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.

Op-Ed: Why Chicago DSA Should Endorse Bernie Sanders’s 2020 Campaign

The following op-ed expresses solely the opinion of its authors and does not reflect the views of Midwest Socialist or any affiliated DSA chapters.

On February 19, Bernie Sanders announced his bid for the presidency. Sanders’s 2016 campaign is central to the explosion of DSA membership across the country; his 2020 campaign could produce such an explosion again.

Today, the question of whether Chicago DSA should endorse Bernie is before us. We’re both union organizers in Chicago, and we believe that CDSA should endorse Bernie’s campaign for the presidency. Sanders has expanded what’s politically possible in this country and raised the level of class struggle in this country. The possibility of winning a better world is closer than it’s ever been in our lifetimes—if we seize it by voting to endorse Sanders.

THE SANDERS MODEL

Most socialists have a good understanding of how Sanders operates, but it’s worth going over briefly, because of how different it is from politics as usual in America.

First, Bernie speaks to real problems facing real people and talks explicitly about the villains responsible for those problems. The Sanders campaign has repeatedly distinguished itself from other progressive campaigns by directly calling out the institutions and actors that seek to exploit working-class people. By attacking the 1 percent, the corporations not paying their taxes, the vampirical private health insurance companies, and the politicians who are bought off by the wealthy, Sanders names what most working people know to be true: the corruption in D.C. undermines democracy and the lives of working people.

Sanders then puts forward bold policies for how to take those villains on. Since Sanders lost the primary in 2016, he has been fighting for policies like Medicare for All, college for all, and a Green New Deal that cut corporate profit-making out of the equation and give average people a say over their own future.

And Sanders doesn’t just believe in his power to institute these policies from on high. His video announcing his 2020 candidacy begins with the phrase, “Change comes from the bottom up.” Sanders says repeatedly that we need to lead millions of people to join a grassroots movement across the country to fight for policies like Medicare for All. He believes, like all socialists do, that working-class people are the ones who have to make history, not just politicians like him.

By naming and shaming the ultra-wealthy, then insisting that only a mass movement can defeat them, Sanders is heightening the level of class struggle in American society. As socialists who believe that class struggle is central to social change, nothing could be more exciting than this. And we’ve seen firsthand just how this is possible.

BERNIE AND RISING CLASS STRUGGLE IN THE MIDWEST

Bernie’s candidacy isn’t just about getting involved in an election, it’s about getting involved in the immediate struggles of the working class. Before Bernie announced his 2020 run Abby was meeting with non-union nurses about why they want a union. A young nurse spoke up: he wanted a union because he sees every day how his hospital is making a profit by putting patients at risk and putting nurses last. He saw the only way to stop that was to get a union and to demand a better hospital for nurses and for patients. When asked how he had first been inspired to fight, he answered, “Bernie was the one who got me thinking about it.”

Similarly, in 2015, Abby was organizing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a local union of bus operators and mechanics. At a time of rapid gentrification and the destruction of workers’ rights in the state, those union members’ livelihoods were being held hostage by the city’s Democrats, who were attempting to slash workers’ pensions.

The night before their contract expired, hundreds of transit workers and community supporters filled a public meeting with their Board of Directors to demand a stable retirement. Instead of voting to save the workers’ pensions, the Board of Directors actually raised the CEO’s salary to above $200,000 and raised the bus fares.

The next week, the Grand Rapids Press, the local paper, published a full-page op-ed. Its author: Bernie.

In the middle of his presidential campaign, he called out Grand Rapids’s Democratic leadership for attacking their workers. Titled “A Letter from Bernie Sanders About the Struggle Against Income Inequality in Grand Rapids,” he wrote in the op-ed, “You are taking from the working people of Grand Rapids to give more to the wealthy.”  

The transit workers were ecstatic that a presidential candidate was supporting them—especially since they were receiving so little support locally.  This helped produce a new militancy among the workers.

After Bernie’s op-ed, they attended multiple city council meetings to demand a dignified retirement and even held early morning protests at politicans’ homes to highlight that the futures of working class people were being destroyed. They were met with vitriol from local politicians: at one city council meeting ex-Mayor George Heartwell scolded Trula Schutt, a 70-year-old bus operator, for speaking about her pension during public comment. But the transit workers wouldn’t stop. And Sanders helped inspire them to carry on.

Bernie won Grand Rapids by a landslide as well as Michigan by speaking to the working people disenfranchised by the Democratic Party. He filled high school gyms and union halls with people who wanted more. When he came to Grand Rapids, he actually asked an ATU Local 836 member to open for him. He didn’t seek out a local politician—he wanted a rank-and-file worker. In her speech, Trula said, “We need politicians like Bernie Sanders who will stand up for working people, not like the politician who scolded me for speaking out.”

These examples show how Bernie’s campaign isn’t dampening class struggle, it’s actually heightening it and expanding it beyond the electoral realm into workplaces. And it’s doing this on a mass scale. Regular people are starting to demand more in their politics, in their work, and in their personal lives.

We have seen a teachers’ strike wave spread throughout the country over the last few years—organized in some states, like West Virginia and Arizona, by educators who first came together around the Bernie campaign. Sanders’s class-struggle message helped give workers the confidence to take militant action, and his campaign actually brought those militant workers together to organize strikes.

Because Bernie ran for president and has continued campaigning since then, the entire political landscape has changed over the last few years. With DSA involved, his 2020 campaign could do even more.

What it would mean for Chicago DSA to run an independent Bernie campaign?

As we approach 2020, a mass movement against economic inequality is again going to come together around Bernie Sanders, with or without DSA. But it would be better—both for us and for him—with DSA.

We don’t want socialists to fold completely into Bernie’s campaign. We should have our own independent campaign. This would give us an opportunity to weave our local struggles in Chicago into Bernie’s and DSA’s national platform and message. Endorsing Bernie would not mean abandoning all the other work we are invested in as a chapter. Rather, we would have new opportunities to lift up our campaign work.

For instance, though they aren’t typically tied together, the fight for housing justice has deep connections to environmental justice. We know that environmentally safe, quality, and affordable housing controlled democratically by the people should be a major part of a Green New Deal. Bernie’s campaign would give us a mass platform to organize for social housing.

To do all this, though, we have to start planning now. And to start planning, we need a chapter-wide commitment to Bernie’s candidacy.

Our forthcoming general meeting offers us a chance to do just that. To spread class struggle, grow DSA, and remake our world into one for the many and not the few, vote yes to endorse Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president at our Chicago DSA general meeting.