Sanders campaign poster in Philadelphia, March 2020. Photo credit: Erin Alexis Randolph / Shutterstock.com.
During the early stages of the 2019–20 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders was a persistent progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment. He regularly maintained a solid second place in the horse race, polling between 15–18 percent once Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy in April 2019. In June, Elizabeth Warren started to gain on Sanders and by July was tied with him in the polling averages. This was the context when Democratic Socialists of America took a vote at their national convention in August of last year to endorse only Bernie Sanders — the lone democratic socialist running — for president.
Nine months later, as Joe Biden cleared the field, DSA tweeted, “We are not endorsing @JoeBiden.” The tweet enraged some liberals, who had been haranguing progressives to “vote blue no matter who.” Assuming this position was a new reaction to Joe Biden’s presumptive nomination, mainstream political commentators and the #resistance criticized and condemned the statement. They accused DSA of acting irresponsibly and, in some instances, giving direct material aid to Donald Trump.
However, it behooves liberals to understand the rationale behind the non-endorsement and hear how DSA operates as an organization, why Joe Biden is unpalatable to so many on the left, and what the socialist path to power looks like untethered from the Democratic Party.
One common misconception about DSA is that the organization represents a monolithic socialist ideology that all its members share. While doctrinal purity does not exist within DSA, a shared vision for a democratic socialist world does exist among most of its members: We envision a world where decisions are made from the bottom-on-up instead of the top-on-down.
Unlike many nonprofit groups and political organizations, DSA has no CEO or executive director. Major national decisions are made with the democratic consent of its entire membership.
Its electoral endorsements are not just a rubber stamp for a candidate but a commitment to an all-out organizing effort involving hundreds of thousands of labor hours dedicated to phone banking, door-knocking, and canvassing. While other groups may involve membership in a token manner, DSA is committed to a truly democratic process, which imbues its decisions with a legitimacy that would not exist if it were made by an unelected, unaccountable leader or committee. Without this legitimacy, DSA would have little buy-in or investment from its membership, reducing its capacity to win campaigns and build power.
Other groups that function as much as mailing lists and fundraising mechanisms don’t have such worries because they don’t require any labor or investment from their “members.” All they need them to do is open an email every month and send money to a candidate they’ve designated as a priority. They aren’t as motivated to build grassroots power; instead, they tap into passive observers who are uninterested in investing the labor DSA members have put into their organizing.
When mainstream political groups do engage with fieldwork, it is directed by an unaccountable authority in service of the Democratic Party (and the moneyed interests that dominate its decision-making). As we saw with Barack Obama’s Organizing for America, these grassroots volunteers are disposable after the campaign and become irrelevant once Democrats take power. In contrast, DSA continuously engages its members with political activity, whether it comes in the form of political education, issue campaigns, or mutual aid activity. The depth of engagement within DSA underscores how politics is a continuous struggle in our everyday lives, not an extracurricular activity.
This speaks to a different perspective between the liberal and leftist approach to politics, and it should stress why Joe Biden is so unpalatable as a candidate to socialists in general.
The liberal outcry that followed the DSA tweet made it appear unfathomable that there could be any other progressive choice but to endorse Joe Biden. I disagree. This is a man who proudly and openly disparages socialism to anyone willing to listen. As a socialist organizer, I experience a profound disagreement with Joe Biden about how to practice politics.
Biden appears uninterested in investing in any organizing that could serve as a popular base for electing progressives across the nation later on. His campaign doesn’t have a distributed organizing platform the way that Sanders and Warren did — not even a dialer, a crucial tool for voter ID and GOTV operations that leverages the labor of volunteers.
Instead, his time is spent at expensive fundraisers, glad-handing large-dollar donors who represent moneyed interests. His affect and personality may be working-class — but in practice, he caters to Democratic Party elites.
These contradictions are mirrored and heightened within the party itself. As Meaghan Day puts it:
“The Democratic Party is inherently disunified. It represents Blue Cross and people whose medical claims are denied by Blue Cross. It represents Blackstone and people evicted by Blackstone. It represents welfare recipients and people whose tax breaks are aided by welfare cuts.”
In any case, the wealthy are the ones that the Democratic establishment turns to for material support, not the working class. Joe Biden does not rely on a volunteer army or millions of small donors — he relies on the rich. Therefore when the rich and poor constituencies are in conflict within the Democratic Party, more often than not it is the rich who prevail.
Endorsing Joe Biden, and thus committing the resources that make a DSA endorsement meaningful, would be a one-way street that takes away precious resources from down-ballot races for socialists in Congress, state houses, and local elections, as well as socialist issue campaigns like Medicare For All, the ongoing rent strike effort, and supporting organized labor. All of this would be sacrificed in exchange for a leader who says “America doesn’t need a revolution.”
A common critique of this position is that upholding it dooms DSA to political irrelevance. As Mitchell Abidor writes in the New York Times:
… Radical young leftists [in 1968] either refused to vote or supported the candidates of the Peace and Freedom Party, the Freedom and Peace Party, and even the Yippies — the Youth International Party — who encouraged people to vote for a pig named Pigasus. Anyone or anything was preferable to Richard Nixon except of course the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey.
The obvious implication here is that radical young leftists had some responsibility for Richard Nixon’s election.
Curiously enough, DSA had previously endorsed a moderate Democratic candidate in an effort to defeat a radical Republican president who was considered a right-wing authoritarian: John Kerry over George W. Bush. And in 2008, DSA “critically endorsed” Barack Obama over John McCain. In both outcomes, DSA derived no benefit because it was too small and insignificant to exert any influence over the Democratic Party.
If the initial thesis is Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and the antithesis is Democratic Socialists of America in the 2000s, then the synthesis is DSA today: an organization catalyzed by the election of Donald Trump, with a strategy that both recognizes the failure of fringe politics and the self-defeating approach of submitting to the Democratic Party.
DSA is using the Democratic Party ballot line to win power in office — but they mobilize thousands of new voters to swing elections instead of relying on the traditional party machine to turn out voters. Beyond its electoral work, DSA is also using labor-centered strategies to win power in the workplace and leading in activist spaces to engage larger communities as a whole.
The path to power for democratic socialists rests with the working class — the group of people whose livelihoods depend on selling their labor in exchange for a wage or a salary instead of owning land or capital that generate profits for them — rather than fringe movements or a stagnant political establishment.
For one, workers already comprise a majority of society, which creates a singular electoral outcome if you are able to successfully engage them as voters. More importantly, workers also have the power to halt economic activity in the private sector and create political crises in the public sector when employees strike. When organized, workers are the only constituency capable of exerting a countervailing force to capitalist interests because the livelihoods of capitalists depend on workers showing up to work. This power extends beyond the ballot box and makes it possible to envision the radical change necessary to bring about a socialist society.
This approach to building power within the working class relies on an ethic of solidarity, in which you have a material interest in your ideological project — rather than the simple moralizing that typically characterizes liberal chiding.
Indeed, liberals have been preemptively blaming socialists for any future electoral failure on the part of the Biden campaign, their pathetic entitlement manifesting as feckless outrage. Liberal entitlement to the votes and labor of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies has become so bald-faced that after a disastrous interview with Joe Biden, Charlamagne tha God had to say, “It has to come to a point where we stop putting the burden on Black voters to show up for Democrats and start putting the burden on Democrats to show up for Black voters.”
Perhaps it has also come to a point where we stop putting the burden on progressives to show up for Democrats who use us to win campaigns and promptly ignore us when in office. Maybe now is the time for us to build power for ourselves.
Honda Wang (@HondaWang) is a writer based in New York.