A small political victory for socialists has recently been accomplished in New Jersey. Thanks to the efforts of the Socialist Party of New Jersey in challenging undemocratic ballot access laws, it is now possible for registered voters in the state to declare their affiliation as a socialist. While, unlike voters registered as Democrats or Republicans, this does not give them the ability to vote in Socialist Party primaries – as the Socialist Party in New Jersey does not meet the requirements to hold its own primary – this victory does give the SPNJ and other socialists running for office in the state the ability to identify voters who claim some sympathy to socialist politics in order to target them for signature-gathering and campaigning purposes. Given the nature of the US political system and its multiple sets of hurdles placed on organizations seeking to participate in elections, this marks a positive step forward that socialists in New Jersey should take advantage of.
However, as a partial and primarily legal victory, this success is still within the context of the United States’ undemocratic and atomizing political culture. State-recorded party affiliation and state-controlled party primaries are a rather unique aspect of US politics, and in a sense are continuing examples of the US’s political immaturity as compared to most other countries. Indeed, voter registration or voting in a party primary is, for many, the only connection to a political party that a person has.
While such activity is often called “membership,” registering as a Democrat or Republican (or even Socialist in this case) gives a person no rights or responsibilities towards the party they are becoming a “member” of. This may sound very open and democratic on the surface, but in reality- at least for the Democratic and Republican parties- this form of “membership” reinforces the disconnect between politicians and their constituents and serves to uphold a market based attitude towards politics where parties and politicians are primarily differing brands. Registered voters in this schema play the role of atomized consumers – able to choose the brand they align to, but have little meaningful influence over what that brand says or does. This compares unfavorably with many other countries, where the influence of socialist parties has forced political parties of all stripes to take on a more mass character and eroded the bourgeois principle of parties as simply clubs for the political class.
It has to be said that smaller parties, especially socialist groups, generally speaking have a more accessible internal political life than the Democratic or Republican parties, and take a view towards politics that does involve more collective participation. Despite clear potential security problems with handing state bodies a list of people who declare themselves socialists, being able to register as a socialist does give the Socialist Party in New Jersey an advantage for its own propaganda purposes, and hopefully socialists of other organizations running for office in the state can access the voter registration data in order to more effectively spread their message.
Hopefully this legal victory in New Jersey – and others like it elsewhere – can be used to spread socialist political ideas to wider segments of the population and encourage them to become active in the socialist movement. While much of the left does not take the lessons of its European ancestors to heart in terms of advocating mass-membership parties where members are active citizens in their own organization, this victory in New Jersey is nevertheless an opportunity that Marxists, both inside and outside the Socialist Party, should take hold of in order to advocate for such an orientation.
(Originally published in The Red Vine.)