The DSA Isn't 100 Percent Sure About Hopping on the Bernie Bus
Some Democratic Socialists of America wish their organization would sit this one out.
by Eoin Higgins
Mar 14 2019, 4:36pm
Photo of Bernie Sanders by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Bernie Sanders is the most famous democratic socialist in America, so it makes sense that the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, seems to be largely on board with his presidential run. After all, Sanders’s failed presidential run in 2016 helped launch a surge of interest in socialism in America: Since Donald Trump’s shocking election, the organization has grown from 6,745 members in 2016 to over 56,000 today. Though that still makes the DSA a small group, it has demonstrated some political muscle, helping a smattering of left-wing candidates win local office during the midterms, most notably New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who knocked off an establishment Democrat in the primary. Beyond electoral politics, DSA chapters across the country have taken on a greater sense of purpose, working on projects like the free repair of broken brake lights in New Orleans.
The group is likely to be a voice in the Democratic 2020 primary, and on Tuesday night, the organization's National Political Committee, or NPC, released results from an internal poll of members on the question of whether to endorse Sanders.
The response wasn't close: 76 percent of the 13,324 members who voted in the poll supported the organization throwing its weight and energy behind a Sanders run. The NPC will meet on March 21 to debate supporting Sanders in what now looks like a formality. With this much organizational support behind a Sanders run, supporting the proposition is a foregone conclusion.
But the DSA contains a multitude of opinions, and its members are far from unified about backing Sanders. In the weeks leading up to the vote, I talked via email to members of the 24 percent who voted against the decision and who worried that though the Sanders campaign could energize the DSA, the organization could also lose a lot both locally and nationally once it throws its energy behind a Sanders run.
"The plans advanced by the committee responsible for this process would monopolize a significant portion of DSA's money and resources behind a campaign structure that would leave us wholly disconnected from the broader coalition forming behind Sanders's candidacy," said Bryan Conlon, an organizer with the North Carolina Piedmont chapter of DSA. "This would be a mistake in the extreme."
I heard the same thing from people across the country. All were DSA members, and most were enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders running for president. But time and time again—though not every time—I heard that people were concerned over a possible decision to endorse Sanders and, more importantly, that a decision like that could lead to the DSA losing the political good will and organizing cred it's built up over the last three years.
"I am concerned that chapters that devote time to Bernie will lose track of the important work that they are doing locally," said Caroline Schoonover, co-chair of the Central Iowa DSA.
Schoonover pointed me to her branch's statement against endorsing Bernie, which cited "serious rifts between commitments as socialists and the Sanders campaign as it currently exists," like Sanders's lack of support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and his votes in favor of some Trump priorities.
There are also other ideological issues at play. Shanti Singh, co-chair of San Francisco DSA, which opposed the proposal in an official statement, told me that she wasn't worried about the ability of the organization to allocate resources effectively if Sanders got the group’s endorsement. Rather, Singh said, she was concerned that DSA wasn't living up to its ideals by the process the organization is using to make the decision.
"It’s about the right of the DSA rank-and-file to decide collectively and democratically, as socialists should, how to engage with Bernie’s candidacy in a way that empowers and engages the working class and strengthens both our internal organization and outward socialist vision," said Singh.
Conlon described Sanders as "a visible if flawed vessel for socialism in America." That's a refrain I've heard for years, ever since Sanders's primary campaign began picking up steam in the fall of 2015, surprising nearly everyone in the political world.
For Sean Estelle, a member of the Chicago DSA Executive Committee, endorsing Sanders is at least in part a strategic political maneuver. The enthusiastic reaction from the base of the Democratic Party, they told me, proves that it's Sanders’s time. And if it's Sanders’s time, it's an opportunity for DSA and socialism in general.
"I think that it's political suicide to do anything less than a full-throated endorsement that is pushing open socialist messaging, policy demands, and strategic interventions throughout the Democratic primary process," Estelle said. "We have the potential to push the horizon of political campaigning faster than we have been able to in months."
Kenzo Shibata, an organizer for the Chicago branch, said that a DSA movement for the Sanders campaign was partly based in drawing a clear dividing line between the organization and national Democratic Party.
"The clear advantages of an independent campaign is that it will create a firewall between DSA members and the Democratic Party regulars who will likely staff Sanders's campaign," said Shibata.
Still, not everyone is sold on the political practicality of the move. Emily Bartlett Hines, a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of Middle Tennessee, told me that there are issues related to Sanders's positions on political questions that don't line up with the organization's priorities—and that an endorsement this early on could send the wrong message.
"Some of our members are personally affected by issues Bernie is on the wrong side of, e.g. people from countries affected by US imperialism, or people harmed by FOSTA/SESTA," Hines said, referring to controversial legislation opposed by many sex workers and activists. "Endorsing Bernie may signal to them that their issues aren't as important as others to us."
But, Estelle argued, the total benefits of a Sanders campaign with DSA support shouldn't be discounted, at least as far as it relates to priorities shared by both camps.
"By moving forward priority campaigns at the local, state, and national level alongside a Bernie 2020 endorsement," they said, "we will be able to lay the groundwork for what an ecosocialist Green New Deal looks like that can include a vision for public/affordable housing and electricity as a common good, and also finally joining with most other countries in a society where healthcare is a guaranteed right, not a private commodity."
That's a tall order, but it's not impossible that the DSA could see those goals achieved under a Sanders presidency—especially one the organization helped with. The question remains, however, of whether it's the right use of the DSA's time, money, and people power. Schoonover would argue against that proposition. Sanders is all well and good, she said, but an endorsement and campaigning for him still strikes her as a mistake.
"Making him president is not why we have brought in members for the past two years," said Schoonover. "We've brought in new people because we provide an alternative organizing space to the incredibly limited established party structure, and because we do work that is entirely focused on our local community and rooted in an ideology people understand and relate to."
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