Cincinnati, 2019. Photo credit: Roberto Galan / Shutterstock.com.
The decision by Democratic Socialists of America to not endorse Joe Biden in the general election has been met with cries of alarm by some of our progressive friends. We are told that we are living through a second Weimar era and electing a Democrat to the presidency is our only chance of saving the nation from burgeoning fascism. Our critics protest that in our unprecedented times there is no room for the socialist Left to sit out an election: The #votebluenomatterwho resistance must be maintained until Trump is out of the White House.
In response, I first want to point out how historically significant it is that an American socialist organization should be considered so powerful that it can affect the outcome of a general election. Demands of submission to the Democratic Party’s center are being made of us from the New York Times’s opinion columns. DSA didn’t endorse Bill Clinton either, but that didn’t figure much into political discourse at the time.
Of course, we are no longer the organization that existed back then. Before 2016, we were a tiny and powerless organization of a few thousand members. Today, with 66,000 members, DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States in decades. We are cognizant of what that means and the power we have as an advocating body. Our organizing has aided electoral victories like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional primary win in 2018. We are growing in power and influence and I am incredibly proud to be part of such a vibrant organizing community. Nevertheless, I am somewhat confused by those on the Left who would like DSA to endorse Joe Biden. To be sure, I am flattered by the notion that our members could make or break a general election, but given our numbers, especially in swing states, that doesn’t seem very likely. Given the total lack of material consequences, why would we endorse Joe Biden? Where is this pressure to endorse a candidate so antagonistic to democratic socialism even coming from?
DSA cannot sway a general election. However, should Biden lose in November, we know that the Left will be blamed for obstruction. We also know that it won’t matter which progressive groups endorsed him because the Left always gets blamed for obstruction when Democrats lose. The party has a tendency to punch left to avoid criticism. It is never the candidate or the political strategy of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party that lost the election; instead, it’s Jill Stein and Ralph Nader and angry tweets from socialist podcasters. This criticism isn’t constructive. Left-bashing isn’t actually successful at shaming third-party voters into voting Democrat. The point, as ever, is to deflect blame.
While the Left may still be too weak to win the Democratic primary, we have enough muscle to publicly dismantle this framing thrust at us by our opponents. We are not the organization we were four years ago. Our membership has changed and our politics alongside it. The open letter from former SDS leaders to the DSA fails to fully grasp this transformation and the leaps we have made as a result of it. In the new DSA, most members are in their twenties and thirties and know more about Chelsea Manning than they do about Michael Harrington. SDS leaders, despite being the founders of DSA, aren’t on the radar of much of our current membership. The organization is now mostly made of up millennials who joined the movement because they are downwardly mobile and are going to be a lot poorer than their parents. They struggle with work, housing, and healthcare, and were disillusioned by the high liberal rhetoric of the Obama administration. It is this majority of members who voted to not endorse anyone but Bernie Sanders at our bi-yearly convention in August of 2019, thus precluding a Biden endorsement.
This new membership has further transformed what endorsement means for DSA. We don’t just endorse to guarantee the votes of our members. We want to hold our candidates accountable in office and so we try to ensure that they share our values. Our endorsement process for local New York City candidates involves the participation of members across multiple branches and several different local DSA governing bodies. It includes a rigorous vetting process as well as public debate. Then, once we have endorsed, we go all-in for a candidate.
Our field teams spend nights and weekends for months at a time going door-to-door. We do our own fundraising and promotion. Our groundswell movements require enthusiasm and deep organizational buy-in. Therefore, even if some of our members wanted to endorse Joe Biden, we wouldn’t be able to. There would be no way to drum up enough excitement for such an action. Given the makeup of DSA, a broad coalition of leftists is required to make an endorsement. Biden doesn’t appeal to enough members to make the cut.
DSA is multi-tendency. We include social democrats, liberals, communists, Maoists, anarchists, Leninists, Trotskyists, and loads of members who aren’t remotely sectarian. Our numbers include people who do not think we should be doing any kind of electoral work whatsoever. We do not agree on ideology but we can often (though not always) build enough consensus to organize around electoral and issue campaigns. Bernie was special in that he brought much of the Left together for the first time in decades. Across tendencies in DSA, we are together still, but not for Biden.
As for the criticism that we are living in unprecedented times and must fully support the Democrat so we can defeat the fascist in the White House, there’s not enough consensus around that notion in DSA. I for one do not believe that Trump has done more evil than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. The current president’s gross incompetence has preserved us from the super-competent villainy of the neocons who so shrewdly steered the Bush administration.
Although there are plenty in DSA who may disagree with that, there are plenty of others who hold far more radical views than I. Members who want to see their political will made manifest by the organization form coalitions and whip votes. We take democracy very seriously and there simply isn’t enough agreement around supporting Biden.
DSA is about as interested in endorsing Biden as Biden’s campaign is interested in our endorsement. Nevertheless, it will perhaps comfort our critics to note that while DSA will not be endorsing again in this presidential election, many of our members who vote in swing states will likely vote for Biden. However, our numbers in such places are admittedly small.
Fortunately, Biden’s team isn’t depending on a DSA-style ground game to win in November, which is what a DSA endorsement would mean. For better or worse, the Biden campaign is about name recognition and anti-Trump sentiment. He is not depending on our 66,000 members or the Left to win.
Right now, DSA is busy with other things. We are phone-banking for local candidates, and organizing rent strikes, tenant associations, and mutual aid networks. Although we are continuing our activism and advocacy through the quarantine, we will not be campaigning for Joe Biden. We have been finished with this presidential election since Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign. A further endorsement is not on the table.
Annie Levin is a freelance writer and a proud member of the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. Find her on Twitter @annierlevin.