The end of the Donald Trump administration also marks a milestone in the history of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As the shock of Trump’s election victory turned to anger and disgust, new members began to join DSA in droves. Since November 8, 2016, the organization has grown from roughly 6,500 to 85,000 and counting, making it the largest US socialist organization since the heyday of the Old Left.
Trump’s defeat also marks an opportunity for DSA activists to reflect on the political lessons we’ve learned over the last four years, and take stock of the work that must be done to meet the many challenges we will face under a Joe Biden administration and beyond. Three current members of DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) – Justin Charles, Maikiko James, and Natalie Midiri – recently participated in a facilitated discussion on the recent elections, the legacy of Bernie Sanders, DSA’s decision not to endorse Biden for president, and the threats and opportunities facing our organization and the broader Left in the years to come. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Socialist Forum: What do you make of the election results? Why do you think the elections, from the presidential race to down ballot elections, turned out the way they did?
Natalie Midiri: The big headline to me is that the presidential election was way closer than it should have ever been. One reason was that the Right organized and built a base beyond just its normal constituency. Trump made gains among some communities of color, and among some working class voters in this election. We haven’t seen the Democratic Party expand its base in the same way since the Obama administration. As people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have argued, a big reason why is because establishment Democrats have not really put time and resources into developing their organizing strategies. They’re not building up the organizing muscle we need to win.
There are also big political reasons why it was closer than expected. Biden’s campaign message was basically that he’s just going to restore order, without really speaking to the needs of working people.
Maikiko James: We’re all fairly young people on the National Political Committee, but even so all of the elections we’ve experienced so far are this type of battle between a centrist or center-right Democrat and a right-wing Republican. This election was different, though, because I have never seen as much antipathy and antagonism from the Right as in this year’s campaign. The idea that an administration like this could get re-elected was just the worst case scenario for me. But even though that was terrifying to me, apparently half of this country that voted for Trump was not nearly as terrified.
My social and my family circles are largely radical to progressive. What’s become clear to me is that many people I have considered myself politically aligned with don’t really have a vision for change. They don’t really think that the world can get much better, that we are at the end of history, and that right-wing populism is here to stay. Many people are still limited in their imagination. This election made clear to me that we have a lot of work to do to help people to fight for a better future.
A Joe Biden presidency is certainly not the ideal outcome for us. But I think most people are tired of being presented with these two shitty choices every four years and don’t want to be in this situation again. So that makes me a bit optimistic.
Justin Charles: For many people, the main purpose of the election was just to get rid of Trump. And that was definitely the main message coming from the Democrats. They wanted to restore the status quo, but of course this is what got us Donald Trump in the first place. That speaks to a kind of acceptance of the supposed inability to change our circumstances politically. At the same time, when you look at some of the ballot measures that passed around the country, like a $15 minimum wage in Florida or universal pre-kindergarten in Oregon and Colorado. These things are clearly working class demands, and they have broad support. I think there is space for politics grounded in people’s most pressing material needs, and we need to find a way to tap into that better.
But most of the Democrats were not making that kind of economic argument, and it gave the Republicans an opening. The Biden campaign kind of refused to engage Latino voters in any meaningful way, and Trump made clear gains there. The Bernie Sanders campaign had a lot of success making an economic argument to Latino voters in the primaries, so we have an opportunity to turn that back. We can cohere a base that wants a different society. The people in charge are not going to do that, so it’s up to us.
With the 2020 campaign behind us, it seems like a good time to reflect on Bernie Sanders and the broader impact he had, not just in the two election campaigns he ran but on US politics in general. How would you assess Bernie’s contributions over the last few years?
Natalie: The extent to which the Democratic Party risks handing working class voters over to the Republican Party is astounding to me. Earlier today, David Sirota gave a great talk to my chapter’s general meeting and brought up the fact that right now Bernie is finding more common ground with people like Josh Hawley in the Senate when it comes to economic relief for working people that he is within the Democratic Party. Bernie definitely shifted the range of possibilities in American politics. I think we’re very lucky that Bernie ran twice for president leading into this year of terrible austerity that’s heading our way, because now there’s actually a potential base to fight back from. If we didn’t have the two Bernie campaigns, we would probably be dead in the water right now.
Could Bernie have beaten Trump in 2020? I’m not sure. I’m just thankful that we had a second round after 2016, and that Bernie continued to push demands like universal public higher education, and a $15 minimum wage. He wasn’t able to win the presidency, but it seems like his politics are here to stay. That leaves a big task for us, but I’m more optimistic that we can continue to push a positive program for working people amid this economic crisis. I feel more hopeful now than I did during the 2008 financial crisis, even though the situation today might actually be worse than it was then.
Maikiko: One of the big tasks we face now is figuring out who and what comes next after Bernie. Bernie’s campaigns set the groundwork for DSA to grow the way that it has. He’s helped people connect the dots between the difficulties in their lives and the fact that corporations, the rich, the military are all doing very well. He named this all so explicitly and continues to amplify his criticisms and his program in a way that’s really digestible for people. DSA’s electoral wins and organizational growth is very promising to me, it shows that more and more people are seeing that the powerful benefit from our suffering. I have friends who have lost parents to COVID, I have friends who are healthcare workers and essential workers struggling to deal with this on the front lines. But so many people are suffering, not so much because of a disease, but because of the system that refuses to deal with it is actively killing people. Considering the resources this country has, there’s no good reason for all of the suffering and death we’re seeing right now. And Bernie gave so many of us the vocabulary we need to talk to people who might not think of themselves as socialists about it. Growing up with Bernie Sanders as a household name, I knew my anti-capitalist upbringing to be different. But with these past two campaigns and what Bernie has done – I’m not a weirdo anymore.
Justin: When Bernie first ran in 2016, I knew him as the guy from Vermont who was saying the real shit all the time. I always admired that. When he announced his campaign I thought it was great because he’d say those things on a big platform. Not only did he do that, I think he turned on some kind of dormant circuitry in people’s brains about how everything is messed up, how the deck is stacked against people, but if we’re able to organize and fight maybe we can do something about it.
Bernie’s pretty old. I don’t imagine him running for president again. But his legacy is all of the people who now have a different view on how things should be and who are now engaged in politics, whether that’s electoral action or organizing in their workplaces or communities. What’s going on with COVID is really the clearest demonstration of everything he’s been talking about all these years. This year has been a real bummer. Bernie dropping out of the race was a real bummer. But I am still pretty hopeful about what Bernie’s two runs left. DSA’s explosion is one thing, but there are many, many others. I think we can take the ball Bernie handed off to us and run with it and push it even further.
As you all know, DSA did not endorse Joe Biden in the election or contribute to his campaign in any official way. In retrospect, do you think that was the right position for DSA to take, or do you think DSA should have approached the election differently?
Justin: I think we took the right approach. I don’t think we should have endorsed Biden. Some argue that we should have said that we weren’t for Biden but against Trump, but what does that even mean? There’s no actual difference there, if that’s your position then you’re going to organize and campaign for Joe Biden by necessity. I don’t think Biden needed our help to get elected. As for the argument that the approach should be fight to get Biden elected and then fight to drag them to the left, I don’t think we can. He’s probably a better organizing target than Trump, but I think our tasks would have remained the same no matter who got elected.
At the electoral level, we have to keep building a bench of socialist electeds and candidates who are going to run for office and legislate in a manner we support. We have to continue to build the labor movement, fight for a Green New Deal, fight against evictions, fight against police brutality. All of that is going to continue under a Biden administration. I don’t care how diverse his Cabinet looks if it’s just going to be Obama administration 2.0. That’s how we ended up with Trump. We have to keep presenting an alternative.
Maikiko: I agree that DSA should not have endorsed anyone in the general election unless it was Bernie. But I do find it regrettable that, and I’ll take responsibility as an NPC member for not doing more to achieve it, we didn’t provide more space to talk about the distinctions between what an endorsement and attending to the task at hand – which was defeating Trump – means. We don’t align with Joe Biden’s politics, but the prospect of Trump’s re-election was a material danger that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines for, especially since we knew that the election was probably going to be close. I could have, in my position as an elected leader in an influential organization, said “I will do everything in my power to get rid of Trump, but DSA as an organization will not be putting financial resources behind that.” Was I okay with people taking a different stand? Absolutely. None of the choices before us were good. But I also think that DSA has a responsibility to, in a sense, fill the shoes people think we have and be clearer about where exactly we stand on big questions like this.
Election days are just one component of the massive fight we have in front of us. But since so many are paying close attention to them and what’s happening around them, DSA has to be present there in some way. I think we were present but too late, honestly. There was so much more conversation to be had about these questions, and I think we missed that opportunity. But now we have our opponent, who is arguably the better one to have, in front of us and we continue to organize and fight.
Natalie: In 2016 I was part of a minority of DSA members who strongly encouraged members not to feel obligated to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton, despite the possibility of Trump’s victory. When it became clear that Trump was going to win, it was difficult to have adopted that position while so many were so terrified of the outcome. But looking back on that decision, I think we identified the right issues and problems concerning the Democratic Party and in American politics generally that really came home to roost in this election as a lot of immigrants and working people of color swung to Trump. What I mean by that Biden actually did need the support of the Left in order to win. I still think DSA made the right call not to endorse Biden as an organization. But when we look at the vote margins in Michigan, for example, it’s possible that Biden might not have won the state if Rashida Tlaib hadn’t been running a great campaign on the ground in Detroit.
What makes me feel like we did have the right approach this time is that we were more developed as an organization; we were able to run strong candidates for office and strong ballot initiatives to draw people to the polls. If we could go back and do it all over again, the one piece that we really missed as an organization was not having a coherent national plan and resources for a working-class voter registration campaign. I think that was something that we basically gave to other progressive groups and to the Democratic Party. The major piece I would add to registration is more engagement of working class communities where nobody comes to the doors asking about registration, let alone to talk about candidates who are beholden to the people and not to the bosses.
Justin: One thing I think that we could have done better on this question is to communicate our rationale of what it means to fight Trump more proactively. I think we did that in practice by running a ton of candidates in local, state, federal races around the country, but we didn’t always communicate that as well as we could have. It is not enough for us to pass a resolution at a convention and expect to settle the question. But I think we’re on our way to being a little bit more sophisticated in how we can deal with these kinds of questions and preempt some bad faith attacks on our collective decisions as we move forward.
Maikiko: Something we’ve talked about as an NPC is how can we define our nimbleness? Do we have enough room to move and make democratic decisions when circumstances change, and where the members are on record as supporting one position over another? As we continue to grow, that’s going to become a harder question to answer.
Natalie: It was really difficult to have a debate over what to do about the election when a resolution had already been passed at the previous year’s convention. And we didn’t really have an intense organization-wide debate about it in the lead up to the convention, and it passed with not a lot of debate on the floor. Nobody in the national leadership wanted to outright defy a resolution that passed so strongly at convention. As we head into the 2021 convention, I hope people reading this will be mindful of how much political conditions can change between a biennial convention and just six months or a year later.
How effective do you think the incoming Biden administration will be in dealing with the pandemic and the economic crisis, considering the appointments and nominations we’ve seen so far and the unsettled situation in Congress? How do you think the Biden administration will affect DSA’s prospects and those of the Left in general?
Justin: I think the general COVID response will be better. I don’t think the Trump administration really wanted to do much of anything about it. As far as economic relief goes, a lot of that will be dependent on what happens in Congress, both in terms of the Georgia runoffs and who gets what committee assignments. AOC, for example, just got snubbed for a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and I’m sure you’ll see more of that kind of retaliation against socialists and progressives from the establishment. We’re going to continue to see Democrats do what they’ve become very good at doing, which is saying some nice things but not necessarily delivering on them. The Biden administration is not going to be great, over the past four years we’ve learned how to organize and win fights in our specific local conditions. We have to keep doing that and carry those flights up the chain to the federal level.
Natalie: Joe Biden is who we thought he was. During the campaign we heard some on the left make the argument that “we need to elect Biden so we can make him like FDR.” I’ve always been extremely skeptical of that logic. At the same time, it’s not, I don’t think we should focus too much on what happens on the inside in Washington or in Congress, but on building political power among working people. I think there are more opportunities than many Democrats would like you to think. If working people can harness and wield our potential power, we can force politicians to do things they wouldn’t otherwise want to do. We’re operating from a stronger position than we were in 2016, for sure. Do we have the power to get something as big as Medicare for All, or a Green New Deal across the finish line this year? No, but there are many opportunities for us to organize working people to fight austerity and win more COVID protections on the job. Despite the vaccines, there are still going to be so many fights over just day-to-day safety in the next six or 10 months.
Maikiko: Something I’ve already seen that really is encouraging were the daily protests Black Lives Matter activists held front of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mansion in Los Angeles. Biden was considering him for a Cabinet position, but it came out this week that he’s not getting one. It’s inspiring to see people already actively pushing against what the establishment might have taken for granted before. Direct action aligned with a broader political strategy really can make a difference.
The majority of people I hear from are saying, “we don’t want our country and our world to look like this anymore. This is not the course we want humanity to be on,” whether we’re talking about the pandemic, or the climate, or anything else. DSA has a really important role to play in galvanizing the working class to demand that we start living in a different way and that we don’t have to suffer like this anymore. I’ve seen more outrage about the joke of a $600 “stimulus check” than I’ve seen about anything in awhile. People simply cannot live in the world that has been given to us. I know there are varying opinions on what a coalition or a united front to wage this fight will look like but more and more people are demanding an alternative. And I think the Biden administration knows it’s up against it.
In your view, what are the biggest opportunities and threats facing DSA and the broader Left in the coming years?
Justin: Now that Trump is defeated and Biden’s in office, there might be a tendency for many people to go back into political hibernation. But there’s a big layer cake of crises out there, and lots of people are very awake to how broken everything is. People are angry. People are politicized. That energy has to go somewhere. Ideally it goes into organization and even more ideally it goes into DSA, like in 2016 and 2017 when DSA became a political home for many. My hope is that people are able to continue to do that. But it’s incumbent on us to make DSA an even more effective instrument for building power for our class.
Maikiko: I think the spectrum of opportunities and threats are similar to where we were four years ago, but also very different given the pandemic. I think the level of political consciousness has been raised, but we need more political education to help us to assess why we are in the situation we are in so we can take effective action to change it.
I work for a nonprofit that serves the entertainment industry. The environment is generally very liberal, but my colleagues have been talking about Amazon warehouse workers unionizing in Alabama. Me being there has something to do with that, but it’s also about this current time we’re in. It’s so exciting that so many people are thinking about what liberation could look like. That’s the opportunity. COVID has changed things. I don’t think anyone is going to sit back and say, “Okay, Biden’s going fix this now.” But so many people are suffering and dying, and sometimes that makes it hard to keep spirits high and help people feel like they can organize to make their lives better. The threats and the opportunities are very much intertwined. But again, it’s really exciting to see how many people want to be engaged in saving their own lives in a way that never I have never seen before.
Natalie: One major threat we face is the courts. We’re going to have to fight like hell to protect reproductive rights and reproductive care. That’s going to be huge. We’re going to have to fight like hell to protect unions and our right to organize and bargain collectively. Republicans are seeing the energy behind Black Lives Matter and defunding the police, and are cynically introducing state-level legislation that would restrict collective bargaining rights for police unions. I’m all for police abolition, but I think these kinds of attacks on police unions, if they succeed, will just be exported to the rest of the public sector and become a threat to public sector unions across the board. Of course, there is the climate disaster. We’ve seen a few places where hurricanes or fires have struck in the midst of the pandemic. The establishment has been completely incapable of addressing the COVID crisis, much less the threat of climate change, so the idea that these two things would happen at the same time really terrifies me.
When it comes to DSA specifically, the thing that really keeps me up at night is maintaining our organizational capacity and whether we will be able to sustain our growth and sustain the energy, excitement and enthusiasm, about our politics. I think that that’s the biggest one for me. But Bernie’s campaigns proved that there is a mass base for our politics, and that’s the biggest opportunity we could ever have. We’ve started to move into a point in our organizational development where we’re able to win some material gains for working-class people, and where we’re really putting our money where our We’re making real contributions to winning universal pre-K and higher wages and stronger protections for workers. We have to rise to the occasion, and to me that’s the theme of 2021.