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At a crossroads

DSA in the COVID age


Andy Sernatinger reviews the recent history of the refounded DSA, the strategic and organizational questions which defined the last few years, and the emerging political question in the COVID moment.

2020 is a year that no one was prepared for. The sudden shift from an electoral season that dominated political life to pandemic and Black rebellion has drastically upended our expectations of how politics would play out in the first year of the new decade and forced us to acclimate to a new normal. Crossing these dramatically different rhythms of political time (election campaigning and mass protest; organization building and movement support) hasn’t been particularly easy for activists. For socialists who have committed to an orientation based on an assessment of a period that is rapidly closing, it’s been disorienting.

I’ve written a lot in the last year about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), analyzing the organization and covering its internal life, particularly the decisions of DSA leaders. Now that the organization has grown to 70,000 members, accumulated experience on campaigns, and encountered a radically different situation, we need to make a balance sheet of what DSA has done as a socialist organization and start to think through the new challenges that emerge.

A very brief history of DSA

Although the organization was originally formed in 1982, DSA was essentially refounded in 2016–17 as new, mostly young members joined the organization’s ranks following the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump. By 2017, DSA had expanded to more than 25,000 members, up from only a few thousand mostly paper members years earlier. With so many new young socialists, DSA effectively became a new organization in 2017, pushing away from its old social democratic leanings inherited from the previous era.

We can think of the refounded DSA up to 2019 as being in a formative period. The activity of DSA members from 2016 through 2018 was a mix of organization building and political experimentation. Chapters were created in every state in the country, most of them with no historic link to DSA as it previously existed.

While there were some general guidelines about how to structure a chapter, the politics of organization building by necessity became a central feature of the new DSA: how could chapters effectively relate to so many new members joining? The socialist left before 2016 was largely built around tight cadre organizations, with careful selection and deep commitment to politics. DSA’s broad appeal meant that organization questions would have to deal with various levels of interest, experience, and involvement. Chapters had to figure out communication methods that struck the right balance of open access and useful points of entry for democratic participation. This might seem mundane or like it “isn’t politics”, but political activity in DSA is mediated through chapters, and figuring out how new socialists would organize themselves to do work became a primary issue in this early period.

Politically, DSA chapters experimented with its common activity through the end of 2018. For an organization that generally marked Bernie Sanders as its origin point, there would be roughly three years before the next election where Sanders could run again, which meant that chapters had to figure out what socialist activism meant in the meantime—“let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks”. Beginning in 2017, DSA chapters mobilized at airports against the Muslim-ban; disrupted figures in the Trump cabinet as they dined out; rallied against Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE); formed socialist-feminist groups; demonstrated outside of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing; organized brake light clinics; hosted socials; confronted fascists in Charlottesville; and pressured politicians to support Medicare for All.

Two events had an outsized role in changing the tenor of DSA’s activity. The first was the 2018 teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. These illegal strikes involving some DSA members also raised consciousness about the power of organized labor to combat neoliberalism. They showed that teachers in red states could strike and win demands against state governments that were decidedly anti-labor, offering another path to deliver change in the United States. Chapters inspired by the “red state revolt” were eager to support the Los Angeles and Chicago teachers, Stop and Shop workers and United Auto Workers strikes soon after.

Chicago teachers on strike.

The second was the surprise upset election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to U.S. Congress in 2018. AOC, who at the time was not a professional politician but a bartender recruited by Justice Democrats, secured an electoral win with the help of New York DSA that suggested electoral efforts could be fielded locally while still raising the banner of democratic socialism. AOC’s (loose) association with DSA created buzz around the organization and encouraged DSA chapters to invest more in electoral efforts.

2019: International uprisings in an election season

In 2019, things start to shift. Objectively, the level of struggle in the United States wasn’t what it was the previous two years. As the election season closed in, attention became much more narrowly focused on high politics, including a never-ending series of scandals, the ongoing horror of the Trump administration, and impeachment proceedings. Movement activism declined. The teachers’ strike wave closed with a last battle in Oakland. The United Auto Workers had their first major auto strike in decades, but it coincided with corruption charges for union officials; ultimately the strike was unable to beat back General Motors’ attacks.

DSA’s larger policy campaigns (Medicare for All, Green New Deal) were at an impasse – years of canvassing and lobbying did not find many openings to actualize these important and popular political policies; unable to make inroads, the efforts often faded away or dissolved into electoral efforts. While politics in the United States seemed to be changing for the worse, internationally there were historic uprisings in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Sudan, Chile, and France.

Between the late summer of 2019 and the end of the campaign, the overwhelming bulk of DSA’s work was directed at the 2020 election and the second Sanders campaign. There was never a doubt that DSA would work to support Bernie Sanders in his second run; the question was how would the campaign for Sanders work, would it be suitably independent, and could it break free from the traps of the Democratic Party electoralism? These were the terms of the debate raised by DSA members in early 2019. As I wrote previously:

The combination of Sanders’ outsider status (a candidate running against the political establishment), a social democratic platform, and the sense of a historic opportunity clearly won the majority of DSA members to endorsement.

For those skeptical of the Democratic Party, a compromise was offered—the pro-Sanders argument was able to acknowledge the problems with electoralism and chart a path forward that argued for conditional involvement for the purpose of movement-building, class consciousness and socialist organization.

At least rhetorically, DSA advanced the notion that the value of electoral campaigns would be the effect they could have on popular struggle, which is the real motor of change.

Chapters began campaigning for Sanders in the fall of 2019, and according to DSA for Bernie’s post-mortem, 91 chapters participated in DSA’s independent expenditure campaign, knocking on more than half a million doors. DSA dedicated tens of thousands of dollars and created national infrastructure for its campaign, adding staff, legal research, literature design, and voter tools to mobilize members to canvass for Sanders.

DSA threw itself wholly into campaigning for Sanders until the campaign ended in February/March 2020. From the outset there was a tension between building independent capacity and “winning”, which largely resolved in favor of the pragmatic campaigning strategy. DSA followed the Sanders campaign’s political messaging and trajectory, deployed volunteers for calls and texts, and used block captain canvassing tactics that have been neglected by present-day Democratic Party apparatchiks.

Political time in 2020

The Sanders campaign’s abrupt end in March 2020 brings us to the current political moment: the COVID-19 pandemic and the national uprising for Black lives following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And months later, in the midst of the largest uprising arguably in US history, DSA National has been conspicuously silent. DSA chapters had difficulty relating organizationally to the movement even as members participated in large numbers. What gives?

After experimenting with direct action and other immediate mobilizations, DSA consolidated its approach to a certain rhythm of political time based on elections and medium-term campaigns. In getting involved in elections, any organization has to acclimate to a calendar of events and create structures and practices to regulate its activities to suit those needs. And while not every chapter went “all-in” on elections, non-electoral activity was still regulated by a similar concept of time for issue-campaigns, coalition- and institution-building. So, while a chapter might reject a primarily electoral orientation, it could still have a similar organizational rhythm while attempting to build tenants’ unions, organize labor or provide mutual aid. Ideologically, DSA thinkers pushed for this by arguing that socialists had to move from protest to politics and DSA had to divest itself from street mobilizations towards ‘winning power’. DSA activity was not so much a natural evolution as much as it has been the product of efforts to discourage one type of practice and continually reinforce another.

Campaigning for Bernie in 2020

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This political time crashed headlong into the George Floyd uprising. The revived Black Lives Matter movement operated on a very immediate, daily timing while DSA had built its infrastructure on a routinized weekly and monthly timing without mechanisms for rapid response. What’s more, the emphasis on electoral activity trained DSA members in a type of politics that was substantially different from militant protest, and organizationally left DSA without direction for the moment. DSA approached the semi-spontaneous uprising based on its previous experience with short-term demonstrations and ended up disoriented by the continuous actions confronting the state.

DSA’s profile and priorities

So, if we were to talk about what DSA does, what would we say and how would we evaluate it? The national profile is that DSA is an electorally-focused organization – the place “Bernie’s army” went between and after the campaigns.

Chapters of course vary and have differing experiences, but as a whole I think we can identify effective priorities at this point in 2020. This is not what I personally place value on, but I think we can look at what areas consistently receive the most effort by the most chapters and have dedicated resources (staff or funding). Based on these criteria, I’d suggest that elections, issue-campaigns, labor, and mutual aid seem to be the primary activities in DSA.

Elections

Elections are the only area of work that has had national direction, with staff hired specifically for the Bernie Sanders campaign and for legal compliance for chapters to run their local/statewide campaigns. Communications from DSA National spotlight elections more frequently than any other kind of activity, and elections have an elevated position in theoretical and strategic discussions. DSA’s general political perspective doesn’t privilege elections as being paramount compared to building mass movements, but in effect elections are the toast of the town.

Leaving aside the Sanders campaign, DSA’s electoral activity has shaped up in a peculiar way. The default electoral orientation in DSA is of course to run within the Democratic Party as socialists, and avoid obstacles that present themselves in the American political structure that penalize third party efforts by “spoiling” the election and handing it over to victory for the right wing. Initially, the socialist part of this formulation had more stress than the “running in the Democratic Party” part, but the practice has been much more mixed, with a growing number of DSA endorsements of “progressive” Democrats.

Because of the early successes DSA had, especially with AOC’s election to Congress, many political hopefuls began to view DSA as an asset to election campaigns. Aspiring politicians started approaching DSA chapters for endorsements, at first seeing the organization as having a direct connection to AOC’s celebrity that they wanted for their own careers. DSA cast a shadow that was much larger than itself, and they thought the organization was a colossus that they could summon to their sides. What became clear was that DSA does have one very important resource: a body of volunteers who can put in a great effort when deployed in a race.

On a very practical level, regardless of whether DSA is seen as itself being a player, it does have a base of members who will work a good ground game at a time where politics has devolved into a marketing air war without much substance. This is both an asset and a liability. DSA has something candidates want (people), but it has attracted many with questionable resumes, and brought DSA into working on politics that are often not socialist but some variant of “progressive” – a term that has depreciating value. Electoral logic then moves from presenting democratic socialism on the ballot to accumulating progressives in office.

Given DSA’s open membership structure, many aspiring politicians sometimes “join” DSA and say they’re socialists to secure an endorsement and get support, but aren’t really invested in DSA or socialist politics. So rather than growing movement candidates from the organization who present democratic socialism electorally, what ends up happening is that either we get lucky and a good person comes forward spontaneously, or more likely politicians with semi-compatible platforms solicit support and DSA throws itself into this kind of politicking.

The flexibility DSA allows chapters to have in making their endorsements means that there isn’t really a floor for electoral politics across the organization, but the activity of any chapter can have a profound impact on the rest of the organization depending on who they’ve attached themselves to. This contrasts with the “class struggle elections” criteria, which stress open identification as socialists, creating a candidate pipeline, using the campaign and office to boost movement building and “class struggle politics”, and building relationships independent of the Democratic Party.

DSA candidates who’ve come through the organization with activist experience tend to run principled socialist campaigns, such as Heidi Sloan in Texas or Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez in Chicago, but these are the minority of campaigns DSA works on.

Labor

Labor follows elections, which makes sense given socialists’ focus on work and the working class. Participation in labor work ends up uneven for a few reasons. First, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) has understandably focused on unions, but this often precludes workers outside of traditionally organized labor. Second, union bureaucracy and decline has left many existing union members disinterested in their organizations, and so even some DSA unionists don’t see this as their political work. Third, while there is a national labor body in DSA (the DSLC), it doesn’t have a very strong role in shaping members’ labor activism. This means that there isn’t a general approach that interested DSA members can get plugged into.

Chapters define their own approaches, and this follows the rhythms of their local labor movement. Much of the chapter-level labor work has centered on supporting things external to DSA (strikes, public actions, lobbying), though there are notable exceptions like San Francisco DSA’s organizing efforts with ILWU at Anchor Brewing & Tartine Bakery, which involve worker-members and are supported outright as DSA.

Labor remains a priority in DSA, as we can see DSA’s investment in the Emergency Worker Organizing Committee (EWOC) – started not through the DSLC but instead the National Political Committee (NPC), the general leadership of DSA. EWOC is a partner-project between DSA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a left-wing independent union. EWOC formed in response to worker safety issues in the COVID-19 pandemic, and functions as a centralized node for workers to contact to then get virtual support from volunteer labor organizers and UE, either for immediate demands or union representation. EWOC transplants a structure from the Sanders campaign for its centralized volunteer system. DSA attached staff to EWOC and provided them with social media advertising, and UE has since hired two DSA members as staff specifically for the project.

The DSLC also has two other national efforts: the Restaurant Organizing Project, directed at organizing working and unemployed restaurant/hospitality workers, and #DSA4USPS, a solidarity campaign to support the United States Postal Service (USPS).

Issue-based pressure campaigns

Not nearly as common as electoral campaigns, DSA chapters pursue pressure campaigns to win concessions on specific issues. These identify a reform that could be made and attempt to create an outward-facing campaign to engage the public and levy pressure on decision-makers with varying levels of success.

In Chicago, the Lift the Ban campaign works to end Illinois’ prohibition on rent control; Take Back the Grid in Massachusetts and other similar campaigns across the country aim to nationalize the energy sector and begin a green transition; in New Orleans, DSA targeted a convention center receiving public funds to demand money be redistributed to unemployed workers; in Denver, DSA worked with unions to demand a moratorium on rent during the pandemic. These campaigns vary greatly depending on local context: the balance of forces, local history, and objective conditions (legal structures; contract particulars; public access; democratic oversight, etc.). In light of that, DSA nationally can encourage campaigns, but can’t design them on behalf of its chapters.

Mutual aid

Despite not being promoted as much by the national organization, and while not having the same amount of strategic or theoretical writings produced by members to encourage it, mutual aid is a large part of the activist work that happens in DSA. Since 2017, mutual aid projects have had currency among new socialists looking for projects that appear to have immediate results. The most well-known of these were the New Orleans’ brake light clinics, which chapters around the country reproduced. During the teachers strikes, chapters worked on “Bread for Ed” as direct support for students in Chicago, Oakland and Arkansas. With COVID-19, chapters took up making masks and delivering groceries. DSA officially organized a national Mutual Aid working group in May 2020.

Playing second fiddle: coalition-building

If we try to take a big picture view of DSA, some patterns emerge that belie DSA’s strategic sense of how it aims to transform society. Looking at all the activity together, it’s nearly all done through coalitions or through organizations and campaigns external to DSA (for example, unions or politicians) – these are typically not “DSA campaigns” outright. DSA tends not to view itself as a protagonist in social struggles; rather, we support the real actors as they take center stage. There are few independent initiatives, and those that exist frequently partner with others to lend their legitimacy to DSA. This is a “coalition-building” strategy, which informs the operations of DSA National.

There’s good reason to do this. For one, it’s a corrective to sectarian left practices that view a socialist organization as the central actor when they’re clearly not. And in an emerging DSA with many downwardly mobile white people it makes sense to recognize your social location, which can help with relationship building.

The problem is that this is useful only in doses. After a point, it makes a habit of deferring leadership to organizations and actors external to DSA and undervalues the contributions DSA can make as an organization of activists, let alone as socialists who have more to bring to the table than their activist labor. In trying to be relevant, what ends up happening is that DSA tends to tail the initiatives of other organizations and adapts to their demands and tactics – this puts pressure on the leadership of the organization not to stake out overly bold positions for fear of alienating “coalition partners”.

If we locate actors in the struggle as perpetually outside our organization (sometimes joining DSA, but keeping their work separate), it suggests that for many there isn’t confidence in DSA to be an actor in its own right. This presents two contradictions: 1) the bold work and profile that made DSA an attractive coalition partner is eroded without new initiatives and bold positions; 2) the value of a humble approach to struggles is self-defeating if DSA doesn’t eventually attempt to take the relationships built and move forward with more of its own leadership. As a general method, coalition-building means that DSA often views itself without confidence to determine its own positions or call its own actions.

Contrast this with an institution-building approach. Historically, socialists have made united front alliances with other organizations, yes, but they also assessed the field and attempted to build new institutions where they didn’t exist or where existing structures were so hopelessly incapable of being transformed that building rival groups was more effective. These have to be identified as having some connection to a socialist project, even loosely, or DSA risks losing activists to “the work” rather than bringing new people to socialism.

Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union were both projects initiated by the International Socialists in the 1970s – this was an organization with only hundreds of members and was able to create institutions that punched well above their weight (ironically, DSA now defers to Labor Notes). The Communist Party (CP) built unemployed councils in the 1930s, the International Labor Defense, and the Civil Rights Congress, which mounted the “We Charge Genocide” campaign to hold the US accountable for anti-Black racism in 1951. The CP and Socialist Workers Party worked together in building the Fair Play for Cuba Committee; and Maoists in the US created local publications in the 1970s that prepared them to create Rainbow Coalition newspapers, many of which survive to this day. These weren’t simply self-serving front groups, but projects that were useful to a broader movement and connected to socialist politics and organization.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union is one example of a broad, rank-and-file organization that was started by socialists in the International Socialists.

Without some kind of infrastructure-building, all of DSA’s work is mediated through other organizations and we actually don’t live up to our potential. A socialist organization has to be the extension of workers’ and oppressed peoples’ own struggles and self-activity and has to lead and take initiatives in our fight for socialism.

Live questions in the COVID age

With an eye on recent history, we can identify the emerging political questions in DSA. Most immediately: how will DSA relate to the uprising and the Black freedom struggle? DSA prepared itself to be on a tempo primarily for elections and issue-based campaigning – what is an organizational (rather than individual) practice for this movement and any future uprisings? How does DSA center Black leadership without abdicating responsibility and overburden BIPOC comrades? Given the anxieties about DSA’s racial composition, how will the organization break beyond its current base?

Next, what is DSA’s strategic vision for building power and changing the balance of forces in the coming years? The Sanders campaign was treated by many as a silver bullet for the problem of political parties, union decline, and low confidence in our ability to win concessions from the ruling class. We can’t defer strategic questions and kick that can down the road much longer. So what will we see as our objectives in the coming years, and how will we strive to meet them?

At the center of this question is our concept of the relationship between struggle, movements, and elections. This is underlined by the experience of the rebellion these last few months, where the explosion of popular anger over racist police violence and the mostly Democratic municipalities that support that violence was able to challenge the legitimacy of the state and win concessions previously unthinkable. Any strategy that doesn’t recognize the role of uprisings, mass strikes, and other semi-spontaneous clashes will miss the lifebeat of class struggle.

Organizationally, DSA still has many vestiges of its pre-2017 self. Many of the internal structures are holdovers from a group that was largely a paper-member nonprofit. If democracy means “the people rule”, DSA isn’t really all that democratic. How can DSA transform into a robust, democratic, and member-led organization? This isn’t an organizational side dish beside the main meal—democracy is going to be essential to having an organization with its members’ confidence if we’re going to make it through the coming years. While we champion direct officer elections in the United Auto Workers, this isn’t something DSA has instituted for itself. How will information be dispersed, and decisions be brought to members to decide the course of the organization rather than rely on the contours of a leadership and its caucus politics? If decisions stay behind closed doors, members view the organization as external to them and begin to divest from it. In a digital age, it shouldn’t be hard to incorporate plebiscites and polls to determine major policy and direction.

Lastly, DSA’s federal model has been useful insofar as it’s been flexible enough for chapter initiative and local dynamics, but it’s also led to extremely uneven experiences in DSA between chapters. In creating a democratic organization, what are the minimums that must be consistent across the organization?

History has not cleared the way, and so DSA must chart a course on its own.

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Andy Sernatinger View All

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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