The National Political Committee (NPC) of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which I am a member (DSA, not its NPC), recently voted 13 to 4 against the following resolution: Should DSA ask members in swing states to consider voting for Biden? Boo!
Enthused by the wave of support for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, I joined DSA shortly after leaving the federal government the following year. The group seemed well-positioned to take that wave of support and turn it into something enduring. My optimism has been elevated by the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad.” This political success was associated with the growth of DSA to an organization of over 65,000. There has been nothing like it on the Left for decades.
Some of the new members who, like me, are older, are resigned to the impossibility of revolutionary transformation. Instead, we look for constructive, realistic alternatives with some promise of winning incremental progressive reforms. In my flaming youth, I considered DSA’s entrapment in Democratic Party politics to be bankrupt and viewed DSA leaders like Michael Harrington with contempt. It cost decades of unproductive activism and disappointment, but it eventually became clear to me that the old DSA view is now, if it wasn’t always, the best of a bad set of political options. The political rules in the United States render third parties impractical and the social reality makes socialist revolution impossible. It’s a unique experience, maybe karmic, to fight positions I used to arrogantly advance myself.
The mostly younger members of the NPC and their supporters are committed to the hope that revolutionary change is possible, that capitalism can be abolished. Some advocate one or another form of left-wing politics that is founded on third party electoral campaigns. Still others are practicing what is sometimes called “entryism.” (The term originated with Leon Trotsky and his controversial decision in 1934, in his so-called “French Turn,” to dissolve his own party, the Communist League, on the grounds that it was too weak to stand by itself. Trotsky instead instructed his followers to enter the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) to work towards long-term control of that organization.) When you can’t make any catches in your own little pond, you go where the fish are.
If I shared the convictions of my younger comrades, I would be doing what they are doing. I can’t fault their intentions. Like these folks, my twenty-year-old self wouldn’t have listened to me today either. In the same vein, it’s no wonder the recent appeal by veterans of Students for a Democratic Society was met with scorn. You could reanimate Gene Debs or Lenin and they would get the same reaction. Offering the wisdom of experience simply won’t work with people like my twenty-year-old self.
The problem now is that stances by the NPC, such as the one cited at the outset, risk driving DSA into a ditch. I believe there is a fundamental difference between voters energized by Sanders, AOC, and the like and a DSA leadership that can’t bring itself to urge a vote against Donald Trump. The issue here isn’t the electoral outcome — I doubt the NPC’s proclamations will have any appreciable impact. What is at stake is DSA itself and the future of the Left in the United States. If the NPC decision does not reflect the views of the majority of DSA members, as I suspect it does not, it remains for this majority, if it exists, to press its case.
An article in Politico from December 2019 detailed the shape of Joe Biden’s inner circle or “brain trust.” This claque does not inspire optimism: The story makes it clear that little that is new can be expected from his administration. Nonetheless, there are still the non-trivial matters that a Democratic victory will dethrone a neofascist regime, will probably shore up the right to vote (for its own sake, if no others’), and will hopefully alleviate the impact of the current pandemic.
One could make the case that a Biden presidency will result in the renunciation of progressive initiatives and pave the way for the next, worse version of Trump. The argument has merit. But there is even more merit to the argument that a second Trump term would be much, much worse, posing a real threat to our surviving democratic institutions.
An abstentionist posture, with respect to voting for the Democratic nominee in November, glosses over the significant differences that Trump or Biden bring to actual policymaking. For instance, there is a difference between allowing DACA people to stay in the U.S., which Obama did, and the threats to deport them coming from the Trump White House. Isn’t the difference obvious? Who could fail to understand the stakes for thousands of immigrants? There are many more such examples. And speculation about Biden secretly wanting to go to war with Russia is not a serious response.
I want to acknowledge that in many locales, DSA people are doing useful work, including supporting viable progressive electoral campaigns. I am not about to announce my resignation — nobody would care, obviously — nor would I urge anyone else to leave. Quite the contrary: join DSA and you are bound to find some congenial activist project. There are many.
The NPC’s resolutions may have little electoral impact, but the course of the U.S. Left will matter for resistance to fascism as well as progress beyond neoliberalism. We need to focus on the fascist threat as well as promoting progressive reforms. DSA, currently holding the franchise on democratic socialism in the U.S., ought to be leading that movement, regardless of the outcome in November.
Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer living in the wilds of Virginia. He has worked at the Government Accountability Office and the Economic Policy Institute.