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.

DSA Leaders Meet in Chicago to Plan Medicare-for-All Campaign and Dues Strategy

DSA’s highest-elected members convened in Chicago for their quarterly meeting, the first since their election at August’s national convention.

Over three rain-drenched days at Chicago’s United Electrical Workers Hall, the 17 members of the National Political Committee (NPC) passed resolutions approving a national Medicare for All campaign, political mentoring for new DSA members and chapters, and a national dues drive that will encourage members to contribute monthly.

National Director Maria Svart led the NPC and staff in a discussion of DSA’s opportunities and challenges. DSA will have to parry threats by far-right organizers, including white supremacists such as those who murdered Heather Heyer and injured dozens more in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, as well as fend off possible sabotage by government agencies.

But NPC members said that the political mobilization of women and economically frustrated millennials strengthened DSA, which has rapidly become the largest organization of socialists in the United States.

MEDICARE FOR ALL

Answering the National Convention priorities resolution that called on DSA to fight for socialized medicine, the NPC considered a proposal for a nationwide Medicare for All campaign. A Medicare for All bill passed by Congress would extend that program to all Americans, open a path for single-payer healthcare in the United States, and eliminate the power of the parasitic private insurance industry.

“Winning single-payer healthcare won’t just alleviate the suffering of millions of Americans,”Natalie Midiri (Philadelphia) says. “It would also give us an edge in the fight against capitalism.”

Midiri, who organizes for single payer in Pennsylvania, explains how the fight for socialized medicine builds working class power in the United States. “As democratic socialists, we have a lot of work ahead of us to expand democracy within the state,” Midiri says, “but the transition to single payer healthcare alone brings 20 percent of the wealth in our economy under public control.”

“Just think about how many more workers will be able to take big risks like organizing for a union when they know they won’t be risking their family’s healthcare in the process.”

The campaign’s ambitions are novel for DSA. “It is the first time, other than the Bernie Sanders campaign, that DSA is committing to a national campaign,”Jeremy Gong (East Bay, CA) said at the presentation. “DSA has not carried off something like this before.”

The proposal, which passed with four members voting against, creates a national Medicare for All committee and allocates DSA national’s resources to training and assisting with local canvasses. A so-called “campaign In a box” would create a path of least resistance for local chapters to start organizing around Medicare for All.

The resolution adopted by the NPC was a reduced version of the initial proposal. Language that asked local chapters to also adopt a Medicare for All campaign as their first priority was removed after feedback from DSA members.

John Hieronymus, an observer of the meeting from Chicago, said he was relieved that the NPC had voted to leave tactics up to local chapters.

“This has the advantage of giving locals a range of options for volunteers to engage in, as opposed to having a rigid mandate passed down from on high,”Hieronymus says, noting that the initial plan was designed without input from some chapters that have already started healthcare campaigns.

“I personally think that the most effective plan will be one ultimately that embraces creativity and a diversity of tactics, that combines deep canvassing with features of ACT-UP and HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s and ‘90s, the last successful fight for healthcare justice in the US.”

Hieronymus added that he believes the NPC’s plan will help chapters that do not yet have healthcare working groups begin to organize for Medicare for All.

Prior to the NPC meeting, Zac Echola (Red River, ND) outlined the challenges the campaign was likely to face in a post on Medium, writing that Medicare for All should not stand in for DSA’s entire electoral strategy of winning socialism in the United States. “Victory for socialism depends on constructing a powerful movement that not only believes healthcare is a basic human right but can successfully drive socialist ideology into the mainstream,” Echola wrote. “Every socialist program must be focused on building that movement.”

Echola pointed out that Medicare for All would be at minimum a five-year campaign contingent on electing waves of single-payer friendly Democrats to the House of Representatives and the Presidency in 2020. Even then, the movement risks betrayal: California Democrats shelved a bill for statewide single payer when it reached the state legislature last summer.

DSA chapters in California, including Gong’s, participated in the statewide Medicare for All campaign.

MONTHLY DUES

Skyrocketing membership following the election of President Donald Trump made DSA one of the largest and strongest socialist organizations since the Vietnam War.

But as the one-year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election nears, NPC members see a critical need to encourage as many new members to renew their annual dues as possible. Forty percent of DSA’s membership comes up for renewal between November 2017 and March 2018. If too few new members from the “Trump Bump” renew, DSA national faces a financial crisis. In addition to retaining as many dues-paying members as possible, the NPC also aims to convert more members into paying monthly, rather than annual, dues.

Ravi Ahmad, one of three NPC members from New York City, said she believes in reach goals.

“Monthly sustainers are the key to DSA’s ability to do work,” Ahmad said. “A monthly sustainer means we have a steady cash-flow throughout the year and don’t have a situation where we’re facing a renewals tsunami with insufficient staff to reach out to all our members.”

The target in the resolution passed by the NPC called for at least a 60 percent new-member renewal rate and for at least half of these to become monthly donors of $10 or more.

BUILDING POWER TOGETHER

The NPC addressed how local chapters should be mentored in effective electoral work.

To be endorsed by the NPC, a candidate for public office must (1) identify as a socialist, (2) demonstrate a realistic path to victory, and (3) be endorsed by their local chapter. Director Svart also highlighted the need to teach chapters how to follow local election law. “Compliance is important, and our membership doesn’t have discipline about that,” she said.

Also discussed was how DSA can aid the labor movement, though no major decision was reached at this meeting. During debate, one member suggested DSA volunteers could take over rank-and-file organizing for unions. Another countered that unions would be wary of inexperienced DSA organizers.

An upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, is expected to invalidate the right of public-sector unions to require employees to pay dues, which would again put organized labor on the defensive.

Janus is especially dangerous because as it squeezes unions’ financial power, it will also squeeze their political power in the form of contributions to the Democratic Party and support for candidates.” Ella Mahony (New York City) says. ”That could mean that places with higher union density, like New York City or Boston, can’t be taken for granted anymore as bastions of progressive policy.”

“We need to defend organized labor not just on its own terms, but also because of how the attacks on it make our own broad political project harder.”

Mahony says serious obstacles remain to DSA becoming a strong partner with organized labor. “One of them is that DSA hasn’t 100 percent proved itself as an effective and reliable coalition partner yet. That can be fixed by working with labor allies on an ongoing campaign,” naming the Medicare for All campaign as the first major opportunity for this.

The NPC voted unanimously to have the new steering committee organize improved political education on these topics.

2018 AND BEYOND

Delé Balogun, one of two NPC members from Chicago, commented on how the NPC was beginning to work together as a newly-elected body. “The new NPC barely exited the doors of the convention at UIC before we were hit with a terrible crisis,” he said, referring to an incident where the NPC was forced to vote to remove one of its new members after it was discovered he had previously worked with police unions. The vote narrowly failed, though that member subsequently left DSA.

“Most of us hadn’t worked together before we were elected,” Balogun says. “I think this session really helped us to understand each other a bit more. Some of the discussions and debates around decisions were quite intense. However, this is what you’d expect of a brand new leadership body, trying to guide an organization that’s been relatively dormant for decades which suddenly explodes by 25,000 members.”

Balogun says that after the Chicago meeting, DSA National’s most important projects can proceed now that its subcommittees have been formed.

This includes a new Grievance Committee, headed up by three female NPC members, that will implement DSA’s anti-harassment policy.

A permanent national steering committee, which meets bimonthly, was elected from among the NPC members. Forming the new steering committee are Midiri, Gong, Echola, Joseph Schwartz (Philadelphia), and Christine Riddiough (Washington, DC). YDSA co-chairs Ajmal Alami and Michelle Fisher are also members of the steering committee.

A full account of the decisions made at the October NPC meeting can be viewed here.

The NPC will meet again during the final weekend of January 2018.