Four Logics on Bernie 2020 and DSA


What could a Bernie Sanders strategy look like for DSA?

 By Ted Glomski, Madison Area DSA

On February 19th, Bernie Sanders announced his presidential run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. On the national and local levels, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters have been preparing for this. Several chapters have released statements of intention to support a Bernie campaign, and the National Political Committee (NPC) has released a plan of how to approach the campaign, proposing an independent entity to organize for Bernie by supporting DSA chapters.

In conversations inside and outside of my chapter, I have heard numerous critiques, mostly dissatisfaction with the process and strategy thus far. In response, many caucuses or networks in DSA seem to be attacking a strawman. Emma Caterine for Socialist Majority writes that critics are arguing instead to improve internal democracy (which she posits that an involvement with the Bernie campaign will do anyway). Robbie Nelson at Socialist Call argues against those with critiques of Bernie, saying we should endorse anyway, given our opportunity to be involved in the campaign.

Overall, I’m feeling a lot of tension around this without a particular frame of reference for what DSA members are really arguing about. The exploratory committee report and the caucus statements seem to be in agreement that we need to support now and support substantially, but in what ways do other DSA members differ? To this end, I believe it would be helpful to have a tool to for members and caucuses to suss out their own politics, and to ask themselves, “Where do I/we fall on this graph, and where do others in DSA fall?” This way, DSA members would be able to articulate where they find themselves, and be able to defend themselves from specific viewpoints, rather than what one may assume their opponent’s beliefs are.

After longtime socialist and University of Wisconsin professor Erik Olin Wright passed away earlier this year, a member of our chapter used his Strategic Logics for Anticapitalism chart to frame our debate on DSA Madison’s electoral endorsements for the upcoming electoral cycle.

We can plot out a similar graph for DSA in the questions floating around for Bernie 2020, with two core questions guiding where one lines up on the graph:

  1. To what extent do we offer a critique of Bernie Sanders and his politics prior to or after endorsing him?

  2. How much of DSA’s resources do we put towards a Bernie Sanders campaign?

First, some caveats:

  • This is based on a number of assumptions, including: Bernie is the most aligned candidate to DSA, he can win, and he has a number of stances where he differs from positions that DSA generally agrees on (e.g., the impact of SESTA/FOSTA, capitulating to funding border security, and his wishy-washy approach to imperialism).

  • The names I give to the arguments and logics in the graph are not there to link to a specific ideology or to criticize that ideology, rather to put a frame of reference around this entire debate. If you think something is inherently bad and should be changed, I am open to suggestion.

  • This will not address any particular strategy, such as where we specifically expend resources, or to what extent we relate to other organizations that are aligned or directly working with the Sanders campaign.

And now, the graph:


The Horizontal Axis arguments:

  • Opportunism: We have a unique (well, a happened once before but happening again) opportunity to move the needle towards Democratic Socialism by supporting an avowed Democratic Socialist running for the highest federal office, and as such we must stand beside Bernie come hell or high water.

  • Idealism: While Bernie played a key role in radicalizing many of DSA’s members, we have substantial critiques of a number of stances Bernie has taken in the past four years. Any endorsement should be either with caveats or withheld unless we get some form of a concession on those stances.

The Vertical Axis arguments:

  • Decentralization: While our national organization can set priorities, we strongly believe chapters will work on what is important to them. If that’s the Sanders campaign, great! If it’s something else, that’s fine too! Ultimately they are free to do whatever is important to their community.

  • Centralization: DSA’s NPC has electoral politics as a priority per the 2017 convention, and this is the prime example of how we should get involved in electoral politics. We need to do whatever we can to help Bernie win. From creating materials, helping chapters set up canvasses and phone banks, and incentivizing campaign work to an extent not seen before in DSA.

The Logics Explained

In this section I attempt to put my feet in the shoes of DSA members who hold these combination of stances:

  • All-in on the Flop (Opportunism/Centralization): Getting behind Sanders as soon as possible while committing as many resources as we can to campaign efforts will help give Sanders the momentum to get a leg up on the rest of the Democratic presidential primary field. Every second we hesitate or withhold our best effort is a second the other (capitalist) candidates have to press their advantage. If we were playing poker, this is akin to knowing you have the best hand on the table and throwing all your chips as a wager. Since it doesn’t matter if others fold, what matters is that you win.

  • Push Bernie from Within (Idealism/Centralization): DSA has proven itself as a formidable group that punches above its weight. Because of this, we can make our voice heard to the Sanders campaign. By pushing for concessions — like BDS support, SESTA/FOSTA opposition, etc. — before we put our weight behind him, it shows that we think Bernie can evolve much like many DSA members have in the past three years, and shows our commitment to the end of oppression here and abroad. By doing this, our chapters will be more willing and enthusiastic about Bernie, and DSA will get credit for his evolution. If Bernie doesn’t sign on, we can still critique and support him at the same time.

  • Let the Bernie Fans be Bernie Fans (Opportunism/Decentralization): Some chapters are super gung-ho about Bernie Sanders, and that’s fine, but many chapters are fighting for things that will create immediate material gains in their communities. We’re probably going to endorse Bernie anyway, so let’s get that done with, and then people want to work to get Bernie elected they can do that in their chapter. We don’t want to invest too much on the national level because that money would be much better going toward more local and internal DSA efforts.

  • Principled Stand (Idealism/Decentralization): Uncle Bernie helped in DSA’s growth and the growing left in general, but we’ve left him in the dust. An endorsement would be turning our back on the communities that have been hurt by Bernie’s less-than-socialist stances. The more important thing for DSA chapters to be doing is fighting for local wins, either electorally or non-electorally. There are already groups out there who will be Bernie campaign apparatuses, and there’s nothing stopping DSA members who want to work on the Sanders campaign from working with those groups.

Mapping the Terrain

During his interview on the day of the announcement with CBS News's John Dickerson, Sanders was asked how his campaign will be different from 2016. He answered,

"We're gonna win. We are gonna also launch what I also think is unprecedented in modern American history and that is a grassroots lay the groundwork for transforming the economic and political life of this country."

DSA holds a central and key place in that grassroots movement, with our socialist analysis, local wins across the country, and big tent approach to organizing. The campaign offers a unique opportunity to advance our goals of self-determination and social justice. What we decide for our endorsement and approach will be as important as how we decide it: a thorough debate where we listen to members of all stripes and challenge each other will allow the decision to reflect our commitment to radical democracy.

I am interested in hearing feedback, and would love to hear from you on Twitter and on the DSA Discussion Board.