extent that it actually has any,” staff writer Branko Marcetic observed last week. “But even the most jaded cynics have to be shocked at just how useless the party’s response has been to the right’s most recent assault on abortion rights.”3
Quite right: the Democrats are like a deer in the headlights - unable to move backward or forward, as the juggernaut draws closer and closer. While supportive of Roe, Biden is what American political scientists call an ‘institutionalist’, meaning that he cannot imagine criticising the Supreme Court itself or, for that matter, any of the other institutions that comprise a thoroughly decrepit US constitutional system. As far as he is concerned, the entire 18th century mess represents a pinnacle of democratic perfection, from which no deviation is possible or desirable.
Asked if the Supreme Court was “broken”, all Biden would say was: “I think the Supreme Court has made some terrible decisions.” While issuing an executive on July 8 safeguarding access to reproductive healthcare services - assuming such things continue to exist, that is - he complained that the court’s anti-abortion ruling “wasn’t a constitutional judgment”, but “an exercise in raw political power”.
The law is as perfect as ever, in other words, and the only problem is that the Supreme Court is not following it to the letter. On the one hand, a judicial body dominated by arch-conservatives is at fault for trying to turn the clock back to the 19th century. On the other, it is damned for not adhering more completely to a document dating from 1787.
This is typical of Washington, a town in which even outspoken liberals worship at the shrine of the ‘founding fathers’. So the DSA’s outrage is certainly justified.
Both feet in
But what is not justified is the surprise. The DSA is not a socialist organisation that happened to drift into the Democratic Party orbit. Rather, it is a group founded on the idea that socialists should abandon any pretence of independence whatsoever and make their home inside the Democratic ‘big tent’, because that is where ‘progressives’ are to be found - and because there is nowhere else to go.
Known as the ‘realignment strategy’, this is an idea that Michael Harrington - an ex-Catholic turned socialist atheist - cooked up in the 1960s after joining forces with Max Shachtman, the famous Left Oppositionist who broke with Trotsky in 1940 over the class nature of the Soviet Union and then drifted ever farther to the right. (Shachtman refused to criticise John F Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and publicly supporting Lyndon B Johnson’s war in Vietnam; while Harrington never went that far, he refused to call for immediate withdrawal, while LBJ was in power, only changing his tune following Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.)4
But where Shachtman’s movement still clung to a position outside the Democratic Party to a degree, Harrington’s argument was that socialists should cast any such reservations aside and plunge in head-first. The purpose of ‘entryism’ was to purge the party of racist, conservative and bourgeois elements and thus transform it into instrument for revolutionary change. After splitting with the moribund Socialist Party, Harrington helped form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1973, which, a decade later, merged with the New American Movement - filled with new leftists, but led by an old Communist Party stalwart named Dorothy Healey - to form the DSA.
So the DSA does not have one foot within the Democrats and the other without like previous socialist groups, such as the ‘official’ communists. Rather, it has both firmly planted in the party’s so-called ‘progressive’ wing. Still, the strategy went nowhere until the election of Barack Obama and the financial meltdown in 2008, at which point the ground began to shift. Jacobin attracted a major intellectual following starting in 2010, while the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 led to an outpouring of hope and enthusiasm, along with an explosion in membership. So did Black Lives Matter and Sanders’ second run in 2020. By mid-2020, the DSA had 66,000 members, whereas membership in a dwindling number of Marxist holdouts barely numbered in the dozens.
But then came the great Sanders collapse in March 2020 - something that Obama engineered with a single phone call urging Democratic primary contender Pete Buttigieg to drop out of the race and throw his support to Biden. As Sanders stalled, the balloon began to deflate. Just a few days after Biden took office, legal scholar Aziz Rana was reminding Jacobin readers that the US constitutional system was “fundamentally flawed”, that the founders “were deeply suspicious of mass democracy” and that “They therefore created a legal-political framework that placed massive roadblocks in the path of ordinary people using the vote to exercise majority rule”.5 The ship of state was thus as rotten as ever. Dismissing Biden as “a nonentity who ran for office on the non-slogan, ‘Build Back Better’”, the magazine added a few weeks later that the US was on a “headlong march toward a party system entirely decoupled from the politics of class”.
“The result,” contributing editor Max Karp went on, “is a party system in which ‘issues’ and ‘policies’ - that is, competing ideas about the exercise of power or the distribution of goods - can hardly expect to find meaningful expression, let alone material fulfilment.”6
Cold-eyed assessments like these were welcome, but still inadequate in view of the tidal wave that would follow. The court’s June 24 anti-Roe decision (formally known as Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization) is not just a setback, but a sea change. Comparable to ‘Dred Scott’, the 1857 decision that paved the way to civil war by overturning barriers to slavery’s expansion throughout the country, it is a sign that the court’s far-right majority is on the warpath and that it will not stop until decades of liberal reforms are dismantled.
Indeed, the worst may be yet to come. On June 30, the court announced that it would hear arguments in a North Carolina case involving what is known in far-right circles as the ‘independent state legislature doctrine’. This is a theory based on two constitutional clauses - one in article I declaring that “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof”; and the other in article II stating that “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors” for the purpose of choosing a president.
With Republicans controlling state legislatures in 30 out of 50 states, the combination is deadly. If approved, party members will have carte blanche to rejig election rules however they see fit, with no outside authority in the form of a governor or state judge to say no. If Republicans want to restrict voting in black neighbourhoods, then the doctrine’s message, in effect, is ‘Go for it’. If they want to gerrymander congressional districts so as to sideline Democratic voters, then so be it as well. The same holds if they want to reject the popular vote entirely and substitute delegates to the Electoral College of their own choosing. That path is also wide open, once the Supreme Court gives the green light.
An ex-federal judge has described the doctrine as a Republican attempt “to execute successfully in 2024 the very same plan they failed in executing in 2020 and to overturn the 2024 election if Trump or his anointed successor loses again in the next quadrennial contest”.7 It is a coup d’état by other means. Instead of a neo-fascist mob rampaging through the halls of Congress, it will allow Republican state legislators to accomplish the same end much more neatly and efficiently via a simple voice vote.
With the people sidelined and the federal government little more than an appendage of the states, Democrats will never enter the White House again. As for the DSA pipedream of using the Dems to wield significant power, the answer, to quote the Mafia, is ‘fuggedaboutit’.
Harrington was guilty of an elementary political error. The Democrats do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are an offshoot of a superannuated constitutional system that is fast turning into an instrument of dictatorship. He and his followers thought that, with a bit of boring from within, the constitutional system could go on spitting out liberal reforms like Roe indefinitely. But what they forgot is that an all-powerful constitution that is ancient, undemocratic and unchangeable is a powerful instrument in the hands of the radical right - and now the working class is reaping the consequences.
Marxists can quibble over whether the results will be fascism or merely far-right authoritarianism. Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: with the court’s senior conservatives, Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas (just 72 and 74 years old respectively), the court’s ideological make-up is unchangeable for at least another decade, which means that a rightwing reign of terror has a long way to go. Even if the worst fears about the independent state legislature doctrine remain unfulfilled, precious little of political democracy will remain, once the far-right judicial dictatorship ends - assuming it does end, that is, rather than stretching indefinitely into the future.
‘Fight for democracy. Fight to protect abortion’: www.dsausa.org/statements/fight-for-democracy-fight-to-protect-abortion.↩︎
B Marcetic, ‘The Democrats have been embarrassingly useless on abortion’ Jacobin: jacobin.com/2022/07/democrats-roe-v-wade-supreme-court-biden-pelosi.↩︎
C Cairns, ‘Biography of Michael Harrington exposes his “failure of vision”’ Workers’ Voice: workersvoiceus.org/2022/07/07/book-review-biography-of-michael-harrington-exposes-his-failure-of-vision.↩︎
‘It would be great if the United States were actually a democracy’: jacobin.com/2021/02/us-constitution-interview-aziz-rana.↩︎
M Karp, ‘The politics of a second gilded age’ Jacobin: jacobin.com/2021/02/the-politics-of-a-second-gilded-age.↩︎