This piece is the first in a series considering short-term strategic questions that face DSA members. After a year of major political events in the US — most notably the pandemic, Bernie’s loss, Biden’s victory, and the George Floyd rebellion — the strategic terrain in this country has shifted dramatically.
A year ago, out of the fog of history, a new path to socialism in the United States seemed to emerge. At its center was electoral politics.
Remember back to the beginning of 2020: Bernie Sanders had a solid chance of winning the Democratic Party primary and becoming US president. A drastic policy response to climate change, in the form of a Green New Deal, appeared ready to pull us from the brink of climate catastrophe. Though increasingly unequal, the economy had produced steady growth and the lowest unemployment rate in decades. Weak and without a clear political path forward, the center of the Democratic Party splintered apart. The left—led by Bernie Sanders—seemed poised to win the presidency and open a new era in US politics.
Entering 2021 the political terrain in the United States bears little resemblance to this rosy image.
Joe Biden soundly defeated Sanders’ primary run and went on to win the presidency. With his victory, centrists consolidated power on multiple levels. Not only do the centrists control the party apparatus, but they also shifted the actual base of the party to the right1 and coalesced around a common strategy, at least for the near future. As long as the Republican Party remains devoted to Trump and similar figures, the Democratic Party can present itself as the sole representative of respectable, neoliberal governance.2 Their self-aggrandizement is emboldened by a Republican Party who is said to represent racism and stupidity. From this position, they can continue to poach educated, suburban, ex-republicans into the Democratic Party base, solidifying their advantage against the left within their own party. This strategy also proved it can win elections, with Biden securing more votes than any other president in history.3 Transformed from embattled to victorious, the Democratic Party leadership will do all it can to cement the recent rightward shift in the party’s base. To the extent they succeed, the party becomes that much more a class enemy. Perhaps more troublesome for DSA candidates, the Democratic Party ballot line becomes that much more of a hostile terrain.4
Any electoral assurance that the center holds becomes bitter when reflecting on an economy that remains in limbo. The largest economic crisis in modern history is being held at bay by equally unprecedented levels of economic stimulus spending, deployed alongside a patchwork of uncoordinated emergency measures, notably eviction moratoriums and enhanced unemployment benefits. There has been no stated exit plan for how the country will transition from these temporary stopgaps. The economy and the political system has not been this fragile since pre-WWII.
This begs the following question: what will happen when an avowedly neoliberal Democratic Party presides over an economic crisis? It is reasonable to expect growing disgust and cynicism from working class people. With the Democratic Party’s capture of centrist voters and marginalization of its left wing, the Republican Party becomes more vulnerable to right forces that feed on anti-elite sentiment. In this context, reactionary possibilities stalk the political landscape, threatening to explode onto the political stage. Without a working class politics and political practice that is clearly differentiated from the two parties, we fear the political terrain will be primed for reactionaries of all types to quickly amass support. If leftists are so easily associated with a discredited Democratic Party, even more space may be opened to right forces far worse than Trumpism.
These changes to our political situation demand adjustments in strategy. Bernie revived the hope for a major shift in national policy—but with his loss, affiliation with the Democratic Party and running candidates through their ballot line will achieve few policy results. Even worse, doing so may damage our reputation with significant sections of the working class, especially those who are not yet organized into DSA’s wider orbit. Under these conditions, political maneuvering within the Democratic Party can be easily perceived with a new disinterest and even disgust. The strategic calculus of electoral work has fundamentally changed.
Previously, elections and electoral work had unambiguous benefits: (1) they organized DSA members together, (2) they offered an excuse for talking to people about socialism, (3) they may have succeed in winning reforms that improve people’s lives, and (4) they were part of an inspiring strategic vision, in which Bernie could win the presidency and the politics of the country could be overturned.5 Now, the benefits from electoral work have diminished, and it has new potential to harm the DSA. Biden’s victory, and the corresponding changes in the Democratic Party curtail the possibility of winning reforms electorally.6 To the extent electoral reforms are won, they will increasingly become minor and local in character. With Bernie’s loss, the larger strategic vision that framed electoral work has also become hazy and far fetched. And any work at all can achieve benefits (1) and (2), organizing DSA members together and giving an excuse to talk to people about socialism.
Given this changed situation, electoral work within DSA should be superseded by base building work. We can concentrate our efforts on building out fighting organizations that interact with the working class more directly. Local chapters should consider the daily life of their memberships, and of the greater working class in their local areas, so as to identify central issues, and build mass organizations that can aggregate workers while carrying out fights that directly improve proletarians’ conditions. This may mean a tenant union in some areas, or a sectoral union for service workers, or a unionization campaign at the local Walmart. It may mean a transit riders union, or a committee that organizes weekly protests against police brutality, or a council of unemployed people fighting for benefits. Whatever their concrete forms, these organizations should all aim to build class power and recognize class struggle as their underlying purpose. This form of organizing will build DSA’s internal structure, increase our ties within the local working class, and attract new members—without the dangers of becoming dependent on a sputtering and centrist Democratic Party. That said, this form of organizing can be more difficult than electoral work, and requires different skills and knowledge. To ask a potential voter to pick your candidate, however socialist, is not the same as asking a coworker or neighbor to join a labor or rent strike.
Though difficult, various DSA initiatives have already demonstrated that the DSA can engage in mass work. Not only that, DSA members have shown themselves capable of building mass organizations by and for the working class. In the Bay Area, DSA comrades built a regional tenants union—Tenant And Neighborhood Councils (TANC)—that was entirely independent of the dense, Democratic Party-affiliated, non-profit industrial complex. In the Metro DC chapter, comrades have been working on the Stomp Out Slumlords campaign , which has resulted in hundreds of tenants wielding power of their own. In Boston, comrades have built a new tenants union, the Greater Boston Tenant Union. In San Francisco and in Oakland, DSA comrades supported the construction of new labor unions in production and service work that are now affiliated with the International Longshoreman Workers Union (ILWU)—Anchor Union and Tartine Union. In Santa Cruz, comrades helped workers build a union at Bookshop Santa Cruz that has just won union recognition. These are just a few examples of base building work that has taken place through DSA organizers’ efforts. With a shift in our strategic view and with support from national and local DSA structures, we know that these efforts can grow exponentially.
Still, some might say that the policy campaigns launched in the electoral sphere, like Medicare 4 All and the Green New Deal, are too important in themselves to abandon. Because of their grand import, we should continue to devote our energy to these campaigns despite their flagging likelihood of success in the near future.
But we should ask ourselves what is truly important here. Is it the campaigns that are important, or the issues themselves? Is it the Green New Deal, or climate change? In a context where campaigns have very low chance of success—where their purpose must be primarily agitational—the underlying issues are clearly more important. Yet it is proposed that DSA members both understand the severity of the climate crisis and at the same time address it through an agitational campaign aimed at distant electoral victory. In his campaign, Bernie Sanders constantly emphasized that climate change presents an existential threat to humanity, and the “scientific community is telling us in no uncertain terms that we have less than 11 years left.” The Green New Deal was a 10-year plan, it can’t simply be delayed another 4, or 8, or 12.7 Nor should we propose a delayed Green New Deal as an adequate response to climate change. Rather than hold on to these campaigns, the DSA should experiment with new strategies to bring the issues themselves to the fore. For example, we could try organizing Friday school strikes as schools begin to reopen, or organizing worker councils in the utilities and energy industries. The years in between electoral cycles can not just be spent getting ready for the next electoral cycle. No amount of petitioning or empty messaging campaigns will get workers more excited for the next go around.
This period of history demands mass action of the type Bernie’s presidency promised to bring into being. A handful of minor electoral victories, while waiting for another chance at the presidency, is not good enough. If we can build up our collective capacity for mass action by constructing durable, mass working class organizations, then we may see our political fortunes brighten as Bidenism becomes inevitably imperiled. When another political wave hits—whether from a national uprising like that for George Floyd, a national crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, or even another chance at the presidency—it is our base building work that will enable decisive victories for the working class.
- As detailed in the newest Jacobin Issue, “the 2020 presidential election represented a continued shift in the base of the Democratic Party from one rooted in working-class voters to a coalition that’s highly concentrated in high-income suburbs.” (Jacobin, Issue 40, page 23)
- Neoliberal governance can be seen domestically in the dilution or outright rejection of popular proposals such as universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, and decreased military spending. It can be seen internationally in ‘Containment and Engagement’, a Cold War era approach to foreign policy. An approach that gave us an unbroken chain of disaster from the Iran-Contra Affair, the endless neo-imperialist wars, occupations and insurgencies in the Middle East, the reduction of US industrial jobs through trade policies, the ongoing starvation of the Yemeni, Palestinian and Iranian people, and a list of other events that is too exhaustive to list here in full.
- Biden won with an unprecedented 81.3 million votes, enough to overcome Donald Trump’s also-unprecedented 74.2 million votes. Biden won back the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and flipped Arizona and Georgia.
- This should not be taken as an argument to abandon the Democratic Party ballot line in order to form an independent party. In the US, as many have already pointed out, third party politics also faces exceptional difficulties. Instead, we are arguing for a shift of emphasis away from electoral work entirely.
- Even in this situation, the Communist Caucus argued for base building work within DSA. We will consider the arguments for base building work in a later piece of this series.
- This does not mean there will not be reforms, but that they are more likely to come from mass protest and revolt than electoral victory. To the extent the power of the working class grows, reforms are likely to follow whether or not a socialist majority has been elected.
- Similarly, the Sunrise Movement laid out five phases in their strategy to win a Green New Deal. Stage four — to “Win governing power by bringing it home through the 2020 general election” — has failed, and with it the strategy as presented.