DSA and Bernie: The Last Time Around

The DSA National Political Committee has endorsed Bernie Sanders, but debate remains on how we as a democratic organization should go forward with the issue. Despite the non-binding internal member poll on whether we should or should not endorse Sanders, many contend that we must wait until the National Convention in August to democratically deliberate our relationship with Sanders. Others argue that to wait would be to give up needed time to start laying the groundwork for campaigns and coalitions at the ground level. With the question of our relationship to the Bernie campaign in 2020, it is good to look back at our relationship with the Sanders campaign in 2016.

Nationally the endorsement was a multi-year process. Former YDS National Organizer Andrew Porter indicated that even in 2013 and 2014 the leadership in the National Political Committee had begun drafting materials to urge Bernie to run and had begun conducting national discussions around the campaign. The formal endorsement came at the 2015 NPC meeting rather than the National Convention, as there was a general consensus to support him even as Honorary Co-Chairs like Gloria Steinem and Dolores Huerta later indicated that they were not in agreement. His program and principles—which we heartily agreed with—aside, Bernie had always been an ally to DSA even if he had never been a member. He spoke at the 2007 National Convention and had always welcomed our organization’s support in national and local initiatives.

At the local level, support and turnout for Bernie was left up to the chapters, and Chicago was no exception. It is hard to underscore for people who joined DSA since 2016 or 2017 how different DSA and the Chicago chapter were just three or four years ago. With the leadership still largely in Oak Park in 2015 and 2016 our meetings were usually no larger than 9 or 10 people, and turnout for events was usually no more than a dozen people or so. The Chicago DSA leaders at the time already had experience in canvassing from the 1970s through the Rainbow Coalition and anti-Iraq War protests of the 2000s, while the few of us younger members had gained some of that experience from the 2015 city election. That year we endorsed Jorge Mujica in the 25th, an attempt at a left coalition to try and elect one socialist on the Chicago City Council to try and re-create the success of Kshama Sawant in Seattle. While the strategy did not succeed, it at least gave us some understanding of what an effective campaign ground operation would look like.

The work for Bernie that CDSA engaged in was multi-faceted. On the one hand, the organization held tablings all over the city to get signatures to put Bernie on the ballot and give out our own literature to explain why we as DSA endorsed him. From parks and farmers markets in Oak Park and Logan Square to the Buyer’s Flea Market in West Humboldt Park, we talked with working people of all backgrounds about the campaign for a socialist president. That open socialist rhetoric was unique to the people we talked to. Rather than simply being a small sectarian organization promoting a long-shot candidate we talked with people about a national candidate who represented working-class views and struggles. We heard from people struggling with unemployment, healthcare, and access to basic services who were open to socialism for the first time, and many of them joined DSA. The beginnings of our huge growth in membership began with these on-the-ground conversations.

Beyond the work as DSA, most members involved in our Bernie work connected with the broader coalition working to get him elected. Before the official campaign came to Chicago at the end of 2015, an unofficial grassroots network that became Illinois for Bernie began meeting around state to bolster early support. Through their connections with progressive and left groups downstate and in the suburbs that network arguably did more than anyone to advance Bernie’s message throughout Illinois, and DSA members worked with Illinois for Bernie extensively. After Bernie’s loss in the primaries that network remained, and now Illinois for Bernie has returned to once again marshal support before the official campaign arrives.

The fact that the movement for Bernie since the 2016 campaign has been in large part independent of the official campaign is what has made that broader Bernie support network that DSA is a part of so dynamic, and a big reason why in my view much of the contention around the language of whether DSA will be independent of the campaign or not seems moot. We won’t be coordinating with the official campaign, we legally can’t, but we can canvass for him and once again show why we support him as DSA. DSA endorsed him for the same reasons we endorsed him early in 2015: his campaign encourages the advancement and mobilization of class struggle around a platform of social and economic justice. While Sanders’ positions on issues such as SESTA-FOSTA, reparations for descendants of slaves, and creating a firm commitment to an anti-imperial foreign policy warrant criticism from the left, they are issues on which I believe Sanders can be pushed in the correct direction. Chapters and members who are unsure of what their work around Sanders should be or don’t view Sanders work as part of their local priorities are welcome to continuing mobilizing however they choose to.

That said, I am firmly of the belief that DSA would not be the nearly 60,000 member organization it is today without the canvassing, electoral work, and coalition building that we did from 2015 to 2016. While the explosion of membership after Trump’s election included new members with a healthy skepticism towards electoral politics it also included new members who saw the Bernie campaign as the beginning for a new wave of socialist leaders that could be elected to all levels of government. The victories for this new wave of electoral socialists speak for themselves: national campaigns like AOC and Rashida Tlaib, the three new state legislators in Pennsylvania, and the potential for a Socialist Caucus on the Chicago City Council have proven that not only are we are capable of bringing socialists into government but we are capable of winning. With the US facing the continuation of a militaristic white nationalist administration like Trump’s, only Bernie’s consistent drive toward a radical social-democratic vision can stop him. DSA must begin organizing and mobilizing as part of that coalition now with this endorsement, and our own history shows that doing so will only expand our organization’s growth and the growth for the broader movement for socialism.