Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate?

The approach to mass politics that made Bernie Sanders a singularly effective socialist politician should remain our north star. 

The electoral priority resolution passed at Democratic Socialists of America’s 2021 convention, “Toward a Mass Party in the United States”, consolidated many of the shared underlying assumptions towards electoral work within DSA. That DSA members agree on many of the fundamentals has obscured that the vision in the resolution is a major advance over the approaches to electoral politics and the Democratic Party that predominated on the US left before 2016.

The resolution orients DSA towards building a mass, democratic political organization rooted in the working class that is operationally independent from the Democratic Party, while still running candidates in Democratic Party primaries and on the Democratic ballot line in general elections. Thanks to DSA’s growth and success in the electoral arena using this strategy, it has largely supplanted more sectarian, movementist, and abstentionist political tendencies that were dominant before 2015. Its approach to the Democratic Party is distinct from both prior doomed attempts to form a third party and the distracting pursuit of internal Democratic Party reform efforts that have been the two poles of a major division on the US left for a half-century.

DSA’s strategy is being implemented in fits and starts across the country by DSA chapters, which has opened a new and important debate on the question of what exactly the party surrogate we are building and the socialists we elect should do with their growing power. It has highlighted a divide between distinct political orientations on the left, best represented by Senator Bernie Sanders and retiring Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Sanders applies a sort of electoral version of Farrell Dobbs’s idea that socialist militants in the labor movement should aim their fire at the boss, and catch conservative union leaders who get in the crossfire. Sanders keeps his rhetorical and legislative fire aimed squarely at the major capitalists who dominate US political and economic life, and engages in principled conflict with members of both parties as his politics confront the realities of class power – an approach that found deep resonance in his two presidential primary campaigns. In contrast, Sawant prioritizes direct attacks on “the Democrats,” seeking to demonstrate a political alternative through bold words and actions rather than creating the conditions for one through the mass politicization of the working-class base of the Democratic Party.

While Councilmember Sawant’s politics have an undeniable appeal, her success in winning victories for working people is dependent on specific local circumstances, and the lessons to be drawn from her experience cannot be generalized as a one-size-fits-all electoral strategy. DSA chapters must continue to experiment and refine our electoral strategies and tactics, but the approach to mass politics that has made Bernie Sanders a singularly effective socialist politician should remain our north star.

Our Strategy

“Toward a Mass Party in the United States” was uncontroversial when it passed at the 2021 DSA convention, but it represents a specific approach that is notably different than, and a major advance over, the dominant political ideas on the US left before the first Sanders campaign.

The “party” referred to in the title of the resolution is “a mass democratic political organization capable of taking state power with a strategy for social transformation.” The vision that the necessary vehicle for the left is a single, democratic, mass-membership organization seems obvious, but it has been by no means hegemonic on the US left. Various minor socialist parties might have used (and still use) the rhetoric of a mass party, but in practice they establish very high barriers of entry to join, and are in turn quick to expel members who don’t adhere to a highly specific party line–practices incompatible with building a broad-based organization rooted in the US’s diverse and fragmented working class. A common “movementist” orientation viewed the most promising vehicle for the left, in the absence of any mass left political organizations, as a coalition or collaboration among various “social movements” and single issue campaigns, with little attention paid to the need for democratic decision making, formal membership, or or unified organizational structure. A substantial element of the left heavily influenced by anarchism and super-charged by the explosion of the Occupy Wall Street movement more or less embraced abstentionism from electoral and legislative politics, viewing “street heat,” “outside pressure,” and the development of alternative institutions as the most important ways for working people to advance radical politics. DSA’s commitment to building a mass political organization with its own electoral program, whether we call it a “party,” “party surrogate,” “political instrument,” or by any other name, represents a major step forward for the post-Bernie left.

The Ballot Line Question

Agreement on the need for a mass political organization as a central vehicle for the left does not resolve what has been one of the central tensions on the US left for at least 50 years – the debate between those who want to start a third party and those who are engaged in “reform” efforts within the Democratic Party structure. Here too, DSA has made an advance over the dominant positions of decades past, by committing to build a fully operationally independent mass organization, while continuing to compete in Democratic primaries and run on the Democratic ballot line in general elections.

The movement to build a third party has had its strongest advocates and most advanced form in the Green Party, while finding substantial rhetorical support from smaller socialist organizations. Practically speaking, it has been a failure in both the most minimal aim of electing substantial numbers of leftists outside of the Democratic Party, as well as in its expansive (and more remote than ever) goal of supplanting the Democrats with a real party of the left. The combination of single member district first-past-the-post legislative elections, the Electoral College, and a national first-past-the-post presidential system pose a major obstacle to starting a party, but that is only part of the story. In the US’s weak party system, the open party registration rolls and public primaries run by state governments also make it difficult for major party elites to fully control the composition or ballot line of their party, and correspondingly easy for organizations on the left or right to compete for seats within the major party primaries. On the left, that opportunity for entry into the two-party system exists for even the most militant and left-wing trade unions whose participation would be essential for the formation of a socialist party. The combination of obstacles to a third party breaking through and incentives for new or growing electoral constituencies to engage in major party primaries has made forming a third party a non-starter.

At least since the late 1960s, many leftists who correctly rejected the third party approach have worked within the Democratic Party on “party reform” efforts – contesting internal party positions (such as county parties, state parties and seats on the Democratic National Committee) and pushing to make the party’s structures more democratic and its platform more compatible with left-wing ideals. This approach, often confusingly labeled “realignment” in DSA parlance, is not really about realigning the electorate along polarized class or ideological lines, but about pushing democratizing reforms within the party that might allow the left to contest the neoliberal wing of the party for leadership of its formal institutions on procedurally fairer ground. This goal overestimates the importance of controlling the official organs of the party, since state parties and the DNC cannot bind elected officials to their platforms, cannot deny elected officials who deviate from their directives the ballot line, and cannot prevent other political actors (be they capitalists, unions, or single-issue organizations) from organizing openly for their interests through parallel institutions including in party primaries. The recent experience of the Nevada Democratic Party is instructive, where a takeover by a Berniecrat and Las Vegas DSA aligned progressive bloc led to the Party’s funders and operatives to simply shift their activities outside of the state party, leaving it with little in the way of resources. The prize of a reformed state party turned out not to be what its proponents imagined, at least without a corresponding increase in electoral power and seats in state and federal office held by socialists. Worst of all, these internal party fights are often focused on technical and procedural minutiae that appeal to a certain class of liberal reformer but are unlikely to inspire the millions of disengaged working-class people socialists must reach, and so offer little as a mass organizing project for the socialist left. It’s far better for socialist to focus on races, in city, state and federal legislatures and executive offices, where our electoral campaigns can be connected directly to campaigning for and winning working class demands.

In a crucial way, champions of forming a third party and advocates for a Democratic Party reform effort are both resting their analysis on the same mistake – the assumption that a mass party that represents working-class interests can ever be fully unified with a party name on a ballot line in the US. If either of these groups succeeded in their mission, by either supplanting the Democrats with a third party or by transforming the Democratic Party into a mass party with socialist platform, a key challenge would remain. People who disagreed with the party’s platform would still be able to register to vote in its primaries, capitalist and other oppositional forces would still be able to fund parallel institutions and openly organize for candidates running in the party’s primaries, and advancing working class politics would still require the institutional and operational capacity to promote and defend the candidates who advance its platform – just as the mainstream Democrats try to defend their candidates from socialist primary challenges today.

The approach reflected in the 2021 convention resolution recognizes that in the current legal context, the ballot line is a tactical question and largely beside the point to our overall strategy. What matters for the left, today and in the foreseeable future, are the independent organizations we can build and the support from millions of working-class people we can earn. In the electoral arena, building an independent, democratic organization that can generate mass support, win elections, contest for power and implement a socialist program is the task of socialists today.

The Limits of an Oppositional Electoral Strategy

As DSA chapters proceed with this strategy, winning elections and establishing formal relationships with socialists in elected office, an entirely new set of questions for this party-building project are coming into focus: What is the role of these socialists in office? What strategies should they undertake to grow DSA and increase organization and class consciousness among millions of working-class people outside of our organization? How can socialist minorities win reforms that improve people’s lives, and what types of compromise are acceptable to achieve them?

One attempt to answer these questions holds that the most important role of elected officials in DSA is almost entirely oppositional, and that socialist elected officials should publicly communicate intransigent resistance to business-as-usual in government at all times. This maximally confrontational approach, recalling the  “shouting through the windows of parliament” practice of the Second International-era Social Democratic Party of Germany, is meant to agitate workers and raise class consciousness to the point that that a crisis provokes a major break in the political system – mass strikes, the formation of a working class third party, or a revolutionary “Popular Assembly” to overthrow the US constitutional order. The strategy acknowledges that there is a tension between winning concessions or reforms that might benefit working people now versus keeping our hands totally clean from the dirty business of government, but largely opts for the latter, seeing minimal opportunities for reform at present and vast opportunities in the uncertain future, when increasing working-class politicization may allow for the emergence of a revolutionary opening.

This oppositional strategy benefits from a fully coherent internal logic that has a pat answer for every question. No matter the policy arena, the level of government, the size of the left in a given legislative body, or the balance of class forces in the political conjuncture, its proponents demand first and foremost that socialist representatives stridently denounce injustice, draw a sharp distinction with members of both major parties, and reject any vote, symbolic or concrete, that might implicate socialists in the moral wrongs of capitalist society. Compromise always represents betrayal, and the publicly communicated posture – most importantly criticism of Democratic Party leaders – is more important than any attempt to modestly improve people’s lives through the rigged organs of the capitalist state.

Various elements on the left in recent years have begun to routinely demand such intransigence from elected socialists. The “Force The Vote” movement of alienated Bernie Sanders supporters followed podcasters like Briahna Joy Gray and Jimmy Dore in making highly moralistic attacks that target the handful of socialists and aligned progressives in the congressional Squad and even Sanders himself as the principal enemies of the true left. Disagreement in DSA with votes that democratic socialists have taken on military budgets, funding for Israel and the imposition of a contract on rail workers has led to calls for action meant to produce a more rigidly oppositional strategy. Others in DSA have looked to the recent Republican congressional leadership election, briefly and embarrassingly derailed by the nihilistic far right bloc in Congress, as evidence that a tiny minority of socialists could win more legislative concessions from class enemies, if only they were principled enough to stay strong and use their “bully pulpit.”

Current and former members of Socialist Alternative operating within DSA can hold up Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant as the most successful avatar of this strategy. Sawant, who recently announced she is retiring from the City Council to launch a “video broadcast” and an associated “national movement,” is a complex figure. On the one hand, she is increasingly echoing the style of Jimmy Dore, as seen in her retirement letter’s attacks on DSA, the ”overwhelming majority” of DSA elected officials, and her specific denunciations of the “misleadership” of “sell-outs” in the congressional Squad. On the other hand, she is undoubtedly a uniquely successful and credible advocate for her politics – elected as an independent socialist, touting a consistent record of clashing with Seattle’s progressive establishment, and having a fair claim to playing a crucial role in passing the nation’s first big-city minimum wage increase to $15/hour. My own journey into organized socialist politics was inspired by that victory, and it helped propel forward a movement that has raised wages for tens of millions of low wage workers.

But in many ways Councilmember Sawant is the exception that proves the rule, and the very metrics by which we evaluate her success raise questions about the broad applicability of her approach. Her much touted “independence” from the Democratic Party is based on winning in non-partisan City Council elections that allowed Socialist Alternative to completely evade the ballot line dilemma that DSA addressed in the 2021 electoral resolution. The victory of the $15 minimum wage vote was possible not just because a socialist “shouted through the windows of parliament” to the public, but because she had the power to actually put the question to them. It was the threat of a municipal ballot initiative that gave Sawant substantial leverage over the rest of the City Council and the Mayor. Outside of the context of a highly progressive city with non-partisan council elections, reasonably accessible municipal ballot initiatives, and minimal threat of state preemption, Sawant’s strategy would have immediately hit one of several walls. Socialist Alternative’s efforts to replicate the strategy elsewhere have been informed by some of these limitations, with their largest focus targeting Minneapolis, another progressive city, where they sought to take advantage of a ranked-choice voting system. Even so, the overwhelming majority of their resources have gone to defending Sawant’s seat, and as yet they have not succeeded in electing additional candidates on the same model.

To celebrate Sawant as a success story cannot just rely on the fact that she has stayed in near-constant conflict with the Democratic establishment, but must include the fact that she actually delivered something for the working class in a city dominated by capitalist behemoths like Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft. Other socialists will need to do the same – win hard-fought victories for workers – in order to stay in office and build the movement. That means they will need to develop approaches that work in varying political contexts, not just the best-case scenario.

The recent decision of Providence DSA to rescind its endorsement of DSA member and socialist state representative David Morales after his vote to reelect the Democratic speaker indicates the pitfalls of the oppositional approach taken to its furthest extreme. Support for Morales was rescinded based on a Providence DSA bylaw stating that “DSA-endorsed politicians are expected to play an oppositional role in the political system. They should not support establishment Democrats for the purpose of gaining the favor of Party leadership.” At one level, this decision can be viewed as a healthy example of a DSA chapter trying to flex its party-building muscle by democratically adopting and enforcing rules to guide its engagement in the political arena. The decision may even have been necessary or strategic – I certainly take very seriously the deliberations members make based on local considerations. But at least as it was communicated publicly, the decision to rescind the endorsement was lacking in political content or connection to the types of demands that could politicize more working class people. Unlike Chicago DSA’s decision to censure Alderman Andre Vasquez for voting for an austerity budget opposed by every other socialist alderman, Providence DSA’s decision was over a largely symbolic and procedural vote for speaker in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Principled “no” votes, strategically deployed, can be a powerful way for socialists to draw sharp moral contrasts and politicize certain issues for the public, but that requires an analysis of our near-term electoral and legislative aims, not just an appeal to the principle of “opposition.” Deployed too zealously, this type of commitment to opposition amounts to a retreat from struggle in the electoral arena altogether.

These are not idle discussions, either. At this year’s DSA convention, delegates may be asked to consider various efforts to “resolve” our way into a rigidly oppositional strategy. One resolution seeks to codify this approach via a new category of endorsement, “DSA Representative,” for candidates who will pre-commit to voting no on budgets and refusing to endorse corporate Democrats regardless of circumstance, the tactics that the authors see as consistent with a uniformly oppositional party-building strategy. Another would go further in terms of establishing a restrictive national approach, requiring the NPC to publicly admonish any DSA elected official who joined a campaign event for or made a statement in support of electing a centrist Democrat, apparently even in a swing state or a general election where a full abortion ban, an expansion of “right-to-work,” or ban on gender transition hangs in the balance.

Let a Thousand Bernies Bloom

At the heart of a socialist approach to electoral politics should be socialists using the power they can win to help working people develop class consciousness and the means, through organization, to take political and economic power into their own hands. The greatest contribution to this project on the US left in a century came from independent democratic socialist senator Bernie Sanders, who has taken a notably different approach than Kshama Sawant or Force the Vote advocates.

The story of Sanders’s rise from the obscurity of third-party politics in the 1960s and 1970s to being elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont as an independent socialist in 1980, to becoming the most successful socialist politician in United States history does not need retelling. Even through the neoliberal era and the rise of the far right, he has been remarkably consistent in maintaining his political independence, naming capitalists (or the “billionaire class,” in his formulation) as the enemies of progress, and keeping the faith in a working-class political revolution.

The substance and style of Sanders’s politics could not be more distinct from the entirely oppositional approach. Instead of strident or personal denunciations of betrayers and misleaders in the Democratic Party, Sanders keeps his focus on capitalists and makes public the ways they rig the system through lobbying and campaign finance. Instead of jumping on every issue or outrage of the day, he has remained focused, for decades, on building support around a set of popular, transformative demands. Sanders, called the “amendment king” in 2005 for his talents in legislative maneuvering, has never shied away from securing legislative compromises and concessions that make small or large gains for working people, and has worked with adversaries in the Democratic Party to achieve them, but he communicates clearly to the public about the balance of forces that produce these results, and the need for organization and mobilization to change them for the better.

The results are impressive. Sanders secured millions of votes in two presidential primary elections, dramatically changed the terrain for socialism in the US, and contributed to the class consciousness and political development of tens of millions of people who were awakened to the possibility of a political revolution. Although he has made countless compromises that would make DSA members cringe over his decades in politics, he retains an overwhelmingly positive reputation among voters across the political spectrum as a principled political actor, for the simple reason that he is one. Even as he has unfortunately eschewed establishing strong relationships with political organizations on the left, he is inarguably the greatest contributor to their growth in US politics today.

DSA should look to Sanders not for a playbook to copy thoughtlessly, but as one promising example of a socialist politician navigating the contradictions and tensions of holding office in a period of low working-class organization and consciousness. Our task at the moment is to build an organization with deep roots in the working class, capable of electing thousands of socialists to office, and coordinating with them in a democratic fashion to navigate through those contradictions. We don’t have or need a ready made answer for exactly what every elected official should do in every situation – instead, we need to build strong and democratic structures connecting our membership to political actors, so that we can collectively push past the obstacles to change in a capitalist society.

Socialists who have only joined the movement in the last few years would be shocked by just how different the left was even a decade ago. There was no optimism that socialism could one day find majority support in the US and no broad consensus on the need to build mass, democratic organizations. Any efforts to do so were mired in a seemingly irresolvable debate about the Democratic Party. Today we are still far from the world we want to win, but the recent qualitative and quantitative changes on the left matter immensely to the possibility of building a just society, and need to be defended. Advocates for the approach of relentless opposition need to prove their ideas in practice – both that Sawant-style candidates can consistently win elections, and that their approach can deliver victories for working people that will inspire the continued growth of our movement. If DSA pulls away from candidates following in Sanders’s footsteps without a proven alternative, we risk returning DSA, and the nation, to the pre-2016 wilderness of an irrelevant left.