The Democratic Socialists of America have never had a very disciplined or coherent political strategy. For most of its history the DSA prided itself on being a multi-tendency socialist organization, but in practice this simply meant acting as the left wing of the Democratic Party. Since its massive growth in 2016, the DSA has become even more heterogeneous and eclectic, bringing together a new wave of young people who engage in various forms of activism and want to create a real change in the U.S. — a shift that no doubt has Michael Harrington rolling in his grave — but their focus on an electoral strategy has not changed very much. More like an activist buffet than an actual political party, the DSA is fissured with dozens of caucuses and tendencies that run the gambit from revolutionary anarchism to milquetoast social democracy, and while there has been a good deal of disagreement and some controversy, such differences tend to center on organizational disputes. There is little to no internal debate about running on the Democratic Party ballot line, and what was once dubbed the “inside-outside” strategy has recently become the “inside-inside” strategy. The DSA has consistently voted to endorse progressive Democratic Party candidates such as Bernie Sanders and DSA member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, based on the assumption that they can use the Democratic Party ballot line without actually endorsing its platform or all of its candidates. But such opportunist measures are rarely without consequences, and now many in the leadership of the organization, particularly those in the Socialist Majority caucus, seem ready to take such class-collaborationist endorsements to their logical conclusion.
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In a document posted online last week, more than 100 leading and high-profile members of the organization, including several members of the National Political Committee, signed a pledge to “Organize Against Trump.” On the surface this seems like an uncontroversial position for any left organization — who on the Left, after all, does not hate Trump? However, with just three weeks left before the general elections, such an agreement is clearly little more than a thinly veiled excuse to get out the vote for the Democratic Party and its candidate Joe Biden without actually saying so. A racist liberal masquerading as an ordinary Joe, Biden — who crushed Sanders in the Democratic primaries — is widely reviled within the DSA and among the broader Left. But several well-known DSA members, including Dan La Botz and incoming New York State Senator Jabari Brisport, have already pledged to vote for Biden. It is no surprise then that many others in the DSA, especially those National Political Committee members who went all in for Sanders in the primaries, are ready to follow suit and throw their support behind “shoot ’em in the leg” Joe.
While much of the statement pays lip service to the organization’s recent involvement in struggles for Black liberation and “racial and economic justice,” the final lines make it clear that the pledge is really about helping Biden win. “We, the undersigned Democratic Socialists of America members, are committing to volunteer our time to phonebanking, textbanking, doorknocking, and otherwise organizing to defeat Trump over the next four weeks,” reads the statement. Potential signatories are then asked to complete a form in which they can agree, among other things, to be contacted about “anti-Trump GOTV opportunities.” These activities apparently include campaigning for down ballot Democrats in the swing state of Pennsylvania, an obvious attempt to increase the Democratic Party vote for Biden there, and collaborating with the political action committee Center for Popular Democracy, which is supported by the Working Families Party, Demos, and the Ford Foundation, all of whom openly support the Democratic Party. The statement also directly links all of this activity to a concerted recruitment drive to reach 100,000 members, a move that will only increase the number of DSA members committed to working within the Democratic Party.
It’s clear that for a large portion of the leadership of the DSA, the time to actually break with the Democrats is a time that will never come. Rather, the DSA is becoming increasingly intertwined with the Democratic Party, a party of capital, not of the working class and oppressed, as even the dirty break advocates would admit. There seems little reason, therefore, for those DSA members who want to build a powerful independent socialist current within the U.S. to continue to follow such a dead-end strategy.
From Sanders to Biden
It is well known that in the lead up to the 2020 Democratic Party primary elections, the DSA went all out for Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders. They held fundraisers and rallies that raised thousands of dollars for his campaign. High profile DSA members and leaders, many of them in the Socialist Majority caucus, published innumerable articles, often in the pages of Jacobin Magazine, about how a Sanders presidency would transform our society and the Democratic Party and realign politics as we know it. They organized unions to endorse Sanders. They organized members and non-members to volunteer thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours of labor for Sanders’ campaign, door knocking, and getting out the vote in primaries across the country. The Sanders campaign, in fact was, for a long period of time, and for a large portion of the membership of the DSA, the primary, if not the only political activity they were engaged in.
In other words, the DSA had a lot riding on Sanders, and his crushing defeat created a political crisis that the organization clearly has not resolved. While some DSAers, such as Steering Committee member Jarrod Abbott have attempted to chart a course forward that tries to walk a line between building a progressive coalition within the Democratic Party and the “dirty break” strategy of Seth Ackerman, Eric Blanc, and others, Abbot’s and Blanc’s support for the pledge shows that any actual break from the Democrats and any attempt by the DSA to build an independent party is purely theoretical. Captured by the logic of lesser evilism and unwilling or unable to imagine a way of building political power that does not involve using the already existing party structure of the Democrats, such strategies have dramatically limited and will continue to limit the political horizons of the DSA and its members’ vision of socialism. Indeed, despite the clear defeat of the Sanders campaign (which not only failed to win, but also failed to move the Democratic Party any further to the left) the DSA seems as committed as ever to a strategy of building socialism within the Democratic Party, a process that even its strongest proponents admit would take decades to achieve.
While the DSA’s use of the Democratic Party ballot line has meant years and tens of thousands of hours of labor wasted that could have been invested in building an independent party, there is another problem with this strategy. Even though Sanders is much more progressive than most of the Democratic Party, the DSA’s support for his primary campaign meant brushing aside central questions for socialists — like the fact that Sanders supports U.S. imperialism. When DSA member and Jacobin writer Eric Blanc argued that Sanders’ “political limitations” on “foreign policy issues” are “hardly a serious reason to withhold endorsement,” it signaled already the DSA’s willingness to compromise with (and thus tacitly support) the establishment wing of the party. In this respect, the DSA is not merely failing to build a party independent of the Democrats; their use of the Democratic Party ballot line is actually making the Democrats stronger and reinforcing the logic of the two-party system. The support of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, and the dozens of other Democratic Party candidates the DSA has run and supported over the years, has actively given more power and legitimacy to the Democrats (and thus the bourgeois state more broadly).
After Sanders’ primary loss in 2020, the second such loss in as many elections, he used the profile that the DSA had helped him develop and build, particularly among those on the socialist Left, to turn around and, with Ocasio Cortez by his side, throw his full support behind Joe Biden. Since then Sanders has campaigned tirelessly for Biden, the same candidate that DSA leader and “Sanders surrogate” Eric Blanc described as “bought and paid for lock stock and barrel by the billionaire class.” Although it would be tempting to call this a betrayal, Sanders was clear from the beginning that he would support whomever the Democratic Party chose to nominate (even Joe Biden), just as he did in 2016, and just as he has done in almost every single presidential race since he became senator of Vermont.
The tragedy of this strategy is compounded by the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of new socialists who joined the DSA precisely because they consider themselves socialists, not liberals, and because they know that the Democratic Party isn’t a party that represents the interests of the working class and oppressed. With over 70,000 members in dozens of chapters across the country, the DSA has a historic opportunity to help build a working-class, independent political alternative, one that fights for socialism. Unfortunately the strategy of attempting to use the Democrats to build socialism — and to use Sanders for the political goals of the DSA — only loops socialists back into the Party of Wall Street, strengthening the two-party stranglehold on the U.S. political arena, and forestalling the emergence of an independent socialist left.
A Biden Victory will Not Defeat Trump
The central argument posed in the “Defeat Trump” pledge — though couched in more militant language — is basically the same argument that the bourgeois media and the labor bureaucrats make every four years. My union national (the UFT), for instance, has argued twice in the last four years that “this is the election of our lifetimes” — an argument I’ve heard them and others make every election cycle. It’s true that we need to organize against Trump, as well as the rising threat of right wing violence. But putting the strength of the DSA at the service of voting for Biden isn’t the solution. The statement claims that “a Trump loss would be unequivocally better for the working class and for our movement than a Trump re-election victory,” but this completely ignores all of the ways that Biden is himself committed to the establishment’s program of exploitation, oppression, and imperialism.
As we saw in 2008, replacing an awful Republican with a slightly less ostensibly awful Democrat is no solution to the ongoing crises that plague the U.S. and global capitalism more broadly. After a campaign promising hope and change, Barack Obama went on to oversee eight years of increasing austerity, war, mass deportation, and police violence and brutality. And Joe Biden is no Barack Obama — he won’t even make progressive campaign promises. Nonetheless, a Biden presidency is precisely what the capitalist class wants, because they know that Biden and Kamala Harris are far better equipped to implement the kind of austerity necessary to secure their profits during what is surely going to be an extended and painful recession. Without a doubt, Biden’s plan to force working people to once again pay for the crises of capitalism is not going to be any better than Trump’s, but he will do it with unions like mine lined up to support him.
Furthermore, electing Biden will not get rid of Trump or his far-right supporters, many of whom were radicalized during the Obama/Biden administration. Trump used the historical racism and bigotry ingrained in U.S. society, which had been inflamed by the ongoing economic crisis, to catapult himself to the presidency, and it is doubtful that he will just walk away from that base of power after he loses the election. Trump did not produce the far right, he has simply given them a bigger platform. Unfortunately the conditions that did create them have only been exacerbated by the economic crisis and the pandemic, and whether the Right remains true to Trump or tosses him to the curb, the anger, bigotry, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, militancy, and violence will only increase in the absence of a militant and fighting working class able to challenge both the right and the liberal establishment with a political program that goes beyond reform and demands revolution.
Rather than campaigning for Democrats like Biden and Harris, or the down-ballot Democrats that support them, working people and members of the DSA need to organize now — not in some distant future — to build an independent fighting party for socialism with an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political program grounded in the kind of class struggle that is capable of challenging the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the U.S. electoral system and its institutions of power. Building such a party, however, in no way means abstaining from the battles immediately before us. On the contrary, the struggle to protect and enlarge our democratic rights is part and parcel of the struggle for an independent party of the working class. This is why it is imperative that the DSA and the larger working class organize now to protect and expand their right to participate in the political process locally and nationally. This means organizing working people and unions to be prepared to hit the streets to defeat any attempts to cancel the results of the 2020 election and ensure that every vote is counted. But beyond that it means challenging once and for all the undemocratic institutions that force working class voters to constantly choose the supposedly lesser of two obvious evils.
We can no more defeat Trump or the politics he represents by supporting the Democrats than we can defeat capitalism by supporting Jeff Bezos. The parliamentary strategy of endless attrition pursued by the DSA within the Democratic Party, is by its very construction a dead end. The only way to defeat the right and build a socialist majority among the working class is through independent political organization and working class methods of struggle.