Is DSA Really in Crisis?

DSA is not in crisis, but we are in a new political moment. Will we keep building together or head back to the political wilderness?

Since Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) surge in membership starting in 2016, so many articles have claimed that DSA is facing some major crisis that “DSA is at a crossroads” or “DSA is in crisis” have become cliches. Every few months, a new apparent impasse emerges in DSA, but the issue rarely warrants the panic that erupts online. For example, last year, when some DSA congressional members voted with the Democratic majority to avert a railroad strike last November, a flurry of articles declared that this represented a significant problem facing DSA. In January 2023, an article in the Young Democratic Socialists of America publication The Activist proclaimed “A Crisis in DSA.” The same month, members of the DSA caucuses Bread & Roses, Reform & Revolution, Marxist Unity Group and the publication Tempest all participated in a panel called “DSA Adrift?” A March Cosmonaut article claimed DSA is in a “gridlock” between “Pro-Party” and “Anti-Party” factions that has resulted in “a decrease in active participation,” and called for the “Pro-Party” factions to unite. An editorial in Bread and Roses’s The Call, titledThis Year, DSA Has a Chance to Rebuild – We Should Take It, claims that “it’s no secret that DSA has hit a rough patch,” and while they reference several factors why, they particularly blame “highly public spats over elected accountability.” Most accounts emphasizing the crisis tend to point to these spats over elected accountability, which – to be fair – are very high-profile on social media, but their significance is largely overblown. A downfall of DSA being stuck in our current “Dirty Stay” approach to electoral politics is that no faction is happy with the situation or able to steer the organization as a whole away from it. These disputes reflect a political impasse in DSA in which some seek to resolve the underlying issues by establishing closer, stronger relationships with socialist elected officials, while others believe severing those relationships entirely is warranted. These persistent so-called crises do not reflect the actual state of affairs in our organization, but by creating an atmosphere of internal disorder, they threaten to hinder DSA’s ability to grow into a mass movement and to return us to the margins of political life.

Stronger Than Ever

Contrary to internal skepticism, DSA is in a much stronger position today than ever before. We are the most influential socialist organization in the United States in nearly a century. Where other US socialist organizations faltered, DSA has succeeded due to a flexibility that has allowed us to participate effectively in mass politics. We should not abandon this resilience in pursuit of ideological purity. Internal criticism is fair game when it is constructive, but the frequent online crises must not overshadow how far we have come in a short time. There are more socialist members of Congress than at any time in history, hundreds of DSA members serve in local and state offices across the country, and DSA has organized and established much stronger and militant relationships with labor and tenant unions. Just a couple decades ago, many in the US had relegated socialism to the dustbin of history, but younger generations have increasingly recognized it as the remedy to the never-ending calamities of capitalism. 70 percent of Millennials and 64 percent of Generation Z say they would vote for a socialist candidate compared to only 44 percent for Generation X and 36 percent of Boomers. Socialism is also viewed more favorably by Black Americans (52 percent), Asian Americans (49 percent), and Hispanic Americans (41 percent) than white Americans (31 percent).45 percent of lower-income Americans also viewed socialism favorably compared to 33 percent of middle-income and 33 percent of upper-income Americans. Younger generations and the multiracial working class are increasingly drawn to socialism, and DSA is in a prime position to continue organizing this renewed energy out of the fringes and into a mass movement – if we avoid letting sectarianism spoil it and divide us.

While internally we often hear a narrative that DSA is floundering, moderate Democrats are explicitly targeting DSA because they realize how much of a threat the resurgent socialist movement is to neoliberalism and to the establishment wing of the party. Nancy Pelosi’s hand-picked successor Hakeem Jeffries declared that he will never “bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” New York City mayor Eric Adams declared he was “running against a movement” of “DSA socialists.” In St. Louis, where I live and am a leader in the local DSA chapter, Steve Roberts – the quintessential establishment Democrat who primaried Cori Bush in 2022 – used red-scare tactics by rebuking her for “campaigning on behalf of other Socialist candidates,” called her an anti-Semite for her support of Palestine, and compared her to a Republican for voting against the Build Back Better Act – despite the fact that she did so because she wanted more from it – before she easily defeated him by over 40 points. Moderate Democrats fear the growth of DSA because our socialist policies are popular and winning. The real crossroads we are facing as DSA is whether we continue growing into a mass movement that can push us towards socialism, or pour energy instead into largely online, inward-facing debates that alienate coalitions and distract us from the organizing that needs to be done.

As much internal strife DSA has faced over the last couple of years, the DSA National Convention in 2021 offered a consensus for DSA to continue with its electoral strategy. Resolution #8, “Towards a Mass Party,” succeeded by an overwhelming vote of 734-218, which recommended DSA “continue its successful approach of tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line while building power independent of the Democratic party apparatus.” At the same convention, delegates strongly rejected resolutions pursuing what I consider to be a more sectarian agenda. We witnessed significant victories as a result of DSA’s electoral strategy. Kansas protected abortion rights, Maine defeated a referendum that would roll back rent control, and New York won the biggest Green New Deal victory in US history. DSA can do incredible things when we organize to win, but unfortunately, instead of dedicating more time towards advancing this adopted electoral strategy, some DSA members spent much of the past two years litigating overblown controversies, largely on social media.

Growing Pains

Critics of this electoral strategy within the organization point to a decline in membership as proof of a crisis. Socialist Alternative leader Kshama Sawant recently claimed that “DSA are in decline” not due to a decrease of interest in socialism but because of “a failure of DSA’s leadership” and “a failure of AOC and the Squad.” While DSA lost some members since its peak a couple years ago, the decline in total membership is often overstated and does not reflect some major crisis. If the reason for the decrease was DSA’s failure to hold its elected officials accountable, one would expect a significant increase in other socialist organizations, which we have also not seen. Even if DSA’s membership were to decline to the 70,000s from its current level, that would still be nearly twelve times as large as DSA was before the Trump-era surge and five times as big as DSA’s height before 2016. Correlation is not causation, and there is no evidence to support the argument that a significant number of members left DSA due to its reluctance to censure its elected officials. One could argue even more members would have left had DSA if it reacted more punitively. In St. Louis, where our membership has grown since 2021, if national DSA expelled Cori Bush we certainly would have lost a lot of members. Very few chapters have a socialist representing them in a federal office, but the experience of our chapter provides a perspective at the national level that goes underappreciated in the organization. St. Louis DSA does a lot of great work beyond electoral politics, but we have benefited significantly from Cori Bush’s rise in St. Louis. Whereas many chapters claim they have lost membership or energy locally over the last couple years, St. Louis DSA has grown in numbers and influence; maybe this is why I fail to see a real crisis in DSA.

There are other reasons why membership may have declined nationally. Other groups that surged as part of the resistance to Donald Trump have declined in activity and size under the Biden administration. We are still making our way through a pandemic that saw people isolated at home for a long time, and without a new Bernie Sanders presidential campaign to rally around, or a neo-fascist like Trump in office to rally against, it’s possible that some inactive members declined (or forgot) to renew their dues. Perhaps some people found the constant drama online exhausting and wanted a break from it. Even if DSA’s membership is no longer at its peak of 2021, DSA’s influence is growing both electorally and through our labor organizing. The best way to return and surpass our peak membership is not to retreat back to our narrow corners, but to continue forward on the path that got us there in the first place — engaging in mass politics and meeting the working class where they currently stand.

There is no crisis in DSA, but the sudden growth of DSA has naturally led to some growing pains from which we can learn. Consider the recent conflict over the vote on the rail strike. After four of the twelve unions representing railroad workers voted down the Biden administration’s brokered agreement between organized labor and the railroads, Biden and Congress sought to forcibly impose the contract on the workers, heading off a potential strike. Pelosi put forward a bill to enforce the contract and block the strike, which everyone knew would easily pass the House, but the Squad pushed back and demanded a vote on a second bill adding sick leave to the contract, in response to requests from union leadership and rank and file union members. After forcing a vote on the second bill, three of the four DSA members in the House voted in favor of imposing the contract, which overwhelmingly passed 290-137, while the bill to add sick leave barely passed 221-207. The Senate approved the bill to impose the contract, while the sick leave bill fell short of the 60 needed votes.The bill received votes from some Republicans, including Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, so it was not a foregone conclusion that it would fail. The Squad’s vote to enforce the contract in hopes of also getting sick leave passed could be criticized as a tactical mistake, but the online reaction far outweighed the actual consequences of the vote. Plenty of DSA members have questioned the vote, but we must not lose sight of the broader context of the situation in order to learn from it.

There were a number of petitions circulated in response to the votes of DSA congresspeople. The petition that gathered the most traction came from the Seattle DSA Local Council, which did not go as far as other statements that called for expulsion, but demanded a town hall with the DSA congress members present to hear voices from “railroad worker leaders and activists, and have speakers from the NPC and DSA chapters.” The petition requesting a town hall to publicly criticize our elected officials for their vote was released on December 1st, just a day after the vote took place, and it was widely shared online and gained signatures from members of other chapters and some chapters as well.

See You at the Crossroads

Before this petition was circulated, however, St. Louis DSA already reached out to Rep. Cori Bush’s staff and set up a meeting to discuss the vote. We invited Ross Grooters from Railroad Workers United, a cross-union rank-and-file rail workers caucus advocating for reform in rail labor. Grooters reiterated much of what they also said in a Jacobin interview: the unions were not actually prepared to strike and knew the vote was a foregone conclusion, but they were encouraged by Squad’s effort to fight for sick leave. Grooters was also encouraged by the opening of this relationship with the congresswoman’s staff and hoped to build on it. The message from Cori Bush’s team was that they knew the bill was going to pass regardless, so they focused on fighting to get sick leave added, in hopes that Bernie Sanders could whip enough votes for it to pass the Senate. Representatives from the railroad unions advocated for the strategy to focus on getting sick leave at the time, instead of fighting the contract bill that they knew was going to pass. After the votes, more information came out showing just how much work went into getting the sick vote added. As Ryan Grim explained in The Intercept, militant workers within the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) formed the BMWED Rank and File United in 2021 to make the union more democratic, and this caucus helped defeat the railroad contract in September of 2022, setting up the possibility of a strike. Eventually,representatives from Rank and File United met with Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s and Rep. Bush’s teams, and pushed for the seven days of sick leave. If not for this last minute campaigning by the caucus, the sick leave bill may not have passed. Another regular criticism is that there should have just been one bill with sick leave provisions added to it. But there were tactical considerations behind the move toward two bills, according to rank-and-file organizers. If House Republicans rejected the bill with sick leave added in, the concern was that Pelosi would reintroduce the bill as she initially intended without the sick leave. Many people representing the workers fought for the sick leave and influenced the decisions leading up to the votes, and DSA members should refrain from disparaging others’ work when we were not involved in it and don’t know the whole story.

The fact that DSA was not able to help produce a different outcome is something we need to learn from to prepare for the fights to come. DSA must proactively prepare for these situations before they arise instead of reacting after the fact. This is why we need to continue organizing Socialists in Office formations at the chapter and national level. It is this weakness, not a supposed betrayal by elected members, that is the primary lesson of the strike vote, and our approach to working with Rep. Bush made progress on that front. Thanks to this conversation, she and her staff can also now reach out to Ross Grooters and the Railroad Workers United to get a better perspective on what the rank-and-file workers want. We can’t will our elected officials into doing what we want them to do, no matter how intensely we post or how many petitions we circulate. It takes the hard work of education, dialogue, and comradely resolution of disagreements. This work is happening every day in DSA chapters across the country, but is rarely visible in online discourse.

Individual members, caucuses, and chapters have the right to make whatever statements they want, but let us not conflate statements by select chapters and factions with the views of the majority of DSA members. We should also pay attention to how many chapters did not sign onto these statements, including most of the largest chapters and those with socialists in elected office. These chapters are more likely to recognize that making strong, punitive statements online against our socialist elected officials, instead of directly fostering those relationships, hinders our ability to further organize a multiracial working class mass movement. The question of “how to hold our electeds accountable” needs to take place in a larger conversation about what kind of organization DSA is trying to build. The 2021 convention resolution “Toward a Mass Party” committed DSA to “building a multiracial working-class base, electing Black socialists and other socialists of color, advancing racial justice, building coalitions with organizers of color, and diversifying our membership.” These are necessary steps for DSA to grow into a multiracial mass movement, but since we passed this resolution too much of DSA’s energy has been wasted on debating how to reprimand our elected socialists of color rather than building these coalitions.The multiracial working class in St. Louis benefits from Cori Bush’s leadership in Congress, and as a result, she is very popular across many different parts of the left here. This is the kind of successful relationship we should strive for and look to build on.

If DSA is yet again at a crossroads as we approach the 2023 convention, the crossroads is whether we want to continue building relationships and coalitions and establishing DSA as a multiracial working-class mass organization, or if we want to abandon mass politics and resort to the in-fighting that kept socialists irrelevant for decades before Bernie’s presidential campaigns. In this late stage of capitalism, where we have limited time to prevent a catastrophic climate crisis and fend off an insurgent right-wing Christian nationalist movement bent on seizing power through whatever means necessary, we cannot afford to return to the self-defeating habits of the small group mentality. To grow into a mass organization, DSA must avoid a focus on inflexible ideological lines, agitate the working class left without alienating our coalition allies, and embrace the working-class champions who have emerged in recent years. We may be at a crossroads, but we are not in crisis. We may at times be disappointed with certain actions of our elected officials, but both DSA and our elected officials are growing, getting stronger, and learning how to best organize against racial capitalism. The growing pains we’ve experienced along the way are a far better problem to have than where our movement was before 2016-2017, when there was no Left opposition in Congress to fight for the working class. That was a real crisis we should take care not to re-create.