Bernie Sanders Rally, 2019. Photo credit: Justin Berken / Shutterstock.com.
I joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the fall of 2017. I’m a millennial, but by then, I’d been an activist for the better part of twenty years. I’d been in the anti-war movement as a high school student after 9/11. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and participated in the M20 protests, with hundreds of thousands marching through city centers to prevent the Iraq War in 2003; I went to college in Washington State to be closer to left-wing activism, and I graduated into the market crash and recession in 2008 and embraced Marxism. Through 2012, I was active in Solidarity, a revolutionary socialist organization first formed in 1986.
As recently as 2013, I didn’t regard DSA as a serious organization: DSA was the mailer you got after you signed up for a trial subscription of some soft-left publication, with quotes from Amy Goodman and Cornell West on the envelope. It was a paper organization, and generally not where you’d go if you were interested in being a young socialist activist.
That profile began to change in the mid-2010s. Following Occupy Wall Street, Bhaskar Sunkara, a longtime member of DSA, turned Jacobin, the magazine he had founded in 2010, into the most visible journalistic outlet for young American socialists in decades. The growing prestige of the publication invited people to look at DSA again.
In 2015, DSA was one of the only socialist organizations to embrace Bernie Sanders’s bid to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Most other socialist organizations rejected Sanders, particularly for his association with the Democratic Party. This — as well as the experience of movements throughout the 2010s and changing economic and political factors — led to the rapid growth of DSA. And that growth made it more enticing for veteran activists to join too, particularly after the 2017 DSA Convention jettisoned much of DSA’s old political baggage and tacked left.
This new DSA marked the 2016 election as its origin point and looked to the 2020 election as its horizon. DSA experimented with elections across the country while also committing to labor and community organizing and mutual aid projects. This meant that DSA transformed into a coalition of socialists with a wider range of opinions about elections, the Democratic Party, and how best to change the United States and build socialism.
Bernie Sanders was the political figure able to unify the various tendencies in DSA. Those invested in elections had a solid anchor in the form of Sanders; those interested but with reservations about the Democratic Party could agree to endorse Sanders as a politician from outside the political establishment, and those who were disinterested in elections could nevertheless acknowledge that the positive effect of Sanders’s 2016 campaign was important enough that they would support an electoral effort.
The result was a delicate compromise between competing tendencies within DSA and hinged on a careful navigation of politics that could satisfy these three broad groups. DSA could work together while anticipating the next Sanders campaign, but at some point, when Sanders was no longer able to play this role, DSA could find itself in serious dispute between the various interests.
With candidates already lining up for the Democratic Party nomination as early as January 2019, I thought it was very likely that the 2020 primary was going to be much more contentious and difficult than the 2016 race. The 2016 election had followed eight years of Democratic rule under Barack Obama, and many assumed that he would be succeeded by another Democrat, who would provide more political space for an alternative politics on the left (as epitomized by Sanders).
2019 looked completely different. After three years with Donald Trump in power, there would be mounting pressure to rally behind whoever the Democrats would field in the effort to unseat Trump. What should socialists do in this situation?
Electoral pressures weigh heavily on progressive organizations of all kinds. Socialist organizations in the United States have historically been divided over the question of the Democratic Party. If we could agree that DSA was a valuable new organization with great potential, we would need to seriously think about how to manage the different interests to preserve the group in the face of foreseeable obstacles.
How should DSA relate to the 2020 election if Sanders was not the nominee, in a way that could both maintain its political principles and recognize that many DSA members were anxious about further Republican victories?
The standard options reproduced the divide among those on the left: support the Democrats as they continued to move to the right — or embrace a third party to questionable effect. Neither approach had been satisfactory, and in the past, this specific question had been the basis of organizational splits and feuds.
So, what could be done? My suggestion was fairly simple: If the Democratic Party’s candidate wasn’t Sanders, don’t endorse. This approach could address three important factors: 1) the competing tendencies within DSA, 2) known sources of conflict historically among the U.S. Left, and 3) the function that endorsements play in partisan elections.
First, if we could tell that there was not a consensus about how to position ourselves towards the Democrats, the obvious alternatives — to endorse the Democrat, or support a third-party candidate — would take a step in a direction that would alienate the other tendencies within DSA. The best course of action would be not to make any organizational commitment in the presidential race, other than what we could agree on (Sanders). Additionally, this would allow DSA members to decide for themselves how to handle this question.
Second, the interesting contribution of DSA was that rather than accepting lesser-evil politics or embarking on limited campaigns with third parties, DSA after 2015 had an opportunity to generalize the Sanders model: You could run on a major party line and present as a socialist. This would avoid the “spoiler” effect and help counteract the march to the right of centrist politics. The tension around electoral politics might be manageable in normal circumstances, but there is immense pressure placed on every progressive organization to get behind the Democratic candidate for president every four years, regardless of their record or policy proposals. We had the opportunity in 2019 to chart a course with clear heads before the pressure of the election season.
Third, if we look at the function endorsements play in major partisan elections, it’s clear that refusal to endorse a candidate can serve a strategic purpose as well. After all, the Democratic Party is constantly at odds with its base: It is a capitalist party that puts governs with market-friendly economic policies. There are differences with the Republicans but the Democratic Party is not a party that will deliver substantial reforms or bring the working class into power. Where they govern, Democrats hand down austerity and other unpopular policies that directly attack the livelihood of working families. As a result, millions of workers don’t vote — it takes a lot of ideological and organizational work, particularly the “stick” of the Republicans, to rally the vote.
To maintain some shred of legitimacy, the Democratic Party relies on the endorsements of other organizations to lend it credibility. Labor unions, women’s organizations, civil rights leaders, peace groups, environmentalists, and even democratic socialists are all called upon to support the Democratic Party — in spite of the fact that their candidates do not advance a program favorable to nearly any of them.
Since DSA doesn’t have kind of power organized labor does, why would it matter who DSA endorses? As Arun Gupta explained succinctly,
The Left, as disorganized as it is, is the source of ideas, energy, and passion for a party that is an empty vessel of corporate sloganeering… In the general election, the Democrats need the Left to be silent about how bankrupt and corrupt the party is so it can gloss its rush to the right in a veneer of progressive rhetoric.
When you pledge your unconditional support to politicians, and say, ‘No matter who you pick, no matter how adverse he is to my political ideology and policy preferences, I’m gonna vote for you and support you,’ they start to realize you have no leverage. There is no reason for them to do anything but ignore you with contempt. You’re in this subservient position that you’ve put yourself in when you say, ‘I don’t care how much you trample on my values I’m still gonna vote for you.’ Why would anybody listen a group of people who say that?… Why would I give you concessions if you told me that at the end of the day you’re gonna vote for me anyway? I’m not gonna give you concessions. I’ll give concessions to the people who may not vote for me.
In 2012 here in Wisconsin, the power of non-endorsement was put on display when the graduate workers’ union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison refused to endorse any Democrat for governor unless they pledged to repeal Scott Walker’s anti-union law passed in 2011. This called attention to the fact that none of the Democrats in fact had made this pledge and it questioned their legitimacy as candidates of labor. The union’s willingness to withhold endorsement forced politicians to consider what they would lose if they ignored a central demand of their labor constituency.
These were the reasons behind the resolution I wrote and submitted to the 2019 DSA National Convention, R15 In the Event of Sanders Loss: “Be it therefore resolved, the Democratic Socialists of America will not endorse another Democratic Party presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail.”
I wrote an accompanying article (“If Sanders Should Lose”) going through the specifics of why the other Democratic Party contenders were incompatible with DSA’s vision for socialism. I explained that if we’re not careful, we were going to be caught in a no-win scenario:
As an organization, DSA should make it clear that we will not endorse corporate politicians, especially as this will create divisions among our own membership. Non-endorsement does not dictate that individual members must abstain, but rather as an organization we agree not to lend our credibility to a Democrat we know to be an adversary.
While most resolutions were organized by political caucuses in DSA, I submitted this as an individual DSA member not attached to any group. The resolution circulated among activist contacts, got the requisite signatures, and found enough support in the pre-convention straw polls to make it to the convention floor. Many resolutions had caucuses trading horses to pass their proposals — I didn’t do any politicking beyond sharing it with friends and on social media.
I’ll be honest: I was shocked when it passed.
After a long first day arguing over process at the convention in Atlanta, it looked like all the political resolutions would be tabled until the next day. I got up to get a drink when they called R15 and had to jog up to a microphone unprepared.
I gave some quick remarks about why it was important that we set our position now and explained that this would not prevent any member from voting or campaigning as individuals. After that, the floor was open with two microphones, one for and one against. The “For” side had a long line down the aisle; the “Against” side had less than a half dozen speakers.
As the debate heated up, the chair announced that the time for debate had expired and that there would be no extensions. I stood up to call for more time when someone tapped me on the shoulder: “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to win. You’ve got all the communists, all the anarchists. It’s gonna pass.”
I looked at her uncertainly.
The vote was called, and the resolution passed, with overwhelming support. There wasn’t any organizational maneuvering, the position was widely and deeply felt in DSA.
Immediately after the vote, the result was reported in the national press. The issue went dormant until Sanders dropped out of the race in March 2020.
DSA tweeted, “We are not endorsing Joe Biden.”
And here we are.
Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin.