Returning to the Fold: DSA and Coalition Politics After Trump
By David Duhalde
Since the 2020 general election, the Democratic Socialists of America – locally and nationally – have been moving towards a coalition politics that puts the organization and its chapters in a unique niche that is differentiated from the Democratic Party, from mainline liberal-left organizations, and from marginal tendencies in U.S. left-wing politics. As socialists, we must hold Democrats accountable to the base that elected them, and also avoid returning to the obscurity in which DSA spent the years before Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. To do so effectively, the DSA must avoid self-imposing many of the constraints that limited its work in the 2020 presidential race after the end of Sanders’ candidacy.
The Bernie or Bust resolution of DSA’s 2019 convention exemplified such a voluntary foreclosure on political possibility. The delegates overwhelmingly voted for DSA to refrain from endorsing any Democrat besides Sanders in the 2020 general election. At the event, I spoke against the proposal on the grounds it would limit DSA’s potential to help Sanders leverage support at the 2020 Democratic convention (DNC) such as coordinating actions by DSA members serving as DNC delegates should he back another candidate.
To be clear, affirmatively throwing DSA’s support behind any candidate besides Sanders would not be a particularly viable or likely outcome. As I wrote in The Nation, DSA had only endorsed two Democratic presidential candidates – John Kerry and Barack Obama in his first race – since 2000. I was also heartened to see the lukewarm reception across the organization to the handful of chapters who encouraged DSA to actively back Howie Hawkins’ Green Party candidacy. Despite my critiques of the resolution binding DSA outside of any coalition politics that involved Democratic presidential candidates, the socialist organization did avoid hitching our political capital to a marginal, but socialist, campaign too — one which ended up receiving only one quarter Jill Stein’s 2016 vote total despite 25 million additional ballots being cast.
My real concern, which I then saw validated, was that the resolution would close off DSA to allies. While DSA convention delegates in 2019 reached a clear consensus on only endorsing Bernie — the same could not be said for membership’s orientation towards the general election — particularly as the election consumed more and more of the public’s political imagination. While people knew DSA was “not endorsing Biden,” it was unclear what the largest group of socialists in the country would do. It also was the only group in the People Power for Bernie coalition to opt out of its follow-up, the United Against Trump coalition to coordinate activism to defeat the now-former president.
The National Political Committee (NPC, or DSA’s elected leadership) debated but voted down a proposal at its May 5 meeting to turn out anti-Donald Trump votes in swing states. They agreed to provide guidance to chapters in the short term and prioritize defeating fascism through social movement work. The NPC issued a statement a week after their vote expressing opposition to Trump and solidarity with Sanders’ call to defeat him — but did not provide open guidance for what members and chapters could do to specifically engage with the presidential election beyond broad calls to build the socialist movement. By September, the NPC gave internal guidance to chapter leaders on strategy and messaging, an action kit focused on a united front of the left, and guidance on incorporating the urgency of the moment in the recruitment drive.
DRIVING TURNOUT WITH DOWN-BALLOT RACES
In the absence of any public direction, I and two comrades – former Bernie 2020 labor staffer Jonah Furman and NPC member Maikiko James – organized a letter for individual DSA members to state their support for organizing as socialists to defeat Trump by driving turnout for progressive down-ballot candidates. Several hundred people signed and volunteered throughout the fall. During the Bernie or Bust debate, advocates of the resolution repeatedly assured delegates that individual members could support the nominee on their own. And while our letter never endorsed electioneering for Joe Biden, even if we had, we would be doing so in our individual capacity, respecting the letter and spirit of our convention’s democratic decision for DSA as an organization.
Others did not see it this way. Our open letter faced public pushback from fellow DSA members who did not share our urgency in taking specific action to remove Trump via down-ballot work. They did so not because they viewed Trump favorably, but out of a firm conviction that socialists shouldn’t support neoliberal candidates and that the convention resolution mandated that DSA and its members do nothing – direct or indirect – that would advance Biden’s candidacy. The contention, taken to this logical end, meant DSA members ought to be bound against formally endorsing any effort to stop Trump even as his mismanagement of a nationwide pandemic and failure to deliver relief immiserated millions of working families.
Luckily, Biden defeated Trump, in no small part due to mass organizing by UNITE-HERE and other grassroots movements to fill the gap left by the Democratic Party’s refusal to canvass voters door-to-door. Though U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib was a shoo-in for the general election, her campaign echoed my proposed fall strategy by driving up turnout in her heavily Democratic district to increase the vote for Biden in Michigan.
While DSA hadn’t backed these actions and played no formal role in them, the NPC issued a statement immediately following election day that praised the work of UNITE-HERE and Bernie Sanders to defeat Trump. In that missive, DSA did not celebrate the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Instead, the organization explicitly criticized the incoming administration and put them on notice. But for the first time in 2020, national DSA was uplifting the popular front work that defeated Trump. More importantly, the next day, the national and chapter leadership called for members to join the November 7 demonstrations with other allies to demand democracy from Trump and condemn the public attempts by him and his followers to steal the election by overturning the Electoral College results in swing states.
Many of the pro-democracy gatherings that day became victory celebrations as news networks officially called the election for Biden-Harris that afternoon. In New York City, I marched alongside hundreds of DSA members and thousands of other Big Apple residents as we took the streets of Manhattan. Across the country, there was a sigh of relief that Trump at least would be removed from office. None of us knew what would happen nearly two months later in the Capitol. But we did know the Senate balance fell onto Georgia.
Across the country, centrist Democratic Senate candidates substantially underperformed their polling, losing races in states like Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa. Trump’s surprising ability to bring out new voters kept at least 50 Senate seats in Republican hands. But now, control of the Senate, and with it, any hope of the Biden Administration delivering on the commitments that Sanders and DSA’s allied groups had fought for rested on the Georgia runoffs.
Fortunately, DSA took a different stance in the Peach State than it had in the presidential race. Instead of abstaining, DSA chapters in Georgia (with support from the national infrastructure) conducted an anti-Republican turnout effort. DSA’s four Georgia chapters didn’t — and didn’t need to — endorse either Democrat to do that, especially given John Ossoff’s anti-Medicare-for-All stance. Instead, the chapters collaborated with the national DSA and the Ecosocialist Working Group to tie the results to the Green New Deal and other policy outcomes that would only be possible under a Democratic-controlled US Senate.
Georgia DSA members coordinated out-of-state volunteers to text and phonebank Georgia voters with an issues-driven turnout message. Marquita Bradshaw, a DSA-aligned activist and 2020 Democratic-nominee for the Tennessee US Senate race, emceed a volunteer call to rally grassroots energy. In addition, they canvassed with flyers featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive agenda she and DSA back, urging Georgians to cast their ballots with those issues in mind.
This strategy wasn’t universally embraced — meeting many of the same critics as our anti-Trump letter. Still others felt it wasn’t vocal enough in supporting the Democrats. This time, absent the chilling effect of a Bernie-or-Bust-style resolution, the NPC was able to back up the work of our Georgia comrades to defeat incumbent GOP senators. This issue-based electioneering paid off as both Republicans lost their seats, tilting the balance of the US back to Democratic control. Without the presidential race’s self-imposed constraints, the organization’s leadership and membership were able to join active struggles required to defeat the far right — which take place regardless of DSA’s actions, and do not require our positive endorsement of neoliberal Democrats to engage with.
January 6, the day after Ossoff and Warnock’s victory, thousands of Trump’s most reactionary supporters stormed the US Capitol in a bizarre and extremely dangerous gamble to overturn the election results. Their putsch failed, sparking a huge backlash across the political spectrum. DSA jumped further into coalition politics at this moment, joining the racial justice-oriented Frontline’s full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for Trump’s removal. The next day, the national leadership issued a statement in both English and Spanish urging both trade unionists to pass resolutions in support Trump stepping down alongside uplifting of Reps. Cori Bush’s call for an investigation into the insurrection and Ilhan Omar’s resolution for Trump’s impeachment.
Furthermore, the leadership explicitly called for chapters to join coalitions to “demand democracy.” I attended one such event that night outside of Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. New York City DSA leaders called a rally with the city’s Working Families Party, Sunrise chapter, and an SEIU local to stand together against a fascist attempt to violently overturn a democratic election. The cathartic gathering was for democracy in both the short and the long term. “As democratic socialists, we recognize that in the long term, the only way to beat the forces of reaction is to build a multiracial working-class mass movement rooted in justice, solidarity, and liberation,” said New York City DSA Co-Chair Chi Anunwa.
“And so in addition to our demands for impeachment and electoral reform, we are also committed to fighting for a more just vision of American society that puts people over profit and where the entire working class can experience true democracy in our government, in our workplace, and in our economy,” she added. Anunwa, myself, and nearly 1,000 others marched on December 7 from the arena to soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s house to demand he act decisively to defend democracy and hold the Republicans who attempted to throw out millions of votes accountable.
The quick action by DSA and the coalition politics of early January stood in stark contrast to the fall, when individual members could only coordinate amongst themselves — in a way that could not build power for DSA or strengthen its coalitions — as Election Day drew near. In a hypothetical world where DSA had also passed a binding resolution, over a year in advance, for the DSA to refuse any engagement in the Georgia Senate race, we would have missed this opportunity as well. But instead, we were able to assess the political situation in the moment and act appropriately. Importantly, we were able to do so without moving towards the Democratic Party or even formerly endorsing. Instead we functioned as an independent socialist organization working to mobilize voters to defeat the far right.
DSA will be most effective by keeping its political options open — carving a niche that is apart from the Democratic liberal-left, but that is also separate from the margins of left politics. We cannot solve our political problems through pre-emptive, binding resolutions. Rather, we need collective struggle marked by continued debate in response to the political opportunities before us. I am happy to see the socialist organization to which I have dedicated my adult life returning to its coalition roots- albeit in an updated fashion. That’s the DSA that will change this country and the world.
Posted on Organizing Upgrade.
with comments from N.S. members.