Do the Democratic Socialists of America see Democrats as friends or foes? Conventional wisdom is that the DSA wants to run leftist candidates in Democratic primaries and pressure Democratic lawmakers to move left through activism. But in the long view, many in the DSA see the Democratic Party as one of its primary antagonists.
This was clear during the votes on amendments to the organization’s national priorities resolution this past Saturday, at the DSA’s national convention in Chicago. One of the proposed amendments called for the DSA to remain cognizant of their “fight against the leadership of the Democratic Party and its neoliberal and austerity politics” and argued that the organization should criticize progressive groups for involving themselves in intra-Democratic Party battles, like the contest between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez for DNC chair. During its introduction, the amendment’s co-author Dan La Botz said that while “we will be working with progressive Democrats and progressive Democratic organizations … the progressive Democrats are our competitors in the area of ideas. They are people who believe that the capitalist system can be reformed. They accept the capitalist system.” His co-author Zelig Stern seconded him “This is an organization that belongs to our enemies in the capitalist class,” he said of the Democratic Party. “I am not advocating that we do not support Democrats or that we do not run on the Democratic Party line. We should. … There is a difference between the ballot line, which we can take over hostilely, and trying to take control of the apparatus, which belongs to them.”
The amendment failed but, as La Botz notes today in a post at New Politics, it drew the support of 40 percent of convention’s delegates. This suggests that the question of exactly how the DSA intends to maintain a substantive distance from the Democratic Party—while working to elect candidates running as Democrats—has yet to be resolved.
If candidates aligned with the DSA become regularly successful in beating establishment Democrats, it’s hard to imagine the party taking those efforts lying down. Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the de facto head of the party now, infamously responded to a question during a CNN town hall about whether the party should move left on economic issues by curtly saying “We’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is.” The prospects of a pragmatic rapport between the DSA and certain elements of the Democratic Party are also challenged by antagonism from the party’s centrists—many who, beyond disagreeing starkly with the DSA’s worldview, insist that the left, as represented by Bernie Sanders supporters and the DSA, is broadly hobbled by racism and sexism. In a representative scuffle that took place as the convention began, MSNBC’s Joy Reid insinuated that a piece by The Week’s Ryan Cooper that detailed skepticism on the left about Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Deval Patrick as 2020 candidates was latently racist—the three happen to be black.
There are, in fact, several fairly substantive, non-racial reasons why socialists might oppose the candidacies of investment firm executives and their defenders. In Harris’ case, Cooper pointed out that her critics include social justice activists who have called attention to her record as a criminal prosecutor and California’s attorney general—a sore point for leftists who voted this weekend in favor of a resolution affirming the abolition of all police and prisons as a solution to the criminal justice inequities condemned by Black Lives Matter and other groups. About 20 percent of the delegates present over the weekend to vote for that and other resolutions were nonwhite. That’s not stellar, but the DSA has taken steps to both diversify themselves and encourage further activism around issues particular to minority groups—the DSA already routinely demonstrates and organizes on the behalf of immigrant rights and criminal justice reform among other issues. Fair or not, Reid’s criticism of the left seems to have stuck among individuals with a good deal of influence on the Democratic Party’s direction.
Despite mutual hostilities, the DSA will likely have to hew relatively close, rhetorically, to the Democratic Party, particularly in conservative areas where the organization has expanded recently—the DSA now has chapters in nearly every state. On the last day of the convention, a delegate rose to argue that openly advocating for socialism posed more challenges for her chapter than it might for others. “This is Texas,” she explained simply. Even if it is true that more progressive policies might appeal to disaffected white working-class voters who may have either taken a shine to Trump or detached from politics entirely, the word socialism, and its reputation as a fringe movement, can turn voters off. Even though Bernie Sanders ran a competitive campaign as a self-described socialist, and polling suggests the term is losing some of its stigma, particularly among young people, minds are slow to change—a Gallup poll last May found that only about a third of Americans view socialism positively and that this has changed little over the past several years. In redder regions especially, socialists might have to tie themselves more closely to mainstream organizations and the Democratic Party.
Many, if not most, in the DSA see the way forward as artfully splitting the difference between full engagement with the Democrats and working alone. In November, Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman outlined this approach in an essay titled “A Blueprint for a New Party,” in which he proposes a socialist national political apparatus that could promote a national platform, on which candidates—Democrat or not—could run with the DSA’s support.
For Jeremy Gong, a member of the DSA’s National Political Committee who endorses Ackerman’s strategy, determining how the DSA can win electorally is less important than growing the organization enough to actually sustain success. “If we were to elect any of the lovely comrades here at this convention to office without a strong mass base of support how are they going to fend off the millions of dollars from the Democratic Party or the millions of dollars that come from the Republican Party and the machines that they have?” he asks. “And once they’re in office, how are we going to keep them there, how are we going to make sure they can pass an agenda? Those are all really difficult questions that I think parties all over the world are struggling with and we’re not going to solve those easily and we’re certainly not going to solve them unless we have a mass base of tens or hundreds of thousands of committed socialist activists.” With that base, the DSA could chart its own course—whether that means transforming the Democratic Party or leaving it behind entirely.