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DSA ( Democratic Socialists of America) has thrown itself into resistance to Republican rule of all three branches of the federal government and 25 state governments. Highly visible DSA contingents have marched in every significant mobilization since the presidential election and shown up at local town meetings to push back against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). DSA chapters also are challenging the Democratic pro-corporate establishment at the national, state, and local level. Since the election, in fact, thousands have flocked to DSA to make it—at 21,000 members—the largest socialist organization in this country since the 1960s.
DSA is a rare bird in United States politics: a democratic, national, federated organization (with local and state groups) that is almost completely member-funded. Chapters have considerable local autonomy, and democratically elected local representatives set feasible national priorities at our conventions. DSA is also a multi-tendency organization that believes in democracy as both a means and an end. We do not compel members to adhere to one ideological line. Our members’ commitment to socialism derives from a multitude of traditions ranging from religious socialists to left social democrats, to various strands of democratic Marxism. We have spirited but comradely internal political discussions. Our most effective chapters build “unity through diversity” by focusing upon a few key activist projects that enable us to work with organizations representing working-class people of all races and nationalities. We function as an independent, visible socialist presence in mass social movements and focus our energy on “non-reformist” or “transformational” reforms—changes in public policy that constrain corporate power and that illustrate how economic democracy better serves people’s needs, such as Medicare for All and free public higher education.
But as those who lived through the resistance to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush will attest, playing constant defense can exhaust and demobilize people. We have to build our organization and not just show up for rallies. DSA will have to “walk on two legs,” sustaining mass opposition to the Trump administration and its red-state equivalents while building social movements for economic, gender, and racial justice that can spur electoral challenges to pro-corporate Democratic incumbents.
Defeating the Republicans in 2018 will be a major priority for everyone. Using executive fiat, Donald Trump has already green-lighted the Dakota Access Pipeline; appointed a reactionary Supreme Court justice who will tilt the Court to the far right on labor, gender and reproductive justice, immigrant, and voting rights; terrorized the immigrant community by ramping up arbitrary anti-immigrant enforcement; unleashed the racist and reactionary tendencies within local law enforcement; and severely weakened federal regulations that slow climate change and protect workers’ rights. As Trump threatens massive military action in Syria, North Korea, and who knows where, the left and DSA have to build a mass anti-war movement.
Fighting Racism and Building a Multi-Racial Left
Absent the emergence of hundreds of racially diverse “Bernie and Bernice”-style candidacies, the Democrats will not win enough votes in 2018 from a sufficient portion of the white working class to be competitive in red states and the rural and small-town de-industrialized areas of the Midwest. Many DSA chapters already work with local groups that came out of Bernie Sanders’s campaign (Our Revolution, Indivisible, and Swing Left, to name some). For these groups to transform the political order, they must form broader multi-racial coalitions than did the Sanders campaign. A divided working class is a defeated working class.
In-depth interviews show that although many white working-class swing voters oppose unbridled corporate power, they remain cynical about government programs and taxation. Some buy the Republican myth that government programs disproportionately benefit undeserving people of color (though whites are the largest beneficiaries of grossly underfunded anti-poverty programs). And taxes on working people are too high, given the regressive burden of sales taxes, user fees, and property taxes. Thus, left candidates, including open socialists, need to explain how progressive taxation can fund high-quality universal social programs such as Medicare for All and child care as well as public investment in job-creating alternative energy and infrastructure. But the left also has to take on the racist narrative of the Republican Party, which generates fears of undocumented immigrants taking jobs from the native born even in areas so economically devastated that almost no immigrants live there. DSA also needs to argue that if robust social democratic levels of public provision (roads, bridges, schools) are good enough for affluent white suburbs, then they should be available to all.
That working people of all races can no longer afford to live in most major cities means that young DSAers have real skin in the game, fighting for a “right to the city.” We need to bring back rent control and mass federal and state funding for public and non-profit housing, as well as fight against school charterization and for high-quality, well-funded public schools that are integrated by race and class. The multi-racial tenants’ rights work of our Brooklyn chapter can serve as a model for other chapters, as can our East Bay (Berkeley and Oakland, CA) door-to-door canvassing for a California-wide single-payer system. In blue states and blue cities, DSA can help build an independent left politics that challenges neoliberal Democrats. In red states, DSA chapters can work with black, Latino, labor, feminist, LGBTQ, environmentalist, and left activists trying to flip state legislatures (for example, the Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina and the New Virginia and New Florida Majority multi-racial coalitions). Only then can there be the political space to make more radical demands. (State single-payer systems are on the political agenda in blue states such as California, New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota. In red states, we have to fight to expand—or preserve—Medicaid funding to working-class families otherwise not eligible for ACA subsidies).
Activists are drawn to DSA’s message that building a majoritarian left requires constructing a powerful independent socialist organization. Any progressive reform that curtails the power of corporate America immediately gets red-baited. When open democratic socialist candidates become a greater part of the political landscape, the power of red-baiting will be weakened.
The space provided by the Sanders campaign for explicit democratic socialist candidates to run for office has already raised DSA’s visibility, with khalid kamau and Dylan Parker winning city council races in South Fulton, Georgia, and in working-class Rockford, Illinois, respectively. In addition, Mike Sylvester and Mike Connolly serve as open DSAers in the Democratic caucuses of the Maine and Massachusetts state legislatures. These elected officials are open socialists as well as leaders in mass movements for economic and racial justice. There is historical precedent for these dual roles. In the mid-1980s, DSA counted more than 30 elected officials among its members. We now have 16.
Activists will build DSA rather than engage in single-issue activism only if working with DSA brings a tangible “value-added.” DSA trains effective organizers and strategists who can operate as a visible socialist collective within mass movements. If we develop a “farm team” of viable socialist electoral candidates, our visibility will increase. Only by winning victories that improve the lives of the majority can we make clear that another world is possible. Those who have organizing skills and who can articulate a socialist strategy can build the socialist project. Our task is to comprehend the challenging political terrain on which we must defeat both the far right and the neoliberal Democratic Party establishment. We can do so only if we remain committed to the long-distance socialist runner’s tasks of educating, agitating, and organizing.
Joseph M. Schwartz is a professor of political science at Temple University and a national vice chair of DSA. A past chair of both the Boston and Philadelphia locals, he has been active in DSA since its founding.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.