The “Democratic Road to Socialism” and Bernie Sanders

As the prospects for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has once again been dashed by the party establishment this discussion of the “inside/outside” strategy advocated by left activists provides much needed commentary.

By Julian Merino

With the Democratic Party establishment closing ranks around centrist candidate Joe Biden and the viability of Bernie Sanders fades, an assessment is needed of left electoral activist’s arguments around whether the campaign offers our best hope for social change in decades. Sanders has provided verbal support to striking workers while consistently promoting progressive policies like Medicare for All, tuition-free higher education, and changes to labor law that potentially facilitate unionization and encourage workplace democracy. From a policy perspective, Bernie’s credentials outweigh those of his liberal challengers. It’s only logical that socialists believe a Sanders presidency would be an improvement upon the Trump administration and preferable to that of any other Democratic contender.

Implementation of a Sanders program, however, would require more than a successful presidential run. At minimum, it would involve Democrats taking control of the Senate. Even if that were to happen, a Sanders administration would then be confronted with a Democratic Party that remains deeply beholden to bourgeois interests. The finance, fossil fuel, insurance, pharmaceutical, and weapons manufacturing companies will use all their leverage upon all the other political structures that Sanders would depend on. Substantial congressional opposition to Sanders’s legislation is therefore all but guaranteed. Only a dramatic shift in the balance of class power would see politicians change course and side with proposals for major change.

We simply cannot buy loyal politicians. Our ability to wrest back control over our lives therefore depends on our capacity to act in an independent, collective, and large-scale fashion. If you can’t persuade policymakers with financial carrots (large campaign contributions) or sticks (non-investment), you’re forced to rely on the disruptive potential of self-organized action. Regardless of who sits in the oval office, only this fear of popular retaliation can ensure politicians’ acceptance of measures for reforms. We must be insistent about this fact and oppose any kind of deferential or accommodating attitude to state officials, be they Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, or “democratic socialists.”  

Inside Outside Strategy?

Certain Bernie fans seemingly acknowledge some of these dynamics. Hence the title of a forthcoming book written by two of the Senator’s DSA-based supporters, Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht’s Bigger than Bernie: How We G from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism. Although their book is scheduled to be released in late April, excerpts published online provide an opportunity to engage with the strategic orientation of those pursuing what they call “the democratic road to socialism,” a political project claiming to involve both the electoral campaigns of social democratic politicians as well as grassroots organizing and direct action. 

The “inside/outside” strategy they advocate is a mistaken answer to the question of how we maximize our power to build a classless society. While Day and Uetricht explicitly identify popular power as an essential component of socialist transformation, their proposed “democratic road to socialism” fails to take the implications of this belief seriously. And their claim that “elections can be used to build mass working-class movements” is off target. It’s an assertion that considers complementary what are in fact divergent forms of political engagement with distinct means and ends.  

Ultimately, the independent strength and mentality of working-class movements will determine our ability to reclaim our lives. That strength and mentality are simply not being nurtured when we’re mobilizing to elect and legitimate what we hope to be benevolent leaders. This is not to say that Sanders wouldn’t be better than Trump or Biden. Rather, it is to suggest that winning fellow working-class people over to socialist ideas and putting those ideas into practice demands something different than what democratic socialists promote.

For example, some of the more creative members of Obama’s 2008 campaign team held similar sentiments to the one animating Uetricht and Day’s approach: “What if Barack Obama could become not only the first Black man elected president, but the first president in history to [help] organize an enduring grassroots movement that could last beyond his years in office?” That “grassroots movement” never materialized. Regardless of the excuses enthusiasts put forth, its failure to appear is at least partly attributable to the nature of campaigns for government office.

Power and Deeper Organizing, Not Elections

Electoral campaigns are “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts. They are fundamentally transactional, mobilizing voters by promising someone else will act in their interest. This kind of GOTV initiative can only ever superficially engage people around the problems they are confronting in their everyday lives. Without a deeper organizing commitment, people are not moved to grapple with the fact that those problems are rooted in a power imbalance. “Here’s why you should vote for X” or “Bernie vs. the Billionaires” is a different conversation than one that deals sincerely with people’s everyday issues with their bosses, landlords or the police – which raises the inherent conflict between working class people and the power of capital and the state.

More importantly, prospective voters certainly aren’t encouraged to see self-organized action as the potential solution to their problems. On the contrary, electoral activism sends exactly the opposite message. This explains Obama’s thousands of grassroots activists calling into campaign HQ and asking “what next?” after election day, only to then disengage when no answer was available. [1] These individuals were mobilized into the campaign but not given skills and/or determination needed to act autonomously because electoral campaigns aren’t interested in developing grassroots leadership and movements.

Micah Sifry, author of the article on “Obama’s Lost Army,” highlighted the crux of the problem when explaining why higher ups in the campaign chose not to continue encouraging the popular forces arrayed behind them: “What if Obama’s base didn’t like the health care reform he came up with and rallied independently around a single-payer plan? Besides, grassroots movements, no matter how successful, don’t reliably yield what political consultants want most: money and victories for their candidates, with plenty of spoils for themselves.”

Bernie supporters will certainly counter that he’s a different kind of candidate, a fact encapsulated by his foregoing Super PAC money and his campaign slogan – “Not me. Us.” We can acknowledge that although a President Sanders certainly wouldn’t be spending his time organizing alongside “us,” his rhetorical support for some social movements is genuine. Regardless, if we’re going to build our power, if we’re going to increase the capacity of working-class people to determine their life conditions, we need to develop the leadership self-organized action requires.

The fact remains that there’s only room for one in the voting booth. What we need is to expand the number of grassroots organizers who understand that capital and its state are the problem and that mass working-class and explicitly socialist movements are the answer. That entails a deep, long-term commitment to organizing where we work, study, stay, and pray, a commitment to spreading socialist understanding while encouraging direct action in those spaces we pass through every day. This is what “bring[ing] the Left into the mainstream” and making socialist practice a lived reality for our class necessarily looks like, and not building a social democratic voting bloc.

State Officials Won’t Voluntarily Bring Us Closer to Socialism

A common retort suggests “we can do both!” – yet there are several problems with this response. First, “we” have finite time and energy that we must use in a way that most effectively brings us closer to our goals. The electoral cycle is quite literally never-ending and the proponents of the “democratic road to socialism” acknowledge that the legislative majority they seek can only come about over “multiple contested elections,” likely occurring over many years. The time horizon isn’t the problem here, the commitment is. Having thousands of conversations with other workers where you’re sending wrongheaded messages is not only wasteful but counterproductive. 

This brings us to the second weakness of electoral activists’ “both/and” rebuttal. Canvassing is counterproductive because electioneering inherently serves to shore up the legitimacy of the American state. You can’t pursue a dramatic redistribution of power while legitimating the existing power structure’s foremost office (the U.S. presidency). For example, a Bernie presidency will not bring an end to our murderous border regime, but Sanders’s apparent sympathy for working-class citizens might make it more tolerable in the eyes of regular people. The point is neither that Trump is preferable nor that we shouldn’t fight for reforms that change the lives of working class people for the better. Rather, as socialists we must remain honest and consistent about the illegitimacy of these institutions if we’re to effectively organize our movements and international solidarity we need.

Democratic socialists argue that this leads to self-isolation since “mass numbers of people treat elections as the main arena for their political frustrations and aspirations. The question,” they claim, is about “whether we join them in the democratic sphere, giving socialist and class-struggle character to fights playing out in the electoral arena, or sit out and miss the opportunity to engage with people.” There is an unspoken and deep-seated conservatism at play here that refuses to embrace the hard work of winning people over to a socialist mentality and practice. Instead, the suggestion is that of the opportunist: “many people consider the system legitimate so let’s take our bearings accordingly and look for efficient ways to reduce harm.” If you’re serious about transforming the power structure, you have to commit to organizing the class to act independently.

A Path Toward Revolution?

We now come to the issue presumably separating democratic socialists like Day and Uetricht from more traditional social democrats, a question with which the Sandernistas deal in cavalier and contradictory fashion – that of revolution. Democratic socialists claim “anti-capitalist change will necessarily require… a revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.” Yet Day and Uetricht seem to flinch at the implications, suggesting that “pull[ing] off a revolution in our circumstances” demands “popular support… be mobilized both inside and outside of government.” The confusion here may come from misunderstanding the relationship between revolution and the state. There can be no “inside government” amidst a process defined by the suspension of state authority. [2] We cannot add clarity to this kind of muddled thinking by acknowledging the repressive capabilities of the American state and suggesting that a revolution would therefore have to look different.

You don’t need to speculate about likely forms of revolutionary change to deliver this crucial socialist message: only we – working-class people – are capable of organizing our lives to meet our needs in a free and equal manner. There are no shortcuts. No politician can give us a classless society, but they will attempt to codify realities on the ground if we can build movements with enough teeth to beat back the bosses’ offensive. We must be clear that popular forces are the decisive agents of socialist transformation and organize ourselves accordingly. Any message to the contrary functions to keep a boot on our necks, even if democratic socialists want to claim it’s “the people’s boot.”

Julian Merino is a Chicago-based anarchist. He is currently active in the labor movement and engaged in local migrant solidarity and anti-police organizing.

If you enjoyed this piece we recommend our more in depth readers on left electoralism which includes fourteen articles with contemporary and international analysis, “Socialist Faces in High Places: Elections & the Left.”


1. This quote from “Obama’s Lost Army” is particularly revealing: “On November 5, the day after Obama’s victory, his headquarters in Chicago was deluged with phone calls and emails from supporters asking for guidance on how to keep going. Exactly as Edley had feared, no answers were forthcoming—not even about whether the tens of thousands of volunteers who had built personal fund-raising groups on MyBO would be able to continue them. “We’re all fired up now, and twiddling our thumbs!” wrote one frustrated volunteer from Pennsylvania. “ALL the leader volunteers are getting bombarded by calls from volunteers essentially asking: Nowwhatnowwhatnowwhat?”” 

2. To put this another way, a “revolutionary state” or “revolutionary government” is a logical impossibility. Revolution is necessarily the work of the popular classes.