Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate? (Spring/Summer 2023) Responses

In my article for the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Socialist Forum, “Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate?” I laid out what I see as the areas of strong consensus in DSA’s electoral strategy as well as the new areas of conflict that have arisen from its success.

Annie W and Curtis R of DSA’s Marxist Unity Group (MUG) caucus do not seem to have found much to disagree with in my articulation of DSA’s consensus strategy in their response. They agree that DSA’s task is to build a mass democratic organization to advance socialist politics, that the organization should engage in electoral politics, and that this requires use of the Democratic ballot line. They also recognize that winning elections, not just running “educational” campaigns, is important, and they support using elected office not just as a platform for organizing, but also to introduce reforms that challenge US imperialism and policing and advance working-class interests on “wages, cost of living, public services and civil rights.” Whatever their criticisms of DSA’s contemporary electoral project, they are rooted firmly within it.

While Annie and Curtis claim to present a third path forward (“Neither Sanders nor Sawant, but Democratic Socialism”), their response does not really challenge the basic, if admittedly somewhat exaggerated, dichotomy laid out in my article. My assessment of Sanders’s approach to class struggle politics is positive, theirs is more critical. They see his approach – focused on targeting class enemies and pushing for working-class reforms – as accommodating to the Democratic Party, and directly leading to betrayals of socialist politics by DSA-endorsed elected officials. They believe that a more uncompromising, revolutionary, “oppositional” alternative exists. I chose Kshama Sawant as the best example of this idealized class struggle politics because real world examples are hard to come by. Annie and Curtis remain comfortably in the realm of the hypothetical when it comes to what their political alternative would look like in elected office.

It is the path to Annie and Curtis’s “oppositional” alternative to the Sanders approach that should be deeply concerning to DSA members. Instead of laying out a plan for building an electoral program to elect the kinds of socialists they believe are key to building working-class power, their emphasis is on drawing up a litany of “red lines” crossed by elected socialists and addressing them through an ongoing campaign of censures, expulsions, and dis-endorsements.

When I wrote “Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate?” the stakes were more academic. But following the recent DSA National Convention, they are more serious. DSA’s newly elected National Political Committee (NPC), which will approve every national electoral endorsement over the next two years, has a governing coalition led by the Bread and Roses caucus in which MUG will have a substantial voice. With two NPC members in their caucus, Annie and Curtis will have a greater say in our new direction than most DSA members. We will find out what it looks like to see this politics put into practice. How many socialists in office across the country will DSA sever ties with, in service of observing these “red lines?” The ever-shifting, inconsistent examples they provide in their response make it clear that we are dealing with a disciplinarian impulse more than any clear and grounded set of rules or procedures that DSA chapters or legislators could follow.

Let’s look at the example of my own chapter, which they reference in their response. The socialists in office in the New York State legislature represent the most organized, disciplined, and effective bloc of socialist legislators in the US and coordinate tightly with our chapter and with each other. It’s not an exaggeration to say that by building this bloc, NYC-DSA and now Mid-Hudson Valley DSA are engaged in the most advanced party-building project anywhere in the US, probably in the last 50 years. Annie and Curtis focus on a rare fracture in this socialist bloc. One of our representatives in the state legislature recently introduced a piece of worthy (but unlikely to pass) legislation to remove the non-profit tax status of groups that fund Israeli settlements, called Not on Our Dime, in the closing days of the last legislative session. It has been a live piece of legislation for just a few short summer months. Not all of the other representatives have co-sponsored it, yet. This is ascribed, without evidence, to a shadowy “compromise” with Democrats or succumbing to “Democratic Party pressure.” Not mentioned are other possibilities that might be at play, such as pressure from actual constituents living in their districts, or that the various elected officials might have sincere but different assessments of the costs and benefits of the campaign vis-à-vis other chapter priorities. No weight is given to the chapter itself, which has endorsed the legislation but not made it a priority campaign or made any formal demand on our representatives to sign on to it.

It would of course be easier if all socialist elected officials were automatically in lock step all the time. But so far, while they all remain committed to the cause of Palestinian liberation, on this particular piece of legislation, they are not. So, now what? Will our new NPC attempt to establish a “red line” that our own chapter hasn’t adopted, and cut the most important socialist bloc in the country in half based on their own priorities? Maybe they will employ the “red line” Providence DSA used when it un-endorsed Representative David Morales – in which case they will also need to un-endorse Not on our Dime’s prime sponsor, Rep. Zohran Mamdani, and every other socialist cosponsor of the legislation, given that they all voted for the Democratic legislative leadership in New York. These actions would enforce “red lines,” but accomplish nothing except undermining the morale of DSA’s largest chapter, disrupting the cohesiveness of one of DSA’s most effective political blocs, and inviting reactionary forces to marshal their resources to roll back the gains socialists have made in New York State. Any such approach would be a catastrophic political error and a slap in the face to the many thousands of DSA members who built this project through countless hours of organizing over the last eight years.

Now that MUG is sharing responsibility for DSA’s political direction as part of the governing bloc on the NPC, they should consider that there are alternatives to committing an historic, irreversible political error. Instead of imposing abstract “red lines,” we can organize the working class around our demands. We can organize to elect more socialists into office. We can organize those elected officials to coordinate more closely with us to advance our democratically decided aims. We can organize for power.

Sam Lewis

Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate? (Spring/Summer 2023) Responses

Neither Sanders nor Sawant, but Democratic Socialism

In his article Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate?, comrade Sam Lewis argues that DSA should follow the approach pursued by Bernie Sanders in its electoral strategy, in contrast to Kshama Sawant, the outgoing Seattle city councilor representing Socialist Alternative. However, to do so, Lewis creates paper-thin copies of both Sanders and Sawant, using the latter as a strawman for what he calls “an oppositional strategy,” erasing the many parallels between both elected officials, and DSA’s potential to go beyond either of them.

In idolizing Sanders to call out Sawant, Lewis’s strategy will lead DSA down the Pied Piper’s path to victory. He ignores the fact that Sanders is not even a member, that Our Revolution, the organization he set up to organize his base, has collapsed, and that he has failed to make his own state a bastion for democratic socialism, outside of support for him as charismatic leader. We should come to terms that Sanders is not the north star of DSA. We have our own path to build. One that requires us to be an independent socialist force capable of uniting the working class into a democratic, membership-driven organization opposing the capitalist order.

Across DSA, many of us will point to the 2016 Sanders campaign as the beginning of a new period for socialist politics. The era between 2016 and 2020 was a period of growth, mass actions, and emergence. This period ended with the fall of the 2020 Sanders campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the election of Joe Biden to the presidency. Masses of people no longer occupy the streets or join radical organizations. For the first time since 2016, there is no viable left-wing challenger in the Democratic presidential primary. In fact, Sanders immediately endorsed the Biden campaign, without reservation, on its first day after his announcement. As we look forward, we will have to re-evaluate Sanders and drop the rosy-eyed picture of him we have upheld.

Luck Meets Opportunity

Before 2016, the name “Bernie Sanders” was little known outside of the quirky state of Vermont. Sanders, a long-time independent, quietly rose through the political ladder, with a national debut in 1990 after winning election to the House of Representatives.  Sanders then spent 26 years representing the same state, with his influence locked accordingly. The name “Hillary Clinton” meant much more nationwide. Clinton was the First Lady presiding under the 1990s “economic boom.” Clinton ran a 2008 presidential campaign that landed her a position as Secretary of State. By 2016, Democrats cleared the field for her to succeed Barack Obama. Yet her Achilles heel was her own unpopularity.

So what happens when a forced front-runner once again meets a charismatic underdog? A competitive election.

In short, Clinton did what she was comfortable with—a standard campaign running on “experience” and accomplishments. Sanders was a man of ideas, with very little to put his name on.

We like to imagine that Sanders simply waved a wand, and, by his presence alone, as Lewis states, “dramatically changed the terrain for socialism in the US, and contributed to the class consciousness and political development of tens of millions of people who were awakened to the possibility of a political revolution.” But Lewis’ piece forgets how deeply unpopular the Democratic Party had become since Obama’s election in 2008. According to Gallup, in October 2008, the Democratic Party had a net favorability of 11 points, 53% approval, a 13 point approval gap over the Republican Party. By the eve of the 2016 general election, the Democratic Party’s net favorability had dropped to negative 4 points. The idea of an outsider, an independent, and a democratic socialist, wasn’t a turnoff for the millions disaffected and angry by the Democratic Party’s failings over the last 8 years. Sanders recognized the opportunity and simply expanded on the same formula that had done well for him in Vermont. Sanders had long built a reputation based on having bold positions, which decades later made him appear consistent, honest, and dependable when such positions normalized in Democratic politics. He would speak to anyone that would listen, including the millions the party had taken for granted or outright ignored. He used the primary platform to popularize ideas like Medicare for All and a $15/hour minimum wage. Of course the 2016 campaign helped awaken a faction of his followers to a new period of socialist politics, but this didn’t happen overnight. We cannot assume that being a Sanders-supporter meant being a leftist or even a progressive. Over half of the states that chose Sanders in the 2016 primary went for Trump in the general election. Yet none of these states are the leading bases for DSA or democratic socialism today. So why do we equate being a Sanders supporter to being a potential socialist today?

Sanders: A Sawant?

The crux of “Sanders or Sawant” rests on the notion that Sanders has a working strategy while Sawant does not. Sanders provides a replicable formula while Sawant does not. The reality is more complicated, and we cannot reach it by idealizing either of them.

Lewis presents Sawant as an “exception that proves the rule.” Sawant is an independent elected via a non-partisan City Council race, sure. Sawant lives in a progressive city, fine. The attempts to add allies in other areas haven’t worked, all fair. But these are all the same hallmarks of Sanders’ career.

For the longest time, Sanders has been “entirely oppositional” to just about everything. He remains publicly opposed to the Democratic Party by choosing to remain an Independent, even though he caucuses as one and urges his followers to change it from the inside. He is a democratic socialist, fully aware of DSA, who has never paid dues or specifically engaged his followers to join. His post-2016 movement, Our Revolution, has crumbled into disarray and irrelevancy, and he remains opposed to doing anything to save it. Sanders is a person who has attracted millions but is opposed to telling them to get organized into organizations not called the Democratic Party.

If we shouldn’t emulate a city council member from Seattle, why should we replicate a US senator from Vermont? The issue with Sanders is also here in his home state. The year Sanders made his national debut is the same year Vermont returned to Republican governance. It’s odd to think the same voters who supported a democratic socialist can simultaneously put a Republican on their ballot, but those are the politics of Vermont. Sanders’ consecutive endorsements of the Democratic challengers have led to nothing. Progress has instead turned into regression. The 2022 Vermont gubernatorial election led to the Republicans’ largest lead in the state since 1950.

Sanders has failed at the primary task of the electoral arena, a task where oppositional politics take root transforming your base into a coherent, organized bloc. This was the spark of the 2016 campaign—taking a stand against a very unpopular candidate and holding firm even past the point of victory. This spark organized sections of the working class to join DSA, an organization much older than its newcomers, in hopes of building an alternative to the standard Democratic Party. Without this, electioneering simply becomes a popularity contest.

One thing Lewis is correct to emphasize is that DSA is something neither Sanders nor Sawant had—a mass, democratic organization both steered and dependent on its membership. Sawant represented Socialist Alternative, a sect with a small but disciplined membership, who found themselves codependent with Sawant and bound to focus all of their resources on keeping her in office while failing to win elections elsewhere. Sanders, by contrast, was dependent on a loose coalition held together by his force of personality. While his slogan was “not me, us,” without him as a candidate, there is no unifying force on the left.

Because DSA is a mass organization united around shared political aims, we are able to metabolize energy from new organizers while sharpening their skills and political analysis, creating new waves of working-class leadership. Membership—and the degree of its democratic control over the electoral program—is our greatest strength, and the foundation for an electoral strategy which can both win meaningful reforms and build a political opposition to the capitalist class. To do this, we would need to let go of fear-mongering about becoming marginal and embrace both our openness to new members and ideas and our intransigence against the ruling class. Only then can we replace Bernie’s charismatic leadership with the leadership of a mass party.

Opposition, Compromise, Action

For DSA to grow, we must finally move beyond Sanders—taking the good and leaving the bad behind. We must acknowledge that his oppositional stance was crucial to reigniting this new period of socialist politics. It is the difference between Sanders and those who are like Sanders in words alone. The 2016 campaign continued to run well after all hope of victory was lost. Clinton hated him for it. Liberals hated him for it. The media derided him for Clinton’s loss, blaming him for making Clinton appear weak. Yet DSA grew. This is a position we must embrace: only our appeals to the working class will grow our movement. Democrats do not respond when we play nice. They don’t like us, they don’t want us around. When Republicans, under the laughably weak McCarthy, brought “Denouncing the horrors of socialism” to a vote, clearly aimed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and allies, over half of Democrats joined the Republicans. This included former Sanders supporters like Ro Khanna and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. It included Hakeem Jeffries, a person who took no time undermining Squad members who just one month ago were loudly cheering his name to over 1 million C-SPAN viewers.

The roadblock we face in the electoral arena is that many organizations share some of our legislative goals, but oppose our political independence, commitment to working-class organization and transformative socialist aims. Take WFP, a progressive organization that has co-endorsed DSA electeds, but who are now working with Jeffries to form an opportunist, anti-Left coalition. One of the authors of this article lives in a district that enthusiastically voted for Jamaal Bowman, a Squad Progressive. It is the same district that uniformly voted for Eric Adams, the worst mayor NYC has had since Bloomberg. We don’t have the luxury of letting others define our politics for us. We cannot take for granted that the people who elect us will elect our successors if we fail to take the initiative of the office to form a coherent base. If we do not draw red lines between ourselves and the others we share the Democratic Party ballot line with, it will be our undoing as an independent political force.

Lewis asks “How can socialist minorities win reforms that improve people’s lives, and what types of compromise are acceptable to achieve them?” A compromise is often defined as an unsatisfying agreement between two parties. Compromises are a common reality of the electoral field, but for a compromise to happen, demands must be made and promises followed through after such an agreement. Yet, we often find our elected socialists compromising themselves without demands. It’s not like socialists and progressives are in a weak position. Over the last 7 years, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) has expanded to record numbers, becoming larger than its rival New Democrat Coalition. Socialists and Squad-aligned politicians have taken up key positions within the CPC. However, just what have our socialists explicitly demanded and what have they gained in return? What have they given up?

We know only what the public knows. We know that the Squad remains an informal bloc. There is no democratic socialist caucus that exists in Congress. We know that this informal bloc has flip-flopped on international issues in the face of internal Democratic Party pressure. This is apparent even within NYC-DSA, where DSA elected Zohran Mamdani introduced the Not on Our Dime Act, a bill prohibiting NY-based nonprofits from funding Israeli settlements in Palestine, without two of our other Socialist legislators. We know that this informal bloc in Congress has unquestioningly supported Speakers Pelosi and Jeffries. These are all sacrifices without demands. When we acknowledge that our strength comes from our working-class base, it becomes imperative that we make public demands. We commonly win races against those with huge sums of money because of our ability to connect with and mobilize our working-class base. Our ideas and our commitment to them win the day. We then have a responsibility to be clear about what we are aiming to gain, what we will have to sacrifice, and who the opponents forcing us to make sacrifices are.

One Door Closes, New Doors Open

In Nebraska, state senator Megan Hunt made good on her promise to filibuster every bill in the session in response to legal attacks on abortion and transgender healthcare, successfully blocking a 6-week abortion ban, and faced a targeted and harassing investigation for an alleged conflict of interest—having a trans son. In Atlanta, the city council has voted to devote funding to a massive police training facility commonly known as Cop City. The movement against Cop City, including Atlanta DSA and Black radical collectives like Community Movement Builders, has drawn thousands of people into a movement against an anti-democratic police force backed by corporate funding, in what is essentially a fight over land use and city budget allocation. People across Atlanta Cop City see the resources going into Cop City as potential funding for housing, healthcare, education, wages for municipal workers, etc, sparking the exact kind of mass movement the police are designed to repress. Support for reforms that benefit the working-class and opposition to the system itself are becoming harder to peel apart.

Meanwhile, DSA-endorsed electeds in chapters without clear red lines have crossed over to the side of the ruling class. Nithya Raman, an endorsed city councilor in Los Angeles, voted in favor of a resolution for the city to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism, which conflates anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. In Washington, DC, DSA-endorsed non-socialist Zachary Parker has voted to support a crime bill which, among other carceral provisions, makes it easier for judges to detain both adults and minors without trial. No deal or amendment can justify votes like these.

It is not a secret to any of us that the far right is on the advance, and that the Pelosi-Biden wing of the Democratic Party has done nothing to hold them back. The Republican Party has mastered the art of using the existing constitutional order—one designed to preserve the power of slaveowners, now inherited by capitalists—including the judiciary, the Senate, the police, voter suppression, gerrymandering, campaign finance tools and a host of other anti-democratic tools to roll back the gains of civil rights, feminism and the labor movement. Because the foundation of our government is minority rule, backed by capital and armed force, even reforms won through mass movements and supported by the majority of the population are not safe.

The power of the socialist movement comes from our basis in the working class, which, though it lacks the money and guns of the capitalists, has overwhelming numbers—we flood districts with canvassers to get into office, squeeze the arteries of the economy for higher wages, overwhelm the police in street movements like the George Floyd uprising. Since our constitution is designed for minority rule, entering government under it would mean giving up our main source of power and ruling as an enlightened vanguard, meaning we would either have to trade our base for the support of capitalists or, lacking any leverage whatsoever, place all our bets on them not launching a coup.

This has become even more urgent in the neoliberal era. While our predecessors could use the abundance of wealth in the imperial core to fund social programs, crises like climate change, mass debt and the decline of American power mean that nation-states are scrounging for fewer resources, with large-scale famines and a world-historic refugee crisis set to sweep across the globe in the coming decades. The capitalist class’s response to this is armed force, moving resources into law enforcement, incarceration and defense and away from the common good. The window for accommodation is closing.

This does not mean that we should abandon the fight for reforms and focus solely on establishing a constitutional convention—whether socialists are present or not, the tensions within capitalism will continue to produce struggles around wages, cost of living, public services and civil rights. In fact, because of the oligarchic system they’re clashing with, the logical conclusion of these particular struggles, even those that seem purely economic, is to fight for democracy so that the capitalist class can’t overturn them unilaterally, which also means that the struggle for reforms will be the best means of pushing for a new constitution. Where once they may have seemed completely separate, increasingly single-issue reforms and anti-constitutional revolution are connected at the hip.

There is no room for either the conciliatory electoral strategy Lewis proposes, or the straw man sectarian version of opposition he argues against. Instead, socialist elected officials should use their office to build disruptive movements for reform, as NYC DSA and Zohran Mamdani have done with the Not on Our Dime Act, and challenge the entire anti-democratic order when the state moves to repress us. Doing so will require both clear red lines around defending the right to organize and fighting the imperial police state, and a positive strategy to build mass opposition and welcome new socialists into our ranks.

Annie W is the co-chair of River Valley DSA in Western Massachusetts and is a member of Marxist Unity Group.

Curtis R serves on the Chapter Leadership Committee of the NYC-DSA and is a member of the Marxist Unity Group.

Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate? (Spring/Summer 2023) Responses

A Democratic Socialist Ahead of His Time

Reading “Sanders or Sawant: Which Way for DSA’s Party Surrogate?” left me with the odd feeling that I was ahead of my time, at least in relation to the founding of the DSA as well as to Sanders’s 2016 campaign.

I was and am a retired political science professor at a local state college. In 2010, I ran as an independent for the US House of Representatives in the first district of Massachusetts (western section of the state) as an open democratic socialist. That required getting 2000 valid signatures on a nominating petition, which I succeeded in accomplishing mostly on my own with help from family and friends. My campaign slogan was “The System is Broken-Let’s Build a New One.” I assumed that the prominent and well-established incumbent liberal Democrat John Olver would retire and a Democratic primary would produce a weaker candidate. I also assumed that as in previous years there would be no viable Republican candidate. Dead wrong on both counts. Olver ran again, and 2010 was the Tea Party year. The Republican was a man named Bill Gunn, who had a lot of name recognition in the community. He was a very interesting person – a working-class libertarian who read Tocqueville and Hayek. We actually became friendly, we are now Facebook friends. Of course, he was hoping I would draw votes from Olver. Out for a drive, I once came across a flashing lighted sign: “Vote for Engel or Gunn!” Strange bedfellows, indeed! Bill now despises Trump and still quotes conservative economists and scholars on his Facebook site.

In the 1990s I was a controversial elected and re-elected local public official (Select Board member) in Easthampton, Massachusetts, a rather conservative town at the time. I ran as an independent and defeated the Democratic candidate with a house-to-house campaign. I was well-known as a democratic socialist and perhaps received lots of media attention as a result. One feature article was headlined “The Lightning Rod of Easthampton,” as I had objected to painting yellow ribbons on local streets during the first Iraq War. In hindsight, over five years I could have handled the whole job better, but that’s a long story. Our meetings were televised, lots of people watched, and I became something of a celebrity. People would tell me that they didn’t necessarily always agree with me but they liked the fact that I spoke my mind honestly.

In 2010 I received similar attention, participated in a three-way candidate debate, and appeared on the local PBS channel. I was interviewed for newspaper endorsements, and was even endorsed by one of them. I had no organization outside family, friends, and some supporters. I had no serious fund-raising operation. There was, unfortunately, no DSA-type group as a backup. I did use social media, which was still relatively new at the time. I spent all of $5,000, very little of it mine. I got 10,000 votes, five percent of the total, not unusual for an independent candidate. That was actually a pretty good return on investment. Olver won handily, of course. All three of us were complimented on the civility of our campaigning; there were no personal attacks. We addressed real issues.

I made a lot of interesting discoveries in that campaign. The most important finding was that speaking clearly, concisely, and honestly in plain language on the basis of my socialist point of view got a positive response even if not always agreement or a lot of votes. One of Gunn’s managers and even a few of his supporters actually complimented me on that. It was the Olver liberals who really resented me. Actually, the Bernie Sanders campaign later confirmed what I had learned about the political effectiveness of listening to people along with honest and open communication rather than condescending lecturing, as is too often a habit on the Left. Also, I

had hoped to build some kind of organization behind my candidacy, but I should have known that was a fantasy. That’s why the DSA is crucial as a support for any socialist candidate, whether running as a Democrat or not.

As a result of my own experiences I greatly appreciated the intelligent and thoughtful discussion of alternatives in this article. A flexible electoral strategy based on existing local political conditions has to be a continuing part of building a viable socialist movement in the United States.

Michael Engel 
Ludlow, Massachusetts