Defend Democracy Through Defending Democracy

An argument against the "Defend Democracy through Political Independence" resolution for the upcoming national convention.

Member-Submitted Resolution #2 (MSR 2), “Defend Democracy through Political Independence,” contends that the Republican Party and its Trumpist elements pose a threat to the multiracial working class (although much less of a threat than in 2016) and that Democrats—not Republicans—are the principal opponent of socialists in blue states. The authors assert that global authoritarianism is on the rise and socialists need to defend the rights of oppressed people and our democratic infrastructure. However, we need to do so without “being subsumed into the Democratic Party and its NGO apparatus.” While we agree with the importance of building DSA as an institution and increasing our independence from the Democratic Party, the resolution contains a poison pill that will divide DSA and undercut our efforts to fight the right: requiring the National Political Committee (NPC) to publicly condemn elected comrades who show support for “centrists.”

While proponents of MSR 2 have focused on the aspects of the resolution that are positive and proactive, such as acting in coalition to fight the fascist right, building up our youth wing, and creating alignment within the organization in preparation for the 2024 presidential race, the real meat of the resolution is punitive and divisive. The measure requires the NPC to “publicly communicate disapproval to endorsed candidates and elected DSA members who reject this strategy in order to explicitly or tacitly support centrist leaders of the Democratic Party (for example, by attending rallies on behalf of centrists, political communications, or explicit endorsement of centrist Democrats).” There are multiple issues with this directive. First, it is built on a flawed organizing premise—that DSA elected officials are not members to organize with, but servants to control and punish. Organizers know that imposing a decision on stakeholders without their buy-in is unsustainable. On top of that, DSA is not yet powerful enough to back up our bark with a bite, especially for federal-level electeds. So we would be alienating our elected comrades for nothing. Second, “centrist” is not well defined in this resolution. While most members would agree those who identify as socialist are not centrist, who will define the line between a progressive and a centrist? While this distinction may not matter much now, the authors of the resolution make this definition critical when they require the NPC to publicly condemn our electeds who support centrists.

Third, this would directly undermine many of our priorities, especially our efforts to fight the fascist right, a priority the authors seek to support. In many swing states, DSA electeds from safe Democratic districts have given critical support to Democrats running statewide against far-right Republicans. In 2022, incumbent Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was in a close race against right-wing election denier Tudor Dixon. DSA Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib supported Whitmer and worked to boost voter turnout, including by attending a rally for Whitmer hosted by Barack Obama. This resolution would require the NPC to condemn Tlaib for this—not only alienating us from Tlaib, but also from the progressive voters who help elect our socialist candidates and potential coalition partners like the United Auto Workers union, which have benefited from the end of right-to-work in that state, ushered in by the victory of Whitmer and other “centrist” Democrats that took control of the state legislature.

Even in blue states, DSA electeds’ strategic support for establishment Democrats has advanced DSA priorities. For example, in New York, centrist Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul faced an unexpectedly competitive general election opponent in Lee Zeldin, a Trump-supporting far-right Republican. While New York’s DSA chapters were not pressured by DSA electeds to support Hochul, many of those comrades in office did events with her re-election campaign. Hochul is certainly not a progressive, and NYC-DSA continued to target her throughout the election, but New York electeds and many in DSA leadership recognized that her victory would be critical to passing DSA’s legislative priorities like the Build Public Renewables Act, which was included in the this year’s budget and signed by the governor. Zeldin simply could not be pressured into doing that. In swing states, centrists can be the only option to prevent fascistic conservatives from winning power. Even in blue states, centrists in power can be a key tool for winning our socialist priorities.

We’ve limited ourselves like this before. At the 2019 convention, DSA passed “In The Event of a Sanders Loss” which was couched in anti-Trump language but pledged that DSA would only endorse one Democrat for president: Bernie Sanders. As the political situation in the US got worse and worse the next year, this resolution had a chilling effect on what DSA chapters and members felt they could and could not do. To be clear, the authors and Socialist Majority Caucus do not think we should have endorsed Joe Biden (nor do we think DSA should do so in 2024), but the language in the 2019 resolution caused comrades across the country to question if they could do anything formally as DSA in the effort to defeat Trump—an outcome critical to not only DSA’s strategic goals but to curtail the worst of far-right fascism. In part due to this chilling effect, our organization became the subject of negative editorials in The Nation and New York Times and infighting around public letters distracted from the task of defeating Donald Trump and beating back the Trumpist right.

Thanks to massive organizing and more, Trump lost, but we need to learn from the experience of these unnecessary, self-imposed strictures. In early 2021, without any self-inflicted limitations, DSA supported anti-GOP work in the two Georgia US senate runoffs and helped swing the body to a Democratic majority. That majority has made Bernie Sanders the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where he highlights workers’ struggles ignored by that body for decades. Again, working with centrists, while not an end in itself, proved a smart short-term tactic for supporting our medium and long-term socialist goals.

Winning socialist power in the real world requires grappling with real world conditions, not striving for an ephemeral sense of ideological purity. In this moment, a centrist Democrat who believes people should be able to vote, that trans people should be able to live, and that abortion is a right is better than a fascist Republican alternative. Condemning our electeds for saying so is not only wrong, it is antithetical to our goal of building a powerful, multiracial working-class organization. It will alienate us from the working class we hope to recruit into socialism and DSA. Electoral work is messy. Governing is messy. Only way to avoid complexities and complications is to avoid anything that would actually build power. We should not create self-imposed constraints that divide us and make our work harder. We must continue to do the complicated, hard work required to gain meaningful power.