A New Vision for DSA: The Socialist Voice in a Progressive United Front

DSA should focus our energies on joining and building a Left alliance capable of winning socialist demands.

The Left in the US is facing unprecedented challenges. Fortunately, we bring unprecedented resources to this struggle. In this article, I will argue for a refocusing of DSA’s resources to join and build a Left alliance capable of winning socialist demands.

The ruling elites in this country have managed to mobilize widespread support for an anti-democratic, authoritarian assault on our civic institutions and the very democratic process by which we purport to govern ourselves. They have done this by feeding conscious and unconscious white supremacy and jingoistic patriotism, by channeling well-founded working class mistrust of the power structure, and by nurturing and amplifying disagreements among progressives.

The strength of right-wing forces mobilized against us must not be minimized. Historical precedents suggest that we could see a demagogue more capable than Trump attempt an authoritarian, neo-fascist takeover in the mid-range future. But even without considering dangers down the road, we face a current majority of white voters, even white women, who supported the most racist, grifting, con man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Adherents of ludicrous right-wing conspiracies are a minority of Trump’s supporters, but they demonstrated their virulence when they stormed the US Capitol in January.

The self-styled “Christian” Right originally gained power opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, diversity in textbooks, and most recently transgender rights. “Patriot” churches have recently emerged supporting an explicitly pro-Trump gospel. The Business Roundtable and rightwing think tanks funded by deep pocket donors such as the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer have been organizing to defend capitalism since before Reagan. The California “taxpayer revolt” movement that originated in 1978 was still strong enough in November 2020 to defeat restoration of equitable industrial and commercial property taxes. The opposition overcame labor, community, and DSA support with a massive advertising campaign. California’s nominally “blue” electorate in November also defeated gig-workers’ employee rights and refused to restore affirmative action.

The white supremacist movement surged after Obama’s election and new adherents such as the Proud Boys have joined the older neo-Nazi, skinhead, militia, and KKK varieties of racists. Death threats against election officials and elected representatives since Trump’s defeat and the invasion of the Capitol prove that the right’s violent rejection of democratic norms and repudiation of our institutions have become widespread. Racist police murders defended by cities around the country and the reported strength of proto-fascist elements in the military represent an armed element in the array of forces against us. The number of Republican representatives and senators who voted to overturn the election is further evidence of the erosion of support for democracy.

At the same time, in part because of the Right’s success, progressives have mobilized unprecedented forces. The Left’s mobilization has been fueled by the crisis of the neoliberal economy, horrifying evidence of fast worsening climate chaos, rampant homelessness, crimes against immigrants, the erosion of workers’ rights, student and consumer debt, widespread hunger, and police violence. This mobilization is continuing, committed to achieving universal healthcare, climate and environmental justice, immigrant and refugee rights, income equality, workplace safety, protection for Social Security, reproductive rights, housing, police accountability, and voting rights. The Left must fortify itself in the Biden administration’s early days and be ready to surge forth when needed to confront Congress and the administration.

Where Does DSA Stand in This New Political Landscape?

I am worried that DSA will miss the opportunity to make the most positive contribution we are capable of in the coming political period. DSA could represent a socialist voice in a strengthened united front if we are willing to stand in solidarity with other progressives. The reason I am worried is not because we lack energy or momentum. It is because as an organization we were on the sidelines of the historic campaign and strong voter turnout for the 2020 elections. Elections are not, and should not be DSA’s principal focus. However our approach to electoral coalition work is indicative of our general attitude toward the rest of our organizing. To be part of a unifying progressive Left, we must learn to play well with others.

In a recent article titled “On the Sidelines: DSA Abstentionism on Biden vs. Trump,” labor organizers Peter Olney and Rand Wilson argue that “It’s time to acknowledge that ‘Bernie or Bust” was a major tactical and strategic error.” They compare the challenge national DSA will face in attempting to influence the new administration to “a faction within the union deciding that they don’t like the leaders of a strike or their politics. The faction doesn’t participate in picketing, or the strike kitchen, or the mass demonstrations. Then these ‘do nothings’ who essentially sat out the strike, come to the union hall insisting on a major role in determining the terms of the strike settlement.”

Olney and Wilson acknowledge that members of DSA were more aware of what was at stake than our leaders. “The heroes of this election victory are the thousands of grassroots political activists who busted their butts to defeat Trump by working for Biden, particularly in the key battleground states. Thousands of our comrades in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other socialists worked side-by-side with leaders and activists in black and brown organizations, women’s organizations, and labor unions like UNITE-HERE and SEIU.” Local DSA members did this work despite the refusal of our National Political Committee to encourage swing state members to participate in the broad anti-Trump mobilization. When Bernie lost the nomination and urged his supporters to support Biden to defeat Trump, DSA leadership refused. Thanks to the rest of the Left spearheading the grassroots drive that pushed Biden over the top, DSA dodged the bullet of being blamed for a catastrophic defeat. But it was a much nearer thing than most of us realized.

Willingness to work to defeat Trump did not mean that grassroots DSA members ignored Biden’s shortcomings. Olney and Wilson agree that “few if any of the comrades we campaigned with had illusions about the reality of who Biden actually is or what he represents.” Denunciations of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s roles in collaborating with the right on many issues including criminal injustice, trade deals that handicap labor and regulatory rights, welfare “reform,” and the financial powers’ raids on the economy are chapter and verse among progressives organizing in the Democratic Party. So are criticisms of Barack Obama’s refusal to hold the financial class to account, his administration’s role in massive deportations, and his inability to end the pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Centrist apologists minimize these betrayals, but honest progressives take them into account and agree that the Democratic Party has a great deal to answer for concerning these issues.

What the broad range of progressive activists that mobilized to defeat Trump do not accept is that these failings rule out working inside the Democratic Party. Bernie was far more successful contending for the Democratic Party nomination that he ever could have been running as an independent, and scores of progressive candidates are running and winning on the Democratic ballot line without sacrificing their principles. The presence of winning progressive candidates at all levels is catalyzing class struggle within the Democratic Party.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we are entering a new era of political struggle. Predictably, allies brought together to oppose Trump will regroup and even oppose each other under the new administration. Many progressives who mobilized support to defeat Trump are old hands at advocacy and will not be surprised to find the Biden-Harris administration resistant to demands that they fulfill the 2020 Democratic Party platform. Newer and less wary activists may be disappointed by the administration’s anticipated reluctance to implement even portions of the platform that they could make good on. In both cases, socialists in general, and DSA in particular, must accept that electoral organizing always entails exacting accountability. It is our job to point out gaps between campaign promises and implementation without snarkily claiming “we told you so, this is what you get when you trust a Democrat.”

The Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, the election of significant numbers of leftists to congressional, state and local offices in both 2018 and 2020, and even Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 campaign have moved the goal posts of the “possible” to the left. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the Fight for $15 are being accepted more and more as common sense demands rather than radical socialist fantasies. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is stronger than ever, and has issued “The People’s Agenda: A Progressive Roadmap for Congress in 2021.” In the face of media attempts to blame socialists for down-ballot Democratic defeats, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has countered, arguing that progressive candidates were able to win by advocating the progressive agenda even in “swing” districts. AOC emphasizes that Democrats can prevail when they go to the grassroots and campaign on an activist, working people’s platform. AOC’s example of pressing Nancy Pelosi to demand support for younger, more progressive leadership while offering support for the Speaker’s reelection should be instructive to us. In real life, we must combine confrontation with collaboration.

What were the sources of DSA’s refusal to join in the broad coalition working to defeat Trump? Olney and Wilson suggest that “DSA’s experience in the 2020 election can be a teachable moment.” I agree. However to use this opportunity to its best advantage, we have to examine a number of hard truths about the organization.

There are a number of deep-seated sources of harmful ideas in DSA. As a veteran of socialist organizing, I recognize many of these wrong-headed tendencies because I have had to admit them in my own work. It is important for us not to repeat the history of socialist organizations around the world in which disagreements lead to divisions. A classic joke about how misguided criticism can become is that when the Left needs a firing squad, we draw up in a circle. As a “big tent” organization, DSA must not try to enforce ideological purity. We are not bound by the Leninist policy that all members must commit to carrying out the line once it is decided by the members or their leaders. This openness allows us to point out when a position adopted by some of us has failed, without calling for their expulsion.

I am calling on members of all our opinions and caucuses to examine the following ideas. If they are helpful, they may contribute to growing our organization and making it more welcoming. There may be others I have not identified. As an organization that has experienced an extraordinary surge in membership, we owe it to each other to increase positive dialogue and learn from each other. Finger pointing, trolling, and subterranean maneuvers to gain organizational influence are toxic and must be identified when they occur.

Here is my list of what some Marxists call “deviations,” tendencies I believe are distorting our political positions:

Ultra-leftism: DSA members tend to come to socialism from middle-class backgrounds and have college educations. That’s me too. As soon as I rejected my class background, I affiliated with a movement for “third-world” revolution and spent years ignoring the evidence that “the people” were not winnable to the revolution we imagined. I believe my ultra-left fervor reflected fear that I could be sucked back into my white middle-class privilege if I didn’t become sufficiently radical.

DSA seems to have many converts to socialism who think that the farthest left positions are the most righteous. It’s not okay to chant “Eat the rich!” or “Defund the police!” if doing so alienates people we could attract. If we only support avowedly socialist candidates, it can isolate us from community movements that have local working class support. Calling for the founding of a labor party in today’s political landscape marks DSA members as wildly unrealistic. We also must beware of not listening to smaller DSA chapters and chapters in conservative areas. Those of us in “blue” enclaves need to support what works for our members in other places and environments. These chapters and members can help the organization relate to a broader, more working class constituency than we currently attract.

DSA’s refusal to campaign for Biden against Trump in swing states proclaimed that we valued our ideological purity above taking part in the dynamic mobilization organized to defeat Trump. It also showed that DSA did not take seriously the huge damage to environmental, racial justice, and labor protections done by Trump’s administration and supporters. Our purity was more important than fighting neo-fascism. We did not take a stand against his animation of the worst right-wing resurgence since the civil rights movement.

Unconscious white privilege: The Left has a problem accepting that our views are shaped by white supremacy. We overtly reject racism and are committed to equality. But that is not enough. I reacted to the assault on Congress with optimism: it was showing how violent Trump’s supporters can be, it discredited them. An interracial friend told me it frightened her: troupes of racist thugs perpetrating violence are terrifying. I apologized to her for minimizing the danger she feels. Unconscious bias is impossible to overcome completely, it has taken me years of work to even be aware that I am subject to it.

DSA is not exclusively white, but we have acknowledged for years that we do not have strong enough participation by people of color or a credible presence in racial justice movements. I believe this is why the organization did not stand in solidarity with the strong anti-Trump movement among organizations representing people of color. Bernie Sanders’ positions on racial justice fell short of what many of us hoped for and are widely believed to have cost him support among constituencies of color, particularly older Black voters. I believe that DSA’s racial makeup, coupled with our socialist ideology–seeing the capitalist economic base of society as the fundamental cause of inequality and oppression–have blinded us to the role that racism is playing in the growth and virulence of the Right.

In mid-2020, I contacted labor activist and DSA member Bill Fletcher Jr. and asked “I wonder if you share my concern over the strong tendency in DSA to minimize the danger of the mobilized Right? I think part of DSA’s problem is an intellectual position minimizing the role of white supremacy in U.S. politics. It is popular in DSA to oppose ‘identity politics’ under the rubric of advocating working class leadership. I think this is a reflection of intellectual arrogance and a form of ultra-leftism. It is not exclusively white members who maintain this position.” Fletcher responded: “I think that you are absolutely correct. Too many DSAers fail to grasp the essence of right-wing populism. DSA has never has a solid grasp of racism and national oppression.”

Ian Haney López’s recent book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, presents hard data on how progressives can best argue against right-wing “dog whistles” that animate racial anxiety in undecided constituencies. The Race/Class project, in collaboration with the progressive think tank Dēmos, helped me understand why Sanders’ message fell flat with important segments of the African American electorate. Sanders claimed that fighting economic inequality would lift African Americans’ lives and solve their oppression. His references to having marched for civil rights were weak and outdated for audiences asking how he would address white terrorism, police violence and other current forms of Black oppression López points out that Sanders’ message relied heavily on economic measures to “lift all boats.” But economic uplift does little to interrupt systemic white supremacy. DSA’s approach to racial injustice is hampered by members’ unwillingness to admit that all of us are affected by the prevailing caste system. We have work to do. Joining Black Lives Matter demonstrations does little to counteract the anti-identitarian positions frequently voiced in DSA.

Patriarchal attitudes: Socialist feminism does not consist solely in supporting gender and reproductive rights, advocating for equal pay, or electing more women to office. Radical feminism provides a lens to critique the competitive, hierarchical social norms enshrined in our domestic, economic, and civic interactions. As a lesbian feminist, I find DSA rife with organizational dynamics and attitudes that reflect the dominance hierarchy prevalent in traditional gender relationships. Too often, DSA members approach organizing as if it were a competition with other groups and philosophies rather than a collaboration to build “the beloved community.” Attitudes toward liberals in DSA are particularly bitter. Seeing other groups as enemies rather than potential allies alienates potential recruits and can lead to hostile interactions. The “Bernie Bro” meme was true enough that when the Working Families Party endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, I could not tell whether the vicious reactions were coming from comrades or had been planted by malicious bots. Various groupings in DSA voice open hostility toward the positions of other tendencies. I have had a harder time writing this article than I expected because I am aware that I may receive personal attacks as a result of my opinions.

Ageism and negative attitudes toward DSA’s history: DSA’s rapid growth and organizing successes following the 2016 presidential election have led many new members to disregard the experience of DSA’s elder statesmen and women. Ageism is a thing, it leaves many older members feeling unseen, disrespected and patronized. It is the flip side of the capitalist marketing of youth and beauty. Remember: if some of us had not worked hard to keep DSA alive for years, there would have been no gathering place for the thousands of people radicalized by Bernie’s campaigns and Trump’s election.

We face a generation gap between graying DSA culture-bearers and the huge number of newer members. Political positions do not align neatly with this division, but many older, longstanding members profess more moderate socialist positions, and many younger members and members joining from other socialist tendencies advocate a 180 degree change away from our grounding in democratic socialist principles. Adding to this dichotomy, older members are often less skilled at using social media tools, and may have less energy for organizational struggles and contention. It is right for young, enthusiastic socialists to question what has gone before them, to challenge received wisdom. It is also healthy for DSA to conserve our roots and sustain an ongoing dialogue between revolutionary and evolutionary socialists. Making this a productive, comradely enterprise is everyone’s responsibility.

What is to Be Done?

There is a strong tendency in DSA to “go it alone,” to believe that because we have become the predominant socialist organization in the US we should catalyze the progressive agenda and drive it toward revolutionary change. Proud of our growth and the militancy of our membership, important sectors of DSA run the risk of isolating us from the very forces that should be our best allies and comrades in struggle. This stance harms DSA’s reputation and credibility, but more importantly, it shirks the leadership role that we should be playing on the left.

I am arguing the DSA should reach out and build relationships with honest individuals and groups from the broadest progressive sources. DSA, organized labor, and a wide swath of advocacy groups have been doing this. Witness the new acceptability of concepts such as the $15 minimum wage, free higher education, and the Green New Deal. If socialists see ourselves as competing with other progressive organizations, we are failing to meet our political potential. Denouncing other progressive groups and positions rather than cooperating, collaborating, and coordinating marks us as sectarian. A primary task of the Left today is building greater solidarity among ourselves as we take action to implement our vision for society. The anti-Trump social justice forces defeated the head of the Republican Party in 2020, but to win as leftists, we have to continue and strengthen this mighty mobilization across our ideological differences. To actually win demands, we have to carry the collaboration into community work, particularly important in the crises generated by COVID-19, massive unemployment, and climate chaos.

Building this kind of Left unity will also allow us to withstand the inevitable realignment that will be necessary to carry our demands into an administration governed by Democrats. If we unite rather than “punching horizontally,” we build support for our policy demands and demonstrate the strength of our agenda to centrists and to the institutional elite of the Democratic Party. If we are not unified, the Left will be more easily dismissed as “fringe elements” without the organizational power to demand accountability. By refusing to pull each other down, we wage class struggle inside as well as outside, and we can pull the Democratic Party further to the left.

In the current political landscape numerous organizations such as the Poor People’s Campaign, Swing Left, the Movement 4 Black Lives, Dēmos, MoveOn, Indivisible, the Women’s March, and the Working Families Party are our allies, not our opponents and certainly not our enemies. My understanding of history says that Hitler’s success was facilitated by mutual attacks between the communists and social democrats, failing to see the extreme danger posed to both by fascism. It is hard to believe that anyone can doubt the harm that has been done by the ultra-right acting through Trump’s first term. This constituency is not going away! No one is asking DSA or any other group to stop explaining how capitalism has brought us to this pass – but this is not the moment to be excoriating progressives who do not call themselves socialists.

Within DSA, like-minded folks must continue to coalesce. I am a member of the North Star Caucus. I hope that North Star and other groupings will be able to present a unified and unifying coalition at the national convention. Internal organizing is an urgent task. DSA’s 235 chapters and organizing committees deserve to be encouraged to connect and forge the kind of unity that will sustain us as DSA grows into its potential.