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Jacobin is wrong: the midterms were not a ‘socialist wave’

We don’t win by shoehorning capitalist politicians into a leftist mold

USA PoliticsSocialism

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman at his inauguration speech in 2019. Fetterman won his race for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat on November 9, 2022. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

After the results of the US midterms rolled in, the Democratic Party collectively breathed a sigh of relief. The predicted Republican “red wave” turned into a trickle as Democrats won key races across the country, retaining their Senate majority and losing the House by a smaller-than-expected margin.

Democrats’ elation is understandable. But something curious is also happening: some on the left are claiming that there was a different kind of red wave—of socialism, that is. Jacobin proclaimed that “the elections were one of the best the left has had in memory,” and DSA claimed the organization—and the progressive movement—had “racked up wins.”

To be sure, progressive ideas and ballot measures found support across the country, and it’s clear that many sectors of the U.S. electorate are further to the left than the two parties. But to claim that November 8 was a victory for the left is a distortion of reality, and an attempt to bolster the failed strategy of building working-class power in a capitalist party.

Victories for “leftist” candidates?

Writing in Jacobin, Branko Marcetic claims, “Centrists were wrong: left-wing candidates won.” Accompanying the article was a picture of John Fetterman, the candidate from Pennsylvania who beat out Dr. Oz for a Senate seat.

Fetterman may hold progressive views on certain issues, like cannabis legalization, but let’s be clear: he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a leftist, and he moved right throughout his campaign. He chauvinistically said he will be “tough on China,” boasting that he was the only Senate candidate from Pennsylvania who hadn’t done business in or praised the country. He has emphasized his support for police and said the movement to defund them was “always absurd.” And his support for fracking shows his allegiances lie with fossil capital, not with people or the planet.

Even on issues where Fetterman is not just a middle-of-the-road Democrat, the leftist bar is on the floor. Marcetic writes that Fetterman is “moving toward universal healthcare” and cites the politician’s support for a $15 minimum wage as a leftist credential. But Fetterman has moved away from supporting Medicare for All, the previous litmus test for progressives, and even politicians like Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer support a $15 wage—an unacceptably low goal amid historic inflation.

Fetterman is not alone in being forcefully shoehorned into leftism in order to fit in Jacobin’s success narrative. Jacobin also praises Pennsylvania’s pro-cop governor-elect, Josh Shapiro, as well as incoming Vermont senator Peter Welch who traded health care stocks while fighting to pass a bill favourable to these same companies. Marcetic even claims that Tim Ryan, who increasingly moved to the right (and lost) in his race against Republican JD Vance in Ohio, “borrowed somewhat from the Left’s playbook.”

These politicians are not leftists, and the 2022 midterms were not a leftist wave, but don’t take our word for it—just read the bourgeois press, which is touting November 8 as a victory for centrism. A New York Times article states that, “In battleground states and swing districts across the country, voters voiced their support for moderation.” The same publication muses about how the Democratic Party can build “John Fetterman 2.0” to secure more victories in Pennsylvania and beyond. An article in The Atlantic titled “How Moderates Won the Midterms” emphasizes the winning strategy of “Democrats who focused on the economy, eschewed the party’s progressive wing, and reached out to traditional Republican voters.”

Clearly, neither the politicians themselves nor the Democratic Party see the midterms as a win for leftism. So why are some on the left, like Jacobin and DSA, pushing this narrative?

These leftist sectors’ strategy hinges on supporting candidates in the Democratic Party and trying to move these politicians leftward. Whether pushing for a “dirty break” with the Democrats or for a realignment of the party, success is measured by the electoral wins of nominally progressive candidates running on the Democratic Party line. By their logic, socialism can be won through the ballot box if politicians merely adopt enough progressive policy positions.

Framing John Fetterman, Josh Shapiro, and others as victories for the left helps vindicate Jacobin and DSA’s strategy. But as history has shown, time and time again, this strategy is a losing bet—even when it comes to more progressive candidates like members of the “Squad” in the House.

More Squad = more socialism?

Centrist candidates aside, it’s true that the Squad expanded its ranks. Maxwell Frost—Congress’s first Generation Z lawmaker—won his race in Florida, and will be joined in the House by Texas’s Greg Casar, Illinois’s Delia Ramirez, and Summer Lee, Pennsylvania’s first Black female congressperson. These individuals espouse progressive positions on many issues, and their election shows that progressive ideas are gaining steam. But do more Squad members mean that congress can be turned into a vehicle for leftist change?

The records of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and other Squad members show that when push comes to shove, these representatives almost always fall in line behind the capitalist establishment. They repeatedly vote for big military budgets and even for increasing police budgets, and support imperialist intervention abroad. Jamaal Bowman is a staunch ally of Israel and, together with AOC, voted to give more military aid to the apartheid regime. And as their unanimous vote to renominate Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker shows, they will never fundamentally oppose the pillars of U.S. capitalism. Meanwhile, progressives’ policy goals, when they are not defeated outright, are increasingly watered down to make them palatable to the defenders of the status quo on both sides of the aisle.

Nonetheless, many on the left believe that every new member of the Squad, and even the addition of one or two slightly more progressive senators, means we’re one step closer to winning progressive victories in areas like climate change, healthcare, and poverty. The argument goes something like this: if we only had more “democratic socialist” votes in Congress, we would finally be able to pass legislation like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

As Tempest highlighted after the 2020 election, this idea that the left is gradually winning stems from “an electoralist perspective that equates winning elections with ‘building power’ and that uses electoral victories as a gauge of strength.”

But this strategy misses a key point: these politicians are funneling progressive energy into a racist, imperialist, capitalist party. Once in power, they provide left cover for the Democratic Party’s politics and rightward shifts, and end up upholding the very systems they speak out against.

We’ve seen how the Democrats de-fanged and co-opted the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, with politicians who two years ago wore kente cloth and decried George Floyd’s death now positioning themselves as pro-cop and “tough on crime” after the biggest social uprising in the country’s history. Democrats are doing the same with reproductive rights, using abortion as a pawn to win elections. On imperialism and the economy, Democrats hardly diverge from Republicans at all beyond supporting more state-interventionist approaches to social spending. And yet Congress’s “democratic socialists” have repeatedly worked tirelessly to get out the vote for these politicians, like AOC hitting the campaign trail with New York governor Kathy Hochul.

Elections can be a socialist tactic

November 8 was less of a victory for Democrats and progressives than it was a repudiation of the extreme Right and GOP, and the records of progressives in Congress show that running as Democrats does not guarantee progressive wins—these candidates water down their program and betray the working class at every turn.

History has shown, time and time again, that the reformist left’s project of building socialism within the Democratic Party is failing. As a result, sectors like Jacobin have to revise their goals downwards, shifting to the right alongside the party they claim they can to reform, to the point that they claim that even politicians who are pro-police, support fracking, and trade healthcare stocks are victories for the left.

This does not mean, however, that leftists should reject the electoral arena: elections are a powerful tool in leftists’ arsenal, but not through the Democratic Party.

Socialists need to organize independently of capitalist parties, and run for elections as part of our own party with an openly socialist program. Running in elections allows us to popularize our ideas, denounce capitalist oppression and exploitation, and indict capitalist democracy. A presence on the political stage helps us engage with those who are looking for alternatives to this wretched system that has nothing to offer the working class and oppressed.

The 2022 midterms were not a “red wave” of socialism, and it sets back our struggle to pretend that they were. We don’t win by shoehorning patently un-leftist politicians into a leftist mold. We don’t win by voting for these politicians, and, above all, we don’t win by working inside a party that’s inherently opposed to our class interests. We win by fighting independently of the two parties of capital, with our own revolutionary party, uncompromising on issues of exploitation, oppression, and imperialism.

Otto is a PhD student and lecturer in New York.

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