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Taking the dirty break seriously

Socialists, elections, and the Democratic Party


Since Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge in 2016, there has been a renewed focus within the socialist movement on its relationship to the Democratic Party. There have been calls to reform the party (realignment), calls to remain outside it (clean break), and those who see work within the Democratic Party as a temporary means toward a break and formation of an independent party (dirty break). But much less has been written about what a “dirty break” would actually look like and what it requires of socialists today. Here DSA members, Joe Evica and Andy Sernatinger, walk through the implications of the “dirty break” strategy, arguing that taking it at its word would require a fundamental shift to DSA’s work.

New socialists and the rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have dived into elections and tried to win left candidates to office since 2016. They have renewed debates socialists have had for generations about elections and the path to building a working class party in the United States.

The rise of DSA on a national scale shook the dust off these age-old debates and brought the “dirty break” to center stage as a socialist strategy for engaging in electoral politics. The “dirty break” is a plan to build forces through the Democratic Party in order to form a new party. It gained traction after Bernie Sanders’ first Presidential run, particularly after a core of Jacobin writers took up the party question again. Common sense among new socialists now appears as variations on this formula, work within the Democratic Party to work past it: “dirty break”, “class struggle candidates”, “surrogate parties”. So it is worth asking, how far along are we on this path to a new party?

What is the dirty break?

The “dirty break” is a term made popular by Eric Blanc in Jacobin magazine in late 2017. Blanc argues that the two strategies that have guided efforts to carve out political representation for workers haven’t been successful. Neither trying to take over the Democratic Party and making it better (“realignment”) nor working strictly outside of it to build an independent party (“a clean break”). The “dirty break” tries to bridge the two historic approaches. Speaking on Jacobin podcast The Vast Majority, Blanc explained it like this:

“The essence of the “dirty break” strategy is that you should run on the Democratic Party ballot line to build up independent working class and socialist organization until you’re strong enough to break from the Democratic Party and form a new party, or until the Democratic Party itself kicks you out and forces a break. The idea is that you can use the Democratic Party ballot line while remaining independent of the structures as a whole, both organizationally and politically, using that to build up independent working class organization [and] movements in the direction of your own workers’ party.”

The idea is that you can assemble forces with an independent political program while running on the Democratic Party line (the “dirty” part.) At some point those forces will separate and establish their own political party with an independent ballot line (the “break”).

Sounds good. How do we do it? Beyond this broad concept, the theory isn’t developed. Blanc uses a reference to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, though the takeaways from this history are debated. (Blanc himself concludes his article on the dirty break: “Can a dirty break strategy be effectively implemented again? It’s hard to say.”)

Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht provide the other body of writing that elaborates on the “dirty break” in their book Bigger Than Bernie. Day and Uetricht spend most of the chapter on “The Dirty Break” restating the problem of elections in the United States. They then synthesize and recount Blanc’s arguments. The only addition is that they attempt to put some meat on the bones of their “dirty break” idea by incorporating Seth Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a New Party”.

Ackerman’s position is distinct in that he argues for a new type of organization not attached to any single political party: “[A] membership-run organization with its own name, its own logo, its own identity and therefore its own platform, and its own ideology… Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds.” What he’s describing is an organization that functions like an actual membership-based party, without taking up the issue of ballot status—the organization might run candidates on Democratic, Republican, or third party lines, or independently. Ackerman doesn’t advocate “breaking” from the Democratic Party. He’s purposely agnostic on any question about what the party presentation should be.

Bernie or Bust rally in 2016

The strength of Ackerman’s proposal is his careful consideration of electoral laws and the structural obstacles to independent parties. It’s useful in envisioning what we might do while we have no party. Or what an organization committed to the “dirty break” would be like. But if you’re advocating for a “break,” Ackerman doesn’t provide any direction on when or how or even if that should happen.

We are left with a big hole in the dirty break theory: somewhere between running our own candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line and establishing a new party, something has to happen. It is an “Underpants Gnome” theory of how to break:

  • Step One: Run in the Democratic Party
  • Step Two: ?
  • Step Three: New Party.

How long will it take? What conditions need to be met? How will we know? Blanc offers only this in response:

“The general dynamic is that using the Democratic Party ballot line has built up the forces of the left, heightened the contradictions, exposed the Democratic Party leadership, and started a process in which if it continues…you can see it move in the direction of us having finally enough strength to break from the Democrats completely or get kicked out. But with a political base so that we can actually have our own party and not just be at the margins of political life.”

This doesn’t give us much to go on. The Democratic Party is arguably more “exposed” than ever, but this has not shaken its grasp on political life, nor have “heightened contradictions” done anything to encourage a new, independent, working-class electoral formation.

If it walks like a duck: class struggle elections

Drawing on elements of “dirty break” and Ackerman’s work, DSA members in the Bread and Roses caucus (including Blanc, Day, and Uetricht) won the national organization to a framework that they call “class struggle elections” (CSE). (Bread and Roses doesn’t actually use the term “dirty break”, they exclusively discuss CSE.)

CSE can be considered a version of “dirty break.” It “does not rule out DSA-endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line”, but it does establish intent to run open socialist candidates and to create an independent working class party. That last point is important, since there was a successful struggle to retain the language addressing the need to create an independent working class party at the 2019 DSA National Convention.

What’s different about CSE is that it reverses the formula. Where Ackerman advocates building party-like organization that generates candidates and holds them accountable, CSE is about running candidates now and pushing off the creation of party-like organizaiton until some undetermined time when conditions have improved.

Day and Uetricht claim that DSA is already the party-like organization, but it doesn’t resemble what Ackerman has described nor does it even aspire to that. Language in the DSA National Electoral Strategy document is explicit that local chapters will develop their own strategies (not just local tactics in service of a national strategy). There is no minimum standard for what electoral campaigns should look like. Local chapter strategies are generally candidate-centered—meaning that the activity is driven by a candidate in isolation, rather than an organizational vision. The National Electoral Committee can network politicians, but there is no expectation for DSA-backed candidates to do so. DSA has no member-based structure that determines potential candidates’ programs, no body that can hold candidates accountable and no national fundraising strategy to distribute resources across multiple candidate’s campaigns. As a result, electoral efforts of DSA appear more as a patchwork of individual campaigns rather than a unified organizational approach.

Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), at a press conference.

The primary focus of socialists utilizing CSE strategy has been on campaigns for socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Jamaal Bowman, Julia Salazar, Lee Moore and others. While these campaigns are progressive in outlook, none of them challenge the legitimacy of the Democratic Party beyond their decision to primary incumbents from the party establishment. In fact, the most prominent of these candidates (AOC and Sanders) are committed to realignment and do not support a break of any kind. Sure, AOC said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party”, but she has not said that it makes no sense to share a party in this country.

The position of AOC and others poses a major problem for those who are proponents of either CSE or “dirty break” as articulated by Blanc. If the majority of candidates place themselves firmly within the Democratic Party and have no intention of breaking from it themselves, what would make us think that these efforts are preparing us for a break?

Blanc attempts to address the problem by arguing that campaigns like Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’s “heighten the contradictions” between working class voters and the Democratic Party. This gets slippery: without independent organization and with candidates who don’t share the strategy, arguments appear to accommodate desire to contest Democratic ballot lines rather than encourage practices that can lead to a new party. The “break” part of things is fuzzy while the “dirty” (working within the Democratic Party) goes on indefinitely.

“Doing the dirty break” this way resembles realignment. Day recognizes this in a Twitter thread on “the dirty break”. She notes: “the [dirty break] stipulates that we should not start anew until we’ve significantly increased our power, profile, etc, which means the strategies for [realignment] and [dirty break] are going to look similar up to a certain point.” If there’s no concept of how long this road will go and if the activity resembles “realignment”, then it’s functionally just that with a fresh coat of paint.

When push comes to shove, we’re pretty much doing the same thing as most candidate-centered electoral campaigns in the United States. Without connection to a “party-like” organization as described by Ackerman, this doesn’t prepare any organizational efforts to be the basis of a new party.

We must start by acknowledging that while Sanders and AOC have helped by inspiring new socialists, they are actually working for a very different project than anyone interested in “dirty break” or “class struggle elections”. Bread and Roses members confuse this when they write both that Sanders exemplifies a CSE candidate and that such candidates “help build… working-class organizations and militancy independent of [their] campaigns and of the Democratic Party.” Sanders literally does not fit this definition, since he dropped out and immediately supported Joe Biden and the Democratic Party like he always said he would.

AOC may not pay dues to the DCCC, but she continues to support realigning the Democratic Party. Her position is not against the Democratic Party so much as against its current direction. She is clear on this point, her arguments reinforce the notion that the Democrats can be changed—and that dynamic actually works at cross purposes with a break of any kind.

To the extent that these officeholders extend support to our movements, we should applaud them for that. We can work with politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez – but we must grapple with the fact that our project of breaking with the Democratic Party is fundamentally different than their approaches to politics.

The point is that we have no reason to believe that any of this is building toward a break. The electoral practice of DSA continues to be candidate-centered and it has not built a party-like organization that could be a rival to the Democratic Party. DSA-supported candidates are generally not accountable to the organization and do not work directly to build it, let alone work toward a political break from the Democratic Party. So the electoral practice of DSA doesn’t actually look anything like what Ackerman described and it rests entirely on a fuzzy notion that we are “heightening the contradictions.”

Blanc’s “dirty break” and Bread and Roses’ CSE do not prepare socialists with any vision of what needs to be different in their electoral activity. The practical problem is that such a vague notion of how running candidates in the Democratic Party would create a new party legitimizes all electoral efforts so long as they’re against ‘the establishment’.

There’s no evidence that these ideas have done anything to prepare for political independence: we could count on one hand the partisan races DSA has supported that are not dependent on the Democratic Party. Indeed, there has been more policing of desire to run outside the Democratic Party than encouragement of the need to break. Choosing not to build independent organization while utilizing the Democratic Party ballot line precludes the possibility of building a base of people who are capable of making a break. Rather than being an effective, albeit “dirty”, way to create more favorable ground for a break, this strategy keeps us inside the Democratic Party. As Day notes above, this version of a “dirty break” looks very much like realignment. And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

This “dirty break” doesn’t offer any particulars of what we should be doing that’s different from regular electoral campaigns. And it does not offer any way of gauging the strength of the project to guide activists in attempting to create a new party. Uetricht and Day are right to bring in Ackerman’s ideas to propose a kind of pre-party organization to help fill in the missing parts of the “dirty break”. However, in practice there has been no effort to create the kind of membership-based party-like organization that Ackerman proposes (whether its used for a “dirty break” or as an end in itself). Without either a pre-party (“surrogate”) or a sense of what we’re doing that builds to a break, electoral activity defaults to running leftists as Democrats and saying that this “heightens the contradictions.” It is as if we think that one day these contradictions will become so untenable that they burst. But it all ends up just being de facto realignment.

Doing the dirty: Taking the dirty break seriously

What we’re suggesting is actually taking the dirty break seriously. There is something useful about trying to think about how to build towards a new party in a way that doesn’t just hand wave the particulars and say “the struggle will solve that for us”. We went through the problems of the dirty break because we think that there is something useful here. Having laid out the theory as it is, we think that there are three correctives needed to develop it and make it more useful.

First, the dirty break needs more guidance on how to relate to the Democrats. The Democratic Party is more than a ballot line administered by the state, and it extends beyond the official party structure. It functions more like a complex, with formal and informal mechanisms.

There’s a center, which is not democratically determined but ensures that the party’s capitalist backers get what they paid for. Extending beyond them are the public figures lending their celebrity to reinforce the party, news columns and editorials that exert constant ideological pressure to vote Democrat, trade unions turning out members and staff, endorsements by sitting politicians and civil society organizations, political feeder groups that recruit and train new politicians and apparatchiks, and marketing firms that identify and target voters. It actually takes a lot of work to mobilize society behind the Democrats. Yet it’s become so common for everyone to fall in line that the basic act of not participating becomes a political statement. We saw how commentators and Democratic Party stalwarts blew up around DSA’s Bernie or Bust position. The Democratic Party resembles capitalism in that it’s adaptable and has a consistent function despite the different forms it takes at various points in history.

If we want to break from the Democratic Party, we have to understand what props it up, how it incorporates new developments, and how it is reinforced and legitimized by an array of social forces. We have to be sure that in getting dirty we don’t end up re-legitimizing the Democratic Party rather than weakening it.

To that end, using a “dirty break” strategy would require that socialists:

  • Be clear about their politics in electoral campaigns—what we’re doing has to be distinct
  • Refrain from promoting the Democratic Party, calling themselves “proud Democrats”, or otherwise claiming to “fix” or “retake” the party
  • Pursue reforms that make independent runs easier or more feasible and competitive
  • Don’t undermine interest in independent (third party) initiatives
  • Refrain from taking posts in Democratic Party structures
  • Don’t endorse other Democrats, particularly after losing a primary, unless the Democrat also meets the criteria above

How to do this will vary depending on the context and the actors involved. What’s most important is that a dirty break cannot reinforce the Democratic Party by suggesting that the party can be reformed, legitimizing neoliberal politicians as “lesser evils”, or becoming part of the complex. It also does us no good if in the course of using the Democratic Party line tactically, we disparage third parties and independent initiatives, as that poisons the well.

Second, a dirty break strategy has to take an organizational approach rather than referring to a pastiche of individual campaigns after the fact. If the goal of running candidates with this perspective is to bridge the gap between running candidates within the Democratic Party and building an independent socialist party, we need to draw organizational conclusions. That is, we must begin the process of building some kind of national, pre-party membership organization that has the potential to connect the efforts of socialist candidates across different states to a single, coherent project. (As already noted, DSA doesn’t fit that criteria.) Without a common project, all these campaigns are just the sum of their parts. Left electeds would benefit from communication, training, shared resources, fundraising mechanisms, generalized platforms, and other kinds of tools that are necessary to make campaigns successful.

This isn’t new, it is consistent with what Seth Ackerman proposes in his 2016 Jacobin article. The thing is, we actually have to do it. Establish a membership organization with a name and identity. Reaffirm that a central political objective includes building an independent socialist/workers party. Start raising money. Train members on the logistical operations of a campaign. Develop messaging and materials to reduce redundant efforts. Candidates would associate themselves with the organization and win or lose they would promote the “pre-party” to help further other efforts going forward. The organization would have to recruit candidates from social movements and these candidates would have to be on board with the program and accountable to the “pre-party”.

An organizational approach needs to go still farther, since Ackerman’s perspective works on an “empty shell” conception of the Democratic Party and is fixated on the formal electoral obstacles to third parties. Dirty breakers need to address the complex and make a project of winning unions, NGOs, and movement organizations to a democratic endorsement process—most leaders of these organizations make unilateral decisions to endorse establishment Democrats. We would also require allied media and figures that support the pre-party, agitate for a break, and don’t prop up the Democrats.

Third and finally, you have to actually try to break. Dirty break arguments have been directed more at those leftists who are critical of the Democrats to convince them why it makes sense to “get dirty”. But the emphasis actually has to be on the break side of things. There is no automatic process that moves in the direction of a break, history shows the opposite is true. Blanc suggests that one scenario that would lead to a break would be getting “kicked out” of the Democratic Party, but this doesn’t happen. AOC can refuse to pay her DCCC dues, and Vermin Supreme can campaign with a boot on his head, but they’re both still “allowed” to be in the Democratic Party. The problem isn’t getting kicked out, it’s being stuck in.

There has to be a purposeful intervention, and it has to be consistent. Otherwise left electoral activity will always default to already-existing forms of electoral campaigning which reinforce the Democrats rather than prepare us for something different. If a dirty break organization is going to prepare for a new socialist party, it has to make an effort toward independent campaigns. When opportunities present themselves to run competitively or even lose strategically we can positively influence public opinion of what is possible outside the Democratic Party. This won’t be every election, but it has to be more than never. Given that so many US cities are dominated by the Democratic Party and Republicans don’t even stand a chance at winning, the “spoiler” effect often doesn’t even factor in.

There are several important strengths to these guidelines. The first is that they do not sow any illusions about the need to unconditionally support the Democratic Party. The second is that the message of building an independent workers’ party resonates strongly with working class voters. Polls show majorities of people are in favor of establishing a third party, but they see few avenues for its emergence. The last of the stipulations is a practical one. It does not relegate socialists to an electoral approach which requires that they run on independent ballot lines where it is nearly assured that they stand no chance of winning.

Conclusion: Go for broke

Caucuses like Bread and Roses that have pushed DSA to engage in “class struggle elections” have failed to consistently put forward a genuine dirty break strategy. It would be more apt to describe the activity of comrades like Eric Blanc, Meagan Day, Jeremy Gong, and others as “class struggle realignment” rather than dirty break. They have been primarily focused on supporting candidates who are wholly committed to running in, reforming, and organizing with the Democratic Party. That approach cannot produce the break that DSA members recognize is crucial to building socialism in the United States. Though they have a theoretical interest in a dirty break, the ambiguity of their strategy indefinitely postpones a break and the practical activity ends up being indistinct from realignment.

If we wish to one day make a break from the Democratic Party, we need to start the work of building organizations capable of doing so, even while we are utilizing Democratic Party ballot lines. The time to begin building a pre-party and encourage socialist candidates to run campaigns on a generalized platform is now – not the undefined future when we have finally determined that subjective conditions are ripe. Let’s begin to take concrete, practical steps towards these goals so that one day soon we have a socialist party of our own—capable of representing the interests of the working class against capital.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at editors@tempestmag.org.

Joe Evica and Andrew Sernatinger View All

Joe Evica is a member of the Madison, Wisconsin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and a union member in OPEIU Local 39.

Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint and Jacobin.

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