This past August, Cori Bush defeated ten-term incumbent Lacy Clay in the Democratic primary, meaning she’ll all-but-waltz through the general elections to represent the first congressional district of Missouri. Her victory was the latest in a string of progressive wins this summer, from the For the Many slate in New York to Reclaim’s victories in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, had unsuccessfully run for federal office before, and her 2020 campaign built off the lessons learned from these previous races. This year, she continued her confrontational strategy with the Democratic establishment while building coalitions with left allies — locally and nationally.  

Does Bush’s win, as well as the victories of other progressives throughout the spring and summer, signal a new winning electoral strategy? I believe these campaigns show the promise of investing in local primaries to defeat neoliberal Democratic candidates. In the long term, however, the progressive and socialist left needs to build a broader base — with some non-progressive Democrats — to successfully govern and enact progressive change

 

Coalition vs. Confrontation

Jared Abbott provides a helpful framework to evaluate such election outcomes in his Jacobin piece, “The Two Paths of Democratic Socialism: Coalition and Confrontation.” His analysis aims to define two trends in progressive electoral strategy: one in which progressives serve as junior partners with more moderate Democrats (coalition) and one in which they confront that element of the party and build independent institutions (confrontation).

To Abbott’s credit, this frame is a comparative analysis, which presents both strategies — coalitions and confrontation — as valid and which analyzes their individual limitations. My experience with the Winning Primaries congressional table — a coalition of nearly a dozen liberal-left groups to elect progressive Democratic primarily challengers in U.S. House races — provides a real world model to assess Abbott’s coalition/confrontation lens and provide a potential coalition framework to copy for elected office below the U.S. House. (Full disclosure: I represented one of the coalition members, Our Revolution, as a staff member and also served as a paid facilitator for the table for several months in 2019.)

For Abbott, the coalition strategy is represented by liberal-left organizations (such as those that made up Winning Primaries) working as junior partners in a broader Democratic coalition while targeting establishment and conservative Democrats in primaries. In the 2020 primaries, this included Jamal Bowman (New York), Marie Newman (Illinois), and Jessica Cisneros (Texas). This congressional strategy aims to expand the base of elected allies in the U.S. House who can then strengthen the liberal-left’s junior partnership position in the Democratic Party.

The confrontation option, Abbott explains, seeks to create an “organization [that] would run its own candidates, usually on the Democratic Party ballot line, and would view class — rather than partisan identification — as the primary criterion for building an electoral base.” Practically speaking, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, in which a democratic socialist antagonized the establishment and built a coalition around himself, is an example of the confrontational model, as is the Democratic Socialists of America’s electoral strategy. On the city council level, confrontational efforts have yielded six socialist victories in Chicago as well as an Our Revolution slate that swept a majority of the 13 seats in Somerville, MA. In both cases, single group-led efforts with key allies defeated establishment candidates in heavily blue cities.

Neither the coalition nor the confrontation strategy exists perfectly independent of the other, and both strategies ultimately require building electoral majorities to succeed. One finds recent success in the confrontational model, but long-term coalition building with collective leadership will be more critical to sustaining progressive gains. Winning elections is one thing, but we need wider support to make a lasting impact. Simply put, at this moment, a winning strategy must not only win elections but provide a framework to govern successfully. As Bill Fletcher argues in “Governing Socialism,” his chapter in the new anthology We Own The Future: Democratic Socialism - American Style: just because you govern does not mean you have full state power. 

It’s essential for leftists to understand the distinction between governing and state power. Governing power is what you achieve by winning executive office. State power goes beyond elected office to include the institutional mechanisms of government and society, such as control of state agencies or economic leverage. One example of state power is the ability of businesses to move jobs out of a city or engage in capital strikes, like Uber and Lyft are doing in California.  

Given this power imbalance between capital and the working class, leftists and progressives must build and maintain majority coalitions to govern effectively. Otherwise, the ruling class will take advantage of any perceived cleavage to divide the left-wing government. For example, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, himself a one-time DSA member, led a successful Rainbow Coalition-inspired campaign but could not maintain the unity of different constituent groups. Dinkins, who is Black, lost the trust of key Latino leadership and voters, weakening the coalition and thus Dinkins’s ability to govern. This kind of failure — among many other problems — led to the reactionary election of Rudy Giuliani and a reversal of the civil rights gains made under Dinkins.

 

Winning Primaries 

Fastforwarding to today, Winning Primaries is a model of the coalition strategy but with traits of the confrontation strategy. The Winning Primaries table was convened by the Working Families Party, Indivisible, and the Center for Popular Democracy Action as an informal network of about a dozen liberal-left groups, most of which backed Sanders in the 2020 race. This alliance aimed to maximize the capacity of the nonprofit members’ electoral programs through collective action in U.S. house primaries. Nearly all the groups are federated in nature, meaning they have a national body with state and local affiliates across the country. The table was not a formal partnership — there are no bylaws or a website — but members met regularly starting in 2018 around all levels of primaries before deciding to focus on federal races in 2019. The group examined the state of the primaries and whether member organizations were coalescing around a given challenger. Table members backing the same candidates met separately to determine how best to amplify their efforts, such as with Cisneros, Newman, and Bowman. 

Marie Newman’s primary victory in Illinois’s third district in March 2020 is a prime example of the benefits of coalitional work. In 2018, she unsuccessfully primaried anti-choice incumbent Dan Lipinski, who represented some of Chicago and its suburbs. Newman attracted institutional progressive support for the 2018 race, but the organizations that backed her were largely uncoordinated — both with the campaign and with each other. Winning Primaries learned from this. The year after her loss, the coalition held joint organizing calls between Newman’s national endorsers and their respective local affiliates. Unlike the last race, the 2020 election saw the Winning Primaries table national members, their local affiliates, and Chicagoland allies coordinate their textbanking, phonebanking, and doorknocking efforts plus public events. This joint electoral action meant Newman got better and more effective independent grassroots mobilizations for candidates.

The coalition strove for “unity, not unanimity,” as Our Revolution chair Larry Cohen is wont to say. No partner had to follow the endorsements of the majority, and no group could veto the collective will of others. Practically, when there was a critical mass (about four partners or more), member organizations backing the candidate would join forces in a smaller group. This independence (i.e., “uncoordinated electioneering”) stemmed in part from the legal status of many of the groups as 501(c)4 nonprofits, which could not work directly with federal candidates.

I served as the neutral facilitator of Winning Primaries for part of 2019. Whatever my feelings on a particular candidate, my job was to create candidate profiles, write up meeting agendas and notes, and assist in tracking endorsements. This neutral but active coordination was key to the success of the table, helping to monitor and enhance candidate support. Partners themselves could be too busy and their staff time stretched too thin to effectively monitor support for the candidate by groups throughout the country. More critically, the facilitator could bring table members and local affiliates together to enhance candidate support. 

While the coalition model dominates Winning Primaries, this type of work could be a critical path for the confrontation strategy. Groups collaborating to form a larger independent organization could more easily build mass formation than a single group seeking to expand. Even Micah Uetricht, a strong proponent of the confrontation strategy, has acknowledged that much of DSA’s recent electoral success has been achieved through a coalition model — often with the WFP — rather than strict single-organization confrontation. 

How can the left expand on the lessons of the congressional Winning Primaries table? For one, the partner organizations could expand to three different tables for federal, state legislative, and municipal races. This would likely require more buy-in and funding from the partners to support the hiring of neutral facilitators as well as other research and coordination expenses. The independence of coordinators is key to building trust among member groups that decisions are being made in the interest of all coalition partners. Additional resources could be used to research the dynamics of different races plus connect with member groups’ state and local branches as well as their unaffiliated regional allies. This would allow for far greater background research and mobilization than partners have the bandwidth to take on alone.

At this point in time, some may say, it is unnecessary to determine if a coalition or confrontation strategy is better. It is more important to see what is working for both models. I am sympathetic to that view. But the promise of a rising electoral left demands that we examine which strategic elements succeed and which do not. The Winning Primaries table and Jared Abbott’s coalition/confrontation frame offer us a good template to make such assessments. In the short term, socialists and progressives will continue to challenge the establishment — sometimes with candidates only seriously backed by one group. This will result in more left power as the establishment continues to lose, but it will not change the junior partner status of progressives and socialists, who will still have less power than the Democratic leadership. In the medium-term, it makes more sense for the left to focus on using a confrontational strategy, however not as individual organizations but in alliances. Long term, the left needs to take the challenge of governing seriously. This means building a broader base strategy through coalition building with other, more moderate organizations that can stand with us against the right. I hope, by that point, we will be the senior partner in that coalition.  

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