Don’t Derail DSA’s Electoral Project

An argument against a number of resolutions concerning electoral politics for the upcoming national convention.

Since DSA’s contemporary era started in 2016, the organization’s “big tent” approach has evolved to encompass a broad range of organizing tactics and strategies. Most energy in the organization has been at the local level, and chapters have pursued elections, protests, mutual aid, new publications and media strategies, labor organizing, tenant organizing, coalition building and legislative campaigns, all in pursuit of growing the socialist movement and building power. Much of DSA’s internal political development, including the evolution of its caucuses and factions, has been less about clear ideological differences than about which of these projects members see as most important.

If these different projects all exist within DSA’s big tent, conflict at the national level has largely not been about trying to halt or constrain any particular type of work, but about competition over prioritization and resources. While the organization has had worthwhile debates over our approaches to labor strategy or mutual aid, there has not to date been any effort to seriously clamp down on the diversity of tactics being deployed by DSA locals. The lone exception to this admirably humble and open-minded approach has been electoral politics. This year, delegates will be once again asked to consider at convention massive, disruptive changes to DSA’s electoral work that could undo much of what has been accomplished by DSA members since 2015, and halt the development of the electoral project within DSA.

In some ways, for those of us involved in electoral work the recurring focus on dictating DSA’s electoral approach from above is flattering. It amounts to an acknowledgement that electing socialists to office has a central role in keeping socialism relevant to the lives of everyday people in our present moment. DSA members and delegates are right to take our electoral strategy seriously, and should indeed be focused on how it unfolds.

The stunning success of the two Sanders campaigns, and the election of hundreds of locally and nationally endorsed DSA candidates to office, as well as hundreds more non-endorsed DSA members, are all part of an important development: for the first time in a century, democratic socialism is once again a meaningful current in US politics. DSA’s growth over the same period is intimately tied to this development, as are our prospects for advancing the socialist cause. We cannot take those developments for granted, or think that our leading role in shaping the program and politics of democratic socialist electoral politics is something to which we are entitled. This means delegates must read the proposals at convention carefully to understand their potential impacts, and reject those that could use noble sentiments to justify self-defeating ends.

Many of the proposals on offer at the 2023 convention would have precluded endorsing Bernie Sanders and most of the socialists who are currently advancing our cause in city councils, state houses, and Congress. Too many of the resolutions focus on elevating abstract principles, devoid of political context, as litmus tests that can be used to punish elected officials–for the most part with no argument for how such an approach will advance the cause of socialism. Many of the resolutions focus not on DSA’s endorsed candidates who we actually worked to put in office, but on any DSA member who holds elected office, setting up pointless conflicts and potential purges that are divorced from the source of our political power. Worst of all, some of these resolutions would pull DSA out of the fight against the growing right-wing authoritarian threat in the US, and have us cede leadership of the working-class opposition to liberals by allowing them to be the most effective opponents of right-wing attacks on abortion, trans lives, labor, and democratic rights. Building an elected bloc that can advance our politics and policies means DSA must keep building our electoral threat and keep building public support for our positions–discipline applied robotically by resolution, devoid of context, is a shortcut that is doomed to fail.

Abstract litmus tests don’t build our power

A quick read of the 312 page DSA convention compendium unfortunately leaves delegates with a rather one-sided menu of options for navigating the tensions that inevitably arise between socialist elected officials and organizational imperatives. Delegates can pick their favorite between censure or struggle session, disapproval or disendorsement, and even have the option of a nice clean expulsion. All in pursuit of one or another worthy “ask,” “expectation,” “red line,” or “core socialist principle” that delegates may decide to reaffirm by authorizing the administration of a healthy dose of discipline on any elected official who dares defy us while holding a DSA membership.

The disciplinarian impulse in these proposals is meant to be justified by morally righteous appeals that seemingly no socialist could oppose. To take an example, “Socialist Anti-Militarism and the War in Ukraineand “On the votes of DSA Congressmembers to fund the Israeli military and ban a railway workers strike” both have the requirement for federal elected officials to vote no on all military budgets. Seems like a no-brainer, because who among us doesn’t oppose the war machine? But the proposals “require” socialist congress members to vote no on any budget that doesn’t fully dismantle the US presence abroad, making no exceptions even for a scenario we would want– where a large socialist/progressive bloc might be able to secure significant reductions in military spending, a key demand of the US left for at least 60 years. A socialist who was actually publicly committed to never voting for a military budget that left even a single base in place would be removing themself from any possible role in actually negotiating such reductions, and would be effectively abandoning the fight to cut military spending at any level other than empty rhetoric.

Many of these resolutions read more as if they are more designed to instigate conflict within the left than to advance any part of the socialist cause with the broader working class. “Socialist Anti-Militarism and the War in Ukraine” would provoke a conflict with Senator Sanders and all the federally elected socialists who support funding what they see as Ukraine’s self-defense by demanding that they participate in an anti-war conference with “left-wing, anti-imperialist forces in Ukraine and the Russian anti-war movement” who oppose funding for the Ukrainian military. If they fail to do so, or violate any of the other enumerated positions, the consequence is accountability through a town hall with DSA members who can presumably express their disagreement. It’s not clear why these elected officials, especially the ones DSA did not even endorse, would participate in a forum full of people who disagree with them on Ukraine, much less a town hall of people who are mad at them for not attending the forum, or how any of this will advance the cause of peace. There are two different approaches we could take, both more honest than the one in the resolution. One would be to recognize that when our politics on particular issues are still marginal, we need to focus on public education and building our support for our position, educating elected officials from a place of relative humility, and maintaining critical support for elected officials who may not be fully on our program yet. Another approach would be to actually call the question on discipline by asking delegates to disendorse all the DSA-endorsed congresspeople and disavow our prior endorsements of Senator Sanders, based on their stances on the war in Ukraine. Instead, the resolutions appeal to abstract principles that seemingly no socialist could oppose, and then try to back us into the conflict and eventual political divorce from there.

“On the votes of DSA Congressmembers to fund the Israeli military and ban a railway workers strike” and a third resolution, “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy”, also lay the groundwork for a wave of conflict with socialist elected officials over a much more expansive set of abstract political commitments by setting the precedent of using a violation of DSA’s platform as basis for censuring Jamaal Bowman and publicly chastising Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush. “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy” goes farthest here, calling for all DSA members in office to “promote and fight for DSA’s democratically-elaborated platform” and laying out a series of escalating “consequences,” including town halls, censures, and disendorsements for DSA members in office who fail to do so. The DSA platform, passed in 2021 and clocking in at just under 10,000 words, is a rarely used collection of minor reforms and revolutionary demands, and delegates rejected making it binding with the recognition that it would be an inappropriate document to try to use as a cudgel against elected officials or members.

Delegates should ask themselves this – do you really want a DSA member who runs for local office in a red state on a platform of protecting trans kids from right-wing attacks to receive public censure from DSA because they will not “promote and fight for” every policy in our platform? These positions were democratically decided at the last convention but run the gamut from worthy but small bore initiatives, to wonky policy items, to wildly aspirational transformative demands, and almost none are subject of serious debate among DSA members much less the broader working class. Allowing members of the armed forces to unionize, replacing the US system of government with a parliamentary system, abolishing USAID, supporting a united Ireland, immediate withdrawal from NATO, creation of a new global monetary order, and creating an immigration court system independent from the executive branch are not issues for candidates for local office, with no power over federal law or foreign policy, to campaign on. The platform was an admirable first attempt at consolidating many of the concrete reforms DSA has worked on and many of the revolutionary ambitions DSA aspires to in one place, but it is not remotely suitable as a “minimum program” for elected officials.

One can support DSA’s “core socialist principles” while understanding that reflexively leaping to public denunciations, censure, and expulsion of the most left-wing elected officials in the country basis of these types of litmus test is a dead-end approach to advancing socialist aims.

Endorsements are how we wield political power

Many of the proposals (all those previously mentioned, as well as “Defend Democracy through Political Independence”) make broad demands on DSA members who are in office, regardless of whether DSA nationally or local DSA chapters even supported their election. Our power over elected officials comes from our ability to cause them to win or lose elections. Using membership as a basis for demands and discipline with elected officials we don’t actually support is ultimately confused and entirely symbolic. Most DSA members who hold elected office without a national or local endorsement are committed democratic socialists, or at least Berniecrats, who are broadly aligned with DSA but for whatever reason didn’t want, need, or earn DSA’s support to get elected. The only outcome of using their membership as a basis for demands on them will be to create conflict that leads to eventual expulsions of democratic socialists in office–how else can you “discipline” a member in office who has not even made any commitments to our organization?

Resolution #12: “Make DSA an Anti-Zionist Organization in Principle and Praxis” takes the disciplinarian impulses on display in the compendium to their farthest extreme, laying out a process for expulsion of not just endorsed elected officials, or even DSA members in office, but any DSA member who fails to meet the exacting standards set out in the resolution. This policy would inevitably set up DSA for destructive purges familiar to any student of the history of left organizations throughout history. It would make it impossible for DSA members to have free and open discussions about even evaluating the efficacy of BDS as a tactic, the type of rule that is inimical to a functioning democratic organization. I believe delegates are likely to overwhelmingly reject this proposal, but too many of the other resolutions would put us on the same path.

Removing us from fights that matter

“Defend Democracy through Political Independence” and “No Endorsement for Joe Biden” thankfully set aside the fixation on abstract red lines in the DSA platform and enter the realm of considering the actual political dilemmas socialists in office will face over the next two years. Unfortunately, when the rubber hits the road, the impact of these resolutions would be even more damaging by crippling DSA’s ability to show leadership as working people mobilize to defend their rights against a growing right-wing authoritarian threat.

“Defend Democracy through Political Independence” requires that the NPC shall “publicly communicate disapproval to endorsed candidates and elected DSA members who … explicitly or tacitly support centrist leaders of the Democratic Party.”

The unpleasant political reality that will be facing socialists in the US in 2024 is this: across the country there will be statewide elections decided by extremely narrow margins in which Republican candidates will be campaigning to implement total bans on abortion, criminalizing trans people and forcibly reversing gender transitions, the destruction of public sector unions, the criminalization of BDS, and purges of socialist, queer, and trans people from public life. They will have every intention of implementing state-by-state Wisconsin-style illiberal programs to undermine free elections and permanently entrench their rule without democratic recourse. There will be a presidential election, regardless of the outcome of the Republican primary, that will pose many of the same risks at the national scale. Confronting this reality, socialists will need to be honest and public about the desperate need for a political alternative, while also voting tactically for centrist Democrats where no such alternative exists, and encouraging the whole working class to do the same. These resolutions would force DSA to admonish our members in office who act on this obvious reality by simply attending a rally, or publicly calling on voters to mobilize to keep Republicans out of power. At a moment when every progressive element of the working class will be mobilizing to defend labor, reproductive, and democratic rights, DSA should be demanding that socialists in office be at the front of the struggle, showing unwavering commitment to the defense of working people. Delegates should not vote to mandate ugly, public conflicts with the socialists who show leadership in the fight against fascism.

We need to keep building a left that matters

My own organizing experience in DSA started with the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group in NYC-DSA. In 2018, before we had won a single election, our group was lucky enough to meet with Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa, then one of the most prominent elected socialists in the country. His words have stuck with me ever since, and guided how I have thought about DSA’s electoral work. He said: “We owe it to ourselves, and to the whole working class, to be ruthlessly effective in everything we do.”

This is a simple sentiment, but one we cannot lose sight of. The stakes for the socialist project are extremely high. We are in an unprecedented political moment, with possibly more socialists in elected office than ever before in US history, and the first nationwide socialist organization in generations that can actually make a meaningful impact on US politics. At the same time we face enormous challenges and threats, not least the rise of the authoritarian right and impending disruptions from climate change. As delegates consider each resolution on offer in August, we have to ask ourselves, will this make us ruthlessly effective in building working class power?

Of course, the need for organizations to express disagreement with otherwise friendly elected officials who depart from their line on a given issue is nothing new–it’s inevitable for any political party or organization that is successful at electing any significant number of representatives. Even disendorsing candidates is of course sometimes necessary when they drift too far from our political project, but we should understand that when it happens it is a result of our weakness, not a show of strength. When we can honestly say we are doing everything possible to effectively move forward a concrete program, with real stakes, and we find that a politician we were once aligned with is now an obstacle to it, we have no choice but to withdraw our support. But when we attempt to discipline elected officials who we have not even endorsed, or over issues that we never even approached them about, we are going into the realm of discipline for discipline’s sake, and generating embarrassing public conflicts that do nothing at all for the socialist project.

Most of the hundreds of socialist elected officials in the US share deep political commitments: to continuing the political revolution kicked off by the launch of the first Sanders campaign in 2015, to building working class power as part of a mass democratic socialist organization, and to the potential of the working class to shape its destiny. If DSA makes a hard pivot away from that spirit and towards a hard-line, abstract, and disciplinarian approach to elections and elected officials, we will destroy the relationships we have with elected officials and critically undermine our ability to elect more of them. In doing so, we will damage, likely permanently, our role in guiding the development of this growing socialist tendency in US political life. It won’t be because those elected officials we censure and expel are insufficiently committed to DSA, either, but rather because we will be the ones abandoning what has been a serious organizational commitment to a practical political project in favor of a dogmatic approach that has little to show for it, and that most DSA members did not sign up for.

We owe it to ourselves, and to the working class, to keep building DSA’s electoral project, and to reject the proposals that would derail it.