DSA members David Duhalde and Kristian Hernandez recently appeared on an episode of Talking Strategy, Making History, a podcast hosted by DSA members Dick Flacks and Daraka Larimore-Hall. Their discussion covered a wide range of topics of interest to DSA members, a transcript of which has been reproduced here. It has been edited for length and clarity, and appears here with the permission of the participants.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: Introduce yourselves to our listeners and a little bit of how you got involved in socialist politics.
Kristian Hernandez: I was born and raised in Texas. How I got into politics, that’s a lovely little origin story rooted in my background in immigrant rights organizing. I’d been doing that for a few years before it felt like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. Anyone who has been fighting for the DREAM Act can tell you, it’s just a constant barrage of disappointment. I just happened to get an invite to go to Las Vegas one day because they were looking for bilingual Spanish speakers for a guy, Bernie Sanders, y’all might know him. It was to talk to people, particularly Latinos, in Las Vegas. I was like, sure, that sounds great. I don’t know this Bernie guy, but that sounds awesome. In the course of traversing hundred degree weather and talking to a bunch of people, I saw how Bernie’s message resonated, with me too. I stuck as a Bernie fan and eventually had somebody ask me “are you interested in leftist politics?” I said I’m a big fan of Bernie.
This person was one of the people who started the process of developing a DSA chapter in the North Texas area. I joined in what I felt was a very old school way at the time, I filled out a paper application and submitted a check. That’s how we used to do things, which I like! I’m very old school in that regard. By the fall of 2016 I was officially a DSA member, and very shortly thereafter became the chair of my chapter for two years.We did a lot of work around the Dakota Access Pipeline because the CEO is based in Dallas. We had a huge paid sick time campaign and did some police oversight work, and we won some victories there. Then I was recruited to run for the National Political Committee (NPC), which is the political leadership of DSA. This is now my second and last term on the NPC, so it’s definitely a very reflective time for me. I’ve spent almost seven years in DSA now.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: Awesome. Seven years is like 14 socialist years when you’re on a board for sure. So David, who are you?
David Duhalde: I also remember bringing the $20 that I probably saved up in allowance or whatever to bring it to the DSA national office and give it to the youth organizer in person. So I remember the old fashioned ways too. I’m David Duhalde, calling in from Brooklyn but I’m from Manhattan. I’ve been in DSA for, I can’t believe it’s gonna be 20 years.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: Your DSA tenure could vote!
David Duhalde: I know, it’s really weird. It’s gonna be able to drink soon. I come from a socialist family. My dad’s from Chile. He was part of the student movement supporting Salvador Allende’s government, and he was exiled here. My mom was a Chile solidarity activist, and both were active in the trade union movement. They were very DSA friendly and did some work with DSOC, one of DSA’s predecessor organizations, but they were not members. I became a socialist in high school, largely under their influence. I decided to join DSA in college, where I became active in the youth wing, which is now called the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). I’ve done a lot in DSA, I’ve joked that I’ve held almost every position in every level possible from YDSA to NPC. I served a couple of terms on the NPC. I got to know Kristian when I was hired again by DSA around the launch of the 2016 Bernie campaign as their deputy director based out of Washington, DC. In that capacity I ran some of the youth programming and did some electoral work. I was largely focused on electoral work after the explosion of DSA that happened in 2016, especially after Trump was inaugurated. It became a totally different organization, so my job responsibilities changed monthly. I left the staff in 2017, but I stayed very active. Today, I am chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, which is the 501(c)(3) sister organization that has two staffers and is doing a lot of interesting educational work to amplify what DSA is doing.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: What do both of you do for a living?
Kristian Hernandez: I work at a construction company. I’m a production administrator, which is just a fancy way of saying I do a lot of paperwork and translation. I’ve been doing that for 11 years now, longer than I’ve been in DSA. I also sit on the NPC’s Steering Committee, which is currently stipended.
David Duhalde: I work for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which is the public funding administration and voter education agency of the City of New York. I’m also a delegate with a small public sector union called Organization Staff Analysts, which is an independent union in New York only. It’s a great position where I’m definitely doing work that’s advancing democracy, and that fits in well with what I do at night, which is this kind of stuff.
Dick Flacks: I’m moved to mention my biography relating to DSA. I first saw Michael Harrington when I was a student at Brooklyn College in the fifties. He was probably the only Marxist in the fifties who got to speak at New York City public colleges. At that time my parents were members of the Communist Party, so I was stunned by this Marxist who hated the Soviet Union. I couldn’t quite put it together, but then he was there at Port Huron as I was. We met there and he became an enemy of the New Left or of SDS. 10 years later my phone rang, it was Michael saying he wanted to reach out to me as one of the veterans of SDS to help him get started with DSOC.
He was of a very different frame of mind than he was in the early sixties. We embraced intellectually and politically, he spoke to several of my classes over the years and we had long talks when he visited out here in Santa Barbara. I joined DSOC and have been there almost from the beginning. I loved DSA in the old days because it didn’t ask me to do a damn thing at all. I could just pay my dues and as I used to say, claim I could be a socialist on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays every week. I was a socialist alternating with other identities, and it didn’t make any demands of me. I’ve been that kind of member ever since, but I’m still a member.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: Dick mentioned Michael Harrington, who was a very influential figure for my thinking and for Dick’s as well. I could be totally wrong, but it seems from reading Jacobin and following stuff on the internet and so forth that a few Harringtonian conclusions have been dropped or decentered or marginalized within DSA that are surprising. One is that Harrington did a lot of work finding socialism in the better parts of American liberalism being kind of agnostic about these terms like “socialism,” “social democracy” or “New Deal.” It’s not that distinctions meant nothing and that he couldn’t distinguish socialism from liberalism, that’s a caricature. It was that liberals might come to some good conclusions that are worth supporting. That’s given way a little bit to the idea that we have to find the socialist argument that’s different from the liberal or New Deal or social democratic argument. Social democracy as something that folks distinguish themselves from as opposed to owning is a new thing for me.
The second thing is realignment. DSA’s role is often conceived as the germ of a replacement for the Democratic Party, instead of thinking of it as part of a coalition that would influence the Democratic Party and move it. Is that off base? Is it good that those things have been thrown overboard? Is it bad? What do you think?
Kristian Hernandez: In Texas, socialism is a very loaded term. I definitely don’t wanna approach organizing conversations or everyday interactions in ways that scare people shitless, even though I make no apologies for nor hide the fact that I am a socialist in Texas. I make it very clear that democracy is the end goal. For me, without democracy there’s no socialism. In DSA there’s constant conversations about whether this or that is undemocratic or not. It’s become something of a throwaway term to mean “things I don’t like.” When I’m talking to people outside of DSA, they’re surprised by how much democracy there actually is. This is something new that people are experiencing for the first time, in ways that are challenging, in ways that require a lot of struggling through it, and understanding that when you lose a vote, that means you can’t just take your ball and go home. We keep going.
At this point, there are very clear, coordinated, intentional attacks on liberal democracy all over the country, but especially here in Texas. Here we can’t just sort of throw away these concepts just because [liberal democracy] is not enough, just because it’s not our vision for what a democratic society looks like. We have to protect what little democracy we do have and experience on a regular basis.
One of the biggest things that put me and a lot of people in my home state off the Democratic Party is their condescension, the idea that they know better than you. People feel that when they’re interacting with their bosses, when they’re interacting with folks who have power over them, this constant lack of agency in the decisions that affect their lives. When I’m talking about DSA or talking about socialism and the vision that we have, it’s always coming from a place of, like, I don’t know better, this is something we need to figure out, but I think that we can come to the agreement that this shit sucks how it is, right? What do we agree on, and can we agree that we deserve more? Sometimes that’s the hardest part, just getting people to agree that they deserve more. It’s a difficult concept for a lot of people.
To touch on the second point about our orientation, I think there’s a big difference between where DSA is and where DSA wants to be. A lot of the discourse is rooted in where we want to be and not necessarily where we are. I tend not to get too involved in the discourse just because it’s a lot of work, and life is too short. I don’t necessarily see it as a way of moving people in a genuine manner. It’s not necessarily conducive to that. For me, I always have to approach it from a place of humility and honesty about where we are as an organization. Which is why it’s great to read about our history, there’s a lot of failures in the lessons that come from it, but the beauty of failure is that you tried something. People have been trying this for a long time. This is not a new thing that we are trying to do. People have been trying to make the world a better place for a long time and they will for a long time after we’re gone. What can we learn from this? How can we approach things in a different way?
Daraka Larimore-Hall: That was great. David?
David Duhalde: If I put on my old Econ 101 hat, what I think we’re talking about here is the difference between normative and positive analysis, which I think gets lost in DSA. This is the fancy way of saying that people don’t distinguish between what we want things to be and what things are. So describing DSA’s de facto approach to electoral politics as “dirty stay” is very much positive analysis. “Dirty stay” is a play on the term “dirty break,” which is DSA’s official strategy that we’re gonna eventually break from the Democrats and create our own party. It’s called “dirty” because the idea is that there’s not an immediate clean break. It’s the idea that you’re gonna create these organizational frameworks and institutions that eventually can have the strength to create its own party. An example of that in some ways is how the Labour Party in England broke off from the Liberal Party.
DSA today doesn’t engage in intra-Democratic Party work. By that I mean that DSA doesn’t promote people running for county committee, it doesn’t take stances on who’s running for the DNC chair, which it did as recently as 2017 for Keith Ellison. DSA doesn’t say that individual members can’t do that. It just doesn’t do intraparty work as an organization.
I don’t think the dirty break is where the majority of electoral activists, to use one constituency in DSA, are really at. At the 2021 convention there was a vote about finding an alternative to VAN. VAN is the canvassing software that Democratic candidates across the country use, including DSA members who are running in the Democratic Party primary. The vote wasn’t on here’s $5 million, it was just about looking at an alternative. People voted against that. I think the majority of delegates didn’t think we were gonna realistically do that, and it was viewed as a proxy for how much you wanna do dirty break because it wasn’t gonna create the program itself. So it became a symbolic vote and it got voted down. There’s several instances like this that’ll come up.
So we have this situation where it’s neither Harrington-style realignment nor actually practicing dirty break. How I view realignment is as an effort to make the Democratic Party into a small-S, small-D social democratic party. That would be done through building a grass-top coalition through labor, through the political organizing like what Our Revolution took on for several years in trying to organize Berniecrats to take on institutional roles in the Democratic Party at multiple levels. What I always note is there’s no such thing as the “Democratic Party.” It’s really a brand and has different institutions that are all legally independent. So in the end, “realignment” becomes a symbolic word for things that people don’t like. I don’t think anyone in DSA besides the North Star caucus is really advocating for that strategy. I am in the Socialist Majority caucus, and we don’t think that there’s genuine majority support for a dirty break. But we don’t mind what’s called the “party surrogate” approach, which is building an institution that can train candidates, do canvasses, and serve the roles that a party would even if it’s not officially a political party. We’re very sympathetic to that.
When we’re talking about DSA’s electoral strategy and how it’s changed, how much is perception, how much is reality? 15 or 20 years ago when I joined DSA, DSA might have said it believed in realignment but it wasn’t doing anything practically to that end because of its lack of capacity. DSA today is not really doing anything that dramatically different in practice. I joke that if there’s a horseshoe theory connecting me and the ultra-left, we acknowledge that the vast majority of candidates that DSA runs are Democrats, they’re people who then endorse other Democrats who aren’t socialists. And as those numbers increase it becomes much harder to actually be independent of or break from the Democrats. I’m much more sympathetic to what is called the junior partner strategy, which is more associated with Justice Democrats. Groups like DSA, Justice Democrats, at this moment are the smaller part of the Democratic Party sphere, and can push the agenda through that way.
BPRA (Build Public Renewables Act) is Green New Deal-type legislation that DSA was working incredibly hard on in New York that got put in the recent New York State budget. Less than a year ago when the bill failed to pass, people were saying, oh, maybe DSA’s political strategy is wrong. BPRA passing as part of the budget vindicated a lot of what Kristian and I, and I think ultimately people like Harrington, would’ve also agreed with, which is like, even if DSA didn’t endorse Kathy Hochul for governor, we understood that our electeds had to, and having her as governor was key versus [Lee] Zeldin, who was a Trump person, who would’ve vetoed any budget. Running a primary against a big opponent, even though the DSA person lost, the opponent of this legislation let it go. It’s the classic thing of sometimes you lose, but you win. You may lose the election, but you win the legislation. The lobbying and social pressure work all came together to get something. A big distinction here, and Kristian will probably know the right terms, is that Socialist Majority doesn’t think it’s a problem if our electeds endorse Kathy Hochul. We’re not saying we think DSA should endorse Kathy Hochul. But the political reality is that we couldn’t pass our program if she wasn’t governor. This is objectively true. There is a tension here that would not have existed in the old DSA. I think this legislation will change the dynamics of that debate at the convention.
Kristian Hernandez: A lot of the reason why David and I are in Socialist Majority, is because of a recognition of what’s possible and what we want to achieve, and where that fits on the timeline. While it’s great that we’re getting people elected, and we’re looking at ways to expand and build the bench, the reality is we’re just now starting to hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to socialist governance and what that actually means. A lot of what these tensions and contradictions entail is that you can say “I’m gonna have the most perfect positions as one person on this city council.” But the reality is it takes five people to put something on the agenda here locally in Dallas. If you’re completely rigid, unable to actually make any inroads with anybody else on council who more than likely is not a socialist, well then you’re fucked. It doesn’t matter if you’re a socialist, you in practice cannot be because you can’t get anything done. We’re navigating how we actually get things done, how we actually win our demands. I think we’re gonna start contending with the reality of what level of power it takes to actually achieve the things that we wanna do.
Down the line, we’d have the power to hold our electeds to a line, because we’d have the ability to do that through a broad base that is able to move the masses into this position, or that we’d have the infrastructure, the resources and the capacity on our own to get folks elected at the federal level. At the federal level, these are largely not wins that we did by ourselves, we were part of a coalition to get these folks elected. While it’s great that they’re DSA members, they are also accountable to other groups and recognize that other groups had a hand in their victory.
In the interim, it’s really important that we contend with the mushy middle. I think some arguments on the negative end come back to “well it didn’t work, so this is actually a dead end” or “it’s not really worth doing this because it’s gonna take forever.” Many of the political arguments or debates around strategy are rooted in this impatience that’s obviously fueled by the fact that we’re at the intersection of so many crises. The urgency is constantly being felt and fueled by the media. Every day you see something new, and I completely understand why people get frustrated that we’re not where we need to be. But it doesn’t make it any more of a reality by speaking as if we were. We have to stay rooted in where we are now and the conditions that we have to contend with.
David Duhalde: A few months ago when I was talking to a younger comrade, I was giving the line that I felt like I grew up with in DSA, which is that we want to reach out to those millions of liberals. And she responded, so what? There’s millions of socialists. And I was like, what are you talking about? And then I realized from her perspective, if you look at polling that’s true. There are millions of people in the United States who broadly identify with socialism, whether they’re in DSA or not. When I was younger there weren’t millions of people who identified as socialists. I realized that we were talking about the same people. For her, those people are socialists now, even if they think public parks are socialism. For me, those people are liberals because they think public parks are socialism.
I still think that we should reach out to the liberal-left groups. That’s where I want DSA to be. The politics I push are more coalition or popular front, in the form that would take today.Things that would’ve been uncontroversial when I first joined are now in debate. It’s not just that people are sectarian, I think their view of how the world works is very different for real reasons.
Dick Flacks: One thing I wanted to share is my feeling that the biggest success of DSA has been to identify and support people who call themselves socialists and have been successful in the electoral politics sphere. That’s had a big impact, as Bernie Sanders started. The amount of popular support that people can get with that label is remarkable. That in itself signifies a shift, especially among young people and various parts of the population that are most precarious. To think that that’s not working, or that those people who are elected are supposed to follow a line, neither of those to me seem like the right way to look at this.
I like what Kristian was saying about the practical world of governing and participating in governing. There’s gotta be alliances, there’s gotta be coalitions, there’s gotta be common ground found with people who don’t necessarily share the label. Ideology doesn’t predict what’s in people’s hearts or what they’re likely to do in their actions, number one. Number two, most Americans don’t know what the words “liberal” or “socialist” mean. The majority of Americans in surveys call themselves conservative. What people mean by “conservative” is the family. They wanna have families, they believe in family life or something like that. That’s one of their values, not about who owns the means of production or some other measure.
It’s remarkable how contradictory most people are in their attitudes, and how many different ideologies float around in people’s heads. That’s, to me, a starting point of thinking about what we are trying to do. Are we trying to convert people to calling themselves socialists, or are we trying to get movements for full democracy that require going past capitalism, going toward collective forms of ownership and of decision making throughout the society? It’s not bad if people who are socialists say, look, we have socialism already. We have parks, public parks. We don’t charge people money on a Sunday to walk through beautiful spaces, valuable land. We have libraries, we have public education, on and on. These are things that people already value because they’re part of the common good. I think that’s happening in the area of housing now. It’s so obvious that treating housing as a commodity can’t give people the opportunity to have a decent home. It’s reached that point of glaring obviousness in many parts of the country. So people are talking about social housing, and social housing is a socialist term. It means housing built for people’s needs, not not for profit. Bills in our legislature were introduced this year to support social housing. That to me is more exciting than whether people call themselves socialists.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: Don’t you think the uptick in people calling themselves socialist and the uptick in people having those conversations are related?
Dick Flacks: That’s right. I am not against having socialist organization. The question is what is it for? We’re not gonna answer that today, but I’m really trying to learn what DSA people are thinking. To me, talking about socialism is a job of education and enabling people to see beyond what they see in their ordinary lives to be possible for a society to have. I have two questions related to what I just said. One, how much discussion is there in DSA about what a socialist society would look like? And secondly, when we say we want a party of our own or a party of our own, what are we talking about? What would that look like?
Kristian Hernandez: When we were doing the DSA for Bernie independent expenditure campaign we thought this would be easy. We had a list of 500 people who had at some point in the last few years joined DSA. We thought this will be a piece of cake, we’re gonna get high response rates, it’ll be great. And we had a number of people who texted me back saying “I’m supporting Trump.” I had a number of people who texted me back saying, actually Mayor Pete sounds really great. There’s a huge fluidity of identity, and I think all of us could probably attest to having one person in our lives who was hardcore Bernie in 2016 and now is like an evangelical Christian. The right trafficks in fear, and conspiracy thinking is a natural consequence of that. The shared definitions of what these words mean are constantly being defined. They’re constantly defined by our conditions and what’s actually possible. None of us here, I would imagine, would’ve anticipated a pandemic that we had to contend with. That was not on anyone’s bingo card. That changed a lot of things. It changed a lot of the ways that we organize, it changed a lot of what we felt like was possible in those moments. I do feel like there is quite a bit of discussion about what we wanna see or what we wanna be as an organization, but less discussion of how we get there, less discussion of what our responsibility is for our size.
It’s great being a huge organization. But it’s also a responsibility because one of the biggest problems that we’re facing at this moment in time is disorganization. That’s one thing that the right is doing really well. They’re so organized in what they have to do because destruction is easier than creation, than building things. We have a steeper hill to climb, a bigger mountain to move. For me, the main thing is knowing that if disorganization is the biggest problem that we face in getting the demands that we want, then we need organization in order to do things that we want. And we need an organization that has a mass character because the demands that we’re fighting for are bold. They require massive imagination.
David Duhalde: Something Dick said that always stuck with me and that I still believe to this day, is that the role of DSA is not to create socialism per se, it’s to create more socialists. I feel that that is kind of lost sometimes. I think that that’s why I stuck with DSA. It’s been a really good place to get a political education, to get a vision. As DSA has gotten bigger, you have these moments where you see chapters creating good organizers who are learning how to connect the dots and be part of coalitions and are also pushing and principled. Socialists will be less willing to compromise, and can be the left flank.
The DSA Fund has been doing this “How We Win” series. We’re gonna have a conference in June with dozens of elected officials and their staff in DC to talk about and share public policy that they’ve done. We’ve had chapter leaders, a community or local group, and an elected official usually, like four or five of those types of people. We’ve had three events where people share both their successes and failures in implementing policy around workers’ rights, housing and building legislative caucuses throughout the country. What is the role of socialists there? Sometimes it’s to push the edge, sometimes it’s to start a new coalition. It just varies. I think that what we would all agree on here is that it isn’t just DSA, and I don’t view DSA as the only organization that matters. I don’t think that DSA’s allies are just the other socialist organizations. I still remain totally convinced that there’s a role for a socialist organization. I find that I’ve personally become less interested in things like the inner workings of the Democratic Party, which is a big difference between Daraka and myself. But I still think that there is a very important role for DSA and that’s why DSA is still worth fighting for, even if it drives me crazy.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: This question keeps coming up and it’s a good one: what is DSA for? What is it supposed to do in a different context? Here in the United States, trade unions aren’t socialist and we don’t have a socialist political party that wins elections. So then what does a socialist organization do? And let me be a little provocative in saying that everything both of you are saying is like my language, except up to talking about dirty stay versus dirty break versus realignment and a kind of agnosticism about it. We get stuck in these conversations like, well maybe someday there’ll be an independent party of the left that we’ll be part of. And then that just sort of hangs there. Why be agnostic about that? It seems to me very, very clear that it’s not going to be, and the refreshing thing about Harrington was that he just said it’s not gonna happen. We’re not gonna have a third party of the left. We’re not gonna have a socialist party in the United States. Besides, look at the socialist parties that do exist. They are no great shakes right now.
I don’t disagree with David about his definition of what realignment is now. The realignment project now is to move the Democratic Party to the left on core economic justice questions, to make it more social democratic. When Harrington was talking about it, when it started, the Democratic Party was half-fascist. It was half a southern party of white supremacy and it had a whole bunch of extremist anti-communists and all kinds of lunatics. The realignment project was to get rid of those people, get the liberals together and, and make the parties a left-right choice. And it happened. It’s one of the biggest, most important shifts in American politics. While we are mad that the Democrats are too centrist, most of the country is pissed off that the parties are too polarized. It was work by activists that made that realignment happen. We have to do work to move the party in a DSA direction now, but it was the party of segregation, now it’s the party of liberal milquetoast integration. People died to do that.
I feel like realignment gets a bad rap because it seems to describe some kind of force of nature. Like, the Democrats aren’t socialists, so it failed. And that’s just weird. I will be self-critical and say that I understand that the realignment position has never had any activism or strategy behind it since the eighties within DSA. It didn’t when I was there. David’s absolutely right about that. That was kind of our consensus, but we didn’t do anything about it. There was always a minority within the organization that was like, no, we can never be anywhere near the Democrats. In terms of the celebrities, Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West were always waffly on that. In the grassroots, opposition to realignment was always a minority, but enough to just block us from doing anything. That was definitely true in YDS. Every time we tried to have a strategy in the College Democrats, it would fail because people would just be like, that’s icky. I feel like we’ve, we’ve been treading water for decades, and nothing followed up the theoretical articulation of realignment with an actual socialist engagement in it.
David Duhalde: I would push back beginning here. Let’s start with the quasi-consensus, I think the better word is stalemate or impasse. The reason why I am more agnostic is that I have come to the conclusion that objectively, DSA members aren’t that interested in doing this Democratic Party work. I’ve made arguments about where it could be effective, but people don’t seem interested. So there’s a point where like I’m like, if people aren’t gonna do it, they’re not gonna do it. Two, the Democratic Party is many institutions. We could run county committees in New York, and that still won’t change the DCCC messing things up and funding the wrong races in New York State. You could do all this hard work and it still doesn’t change certain dynamics, and there’s only so many resources. The third thing, which I always point out to the people pushing dirty break or clean break, is that if you truly wanted to do that stuff, you should be pushing reforms that make it possible. Systems create parties. I reviewed Kim Moody’s book Breaking the Impasse, and he thinks there’s just a lack of political will there [for creating a new party]. I used to think, for example, why don’t we run Socialist candidates in blue cities? I wrote an article in Jacobin advocating this, and the real world changed my mind about it. Jabari Brisport, a DSA member, ran as a Green. DSA spent all this time getting Jabari Brisport a Socialist line in addition to being a Green. They got like 700 votes on that versus the thousands he got on the Green Party line alone. People said it was just confusing after all their work to tell voters no, don’t vote for him on the Green line, vote for him on the Socialist line. They’re like, what are you talking about? It’s just like the amount of effort for what you gain. Then Jabari ended up running in the Democratic primary three years later in winning. He did a great job as a Green, he got 29% of the vote. It was huge for a third party candidate, but then he ended up winning an open seat next election and was reelected overwhelmingly.
Those are the stories where it’s like, just like the amount of effort it takes, you have to change the system if you want it. If we are gonna move to a multi-party system, it’s probably because of some constitutional crisis that none of us can anticipate that would change it. The counter-argument says we should prepare for that. And I’m like, well, if there’s a constitutional crisis, I think we have bigger problems.
Kristian Hernandez: The reality is that I’ve found a lot of folks that are not in DSA, who often look down on DSA, spend a lot of time waiting for the perfect conditions. OK, but we’re out here, things are still happening, they’re not gonna stop just because you’re waiting for this perfect storm of things to happen in order to validate whatever your idea is of what the perfect answer is to the questions that we’re dealing with. For me, the reality is we need to act now because of all of these things. The reality is also that a lot of these things [debates over party lines] don’t mean anything to the average person who’s just trying to feed their family. These are really, really convoluted structures to people. I think even a lot of folks in DSA don’t have a thorough sense of how the Democratic Party operates, or what the infrastructure actually looks like. We can sit here and criticize the Democratic Party until we’re blue in the face. The reality is like people are still waiting in line for hours to vote for this party, right? There is still a sense that this is what we need to do, like a duty and obligation.
So I don’t think we can be immediately dismissive because we want something more. At the end of the day, whether people hate it or not, there is a degree of trust that has been built, whether it’s because it’s familiar, whether it’s because they have very rooted bases in different constituencies or in other structures like churches or Democratic clubs, whatever the case might be. Those are the people who are turning out to vote, right?
Daraka Larimore-Hall: And are not the fascists in their towns. It’s the people that are in their town in north Texas and the choices are awful and they’re like, I guess I’ll be a Democrat. Those are our peeps.
Kristian Hernandez: That’s, literally the way I used to be, like “I promise I’m not awful. I’m a Democrat!” sort of thing. I understand the skepticism, but the reality is we can certainly plan, but these big questions are frankly bigger than DSA. We’re such a small part of not only the US but the world. That’s the other thing that I’m starting to think a little bit more about as I develop more relationships with comrades from all over the world. We’re fighting the fight here, they’re fighting the fight there, but how are we on the same terrain? Are our fights actually moving in the same direction or not? How do they affect each other? How can we help each other out? I leave myself often with more questions than answers and I definitely don’t feel like I’m trying to be prescriptive in any sense, because I think for me right now, good leadership requires a lot of curiosity about what we can achieve, what we can do, and also what’s gonna work.
Particularly in the international sense, as much as people want to dismiss our federal electeds, they’ve given us a lot of clout with international parties. Their people are taking DSA seriously because they see what we’ve been able to achieve both for our size and in the period of time since 2016. Yes, we need to create more socialists and that’s ultimately what as organizers we should be doing. But when it comes to finding our place in the international sphere and what it means being here in the US, it creates an additional urgency of having to take this seriously because if we’re not successful in the projects we’re trying to do here, everywhere else is gonna feel the impact of that. We could either focus on the places where we’re sort of at an impasse, as David was saying, or we can figure out how to move without necessarily answering these questions – but always knowing that these questions are still lingering and still need to be resolved, but maybe not at this point.
Dick Flacks: Very insightful things Kristian was just saying. I’m a sociologist and one of the principal subtexts of sociology is that organizations are limited vehicles for achieving their own goals, let alone the hopes of the people who are part of it. Organizations have their own contradictions. What I observed in SDS’s development in the sixties, what I learned from studying the history of old left parties, is that they have two types of members, to make it really simple. One is people who find their membership a source of motivation, support, enlightenment, and education so they can work in the world and be committed and courageous in the real world. There’s another kind of member whose politics is all internal to the organization, who cares more about fighting within the organization, for gaining power within the organization. To me that is a big contradiction in these organizations. Building the organization can be important, but if that’s the goal of your politics you’re not really building the movement for change. You’re building an organization. I’m wondering whether what I just said resonates with your experience. It’s not that everybody has to be an organizer in the field to be a valid, full-fledged committed member, but having your eyes on the real world rather than simply winning points within an organization where for yourself or your caucus seems to me a critical thing.
I’ve interviewed a lot of former Communist Party members, and one theme that comes with a lot of the people I’ve known from that history is the further away they were from the organization’s leadership in terms of its bureaucracy, the more they could be creative organizers in the real world. If they followed the party line because that was supposed to be the right kind of discipline, they were often isolated and in trouble in the real world. But there were people who wanted to have that party line and really enforce it and make it into the absolute test of party commitment. That’s an extreme case, but what I’m talking about is a more general point. So maybe you want to comment on if that rings true, or maybe explain the caucuses a little bit.
Kristian Hernandez: I can let David explain the caucuses, but I will say one thing, especially because this is honestly fueling my commitment to not for a third term despite being asked. For me, one of the things that is the most motivating, no matter how difficult it is, particularly in a state like Texas, is doing the local organizing work that can be both a source of inspiration, frustration, lessons for other chapters in Texas or for other places in DSA. I’m missing a lot of that connection of talking to people who don’t already agree with me, trying to figure out new ways of interacting with each other and finding some of these solutions. So both on a personal level and in a political sense these things are crucial, and it’s why I would encourage anybody in the organization to take breaks, some rest from DSA. I think it’s important that we’re rooted in everything outside of DSA for the sake of DSA.
There are no officially recognized caucuses outside of a couple identity-based caucuses. It’s easier to win inside DSA than it is to win outside of DSA. I think that can be motivating for people to be like, well, I can do this. I’ve started to, even within caucuses, frame for myself whether people that I interact with in the organization are organizers or disorganizers. It’s helped me move a little bit beyond the caucus lines because I think that matters. It matters how you work with people. It matters regardless of your ideology if you follow through on your commitments. And I’m moving away from using this concept of “paper membership” because for a lot of people, that’s what they can do, right? They can pay their monthly dues or their annual dues to DSA and that’s not nothing. The dues are political in nature, and the fact that DSA is solely funded by member dues is super important.
I also think we have to be able to imagine ways that people can be members of an organization that doesn’t need them, that involves more people doing less individually so that we can do more together.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: When you figure that last piece out, please let me know. Because for all of my clients, that’s a huge issue too. Any democratic participatory organization is like all or nothing, and that just doesn’t work with real people.
David Duhalde: So I think one thing we haven’t talked about is the left outside DSA. There are these new formations around podcasters. The classic example is the Force the Vote push, which was this idea in 2020 that Squad and others in Congress could get concessions from Nancy Pelosi in exchange for withholding their vote. For a variety of reasons, I don’t think Democrats can do to Republicans like what they did to [House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy. I just think the bases have different expectations. But that’s where people who don’t join DSA go because they take a political worldview that goes from being a Berniecrat, and they don’t go right wing, but they take this anti-establishment view. I noticed that people in DSA did not support that, not saying a hundred percent of members, but people largely understood through having to organize and do boring things in their chapter that it was a complete waste of time. That was the inoculation from being in DSA, whether you are in Socialist Majority or a more self-proclaimed Marxist group, that was against Force the Vote and DSA came out against Force the Vote.
On the caucus question, when I first joined DSA there weren’t caucuses, but were broadly speaking three groupings. They kind of fit around magazines for whatever reason. There was Dissent, which I would put myself in. That would’ve been left social democrats, people who would’ve been more sympathetic to Michael Harrington or recruited by him. Then New Politics, where people probably come out of the Trotskyist movement in some way, especially the International Socialists. They didn’t necessarily subscribe to the politics we associate with Solidarity or the ISO, but were the people who would kind of be like “Democrats, icky,” to bastardize their politics a little bit. And then there were the religious socialists, people like Maxine Phillips, who I love. What always made DSA unique, and I say this as a Jewish atheist, I always appreciated the Christian, but not always Christian, people who were socialists because they believed that it was God’s work. I always loved that about DSA, that we all came together. Cornel West said he was a member of DSA because it was a place where you could be a Christian and be a socialist. I think that’s wonderful. But those groups weren’t contesting for power because there was no power to contest. The internal elections were largely uncontested.
Those people were doing it out of a complete labor of love. It was so unsexy to do that. You weren’t fighting over things. Factions, or what we call caucuses, come out because when an organization grows, there’s just asymmetries of information. I’m very active in DSA. I don’t know everyone who’s running for convention delegate. I rely on my caucus to tell me who to vote for. In the old DSA, we used to have conventions of like a hundred, maybe even less people. Now it’s a thousand delegates. It is not humanly possible for people to know everyone who’s running.
So caucuses get created, because you have to do internal politics. I would love to, and I’m sure Kristian too, would love to just be doing social movement work. It’s like, do you view the caucuses as necessarily evil? I think that’s actually a very fair way to look at them sometimes. Caucuses are also good because they provide ways for people to organize and articulate to the outside world views that aren’t just the “official line” in DSA. That’s both good and bad. A lot of tensions come up publicly around statements that don’t actually come from the national organization. If you go to the national organization’s website, there’s actually not a lot of statements. It’s usually statements from the International Committee, a caucus, or a chapter, that spark the discourse. I tend to vacillate between thinking caucuses are a necessary evil and caucuses are good. Never between caucuses are great and caucuses shouldn’t exist.
So you have different caucuses. There’s North Star, which I didn’t join, but represents a lot of people who are close to me or people I looked up to when I first joined DSA. There’s Socialist Majority, which I’m in, which I view as a democratic socialist caucus in DSA, in its own way. There’s a smattering of other caucuses, I don’t wanna be unfair to them, but I would say they represent people whose politics are kind of like ex-ISO or Solidarity, or people who identify with communism with a small C. But it also speaks to how big DSA is compared to other formations. There are other people who I think would probably be close to SMC’s politics but are prioritizing different projects, like people who come out of the Green New Deal network.. So, these caucuses play a real role, especially around conventions. They play less of a role, I think, in the day to day of the vast majority of members’ lives.
It reminds me of when I went to Bowdoin College. Bowdoin had gone from like 100 percent Greek life to 30 percent Greek life before they were banned. One of the reasons they were banned was because 30 percent is still enough of a critical mass to dominate the social life of the other 70 percent of people who aren’t in it. I think caucuses have an outsized influence just by the nature of being organized institutions in DSA, even though they represent probably 1 percent of the membership.
Daraka Larimore-Hall: I think you articulated that very well – a necessary evil to maybe also good. I think that would describe where I’m at as well. You’re absolutely right, the stakes were just much lower passing resolutions in 1996 than they are now. Directing the real resources the organization has now, which just wasn’t true in the period of abeyance you could say that I was active in. So I wanna wrap up and give you guys a chance to give closing thoughts if you have questions for us or things you would like the listeners to just know. I think both Dick and I had a really great time in this conversation and really appreciate both of you taking the time.
Dick Flacks: I agree, I love the attitude that Kristian was expressing. I’ve got many questions. That’s the only way people on the left can really get anywhere is to keep the questions going, not to think they have the answers. That’s when danger begins, I think.
Kristian Hernandez: One thing that’s always super important, and especially for myself as I consider myself an organizer first and foremost, is talking to new people as much as possible Make sure that you never let the crises of the world harden you and harden your ability to relate to other people and to seek out the fullness of people’s humanity. On the left, we have a tendency to be cynical sometimes. The things we’re fighting for are not easy by any means, and it’s easy to devolve into blaming people for what their political views are, for what the situations that they’re in.
But for me, it was clear once I had a better understanding, how often people were making choices that were largely already made for them. I am committed to DSA as a political organization for as long as it is the largest socialist organization in the country. That also means having the temperance and the patience to know that I will be having a lot of these arguments and frustrations and stress with the same people for decades, hopefully.
That’s the bright side. I’m 34. I hope that I have, you know, at least a solid four or five decades left in me to devote myself to this project in whatever way that looks like. The main takeaway for me is remembering that these are moments where fear is easy and hope is hard. Making sure that we’re living out our values in a way that makes hope enticing, makes wanting to fight for a better world something a lot more doable and attainable is really big for people. I hope that listeners have the takeaway that showing up for one thing, whatever that one thing is, is enough. Because there’s a lot of folks who are hiding behind their fear, and I stand by the fact there’s more of us than there are of them. We can win the world that we want if we’re willing to act for it, if we’re willing to fight for it.
David Duhalde: I’ll say you should join DSA if you’re listening and haven’t joined it yet. What I’ll talk about is a little different. I’ll talk about something I wrote that I never published, which is a reflection on how DSA has changed in the past 10 to 12 years. I noticed that when the PRO Act was being pushed, DSA actually played a real role to push this legislation. A dozen years ago, that would have been Jobs with Justice’s role. I think this kind of “realignment,” to a belabor or word you’ve been using, Daraka, is an interesting thing that I don’t have a complete answer to. That’s one example of how politics has changed and how DSA is playing a more central role in certain things.
The other example I give is international work, which we didn’t really get into. I would encourage the show to consider doing another episode on how DSA’s international work has shifted, for better or for worse. One of the most positive elements I’ll leave on was that DSA sent me to observe the second round of the Chilean presidential election in 2021. I met the former Starbucks Union president who has since been elected to Congress, and he did a talk with other Starbucks workers in the States. It was interesting that DSA was actually the connector of this, not a union or a global NGO.
There’s still potential for DSA to do tremendous good in international and global solidarity work especially. That’s a historic role that Daraka and I remember – bringing international solidarity and those stories to American audiences. I would really hope It’s something that people who are getting involved in DSA would want to push, a good progressive vision of that kind of labor and worker global solidarity. I really want to leave people with that, in the changing role of DSA the future is still really unwritten.