Which Way Forward for the Democratic Socialist Left?

What should socialists in the United States do "after Bernie."

(East Bay DSA, Twitter)

The Democratic Socialists of America faces an important challenge.

For the past several months, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign served as the glue that kept the largest democratic socialist organization in the country together and the crutch it relied on for any sense of cohesion. Members poured immense amounts of energy into the campaign with the hope that Bernie could win.

But now that the Democratic establishment has unified around the uninspiring puppet, Joe Biden, it’s unclear what happens next.

The promise of a post-Bernie Left is still bright. Bernie’s twin presidential bids opened up a set of possibilities that have not existed in the U.S. for decades. His campaign transformed the ideological terrain, making democratic socialist demands seem not just morally imperative, but commonsensical.

Now the big question is will an actual Left coalesce in the United States? A Left, which in the words of Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed, is “capable of setting the terms of debate in the ideological sphere and marshaling enough social power to intervene on behalf of the working class in the political economy.”

Now that Bernie is no longer in the running, will DSA help lead the way for the Left or fail to live up to its potential?

The Promise of DSA

Since Bernie’s first bid for office in 2015, DSA’s numbers ballooned from 5,000 members to 50,000 practically overnight. The current count puts DSA at about 60,000—dwarfing other organizations on the socialist Left. Just as it did in the aftermath of the 2016 election, DSA’s membership after Bernie’s exit from the race has already surged.

And unlike other progressive organizations such as the Working Families Party—whose presidential endorsement process is a cautionary tale against top-heavy, staff-driven, candidate focused organizations funded by a cadre of professional-managerial donors—DSA’s strength is that it is a membership-based, dues-funded, democratic organization without any direct fiscal or political commitments to a donor class.

In terms of electoral politics, DSA-endorsed candidates have won several strategic races on the local and national level. In addition to building power within political institutions, these politicians have used their campaigns to expose the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party and raise the expectations of the working class by introducing bold and popular reforms. Some DSA-backed politicians have even succeeded in enacting policy programs that have loosened the grip of capital and transformed the lives of everyday Americans.

Indeed, some chapters have matured sufficiently to run their own members and craft landmark legislation. Julia Salazar, a DSA-member, now New York State Senator sponsored a suite of housing justice bills and scored victories on rent regulation, which benefit a considerable portion of New York’s working class residents. Last year, Chicago DSA ran a slate of candidates for city council, securing a victory for six democratic socialist legislators, intent to fight for fair housing and protecting immigrant rights. This electoral cycle, DSA members such as Congressional candidate Cathy Kunkel in West Virginia and Heidi Sloan in Texas ran for strategic open seats. These are undoubtedly positive indicators of the increased seriousness and clout of an organization, which, until a few years ago, was a non-entity in mainstream politics.

In tandem with its electoral work, DSA has waved the banner of several important democratic socialist issues, showcasing its commitment to a program of universal public goods. Through its sustained on-the-ground organizing around pressure campaigns, DSA has played a vital role in making Medicare for All one of the most decisive issues in the Democratic primary. These policy campaigns have not only been instrumental in orienting the organization to policy issues relevant to everyday working people, but they have also been crucial to developing the organization’s organizational capacities.

Few organizations spend as much energy as DSA debating the role of the union movement and their own relationship to it. At DSA’s biennial convention last August, the national delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of three resolutions committing to making labor a central feature of DSA’s work and allocated resources to hiring a full-time staffer to deepen its ties to the labor movement. This commitment to a labor strategy, albeit one that is only in its nascent stages, distinguishes DSA from other major organizations on the progressive left.

In view of these promising advances and openings, DSA has the opportunity to tactically channel the openings offered by the Sanders campaign and generate institutional support for the recent surge in labor militancy.

Challenges in the Electoral Sphere

Despite these exciting developments and the opportunities DSA now has to build upon them, the organization is plagued by significant challenges.

The Left needs to build independent institutions capable of influencing elections and DSA has yet to do so in a meaningful way. While a few key victories have generated popular excitement and attracted outsized media attention, DSA’s overall electoral successes, upon closer examination, have been less than impressive.

In 2017, fifteen DSA-endorsed candidates were elected to state and local offices in 13 states. The next year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib were elected to the House of Representatives and over forty DSA candidates were elected to state and local offices. DSA candidate victories are often inflated and rarely appropriately contextualized. The media portrayal of DSA is one of an organization on the march, rolling over feeble incumbent Democrats with powerful charismatic progressives.

In some cases, mainstream media outlets and sympathetic left-wing press have granted DSA undeserved credit for the heavy-lifting done by other progressive organizations. Consider the congressional victories of Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez credited to DSA, with NBC trumpeting: “The Democratic Socialists of America scored headline-grabbing victories in this year’s midterm elections, sending its first two members to Congress while a number of members won in state and municipal races across the country.” Though DSA offered Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib enthusiastic endorsements and knocked doors for them—admittedly no small feat— those close to the campaigns say that Justice Democrats was primarily responsible for recruiting both candidates, crafting their messaging and policy programs, and running their campaign operations.

That’s not an anomaly. Over the past several years, it’s the Justice Democrats—not DSA—who has developed into a sophisticated political organization securing victories for some of the most progressive politicians in the country today.

Well-funded progressive outfits, singularly focused on candidate recruitment and campaign operations, can devote most of their time and resources to elections. These organizations tend to avoid democratic deliberation or membership development. They tend to be top-heavy with hired staff. In lieu of members, they have donors; instead of elected leaders, they have boards of directors. Moreover, they relegate significant decisions to the policy experts and savvy professionals that manage their resources.

In electoral campaigns where money translates to power, DSA has no real bargaining chip. Except for the promise of media exposure and some volunteers, DSA has no mechanism by which it can substantively shape the policy programs of candidates and to keep them accountable to the organization. Thus, candidates (whose kickstarter capital and policy platform are determined by other more serious progressive organizations) only seek DSA’s endorsement for largely symbolic reasons. DSA’s limited resources also mean that few members within the organization feel capable of making a bid in the first place. This means that only those with the audacity and independently earned capital to run for office do so, rather than the candidates best poised to win with the support of the general membership.

This points to a significant tension between building a democratic, dues-funded organization and winning elections in our very undemocratic political institutions. However, DSA is presently not pursuing all of its options. It can substantially invest more resources in its electoral program: enabling it to run charismatic, working class candidates trained by and accountable to the membership.

Instead, at the 2019 national convention, delegates voted down a resolution that would have enabled DSA to better materially influence elections by better funding its Political Action Committee (PAC). As a result, DSA has been relegated to the sidelines as other progressive electoral organizations shape the electoral landscape in the current electoral cycle.

DSA also has the potential to organize the near-supermajority support for democratic socialist demands and grow into something like a “Party-surrogate,” as advocates like Dustin Guastella and Jared Abbott have argued—a democratic, dues-funded, membership-based organization that functions like a mini party.

It’s worth noting that Justice Democrats, despite their seriousness, is still constrained by the same monied interests and byzantine governmental structure that significantly hinder the success of any left-wing candidate. The recent primary defeat of Jessica Cisneros is just one example of the tremendous uphill battle even better-funded, more disciplined organizations are up against. As a point of comparison, even if one were to combine the success of DSA, Justice Democrats and Our Revolution (the three biggest leftwing political organizations today) these groups have only secured seven socialist legislators of the 435 seats in Congress—the Tea Party Caucus currently holds 23. Put another way, socialist legislators make up just 0.01% of Congress. Indeed, few progressive organizations will win enough seats this election to meaningfully shape the national legislative agenda.

Ideally, DSA would build power beyond the ballot box and shift political opinion through the long, slow process of political education. This could make it a formidable force in politics, pulling the Democratic Party to the left, while at the same time building coalitions and playing an important role in class formation beyond the scope of any given election. Such a development, however, will require the organization to reckon with its significant shortcomings and engage in serious introspection and reform.

Structural Challenges

Why hasn’t DSA lived up to its larger than life reputation?

I’d argue that it’s plagued with internal structural problems and is too far removed from the organized labor movement and from the working class to develop a unity of purpose and a disciplined political strategy.

Today, DSA champions a number of popular social reforms that have the potential to win broad working class support, but it also supports a number of more radical demands. Without a clear set of priorities, the group seems to present a false equivalence between the lot. That lack of organizational focus was on display most recently at last year’s national convention.

Unlike prior conventions, DSA did not decide on a select number of priority campaigns to focus the organization’s limited volunteer hours and funds. Instead, delegates were prompted to consider 88 resolutions and 38 bylaw/constitutional changes and the membership’s competing visions for the organization were laid bare. Of the 88 resolutions, around one half proposed to improve the internal structure of the organization, and the other half proposed a wide range of initiatives including ending cash bail and sending several delegates to an international conference in “Cuba Solidarity.”

Considering the tally of internally oriented proposals and symbolic political statements, only a small fraction of the resolutions committed the organization to any concrete tasks. The lack of concrete priorities is dangerous. Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service, once said “The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism.” Given our limited capacity to effect change on a major scale, the success of the organization will depend on how its members spend their time and energy.

The Left cannot afford to divide its attention—beyond operational constraints, priorities are essential if DSA has any aspirations to congeal a powerful and organized political bloc. If the Left can’t focus on a set of popular demands that can unite the working class, it will lose, and lose big.

As several commentators have already remarked, the Labour Party’s Manifesto, with its wide-ranging and maximalist proposals, was a significant factor in the party’s recent electoral defeat. More “shopping list” than political program, the Manifesto “appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately” and “strained voter credulity,” according to Unite the Union General Secretary Len McCluskey. With few resources and limited credibility in mainstream politics, the Left’s ability to appeal to and organize around shared majoritarian interests is the only weapon it has. The US presidential primary offered DSA the focus it needed, but, as was made clear by Labour’s 2017 electoral victory and its subsequent defeat, once elections are over, the real political struggle begins.

The organization’s lack of priorities is a symptom of a few structural conditions: the near-zero barrier to entry for membership, the related low threshold for participation and decision-making, and the lack of (necessarily hierarchical) coordination between locals and the national organization. In order to join the national organization, individuals need only pay a nominal fee to be considered a member for two-years. There are no ideological criteria to join, which is reflected in the array of political camps members fell under according to the 2017 General Membership Survey (with only 6% of the membership identifying as “just Democratic Socialist.”) The instability of DSA’s political identity, defensively framed as a strength (i.e., “big tent”), leads to the practical outcome that there are significant collective action problems to organizational focus on priorities.

There are also no standards by which members are held to account to maintain their membership. This means someone with few, if any ideological or practical commitments to democratic socialism or involvement in the local, can attend a chapter’s General Meeting and cast determinative votes on resolutions – in fact, in most chapters they can run for delegate or even an officer position just days after joining.

The lack of practical commitments or standards makes the organization institutionally unstable, with shifts in leadership and with many fresh members immediately running for office in the organization. Successful left institutions are built on shared material interests, strong leadership, a plain articulation of political priorities, a chain of command, and a clear set of tasks for members to engage in. When a member joins, she should be expected to participate in the life of the organization. Without this, the ideological and organizational instabilities not only undermine the work DSA sets out to do, but also reinforce its lack of credibility to potential coalition partners like unions and elected officials.

The relationship between local chapters and the national organization parallels this instability and lack of coordination. A group of individuals can join DSA and establish a chapter without making broader commitments to the organization. For instance, even when the organization established priorities subsequent to the 2017 national convention, locals were not bound to the democratic will of the general membership. The absence of organizational structure consistently stymied the type of coordination necessary to pursue these campaigns. After 2017, DSA committed to three priority campaigns (state and national campaigns for Medicare for All; local and national labor work; and deepening the organization’s electoral work). Many chapters vigorously pursued those aims but at present only 91 of the 201 chapters have a Medicare for All campaign and while many chapters have endorsed potential candidates only a few large chapters have robust electoral operations and the national organization does not insist that local endorsements meet basic qualifications (like completing a unified questionnaire).

According to the 2019 report of DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, low engagement by chapters was cited as a major issue explained by “the lack of a central campaign.” The report went on to say that the “structures in place were insufficient for creating the kind of member engagement deemed necessary.” In lieu of committing to the 2017 national priorities, many chapters across the country chose to invest their resources in flu vaccine or brake-light clinics. Though charitable, these dispersed and uncoordinated efforts did little to advance the priorities of the organization at-large and in many cases failed to grow stable and healthy local chapters.

Demographic Composition of DSA

DSA’s demographics exacerbate its other challenges.

It’s still largely an organization made up of well-educated young people. The data on DSA’s demographic composition, though limited, are striking. According to the 2017 membership survey (N.B. with only a 16% response rate), DSA is composed of wealthy, college-educated millennials, with few ties to the organized labor movement. In 2017, nearly a third of members (29%) earned over $100,000 in household income per year. The plurality (21%) of those surveyed identified as “private sector white-collar workers,” with students (9%) and academics (9%) following closely behind. Moreover, only 6% of survey respondents were union members—just over half of the unionization rate in the US in 2017, which was 10.7%.

The membership’s base serves as a barrier to connecting to the working class majority–the constituency DSA seeks to organize. As Vivek Chibber has said, the socialist Left’s structural separation from the working class means that, “Today’s [socialist] groups have to largely imagine what those [working class] interests are, since they can’t learn about them through direct engagement. They mostly do so by reading about past events and then trying to find parallels to the current scene. But this makes it hard to develop strategy.” Without personally experiencing pressing material needs themselves, many DSA’s members view socialism as an ethical project. As was evidenced by the various symbolic resolutions proposed at the Atlanta convention, much of the membership seeks to unite around progressive values through a coalitional approach, rather than a mass political vision shaped by shared material demands.

DSA members are correct to be critical of all forms of oppression that pervade an unequal society, but they tend to confuse moral aspirations for political strategy. DSA’s challenge in the near-term will be to focus the organization on the concerns and demands of working people. If the affluent segment of DSA sets the organization’s political agenda, there will be dire consequences. As was observed in the 2019 Labour election, “The Labour Party chose to appease a minority of the rear-guarders — a few very loud and well-funded middle class ‘activists,’ particularly in media and academia, rather than its historic base. And, not surprisingly, many workers noticed.”

We don’t need to look across the pond to recognize the failures of this maximalist strategy—the 1960s New Left in America offers yet another cautionary tale against this style of radical politics. The largely college-educated activist base of the New Left insisted on aspirational demands that, while morally commendable, failed to organize a working class base. There is good reason to believe that the New Left’s self-marginalization played a role in the conservative backlash that got Nixon elected. Currents within DSA parallel the pathologies of the New Left, particularly the failure to recognize that many of the far-reaching demands made by activists don’t resonate with a disaffected and deeply immiserated working class.

DSA needs to prove itself a realistic enough vehicle for working class reform that the institutions of the working class (i.e., unions) begin to see the organization as an ally and not an alienating youth movement. In order to do that it needs to shed some of its more wishlist-like demands and to focus on the bread and butter issues that made Bernie such a singular expression of working class frustration.

The Road Ahead: DSA Beyond Bernie

The Left is faced with serious challenges that can hinder its progress if not adequately addressed. Any viable democratic socialist movement will have to contend with the regressively undemocratic governmental system of the United States, the unbridled strength of capital and privileged position of business in politics, as well as the relative absence of a union-based labor opposition on the shop-floor or in the electoral sphere.

For the first time in decades, the Left now has the chance to build real organizational strength and become a viable force in politics. The majority of people in this country now believe that the economy benefits the rich, not the many, and that this injustice can be remedied by political intervention. Five years ago, the Left couldn’t have even imagined this ideological transformation. Democratic Socialists have Bernie to thank for this head start.

What the Left should learn from Bernie’s two campaigns is simple. Firstly, socialist demands, when sufficiently focused, are wildly popular. Secondly, elections, when run competently, are a major means of moving people from passivity to activity and of influencing the political system. What an organization like DSA must do, if it is to be effective, is to build itself into a focused and disciplined organization with concrete short-term goals and a limited set of political priorities.

There is ample opportunity to miss this unique moment handed to us by the Bernie campaign. With organization as the Left’s only weapon, a fractured, ideologically disunified, and small DSA can make very little change in politics. An organization that lacks priorities prevents itself from effectively weaponizing its limited time and resources. Indeed, the US Left’s fate beyond this historic period hinges on our ability to reflect on these objective constraints as well as the possibilities to transcend them.

The end of the Bernie campaign offers DSA members a choice: change course and connect with the actually existing working class or stay on the track it is on and risk not only missing the opportunities for building a Left, but also losing its orientation to that project altogether.