DSA on New Terrain

Three DSA National Political Committee members discuss our tasks and opportunities as we prepare to meet in convention.

The resurgence of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) occurred in a political context dominated by Donald Trump’s presidency and the resistance to it. Now that President Joe Biden is in office with a razor’s edge majority in Congress, DSA and the Left as a whole finds itself operating on new terrain. How should we make sense of the Biden administration so far? How has DSA adjusted to the transition from Trump to Biden? What are the challenges, threats, and opportunities facing our organization as we prepare to meet in convention this summer?

Three current members of DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) – Sean Estelle, Jen McKinney, and Megan Svoboda – recently participated in a facilitated discussion on these questions. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Socialist Forum: What’s your general impression of the Biden administration so far?

Sean Estelle: Better than expected on some fronts, and not as good as expected on other fronts. Some people have been heralding the administration as the rebirth of social democracy, which I don’t think is accurate. But I do think it’s worth taking time to analyze what has been done and what is being proposed, because the administration has done some things that are really good.

Megan Svoboda: For those of us in DSA who joined around 2016 or 2017, we are so used to living and organizing under the Trump administration, which meant we were often reacting to what the president or the Republican Party was doing. So I understand why people would want to celebrate whatever decent things the Biden administration is doing, especially after four years of Trump. But at the same time we’re still dealing with a capitalist Democrat in the White House. His foreign policy is terrible, he hasn’t done anything to cancel student debt yet, and the COVID vaccine patent issues are deplorable.

All that said, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is the chairman of the Senate budget committee. We have four DSA members in the US Congress, and many more in elected State offices all over the country. This is in an interesting new political landscape for a growing socialist movement.

Jen McKinney: I agree with Sean and Megan, but when it comes to things like immigration, he’s as bad as Trump or worse. To me this feels a lot like the beginning of the Obama administration – a Democratic candidate who made a lot of promises to get elected, and they’re not happening. It reminds me so much of the Obama administration, and of course it would. Biden is a neoliberal to the core.

Sean: One other thing to take into account in terms of the overall terrain is having a more technically competent administration responsible for rolling out the COVID vaccine is sort of an unqualified victory. Yes, there are problems in terms of domestic and especially international distribution (which is a vaccine apartheid situation at this point).  But actually having a plan to roll out the vaccine domestically has made a huge difference in being able to get a step closer back to something like “normalcy,” as opposed to being totally atomized in our homes, with no sense of any kind of future at all.

The new administration is certainly demonstrating some continuity with both the Obama years and the Trump administration. I think it’s also fair to say that there have been some new departures and developments, particularly the willingness to spend huge amounts of money on economic recovery measures and some progressive social policies. We also see the new willingness to use legislative tools like budget reconciliation and to move away from the commitment to “bipartisanship” for its own sake. How do we make sense of both the continuities and the new departures we’re seeing so far from the Biden administration?

Jen: The continuities come down to the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats are parties of capital, of corporations, and they both have big money donors. But the Democrats have slightly different big money donors that support more liberal policies in certain areas – it’s all about the money for me.

Megan: I think Jen’s right in the sense that there is support, at least within certain sections of the ruling class, for massive government spending to keep the economy afloat and to make sure that people can spend money. In some ways the Biden administration is turning its back on some longstanding practices of the Democratic Party, like the commitments to bipartisanship and austerity for their own sakes. I think this is why some people want to celebrate the Biden administration as marking a rebirth of social democratic governance. But for us, as socialists, we know that it’s not enough. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is – what do we do when the Democratic establishment, and some parts of the ruling class start to track left? Personally, I think we should push the Biden administration to be as pro-worker as they said they were. On a national level I think that means organizing around the PRO Act and the Infrastructure Bill, against austerity and for massive government spending. We should also be pushing against austerity and for more government support locally. I think we can do this by building relationships with public sector unions, continuing to elect democratic socialists, supporting labor struggles, organizing at work and in our neighborhoods. We can’t be complacent. If the establishment is tacking left, I think that is at least partially in response to the pressure that Bernie and the socialist left have been bringing over the past 5 years. We should keep pushing, and take advantage of this opening as far as we can in the national arena, all while doubling down on building lasting working-class organizations locally.

Sean: One thing that seems new so far is the approach the Biden administration is taking toward climate policy. I do think that Biden has brought mid-and high-level people into the administration who actually do want to make climate a top priority. Of course, their vision is fundamentally not about like the eco-socialist vision that DSA has laid out, or what Bernie proposed in the primaries when he talked about having regional power marketing administration, or building de-commodified public renewable energy sources. They seem more willing to concede to what the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal Network and others have demanded, especially in terms of spending on environmental justice communities and repairing the harms of environmental racism, which is also quite important.

But there’s going to be a fundamental disconnect between moderate and radical approaches to climate policy, particularly whether and how the economy should be reorganized towards publicly and socially owned forms of renewable energy, mass transit, and other things that would take big sectors of the economy out of market control. The big donors are trying to find ways to turn the pools of capital that are sloshing around right now to implement market-based approaches to climate policy.

It seems like the Biden administration is responding to various kinds of cross-pressures. We see pressure from certain sections of the ruling class for economic relief spending or renewable energy investments, as well as a recognition that, unless certain reforms are made, US society could really start to become even more chaotic and disintegrated than it already is. At the same time, we see the rise of an organization like DSA, the growth of a left-wing faction in Democratic Party politics, and movements like Black Lives Matter that have really pushed the need for major social changes on to the political agenda. In that context, how would you say DSA and the Left as a whole has adjusted to the transition from Trump to Biden?

Jen: The PRO Act campaign is one example of how we’ve taken on the new political landscape. We wouldn’t have had an opportunity to run this campaign under Trump. We have to stay on our toes, and in some ways we have to up our game because many will be tempted to say “look, we have a woman as Vice President and Biden’s just going to come fix everything and we don’t have to pay attention anymore.” Lots of people think that they don’t have to pay attention to politics anymore now that Trump’s out of the White House. That’s something we really need to be prepared for.

Sean: When the pandemic hit, Trump abdicated responsibility and just let hundreds of thousands of people die. For us in DSA, we spent a lot of time trying to pivot the organization to respond to the pandemic. That took so much time and energy for the volunteer cadre of the NPC, for staff, for people in national bodies, chapter leaders. We were just reacting constantly. At the same time, we have these institutions that are being built up within DSA, like the NPC’s Growth and Development Committee, which was able to bring in 15,000 people in six weeks when we engaged in a targeted recruitment drive. The Green New Deal Campaign has spent hundreds of hours over the last eight months developing a five-year strategy that incorporated tactical pivots depending on what happened in the 2020 general election.

This made it possible for us to re-calibrate quickly once it became clear that Biden was going to win the White House and the Democrats would win the Senate. To me, that speaks to the need for intentional planning and leadership development no matter who is in power. We still have to do political education, we still have to do leadership development, and we still have to think about organizational growth and all these other questions. The external political conditions are changing and DSA strategy will change accordingly, but some things are going to stay the same no matter what and it’s been a really important thing for me to relearn that lesson.

Megan: I agree with Sean’s point that some things don’t change, especially when you’re a socialist and your north star is a fundamentally different kind of world. At the same time, I think DSA was ready for this transition and its potential opportunities because of all the work we’ve done over the last four years. Just think about what we’re doing with the PRO Act campaign. It’s a sophisticated campaign built out of a bunch of different projects and campaigns DSA members have run over the last four years.

The phone banking operation for the PRO Act campaign, for example, was built out of the Tax the Rich campaign in New York, which itself was built out of the successful campaigns to elect a democratic socialist candidate slate to the state legislature, which was itself built on earlier campaigns. All of the work that DSA members have put in over the last four years has played a big role in developing our current political environment. Many people looked to DSA as the group that carried the torch forward from Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign. I think we’re still carrying it and will continue through this administration, and beyond.

Sean: Regarding the PRO Act, DSA was the organization that took the lead in going all out for it. The two senators that have come out in favor of it [Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – eds.] have explicitly talked about how the hundreds of calls they’ve been receiving are what got them to change their position on the bill.

The PRO Act campaign has become such a focus of DSA activity over the last couple of months. Where did the campaign come from, and how did it come together? What is the timeline here and what are some potential future steps for the campaign?

Sean: Last fall some 80 chapters came together for the DSA Green New Deal campaign. We started to cohere around some long-term demands like public infrastructure, a jobs guarantee, and the like. We started campaigning on it, and we had twenty-five chapters that mobilized in December to respond to Biden’s election win, saying we had to come out hard for the kind of climate program we’re pushing for, including the PRO Act.

We also wanted to campaign for something that wasn’t as aspirational or long-term. We wanted to fight for something immediate and concrete in the first hundred days of the Biden administration, and we knew the PRO Act was going to be a priority for the labor movement and others. At the same time, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) was having a conversation about the PRO Act and, they came together with the Ecosocialist Working Group to have some conversations about how fighting for it in the short term was a really valuable demand, more valuable in some ways than fighting for things like a job guarantee because it could help to build worker organization and power, and deepen our relationships with labor unions.

This was something that the entire labor movement started to cohere around. It looked very different from the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in 2008-2009, the early days of the Obama administration. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) was starting to put together a coalition for the PRO Act and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) also started signaling that they were going to throw down for it in a more serious way. So the Green New Deal campaign and the DLSC together made a proposal to make the PRO Act our top external organizing priority across the entire organization for the first 100 days, and go until May Day on May 1, which is the 101st day of the Biden administration.

The idea was that even if Biden doesn’t follow through on his PRO Act campaign promise, fighting for it would allow us to build the capacity to take action at the national level and coordinate across chapters. We had a launch in March with something like 3,300 DSA members on a mass call, the most ever. We had speakers like Sarah Nelson and Jamaal Bowman on the call, and we hit the ground running. We built the field team from scratch with members who worked on the Tax the Rich campaign in New York, and we organized a week of action where we sought to make 500,000 calls in a week – and we did. We’re part of a campaign coalition steering committee that is really starting to push hard, and the AFL-CIO is starting to put some significant resources into it.

We expect something like 67 chapters to be throwing down on May Day, and from there we’re going to figure out how we’re approaching the climate infrastructure bill. The Biden administration has basically put the PRO Act into an infrastructure bill that may be passed through budget reconciliation, which is a sign that the administration might actually want to get it done.

Jen: This has been a particularly special campaign and I want to give a shout out to staff who have worked very, very hard on it. I’ve worked on the chapter coaching team for the PRO Act, and the work that both staff and members have put into it is incredible. I’ve come to realize how much of an opportunity the campaign has been for small and rural and new chapters. The campaign has done a really great job in developing a chapter manual for the campaign, which is a step-by-step guide on how to get a campaign going. We’ve added 34 new chapters so far in 2021, and this gives them an opportunity to get plugged in and get to work right away.

I work on the NPC retention subcommittee. One of the things that I work on is the at-large mobilizer program, which works with hundreds of at-large members to get them engaged even if they don’t have a local chapter to be part of. Hundreds of at-large large members have worked on this campaign, it’s been incredible to see. It’s been wonderful to work with chapters who have not done anything like this before, to see them dipping their toes into working in coalition with labor organizations in their communities, and carrying that forward to what’s next. We’re also making sure to take the lessons we’re learning with the PRO Act campaign and moving them forward to the next campaign. This really helps give chapters a foundation to do future work: how to do a social media campaign, how to hold a town hall, how to do a direct action. The infrastructure we’re building has been absolutely amazing and we really have staff and members to thank for that. People like Amy and Glenn and Garrick and Rebecca on staff and members across the country. It’s just been incredible to see.

Megan: The only thing I’d add to what Sean and Jen have already said is the reason why we even care about the PRO Act in the first place. There are lots of things we could be throwing ourselves into right now, but the PRO Act would be one of the largest steps forward for facilitating the ability of working people to organize and fight for ourselves and our class interests. It was an easy thing for the NPC to prioritize because our movement is strengthened with the labor movement is strong, and when it’s easier for workers to organize new unions and to improve the unions they already have.

The PRO Act is not a perfect piece of legislation that does everything for the labor movement and for workers we might want. And legislation alone won’t build up a fighting, democratic labor movement. But it’s one of the best pieces of legislation we’ve seen that tries to undo the erosion of labor laws that has made it so much easier for employers to screw over workers. Passing this bill would make it easier for workers to organize themselves and for unions to grow. As socialists, we’re always fighting for ways to increase the ability of the working class to organize and fight, and what this would do is repeal some laws that make it so hard for workers in this country to do that.

So the campaign gives us a very straightforward way to talk about something that would allow working people to improve our lives, by giving DSA members a concrete reason to have those conversations with each other and with total strangers. What we want to do is identify campaigns that allow members to talk about why organizing the working class is so important, and the PRO Act is something that allows us to do that

DSA has certainly been involved in national-level political and legislative campaigns before. But it seems like this is the first national campaign the organization as a whole has really thrown itself into. How has the campaign shaped your views on DSA’s role in national-level politics, and our ability to influence political debate and legislative priorities at that level? At the same time, how is this broad participation in a campaign shaping and developing the organization?

Sean: The Green New Deal exploded onto the scene in 2018, and the Ecosocialist WG solidified around seeing the Green New Deal as a vehicle for organizing and fighting for our demands like public power. We also know that we need a stronger labor movement in order to win and implement the big demands that are part of the Green New Deal, which is different from just seeing labor as one constituency among many, which is how many people in the mainstream climate movement think about it. Instead, we say that we have to prioritize strengthening and allying with the labor movement, which shifted the strategy on the ground. We have local coalitions that are starting to come together around the PRO Act, we have political education events happening around the country on the idea of a Just Transition and the relationship between labor and ecosocialism. We have, as Jen said, at-large members or people who maybe are not in chapter leadership learning organizing skills. All of this is building relationships across chapters, which we plan to build on to participate in national political debates about whether DSA should prioritize things like the climate infrastructure bill in the fall, or perhaps a federal jobs guarantee in the longer term.

We’re doing that deep political development across chapters and helping members build skills that can be used not just on national campaigns but brought down to locally-specific action as well.

Megan: DSA is very unique in the world of national-level political organizations in the US. We used to talk about this on the Medicare for All campaign a lot. It seems kind of simple, but I think the main thing that sets DSA apart is that we’re democratic socialists so we have a vision of what we want, and we are trying to figure out as many ways to get there as possible. There are, of course, other socialist organizations out there who have a vision too, but DSA’s big-tent nature and our approach to mass organizing in the realm of mainstream politics means that we rely on putting as many people into motion as possible. We want every single one of our 100,000 members to know how to do a one-on-one conversation, how to make a phone call, how to talk to strangers about why any of the specific things we’re fighting for builds toward that larger vision of a democratic socialist society.

What this means is that when someone from DSA is working in a coalition for the PRO Act or anything else, we can actually say “yes, we have local organizations in all 50 states, with X number of members, and we can go to them and ask them to participate in this campaign.” If the members want to do it, we can help them build the skills to organize and then they’re going to do it. Our level of active member participation is very unique. Our potential ability to shape US politics is only limited by our own ability to organize people into DSA and help them build the skills and understanding they need in order to push for our goals.

Jen: What’s so great about having a national-level campaign is seeing members from across the country coming together to build it, while also applying it all to local conditions too. There are possibilities for building on victories like Portland, Maine’s multiple successful ballot measures, or Portland, Oregon’s successful ballot measure campaign for universal pre-kindergarten. It’s really wonderful to have this mix of national-level politics and local action, and that’s the beauty of having 243 chapters, organizing committees, and pre-organizing committees across the country. Not only can we work together as a unit to do national-level politics, but each chapter can work on and learn from other chapters to build community and build the democratic socialist movement where they live.

DSA’s biennial national convention is coming up in August. What do you expect to be the main issues, questions, or debates facing the convention delegates when they come together online in August?

Jen: I am lucky to serve on the convention planning steering committee, and we’re working really hard to make this the most accessible and collaborative convention we’ve ever had. Of course, one big challenge is that this is all happening virtually, but I think that what we’re putting together for August will help us deal with that big challenge. The other unique thing about this convention is that we are working on a national political platform for DSA. We’ll be talking a lot more about that in upcoming convention bulletins, so stay tuned for those and really pay attention to them.

We are planning five pre-convention conferences, just like we did in 2019. They will also be virtual, and one of the highlights will be discussions about the platform, where members will have a chance to have facilitated discussions and debates about it. Hopefully, at the national convention we’ll have our platform discussion across the entire organization, pass it, and have a strong unifying vision for DSA moving forward.

Megan: The first thing I want to say is that if you’re reading this and you’re not thinking about running for delegate, that is a mistake. Please consider running for delegate! If we care about growing DSA, the convention is really important. Convention delegates compose the highest decision-making body in DSA. They set the course for the next two years and they elect the incoming NPC. This convention will be crucial because of the immense growth of DSA since the 2019 Convention – not just in terms of our number of members, but because of everything we’ve learned and been through in the last few years. I’m not totally sure what the main issues are going to be yet, but what I can say is that this platform process is a great opportunity for us to come together around a common vision for the organization as a whole.

Sean: I agree strongly with what Jen and Megan just said. What I’ll add is that I think that no matter what the debates are, one of the potential challenges worth keeping in mind is the fact that it will be virtual. It is going to be, I think, relatively easy for delegates and participants to vent frustrations on social media, or start posting about things that are going their way or not. One big part of the dynamic here is the fact that we’ve been through not just the Trump administration but this last year of the pandemic, so everyone’s emotions are kind of raw because of the fear, suffering, and isolation.

There are also many people who have just joined DSA, which is one of the few organizations that actually has meaningful systems of internal democracy. So many people may be doing things like running for a position for the first time in their life, or grappling with the fact that some members will be organizing to shape debates and win votes at the convention – which is, of course, totally okay, that’s part of how democracy works. But the point is that everyone, regardless of their level of experience, needs to be comradely with each other during the convention. This is something we should keep in the front of our heads as we have our convention debates, while also acknowledging that we have matured as an organization and are working to come around a common platform across our various tendencies and points of view.

One of the things I’ve valued most during my two years on the NPC is that when we were elected there was a pretty wide spectrum of caucuses and political tendencies that were represented. I think that we have been able to build a culture within the body of acknowledging our differences and disagreeing while still being able to work together in a really serious way. My invitation to all the comrades reading this is to run for delegate, to participate really seriously in the democracy of the convention process, to understand that sometimes Twitter doesn’t have to be the place to talk about what we’re all trying to do together as DSA members. No matter what we decide together when we convene in August, we’re going to continue marching forward together.