Every Strategy Will Fail: A Call to Experiment and Develop Better Tactics Within DSA

We'll spend a lot of time debating strategy at the national convention. But to make any of them work we'll need new and better tactics.

At the 2023 DSA convention, we will spend a lot of time debating strategy around the Democratic Party. Some groups want to embrace a strategy of realigning the Democratic Party. Others want to break and start an independent workers’ party today. Others still want to split the difference by working within the party today, but laying the groundwork for a future split. These debates are important, but until we are more powerful tactically, any strategy we adopt is bound to fail. We will not fundamentally change the Democratic Party and we will not start a viable third Party. Strategy – how we align ourselves politically, what political program we fight for, who we see as allies, neutral, and enemies – is important. But in order to execute any strategy we need new and better tactics – the actions we take to achieve our goals, deliver for our allies and defeat our enemies.

We are currently a primarily electoral organization, and the most common and effective tactic we use to influence elections is by organizing volunteers to knock doors and do field work. Even in our issue and legislative campaigns, canvassing is the most common tactic.

Canvassing has become DSA’s main tactic for 5 reasons:

  1. It is effective. Elected office is a source of power, and knocking on doors contributes to winning elections. DSA-endorsed candidates often defeat better funded opponents off the strength of DSA’s ground game.
  2. It allows new volunteers to get involved. Within 1 hour of showing up to their first DSA event someone can make a real impact on a political cause they believe in. I want to stress how important this is – the first time I knocked on a door I made a transformation from an observer of the political system to a participant. Any main tactic of DSA must facilitate a mass of volunteers to undergo this transformation.
  3. It scales up easily. In Austin, Texas we started our 2020 electoral canvassing with 20 canvassers per event and by the end had over 200. There are very few projects in organizing where 200 volunteers could show up and all be given something to do that would help the project.
  4. We can go out any day of the year and knock doors. If there is no current election, we can canvass around issues and collect information.
  5. Gathering a large group of people in-person creates a shared sense of power.

However, there are limits to the effectiveness of canvassing. DSA’s success has mostly occurred in low-dollar state and local races in deeply Democratic districts. Candidates in these races rarely can afford TV ads, and media rarely cover these races, so a five minute conversation at the door with a voter sympathetic to left politics is often enough to sway their vote.

The impact of canvassing dulls in higher-dollar, higher-visibility races. DSA has never won a statewide or congressional race, except as a smaller part of a large coalition. We have rarely defeated incumbent Republicans, and never done so at the level of the state legislature.

We saw the limits of canvassing acutely in the 2020 presidential primary. I highly recommend Marilyn Arwood’s article, We Knocked on a Million Doors for 45,000 Votes. Bernie had a historic swell of volunteer canvassers, Biden had virtually none, and Biden won overwhelmingly, in large part because TV told older voters to vote for Biden. 

In 2022, DSA picked up 20 new state legislature seats, eight of whom were nationally endorsed. This gives us 62 in total, or just 0.8 percent of America’s state legislature seats. If we set an intermediate goal of 738, or 10 percent, of the nation’s state legislature seats, it will be tough to get there without better tactics.

We have to marvel at the fact that nearly one percent of state legislators in America are dues-paying members of a socialist organization, and the blood, sweat and tears thousands sacrificed to make that a reality. And at the same time recognize that defeating the US capitalist class is a monumentally challenging goal, and one we are currently falling short of. We can’t point fingers or despair, but we must recognize that our current tactics cannot achieve our goals, and begin to experiment with new tactics.

In the next section I will outline some of the tactics we are currently employing, and the challenges we face in potentially making them DSA’s main tactic. I don’t think anyone in DSA knows which tactic we will find the most success with, so we have to try them out. It can be scary and demoralizing to admit we currently don’t have a map to achieve our political goals. But I hope it can also be thrilling to explore the possibilities of new tactics for growing our organization into the mass working-class force we all want to become.

Tactics to Explore and Refine

Door-to-ballot – NYC DSA recognized the limits of traditional canvassing and rolled out a Door-to-Ballot strategy for 2022’s David Alexis for State Senate campaign. Organizers made connections at the door and agreed to stay in touch until election day, with a goal of getting new contacts involved with the campaign and DSA. A common critique of canvassing is that conversations at the door can be fleeting, and canvassing is mobilization rather than organizing. We must bring deeper organizing to our electoral and issue work. It is extremely labor-intensive and may not deliver a huge number of votes out of the gate. But over the course of many years it may build a much larger working-class base.

Supporting strikes and labor actions: There is consensus within DSA that if a strike or labor action is occurring locally, it’s all hands on deck for chapters. Show up to the picket line, raise as much money for the strike fund, provide mutual aid where possible. This is a great tactic and we must continue to find creative ways to better support strikes. UPS Teamsters and the UAW face big negotiations in 2023, so we must absolutely find tactics that allow our membership across the country to get involved in a way that can substantively help workers win better contracts. Hopefully we can find tactics that make strike support a main project across all chapters within the organization.

Industrializing: This refers to DSA members getting a rank and file job in a strategic industry. This tactic can be very effective, and wins by reform slates within the Teamsters and United Auto Workers benefited from socialists who industrialized. A challenge with this tactic is that it is not easy for a DSA-curious first-time volunteer to take part. Those who strategically enter industry usually already have a lifetime commitment to left politics. For people with that commitment, getting a rank and file job is probably better for the cause and for their personal finances than going to grad school or most activist jobs. But most DSA members won’t switch careers, so if industrializing is to be one of DSA’s primary tactics, we need to find a way for our mass membership to participate, and not just a dedicated activist circle who switches careers or already works at one of the relatively few unionized workplaces in America.

EWOC – The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) is a help center where workers who want to organize at their job can call and get advice from an experienced organizer. It is effective and fills an unmet need, as existing unions usually don’t have the resources to help workers who are just getting started organizing. Some training is required, but volunteers can get up to speed pretty quickly on some tasks. Many DSA members participate, but it still lacks the chapter-wide participation of canvassing. A related challenge EWOC faces is how to create more in-person organizing. It was created during the pandemic, and impressively connects workers and organizers online. But DSA is strongest when we bring people together in-person. EWOC should continue to experiment with ways to create more in-person contact and engage the majority of members.

ETOC – Analogous to EWOC, ETOC (Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee) is a help center for tenants looking to organize their apartment. Tenant organizing has huge potential, and arguably DSA’s largest electoral and legislative success has come around renters’ issues. Direct tenant organizing progress has been uneven – while Washington, DC has had success with the Stomp Out Slumlords program, every city has different laws and a different landscape of existing tenant organizations, which can make it difficult for chapters tenant organizing for the first time to navigate. Many chapters express, “We want to organize tenants but have no clue where to start.” ETOC has great potential to provide structure and connect novice organizers to experienced organizers who can offer wisdom and guidance. If it scales up, we may see much more of the membership organizing tenants.

Mass protest: There is consensus within DSA that when left-wing mass protest occurs, it’s all hands on deck for chapters. Members should show up, serve as marshals, serve as medics, bring food and water, donate to bail funds, and film the police. One challenge is that DSA is a long way away from being able to call for protests, so we can only support protests when they occur. Most of the time chapters will not have an active protest to support. Another challenge is that the largest protests in recent years have been against police murders of Black people, and as a majority white organization DSA has largely not been in a position to take a leadership role in the protests. We should continue to experiment with tactics to support active protests, and continue to organize and build a base in majority-Black and non-white neighborhoods so we may be better suited to participate in organic leadership during future protests.

Brake-lights clinics: Back in 2017, there was a big push to make brake-lights clinics a main tactic of DSA. There was opposition, but most chapters tried at least one, and they got us a lot of goodwill and new members. COVID put a halt on in-person events, but chapters are hosting them again. Rather than debating the technical definition of mutual aid, we should figure out how much turnout we can drive to the clinics. In Austin, we had a hard time getting people to show up. I suspect this is because changing brake lights isn’t super difficult or expensive. But if we experiment we may find a way to make the tactic or something like it work better.

Disaster relief: Disasters will unfortunately become more common, and when one occurs locally it should be all hands on deck for chapters. We should experiment with tactics and ways to collaborate with unions, tenant organizations, churches, and DSA elected officials. Today in many chapters, a smaller group prepares for disasters, and organizes the mass membership into action when disaster strikes. We should refine ways to bring more members into that planning group and keep the mass membership who is organized into action during a disaster engaged after the worst of the disaster subsides.

Winning the battle of ideas: Socialism is still not a majority position in America, but it is taken more seriously. That change has come from thousands of dedicated socialists writing articles, recording podcasts, hosting public educational events, talking to friends, and yes, posting on social media. However, we must reject the “West Wing” fantasy that we will make an argument so compelling our enemies will spontaneously have a change of heart. The reason we don’t have socialism today is not a lack of articles and posts written by socialists. Most people will not be persuaded by words that a better world is possible – they must experience taking collective action and winning. Before 2016, plenty of socialist groups wrote plenty of persuasive words. DSA grew larger than any of them because we took action in the real world, and that will always be our greatest strength.

Breaking Out of the Malaise

The two years since Bernie lost have been a major bummer for DSA. COVID was miserable. Members burned out, many stopped organizing, and it seemed our divisive arguments outnumbered our wins. In 2017-2019 there was a feeling we were an exciting, growing political movement. Today, membership gains have stalled, and we’re large but not really large enough to have influence in national politics. We have little leverage over our elected members of Congress, who get reelected predominantly by forces outside of DSA. Without enough power, strategic debates often consist of multiple losing options.

We need to find new tactics, which means we must be willing to take risks with novel tactics in our campaigns, and rather than dismissing unorthodox ideas, be willing to give them a chance. But we must be brutally honest assessing the effectiveness of these new tactics. When we do find success, we must spend the extra energy documenting them and spreading them nationally. We should not abandon traditional door-to-door canvassing, but we should be searching for new tactics that achieve the five criteria that make canvassing currently DSA’s bread and butter – effective, easy to onboard new volunteers, can scale to more participants, can do year-round, and allows people to meet in person and feel collective power. We should be able to envision a million people in some way engaging in the tactic during a future period of working-class upsurge.

This is not an exhaustive last of everything every DSA chapter has ever tried. If I didn’t include a tactic you believe in or was unfair to a tactic you have had success with, write a response! Document your tactic, how you did it, and the results. Spread your success far and wide. Train organizers from other chapters on how you did it. Request a meeting with a national committee and pester them until they promote the tactic. It is quite likely our most common tactic in 10 years isn’t in this article.

DSA is in a bit of a lull today, but history will continue. Climate disasters will increase, financial markets will crash, rents will rise, police will kill people, inequality will widen, and there will be more and more outbursts of popular anger. We can’t predict when and how these moments of crisis and popular anger will happen, but we must do everything we can to organize ourselves to be in a position to offer leadership when such crises occur. DSA needs to build the credibility and deep relationships with workers that we can provide political analysis, organize discussions to decide collective demands, and coordinate political actions where millions can get involved for the first time. Using canvassing to win elections has built us a large organization that does have more credibility than any other socialist organization has had in decades. But we can see the limits of canvassing, and need to orient our members towards tactics that can further build us that credibility. We have many good ideas for new tactics, but none yet has the proven track record of electoral canvassing, so now our task as socialists is to establish such a proven track record for a tactic we believe has potential.