Beyond Bernie: the Democratic Socialists of America Are Organising for the Bigger Picture

by Eleanor Salter

3 April 2020

Phil Roeder, Flickr

The left is dead. That was the general analysis from the British media on 13 December as they mulled over Labour’s worst defeat since 1935.

Across the pond, a similar prognosis is being meted out for American socialism. Bernie Sanders’ second presidential bid is facing insurmountable challenges – he is currently 303 delegates behind former vice president Joe Biden.

For the DSA, however, the project to change the horizons of American politics does not begin and end with Sanders.

Neither a social movement nor a political party, the organisation is better understood as the force behind many of the radical campaigns, direct actions and candidates that have swept American politics during Donald Trump’s presidency.

From the meteoric rise of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in Queens to winning paid sick leave in cities in Texas, DSA activists have been instrumental in championing socialism, campaign by campaign.

And this looks to be just the start: the DSA has a growing national network of over 300 established chapters across 50 states.

The Bernie boost.  

Sanders has undoubtedly been a ‘gateway drug’ to socialism and a significant factor in the DSA’s expansion. Before the Vermont senator’s 2016 presidential bid, the DSA’s membership was at just 5,000. Now it sits at an impressive 60,000 – and it’s rising by hundreds every week.

Many DSA activists were brought into the movement by Sanders’ campaign, which has been an accelerator for democratic socialism, galvanised by his commitment to a radical agenda and consistent pushing for a platform of social and climate justice.

Sanders’ slogan – “Not Me, Us” – as pedagogical as it is electioneering – resonates with the DSA’s values, teaching people that one election and one man is not enough.

#DSAForBernie is the group explicitly organising for the primaries. They have been focusing predominantly on encouraging turnout with lower income, more diverse target voters. This has meant strategising around multiracial working class groups, including sending bilingual literature and canvassers to Latino areas.

Like every DSA campaign, the primaries have also been an outreach campaign – a way to grow local chapters for the long term. In most states, there was an active recruitment drive alongside door-knocking.

“If we can get even a fraction of Bernie supporters building community groups, running campaigns for office, organising with unions and learning how to win power for the working class, we can be unstoppable,” says national coordinator Eric Wimer.

A multi-pronged approach.   

The DSA’s strength lies in the diversity of its tactics, employing a mixture of electoral work – supporting candidates running for every level of government – and grassroots organising.

“DSA plugs into local battles, activating the community groups that are already fighting,” explains Jabari Brisport, a DSA campaigner who is running for New York State Senate on a Democratic ticket with a radical socialist platform, “They provide a megaphone for the struggle in a way that no other group is doing.”

Brisport, a public school maths teacher, first joined the organisation in a bid to stop the private development of the Bedford Union Armoury in his native Brooklyn.

DSA activists like Brisport were integrated in the local campaign from the start. “We have a huge membership base that was willing to amplify the voices of marginalised people,” he explains, “and to fight for working class Americans against gentrification.”

Brisport cites Sanders as a significant influence and explains how the senator compelled him to run for office.

“The underlying basics of making sure we’re fighting for basic human rights and uplifting the most marginalised people is true, whether we’re organising for a president or a state senate candidate,” explains Brisport, “My campaign is about protecting communities from the scourge of capital”.

It is through solidarity and coalition-building, including radical campaigns like Brisport’s, that the DSA hopes to make headway after Sanders’ looming defeat in the Democratic primaries.

Beyond the presidency.

Indeed, with the prospect of a Biden nomination uninspiring to most DSA members, activists are looking to engage in meaningful battles outside of the presidential race.

“Biden is trying to win based on anti-Trump sentiment rather than a project of hope,” explains Brisport, “the Democrats already tried that with Hillary Clinton, they thought enough people would see how sexist and racist [Trump] was and turn out to stop him. But it didn’t happen.”

Many DSA members talk affectionately of the ‘Trump bump’, a big surge of sign-ups that followed Trump’s election in 2016. They are expecting a Biden nomination will at least galvanise another rush of people wanting to organise via the DSA to protect communities from the worst ravages of a prospective second Trump term.

But it is not just questions around Biden’s electability that turn DSA activists off the former vice president.

“No-one in DSA is voting for Trump,” assures Wimer, “but our movement isn’t here to pour energy into canvassing for whoever becomes the Democrat nominee. Why would we, when we can be constructing the foundations to change everything? We have to offer a better, winning alternative.”

The DSA is already shifting the focus back onto local candidates and other struggles. “There are tons of places to build power that aren’t the presidency,” asserts Brisport.

Organising in a crisis.   

The most immediate and pressing struggle comes in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the deep inequalities that underscore America.

Many in the DSA are hoping that, at this critical juncture – when the urgent need for leftwing policies is explicit – socialist ideas like Medicare for All, workers’ rights and big state interventions like the Green New Deal will no longer seem extreme, but common-sense.

The malleability of the DSA’s strategy has been tested under the conditions of coronavirus. Sean Estelle, who joined the DSA on the day of Trump’s inauguration, is chairing the organisation’s national response to the pandemic, rapidly rolling out mutual aid networks across the country.

For Estelle, the crisis has exposed the dire need for radical solutions: “The political situation of a global pandemic and subsequent financial crisis has created an inescapably stark choice for 331 million people in the United States – disaster capitalism or democratic socialism”.

“We can and must fight back against those profiting off the vulnerability of the working class,” they continue. “We must use this moment to focus the anger of those experiencing deep alienation (many for the first time) in the midst of this crisis.”

This has already begun, with DSA chapters setting up local mutual aid groups and organising in workplaces and with unions to protect those on the front line.

There’s no denying that Sanders failing to secure the presidential nomination is a sobering prospect for the left. And with a Biden/Trump race, the country is undoubtedly a long way from achieving democratic socialism.

Wimer, however, remains hopeful: “The DSA is willing to do what others will not: fight for working people to have control over their destinies and a shot at a better world. We need to win power and we need socialism in our lifetimes. Together, I believe it is within our reach.”

Eleanor Salter is a speech-writer and activist.


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