By David Duhalde. First published by Democratic Left.
The June 1 deadline for national Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to endorse candidates for elected office who are recommended by local chapters is coming up in just a few days.
Here’s why we are doing this:
The Democratic Socialists of America’s current national electoral program presents a not totally new, but certainly improved approach for socialist action in U.S. elections. Building on our past work, especially around Bernie Sanders, our countrywide election strategy aims to mobilize our members to elect socialists at the local level. The goal is not only elected socialists, but to also strengthen resistance to both the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and the Donald Trump administration.
In the 1980s, the Socialist Party’s successor and one of DSA’s predecessors, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, could boast dozens of open members and elected socialists across the country. When I first joined DSA staff in 2006, this was a distant memory. That year, our PAC gave a measly $100 to U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman’s (D-CT) opponent Ned Lamont, which he returned after the New York Post ridiculed the donation. That year, however, we also launched a successful nation-wide effort to host house parties to raise money for then-Congressmen Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) victorious Senate election. This coordination, which netted about $60,000 (or one percent) of his total donations, demonstrated the potential for DSA’s political work.
Over the past few years, our national electoral activism has steadily increased, supporting both socialists and other progressives. We helped raise funds for U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) against a primary challenge in 2010. In 2014, Chicago DSA, with the help of members across the country, mobilized for socialist Jorge Mujica’s campaign for Alderman. Most important, of course, was our national “We Need Bernie” campaign. This was our national independent campaign to support the Senator’s presidential effort. Changes in campaign finance law incentivized us to conduct an independent expenditure campaign for Sanders over direct coordination.
The unexpected length and success of Sanders’ presidential campaign helped keep us and the ideas of democratic socialism in public conversation. It demonstrated, just as with our 2006 effort and with Mujica’s race, that if DSA members across the country bought into a race, DSA could have a major impact and people would notice. In 2014, Mujica credited DSA with being his strongest supporters among the socialist left. Furthermore, our “We Need Bernie” campaign’s financial expenditures and activism led to unprecedented news coverage of DSA by beltway journalists and the Wall Street Journal, in addition to coverage in more left-wing press. It is worth noting that neither Mujica nor Sanders was a Democrat – with Sanders only joining the party for his race then un-enrolling after he lost – which broke with the misconception that DSA only supports Democrats.
Not only did Sanders’ campaign raise the profile of socialism, it also demonstrated that running as an open socialist could be a benefit, not an albatross. This inspired many of our members to run for office. In the fall of 2016, DSA endorsed members Mike Sylvester of Maine and Ian Schlakman of Maryland; both ran as open democratic socialists. Sylvester, a Democrat, whose campaign sign specifically noted his socialist convictions, easily won his primary and general election for State Representative. Schlakman, who ran as a Green with Socialist Alternative support, finished a strong second against a machine Democrat in a Baltimore City Council race.
2017 has proven so far to be a successful year for socialist-elected hopefuls. DSAer, #blacklivesmatter activist and trade unionist khalid kamau — with the help of a massive national phonebanking effort by our members — overwhelmingly won a city council seat in the newly created city of South Fulton, Georgia. DSA member Dylan Parker also won an open city council seat in Rock Island, Illinois. As I write this, we are conducting a similar effort for Ross Mittiga, a DSA member who is running a primary challenge against the corporate Democrat, anti-environment minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Instead of just endorsing candidates and providing a single large donation from our PAC, DSA members mobilize themselves to support fellow socialists. Our design team produces graphics, our members help create phone-banking scripts and dozens of chapters make calls to local voters, canvass neighborhoods, and in many other ways help our socialist candidates to win. We know the other side has more money, so we can only counter it with people power. Through relying on our own members who must “buy into” a campaign, we keep a democratic accountability that other groups, including progressive ones, do not. As Seth Ackerman wrote in “Blueprint for a New Party” in Jacobin:
These [liberal] groups monitor the political scene in search of worthy progressive candidates or legislative causes, alerting their supporters with bulletins urging them to “stand with” whichever progressive politico needs support at the moment. (Support, in this usage, usually means sending money, or signing an email petition.) Such groups generally maintain no formal standards for judging a candidate’s worthiness. Even if they did, in drawing up such standards they would be accountable to no one, and would have no power to change those candidates’ policy objectives.
DSA avoids this trap by requiring that candidates meet the following three criteria before we make a national endorsement:
- Be an open socialist.
- Be running to win – not just send a message.
- Be nominated by a local DSA chapter.
(Please note: these criteria are not mandated for chapters making local endorsements. They can set their own endorsement policies.)
We do not want to thrust candidates on unwilling members. National DSA should organize only for candidates who have the endorsement of their local chapter. Admittedly, this policy does have its limit. For example, since there is no DSA chapter in Mississippi, we could not endorse Chowke Lumumba despite heavy support of him by DSA cadre. But this standard helps maintain democratic accountability and conserve valuable resources.
DSA will announce another slate of candidates that we are endorsing this summer! We also are making sure that we are not tied to one particular party; at least one endorsee must not be a Democrat. Thereby, we are doing what Ackerman called avoiding “the ballot-line trap.” He defined this as “[d]ecisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question.” We’re taking a similar approach by ensuring that DSA is not wedded to one party but rather to what best promotes democratic socialism, which is electoral flexibility.
Today is a new day for socialism at the ballot box. Our candidates have always played a huge role in movements for democratic socialism. I encourage everyone to tell us about great candidates for potential national endorsements by June 1! You can nominate candidates here and our new National Electoral Committee will make sure we build a network to get these socialists in office!
David Duhalde is DSA’s Deputy Director.