The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Despite DSA's growth and transformation, the "new DSA's" approach to electoral politics has many continuities with the "old DSA."

This piece by David Duhalde was written in response to two recent articles about DSA and the “Millennial Left.” It originally appeared in Platypus Review 144 and is republished here with permission. – eds.

There is always a bit of (even much) truth in clichés such as this. But such folksy catchphrases can serve as necessary, if not superior, complements to sophisticated analysis.

I joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 2003 — probably about two decades after Tom Canel and roughly a decade before D. L. Jacobs. Like many active members at the time, regardless of our age, there was a great sympathy to Michael Harrington and the other DSA founders, especially about the strategy of realignment to shift the Democratic Party to the Left. As I got more active and took on leadership roles (an easy feat back then as hardly any elections were contested), I began to sense the political rhetoric didn’t match the organizing reality around DSA’s relationship with the Democratic Party.

As Jacobs describes in his three caricatures of 2010s Leftists, whether friend or foe on the Left, DSA before the Trump election would have been described as attempting to be a pressure group within the Democratic Party, even if that was not the stated purpose. A more friendly summation of that strategy would state that DSA’s goal was to make the Democratic agenda into a social democratic one. A more unsympathetic portrait would say DSA tied its political fortunes to supporting Democratic candidates over socialist ones. But a closer look would find neither of these fully grasped the actual program even if they both had grains of truth, as Jacobs admits his caricatures cannot capture the full nuance of reality.

DSA effectively — at least at the national level — did not really have much of an electoral program during the early to mid-2000s when I joined as a member then staff. (“Electoral” here is specifically about electing candidates and passing ballot measures.) The roughly two dozen or so local chapters did endorse — nearly universally but not exclusively — Democratic politicians. Nothing existed then like today where DSA regional formations can deliver dozens of canvassers, field their own members, and be decisive players in down ballot elections. The DSA I joined was such a minor political player, whose diminutive description may still be a bit generous. It would not seriously discuss long-term electoral strategy, much less party building.

A root of this lack of strategic horizon can be found in a series of missteps and lackluster interventions of DSA into federal politics in the 1990s. That decade, it formed a federal Political Action Committee that largely endorsed nearly everyone in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, hardly distinguishing itself from other liberal-Left groups. An effort to electioneer for Paul Wellstone, the stalwart liberal Minnesota U.S. Senator who also had been the YDSA club advisor at Carleton College, ending up sparking an IRS investigation. While DSA was ultimately exonerated, such a costly and time-consuming distraction for an organization with around $200,000 budget and three staff was at best demoralizing. DSA made its first presidential endorsement in 16 years when it backed John Kerry’s unsuccessful White House bid in 2004. The socialist group avoided intervening in that years’ primary, which pitted Dennis Kucinich against Howard Dean as membership was nearly equally split between those primary contenders.

During George W. Bush’s reelection, a group took on the mantle of Kucinich’s presidential campaign. Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) began organizing in the way people said DSA did. Directly citing the Democratic Agenda strategy of 1980s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a DSA predecessor formation), PDA used an inside-outside strategy. This meant they saw themselves as a bridge between Democratic lawmakers and Party institutions with unions, social movements, and other social forces. PDA’s tactics include relationships with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and helping shape similar caucuses in state and other party formations outside of the federal level. This engagement in the internal Democratic Party was notably absent in DSA’s activist reality — at least nationally.

This century, national DSA has not significantly engaged in internal Democratic Party matters. This is critical because if we think DSA believes in realigning the Democrats into something more Left or simply is tied to the Party, then we’d expect some meaningful intra-party participation. As I have written in Dissent, DSA has done some internal Democratic party work, even since Trump’s election, at the national level, but nothing really more than signing onto statements. Outside of Washington, DSA members might engage in party work but they do so as themselves with little interest (maybe even hostility) from their own chapters.

DSA’s focus away from party work and more on candidates also reflects how election law and the zeitgeist around campaigns has changed over the past 20 years. Two critical factors influence this:

  1. The Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010 makes it much easier for nonprofits such as DSA to mobilize and spend money in elections.
  2. Many local races have a national character now as technology and fundraising operations make it much easier for outsiders to intervene in competitions far away from their home.

Prior to the Citizens United decision, 501c4 nonprofits such as DSA could make endorsements but had strict spending limits. Because a 501c4 is technically a corporation, in many states and localities it could not make contributions or even coordinate with candidates. This stifled political programs. Especially for cash-strapped groups such as DSA. One way to get around this was to establish a political action committee (PAC). A PAC is a legal body that can make contributions to candidates and other electoral bodies. DSA re-engaged its federal PAC partly to organize for Sanders’s first run for the US senate in 2006.

The PAC allowed DSA to coordinate with Sanders’s senatorial campaign, which otherwise would have been prohibited. The small socialist collective raised around $60,000 for his successful candidacy — about one percent of his total contributions. Nearly unimaginable today, Bernie Sanders also attended several of the fundraisers across the country himself that netted only a few thousand dollars each. I attended one in New York City where he gave an amazing speech discussing how groups such as DSA believe civilization had not yet begun. Reflecting the disorganization of the time, of course, no one recorded it.

DSA’s subsequent PAC interventions over the next few years were much less successful. The group attempted to donate $100 to Joe Lieberman’s 2006 primary opponent, Ned Lamont. The New York Post reported the contribution and the Lamont campaign quickly refunded the small amount (but encouraged DSA members to give as individuals). Little could be said of the national political program. In fact, when I was on the DSA leadership in 2010, we failed to even symbolically back socialist writer Dan La Botz’s Socialist-Party-nominated Ohio senate run because our staff never informed us of La Botz’s interest in an endorsement. (This incident inspired me as deputy director in the mid-2010s to propose a formal endorsement process that would leave the final decisions to the DSA leadership, not staff.)

The election of Barack Obama and the subsequent disappointment in him didn’t bode well for interest in the Left electing anyone. Jacobin magazine even ran an article by me and Will Emmons, a former DSA youth leader, where we wrote that socialists should just abstain from presidential elections altogether. In the piece, we argued that energy was best spent on local races. Further, we said the Left had no influence on national politics, especially the contest for the White House, and any effort spent on that was little better than naval gazing. Two years later, Bernie Sanders would begin his campaign for the Oval Office and invalidate our thesis.

What we didn’t understand at the time was how much Occupy would change Left politics and the extent that Citizens United could empower DSA’s work. Occupy gave the world new vocabulary and frames to discuss inequality, especially for the middle class, even though it wasn’t exactly the class struggle espoused by socialists: phrases like “we are the 99%” and “I am more than a loan.” However, the direct-action nature of Occupy very much fit with the uprising in Wisconsin against the governor’s anti-union proposals. The action of labor and the elected Democrats failed in the end to stop the bill that gutted the public-sector unions. But it demonstrated for the first time in a while an openness to Democratic politics outside of lobbying to mount a public offense against capital.

Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was empowered largely by a party base that echoed the sentiments of Occupy. The Brooklyn-born senator used slogans straight from the streets of Manhattan. His insurgent candidacy also benefited from the Supreme Court decision he detested. The new Citizens United rules allowed DSA to spend “unlimited” amounts of money if it worked independently of the campaign.

While DSA would not have expenditures rivaling the Koch Brothers, much less most union locals, the new law allowed the socialist group more flexibility than what contribution limits permitted. Federal contribution limits are under $6,000, which would have seriously hampered any effort to meaningfully support Sanders. DSA ended up spending some tens of thousands of dollars in backing Sanders. In turn, the organization also grew by tens of thousands after Donald Trump defeated Clinton. Interestingly, while originally scorned by the center-Left, investigative journalist Rachel Cohen found that Democrats are more likely to use Super PACs than Republicans.

Sanders’s association with democratic socialism (although never a member himself) lifted DSA’s profile. An overwhelming number of young people seeking to resist Trump’s incoming presidency and hoping to find community joined DSA. Many of them turned to electoral politics that they now saw could be a way to elect socialists or at least accountable progressives. Technological changes in electioneering made this also much easier to channel this new volunteer energy.

A decade earlier, fundraising for Sanders was a time-consuming process largely done through collecting checks and cash donations while hoping that people would send the correct paperwork back. Now, online donation portals have smoothed the process. Paper call lists with disconnected numbers were replaced by automatic and internet-based systems, in which activists could reach phones through their computers. Texting, emails, and social media made it much easier to mobilize newly activated people to electioneering outside of their districts.

But these young socialists did not turn this change into wanting to shift the Democratic Party. These new activists had not come from a Left where the workers’ party question was central. For them, there was little reason to question running Democrats. But certainly, given the blame placed on the Democratic National Committee for stopping Sanders’s success, there was a principle to avoid building the Democratic Party. This feeling was not shared by Bernie Sanders or other groups close to him.

Activists inspired to do Democratic Party building could do so, much more easily, through activist groups PDA and the Bernie Sanders-inspired Our Revolution than through DSA. In fact, despite Sanders’s once-genuine independent streak, by 2016 he was much more committed to the Democratic Party and reforming it than Barack Obama ever was. Sanders called on his supporters to join their local parties and make them more accountable. Our Revolution and other Bernie-aligned groups (including DSA) pushed some moderately successful reforms coming out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Obama, on the other hand, while president, abandoned Dean’s 50-state strategy to build the Party nationally and lacked interest in building the Democratic brand, costing the Party nearly 1,000 seats during the president’s tenure.

We see two critical contradictions here that are lost in party-building discourse around DSA and the Bernie era:

  1. Sanders himself, while never formally joining the Democrats in a meaningful way, had a real and material commitment to shifting the Party to the Left and encouraging followers to do so.
  2. DSA, whose reputation — much more than Sanders — was tied more to the Democrats was largely absent from any real internal work in that mass Party.

This matters because this reality is not due to changes in the new DSA. Both sides — those desiring to make DSA into something it was not and those trying to preserve its legacy — exaggerate how much the newcomers have changed DSA around electoral strategy. I specifically write “strategy” because I stated before, in terms of election success, that the new DSA is much more successful than the old one, although the previous iterations in the 1980s and 1990s might have had subjectively more loyalty from its elected — especially higher-ranking — officials, such as mayors and congresspeople.

Tom Canel argues correctly, in his response to Jacobs, that DSA’s putative and public electoral debates are around a “dirty break.” The dirty break concept is simply that socialists will one day be able to build enough infrastructure and voter loyalty to be able to split off from the Democratic Party and form a new workers’ party. Tom is likewise right that this marks a huge change in the DSA rhetoric that saw itself as part of a broader anti-Republican movement and as part of the bases of the Democratic Party, even if not of the party itself, such as labor, feminism, racial justice, and more. However, I find myself pushing back here not because of what is said, but because of who the audience is. The audience for these debates is largely for DSA members and some Leftists. Outside of this milieu, few care or understand. That matters for real-world impact.

Of course, Left-wing debates can be esoteric. They are largely ignored by those not already in the anti-capitalist movement. But elections are the main venue in which most people engage with politics. They serve as the venue in which socialists most reach out to the general public. In New York, several establishment Democrats such as centrist New York Congressman Tom Suozzi have encouraged socialists to form a party. Never mind the hypocrisy of corporate Democrats that would soon condemn the same Leftists and Greens for costing Al Gore the 2000 election. (DSA neither endorsed Gore nor Ralph Nader, but still suffered residual blame for the Democrat’s loss for which the Green Party was primarily blamed.) The fact that anti-socialist Democrats want us out of the Party demonstrates that it still remains most effective to run candidates in the primaries as Democrats in order to elect socialists.

The more strength socialists get in and around the Democratic Party — largely winning offices and pushing legislation — the harder it will be to break with the Party. This is the dirty little secret. DSA’s current electoral strategy roughly is “elect more socialists” with the goals of building a broader infrastructure to train candidates and pass progressive public policy. But there is no consensus on how to govern with most Democrats or how to achieve a dirty break.

In fact, I share the critique of Tim Horras from Philly Socialists that the dirty-break discussion is almost an epiphenomenal impact of DSA’s increasing electoral power. Although this debate commands the attention of many of the most active members within DSA, those outside of the organization remain generally ignorant of the discussion, since, despite the sometimes heated rhetoric, it has yet to have any impact on the DSA’s electoral program or outcomes. While we disagree on the validity of building class power through the Democratic primary, we concur that in the end the majority of DSA activists are not willing to make the step to be totally independent of the Democratic Party infrastructure.

At the 2021 DSA Convention, for instance, delegates balked at efforts to research alternatives to VAN, a Democratic Party proprietary voter-contact program. Proponents of such research said fairly that it was necessary to begin the process of building independent infrastructure that does not rely on the Democratic establishment. Their concerns have legitimacy. Byron Brown, the Buffalo mayor who defeated DSA member India Walton in the general election, running as a write-in still had access to VAN after losing the Democratic primary. Still, arguments of cost defeated the measure. Delegates such as myself could not justify potential spending millions on programming in light of other pressing needs.

In addition, the delegates defeated proposals that would have forced elected DSA members not to endorse corporate Democrats in general elections. Opponents were concerned about feasibility and flexibility: shouldn’t we allow individual members the choice to endorse candidates as long as they don’t go against the organization’s wishes? As the recent uproar concerning Jamaal Bowman and DSA over his trip to Israel and his vote for the Iron Dome demonstrate, it is not so easy to discipline our elected officials, much less get consensus about whether it is correct to do so. A number of chapters and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions working group called for Bowman’s expulsion. The national DSA leadership, while critical of Bowman and certainly not sanguine on him receiving an endorsement again, rejected this effort. When push came to shove, DSA stuck by its elected member for the time being.

While it is difficult to imagine the old DSA ever trying to push out an elected official, the fact that it did not happen demonstrates the lack of majority appetite for major changes that would swing DSA in totally new directions. DSA has changed in rhetoric and putative goals. But the actual changes, especially when it comes to real world actions, are less clear.

It is critical to cut past the rhetoric and see what has not changed in the new DSA. For instance, DSA is not conducting internal reform work within the Democratic Party as an organization. Individual members may do so, but they are not DSA’s representatives. The socialist organization still largely supports candidates running as Democrats (including the nonpartisan elections). DSA did occasionally endorse a Green when I first joined, which we joked back then put us to the Left of the Communist Party, USA which genuinely only would support Democrats. In two critical ways, DSA has not really changed: it isn’t trying to reform the Democratic Party and it is largely supporting Democratic candidates.

So what has changed besides conversations around hypothetical breaks? For one, DSA has a much stricter line about who can get endorsed regardless of their party affiliation. Today, DSA is much more wont to endorse only socialists — especially national endorsements — than in years before.

DSA also has much more volunteer and fundraising capacity.  As civil society weakens, especially organized labor, DSA members can be a make-or-break volunteer pool and campaign staff for down ballot candidates. Even AOC’s campaign team is heavily staffed with local socialists. This gives the growing socialist organization some pride and ability to leverage with the elected candidates. While at the congressional level, representatives who were DSA members came more from the ranks than today, the local officeholders very much socialize and depend on the collective to win and govern. Elected officials tied so closely to the socialist movement are the best tribunes for the working class.

But pride comes before the fall. Today, socialists still have a finite amount of support. It is unclear how much it is growing or not. DSA needs to be realistic: while it may not want to enter the Democratic Party networks and associations, it is not going to be winning over majorities even in the Democratic legislative caucuses soon. Still, DSA can influence public policy and build socialism by electing a handful of people that show tangible results. This will not happen by supporting a strategy, as some want, to make socialist electeds only accountable to DSA. Socialist Alternative did that with Kshama Sawant, which has never been duplicated even with DSA support, and the councilmember just barely survived a recall. Sawant’s successful defense included national and local support from DSA.

Her troubles are a microcosm of the limit that socialist electoral politics faces in the immediate future. It is fun and exciting to discuss forming new parties. But the tougher and more salient question is, how do socialist elected officials co-govern in center-Left majorities while being accountable to their democratic (small d) organizations and progressive movements that elected them? If the Left cannot resolve these issues, voters will not trust us and expand our representation. This could be a slow march back to the 2010s and before, except now we’ll have the weight of “remember when we almost had power.”