Plus an endorsement for Michael Capuano for Congress (MA 7th District)
It’s never easy being a socialist in the United States. And at no time is it more difficult then come election season. Because neither of the two major parties—hard-right ravings to the contrary taken as given—is socialist. Both Republicans and Democrats are capitalist. There have been many attempts to form major left-wing anti-capitalist parties over the last couple hundred years. Some, like two I’ve participated in—the Green Party US and the Labor Party—have been national efforts. The former is still struggling on gamely, though Mass affiliate Green-Rainbow Party currently does not have official party status—having failed to win 3 percent of the vote for any state or national candidate in the last election or to enroll 1 percent of registered voters. The latter petered out over a decade back. There have also been state-level efforts like the Peace and Freedom Party in California—which, for one reason or another, haven’t spread to other states.
The received political wisdom is that the major parties have set up so many structural roadblocks over their many decades in power that it’s impossible for any of the smaller so-called third parties to achieve major party status. And from my experience that received wisdom has been correct. So far.
Where does that leave a socialist like me? Well, I have a few options. None of them ideal… unless we manage to change our political system to allow for small parties to more easily become big ones. I could go back to the Greens. I could join one of the tiny socialist parties that runs candidates from time to time like Socialist Alternative. I could join the somewhat larger Democratic Socialists of America—which is not a party but a pressure group that throws its weight behind the most left-wing candidates it can find or field, mainly in the Democratic Party. I could help try to revive an effort for a “fusion” ballot in Massachusetts with the Working Families Party (of New York and several other states). Such a move would create a formation that would be allowed to support larger parties’ candidates (i.e., the Democrats for all intents and purposes) without sacrificing independence. But allowing that would require a change in Bay State law… and a 2006 attempt to make the necessary change failed. I could help start a new left-wing party in the Boston area, and try to win some municipal races before moving on to state and national contests. Or I can join the majority of Massachusetts voters and be an independent. Registering as “unenrolled” in our state’s parlance. Currently the simplest and easiest option. And a reasonable one for a journalist like myself since I remain independent of all political parties.
So like many other left-wingers, I’ve bitten the proverbial bullet and have been unenrolled for most of my adult life. But it’s a dissatisfying place to situate myself politically. Because functionally it means that I’m voting for whoever comes closest to my beliefs on a case-by-case basis. Not usually for a slate. As minor parties like the Greens rarely have the wherewithal to run candidates for multiple offices in one voting district. Just individual candidates. And should those candidates win, they are basically on their own. Meaning any political gains they make typically won’t outlast their terms of office.
Being unenrolled also means that I’m almost never voting for a candidate I fully support. Unless a maverick left-wing candidate happens to run for one office or other in my area—usually in a nonpartisan local race—I’m nearly always forced to compromise. And, sure, voting always involves compromises. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans. Yet casting such votes usually requires that I make a big compromise. A fundamental one, as the candidates on offer all share the major flaw of backing a political economic system—capitalism—that I don’t believe in. Even though I’m forced to participate in that system by nature of being born in a capitalist country in this time and place.
At this juncture, some readers will naturally ask, “Well, why vote at all?” After all, I’ve got more than a little bit of a libertarian streak in the sense that I’m a big fan of liberty. And many left libertarian traditions—notably anarcho-syndicalism—push for direct democracy at the local level in place of representative democracy at every level. I’ve always had a soft spot for such views. But I have never found them practical for a nation-state of over 300 million souls amid a planetary population of over seven billion and rising.
Ultimately, as messed up as capitalist democracy is, I refuse to take my franchise for granted. For much of human history, people like me didn’t get any say at all in how they were governed. Even the US restricted voting to white males with property at its inception. Only after generations of grassroots political struggle did we get universal suffrage for everyone 18 or older. So as long as we remain an even nominally representative democracy, I’m going to keep voting.
Great, but how do I go about picking candidates to support? Not easily, and I simply don’t vote in races where none of the candidates are good by my lights. Still, taking next week’s primary as an example, let me shed some light on my internal decision-making process. For sake of space, I’ll think aloud about only the hottest current local political fight—the 7th District Congressional race between incumbent Michael Capuano and challenger Ayanna Pressley—in the manner I normally do when preparing to vote as an independent socialist. Mainly by considering the candidates’ political positives and negatives from my perspective.
Capuano’s positive policy points include backing Medicare for All for many years and consistently anti-war foreign policy stands. Strikes against him include taking campaign contributions from the real estate and biotech lobbies. Pressley’s positive points include taking decent positions on issues like housing and immigration—including recent support for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Strikes against her include more hawkish foreign policy views. And a long Intercept piece on the race paints her as the chosen candidate of corporate Democratic leadership. Someone who fakes left, but will likely break right when it matters. A big negative in my book.
For me, Capuano is one of the last old line social democrats in Congress. Meaning he’s about as left-wing as he can be without leaving the Dems. He’s also been in office a long time and holds key committee positions that would be lost with the election of a first-term opponent. He’s brought a lot of money to his district that benefits the working class, and he’s taken a lot of stands he didn’t have to take in defense of that class.
Pressley has done much less as a politician thus far. According to Politico, her “biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods.” Admittedly while holding a seat in a political body, the Boston City Council, that has very little power. So not an entirely fair comparison, but food for thought nonetheless. However, given Capuano’s predictable and significant lead in the polls and in funding, I can’t shake the feeling that Pressley’s really doing groundwork for her next big race more than expecting to win this one.
For these reasons and many more besides, I have to back Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary for the 7th District Congressional seat.
But all that said—and there’s much more to say—in backing Capuano, I’m still backing a capitalist. This is not a guy who is pushing for workers to own the means of production. This is a guy who has consciously decided that the best path is to shave the rough edges off of capitalism to make it less harmful to workers. While allowing billionaires to control the commanding heights of our political economic system. He may not like it. But he’s decided that’s the best that can be done under the current circumstances.
I respect that decision, even if I disagree with it. Yet whatever I think about individual candidates, I always have to come back to the same problem: What can I do to help ensure that there is a mass socialist (and anti-racist and feminist and environmental and anti-war, etc., etc.) party that can field candidates with the experience and funding to win enough electoral races to change the face of politics in Massachusetts and the United States for the better?
And my answer? For the moment, I’m writing for a growing audience about the kind of political changes I’d like to see, and looking for opportunities to help build the kind of political party that could bring those changes to fruition. There are seeds of what I’m searching for in Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative and many other existing socialist and anarchist and green formations besides. But none of them presently fits the bill for me. All I can say is that I’ll know the party I’m looking for when I see it. And jump on board as soon as that happens. But for now, I’ll just muddle through at election time in the fashion I’ve described above. As best I can.
Readers interested in engaging in discussion and debate on this and related matters in various public forums can contact me at email@example.com.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.