Like many young and idealistic undergraduates in political science programs, I attempted to secure a coveted internship in the hallowed halls of power in Washington D.C. For some, the choice was easy. But as a socialist, wary of even the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as an engine of change, it was no easy decision. Still, inspired by the recent successes of democratic socialist insurgents in an environment dominated by the status quo, I thought it would be worth seeing how progressive change can be made from within. After a few months in D.C., it became undeniably clear that the established political systems of power and influence are designed not for bold change and justice, but to reinforce an entrenched ruling class. True change of the magnitude required at this time of national and global crisis necessitates organizing and coalition-building beyond the established norms of electoral politics.
In Search of Solidarity
Like most working-class college students, I had to find opportunities that paid–a reprehensible barrier to access. This resulted in me accepting a position at an institution embroiled in scandals about establishment bias: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Despite concerns, I decided to go along with the internship in the hopes of gleaning insight by proximity to governing and campaigning. I embarked a closeted socialist and found myself placed in marketing — the irony was palpable.
What struck me most about my experience was not merely the structures and systems in place, but the kinds of people they inevitably attract. The overall economic privilege and prevailing attitude among my class of interns was not lost on me. The central goal of many of these Democratic college students was not systemic justice, but personal advancement.
Their upper-class upbringings and beliefs in bipartisanship and civil norms led to interactions that would seem farcical were it not so terrifying that these are the people who would one day wish to lead the party. There was one intern from an expensive private college, who adored the New York Times, and unflinchingly admitted to me that they cried when John McCain died (I’m uncertain if as much time was spent shedding tears over the uncounted victims of his imperialistic, war hawk policies). They later left to work on the campaign of Pete Buttigieg.
Then there was the intern who valued compromise and winning over all else; they once openly wondered why those living in poverty didn’t simply start businesses if they didn’t want to be poor. This intern was unfazed by my agape jaw. I later learned they also suggested to one of the only other working-class interns that if they needed to save money, they should just eat less food. Poverty, apparently, was a test of character that I was failing.
Win and Keep Winning
The intern class was only symptomatic of a larger problem. While there are myriad issues with the DCCC and its management, the simplest critique is this: the establishment only cares about winning power and increasing that power. It doesn’t care about using it, as evidenced by their willingness to point to progressive young women of color in their caucus as examples of Democratic diversity, but when those progressive women of color advocate for sweeping changes they are summarily excoriated by their own party. While the Right have no issue using their power by any means necessary to achieve their ambitiously regressive agenda, Democrats are unwilling to do anything to stand against it.
It’s not just moral cowardice; this environment invites young people enamored by the Democratic establishment to try and move up as though it were some kind of game where one must be careful, never stand for anything, and they’ll surely be rewarded with prestige, power and — eventually — the ability to speak up. But, one must only speak up in ways that “win,” which are not actually appealing to the Left, but just capitulating to the Right. Winning, according to their definition, means taking the Left for granted and pandering to the Center in any self-degrading attempts to avoid the “socialist” label. The DCCC Communications team itself jumps through hoops to avoid there being any sort of association between Democrats and socialism.
Why? Because the Democratic Party isn’t an opposition party. They’ll certainly raise money as though they are: as a revolting amount of politicians’ time is spent not governing but soliciting donations from the wealthy (an entire wing of the DCCC office is designated specifically for that purpose). And Democrats will paint themselves as opposites when it suits them for electoral gain, but the main concern of the party lies with the maintenance and expansion of political power regardless of whether or not the Party will use that power for good–a conclusion favoring the capitalist class already benefiting from the Republican’s right-wing agenda.
Asphyxiation by Compromise
Congressional Democrats and the DCCC compromise courage in favor of winning, often recruiting candidates almost solely on their ability to raise enormous sums of money. Those wins, though, mean nothing since they are not the beginning, but the end of the Democratic electoral strategy. Justice yields to prestige, good faith representation yields to capital. And the tragic part is that many young people enamored with the party think politics is a game because, for too many of those with an active voice, the consequences of compromise and inaction won’t apply to them. They are more worried about their own discomfort from when someone dares demand change than they are about fixing glaring injustices.
Politics to them is a career, not a means to actually materially improve people’s lives. They’ll say “I agree with your cause, just not your tactics.” They’ll virtue signal, tone-police, and never take action if it’s inconvenient. They prefer order over justice, civility over criticism, comfort over tension — perpetuating a cycle of suppressing the voices of marginalized people in favor of maintaining the status quo.
Politics is not a sport for nerds stuck on rules and internecine squabbles about how Pelosi claps or Trump eats — it’s a fight for human dignity and a just future for all. There is no room for compromise when it comes to moral and economic imperatives. By definition, compromising justice means accepting degrees of injustice — and that is what the Democrats offer us. That Democrats don’t understand this — or, worse, understand and are wholly apathetic to it — gives away the immense privileges so many of them insulate themselves within.
Who Would Be Free Themselves Must Strike the Blow
This is what makes the Democratic Party establishment so insidious. While the Right at least do not hide their imperialist and capitalist motives — which reinforce an overwhelmingly white upper echelon of bourgeois power holders — the Democrats do effectively the same, just with a veneer of diversity and the occasional hacked-apart progressive policy for the discontent Left. Words like “justice” and “equality” are easy to pepper into their press releases, but actually following that up with actions that don’t ignore or harm the marginalized is too much of a stretch for them.
The solution is a simple but altogether too revolutionary concept for many young Democrats enamored with the potential of the party but unwilling to face the reality of its structurally-guaranteed pattern of failures: We must organize beyond the established political structures.
Appealing to the powers-that-be, timidly balancing moving up in the system with making incremental changes, simply isn’t enough. We have to make real demands, and we have to be willing to fight for those demands. We cannot compromise our values out of political expediency any longer. And we cannot allow the Democratic Party to continue to silence us. For too long, we have submitted ourselves to innumerable degrees of injustice in the service of a party unwilling to earnestly struggle for all of us.
For those of us who would proudly call ourselves socialists, we must reject the establishment and choose genuine organizing and direct action in friendships, workplaces, and communities. It is up to us to rebuke the electoral politics of the status quo which have done nothing but preserve power. Collective liberation will require much of us, but that fortitude comes from an unyielding conviction in a more just society. It’s time to stand up, walk out, and actually fight for what is right. This is how we win.
Joseph is an undergraduate studying English and Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is most actively interested in and involved with struggles for labor rights and Puerto Rican liberation.