Debate: Socialists, Bernie, and the 2020 Election
The 2020 presidential election campaign has begun. A debate has opened up in the DSA and on the left: What should socialists and progressives do? With the DSA National Political Committee’s recent endorsement of Bernie Sanders, how should we relate to him and his campaign? How can we use this election cycle to achieve real, lasting change for workers and all oppressed people?
We asked activists from different currents within DSA and on the left to give us their views:
Paul Alexander is the Northwest Regional Organizer for DSA Medicare for All and a member of the DSA Bread & Roses caucus. He argues the Bernie campaign is a historic opportunity to spread socialist ideas.
Shamus Cooke is a community organizer for Portland Tenants United and DSA. He is in favor of engaging with the Bernie campaign but also warns about sowing illusions in the Democratic Party.
Sarah Smith ran for Congress in 2018 in the Seattle area and won 32% of the vote against the longstanding corporate Democrat Adam Smith. She urges the left to unite behind Sanders to get a socialist into the White House.
Philip Locker represents the DSA Reform and Revolution caucus in this debate. He argues for concrete and radical demands to link Bernie’s campaign to a socialist transformation of society.
Building DSA with an Independent Campaign for Sanders
2020 is our chance to reach tens of millions of voters with a message: If you like Sanders, you’ll love Socialism.
Paul Alexander is the Northwest Regional Organizer for DSA Medicare for All and a member of the Bread & Roses DSA caucus.
The debate within Democratic Socialists of America over whether to support Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run came to a decisive conclusion in March, when 76% of the 13,324 members who participated in an advisory online poll voted in favor of endorsement—thus prompting a vote by DSA’s National Political Committee to move forward with a “DSA for Bernie” independent expenditure campaign plan. It was the largest decision-making process ever undertaken by the now-55,000 member organization.
The choice of an independent expenditure campaign (which DSA also undertook in 2016) is significant for several reasons. First, it enables DSA to shape its own campaign messaging and make a uniquely socialist case for Sanders.
It also allows DSA to funnel popular excitement for Sanders and his policies back into the organization. The hope is that, in a world where the electoral sphere is the primary means by which working people understand and engage with politics, a DSA for Bernie campaign will both increase the organization’s membership, its ties to working-class institutions like labor unions, and continue the swell in membership that DSA has experienced since 2016.
The use of the Democratic Party ballot line is, of course, fraught with peril. DSA should hold no illusions about whether the Democratic Party is capable of being “realigned,” or transformed into an institution capable of advocating for working-class interests (though Sanders himself has made comments to the contrary).
If elected, Sanders may very well be forced to submit to ruling-class concerns about business confidence, particularly in the event of an economic downturn. The big ticket items on his policy agenda—Medicare for All, a Green New Deal—will face intense opposition from both parties and are unlikely to come to fruition. No president, not even Sanders, is single-handedly capable of rolling back a half-decade of the erosion of working-class institutions.
Despite all this, Sanders still represents the greatest opportunity for socialists in over half a century to bring our politics in front of working-class people. In the event of procedural shenanigans by the DNC, millions are likely to become further disillusioned with “politics as usual.” And assuming he takes office, the division between Sanders and the rest of the party is likely to become even more heightened.
It’s lamentable that the state of class consciousness in America and the decimation of the labor movement forces socialists to assume a position that, although a breath of fresh air, is also defensive. But the prospect of a mass working party in America is at best years, if not decades away. One need only examine the history of the US Labor Party of the 1990s, which came and went in a climate far friendlier than our present one, to recognize this. To beat back neoliberalism and win even the gains associated with mere social democracy, DSA needs to be an organization not of thousands, but hundreds of thousands.
DSA members stand to gain nothing by opting out of electoral politics, or wishing somehow that Sanders wasn’t our best hope for continuing our ascendancy. (He is.) In the same way that DSA has coalesced the energy around Sanders’ 2016 campaign to reignite popular demands for social-democratic reforms, it has an unprecedented role to play in the upcoming election, reaching tens of millions of voters with a simple message: if you like Sanders, you’ll love socialism.
Engaging with Bernie without Fostering Illusions
Now that DSA has endorsed Bernie, should its Marxist members engage or abstain? Analyzing the risks and rewards should happen before deciding.
Shamus Cooke is a Chief Steward for Service Employees International Union local 503, and he is a community organizer for Portland Tenants United and DSA.
If Bernie becomes President—an increasingly real possibility—what should we expect? The recent victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico, whose victory was itself a reflection of capitalist crisis, may provide a useful example.
The nearer AMLO came to winning the Presidency the more rightward he drifted—hoping to make himself digestible to the Mexican ruling class. Like Bernie, AMLO is a nationalist who’s accepted the capitalist state apparatus—with all its built-in limitations—as the place to implement his nationalistic reform policies.
AMLO’s election, however, raised hopes in the Mexican working class, who started a massive strike wave that’s already changing labor relations. The earth shook when AMLO won, but as President he’ll work to prevent aftershocks, mitigating the initiative of the workers instead of unleashing it.
Bernie wants to add democratic-socialist characteristics to the U.S. capitalist project, similar to the New Deal-influenced society he was raised in. When the next recession fully manifests, some Left Democrats will use Bernie’s strategy to stabilize markets, in effect stabilizing capitalism. Most billionaires hate Bernie like the capitalists who hated FDR, who saved the system that generated their wealth.
As revolutionaries our goal is to usher in socialist relations to answer capitalist crises, not raise illusions about New Deal reformist politics— a risk we face by uncritically engaging with the Bernie campaign. Bernie represents a complicated contradiction, but the resolution of this contradiction is intended to save capitalism, not produce socialism.
Joining Bernie’s campaign purely to recruit to DSA seems pragmatic, but it’s easy to overstate the potential. People will join DSA by default, as they did after Trump was elected, since we are the only visible game in town. The low hanging fruit will fall from the tree without a shake.
We should also expect to have little impact over pushing Bernie to the Left. Electoral campaigns are top-down cheerleading operations, not discussion forums for new ideas.
As socialism’s popularity grows, we can expect a wave of ‘socialist’ careerists adopting reformist programs. We must insist that working-class people rely on their own organizations, and not over-rely on unreliable people, intent on sheep-dogging us back into fixing an unfixable capitalist project.
For those DSA members engaging with Bernie’s campaign—and there are many—we shouldn’t abstain. We should argue concrete ways to maintain DSA’s independence, insisting that canvassing be used to promote DSA organizing projects/meetings. Canvassing should focus on working-class neighborhoods where DSA hasn’t build a base. Done strategically, canvassing for Bernie can be used to build a stronger, independent DSA.
The near-term goal must be building an independent political party. But ultimately, political independence cannot be accomplished via Bernie or the next left-populist Democrat. His campaign may cause a political crisis that DSA could benefit from, and we should expect more such crises ahead, but without political independence future opportunities will be lost.
The Unglamorous Work of the Progressive Left
This election is about how we get to the vision where power of working-class people is realized.
Sarah Smith ran for Congress in 2018 and won 32% of the vote against longstanding corporate Democrat Adam Smith in the Seattle area. She was endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and DSA.
As the field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates grows, democratic socialists and progressives are left asking themselves one important question: Who do we support in 2020?
Normally, I am a firm believer in casting your vote for a presidential candidate independent of their relative obscurity or viability. But if we as progressives want any hope of effecting change in 2020, we need to do something our community is historically bad at doing—overcoming our bias, doubts, and criticisms of each other and uniting behind a single candidate for the presidency of the United States. As progressives, we share a vision where the power of working-class people is realized. We see a way to guarantee prosperous lives for every person in America: a roof over every head, food in every cabinet, education for all, healthcare for all, and a living wage in every paycheck. This is the future we want—one of equity, stability, and the expansion of our freedoms. This election is about how we get there. A pitfall of the progressive left is our tendency to divide into camps and argue over what is the best way to make an impact—rather than actually trying.
Arguing alone isn’t enough to change the lives of everyday working people. While we argue amongst ourselves, the corporate worker-exploitation machine marches forward, and the workers, women, and disenfranchised suffer. We must present a unified front on the left in 2020. There is no time nor energy to fight amongst ourselves. Our homeless comrades, our sick comrades, and our marginalized comrades are in immediate and desperate need. The 2020 election is our chance to keep that message front and center.
There is no shortage of candidates that we could choose to support in 2020 to lead the front. I have admiration for Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, and Steven Yang. But in a field of almost two dozen primary candidates, and growing, we must be prudent and intentional. It was Senator Sanders that kicked off the progressive revolution in the mainstream world. He was instrumental in clearing the cobwebs from the concept of Socialism, and his popularity far surpasses the roster of progressive candidates. While I am not one to say that we must only support the most viable candidate, I believe Senator Sanders is our chance to get the future that workers in the United States need so badly. Sanders is currently polling stronger than most the other candidates. Sen. Sanders is our viable voice, our bridge to a world where the balance tips in favor of the proletariat and against the corporate welfare state.
There is still time. We can undo the damage wrought by the Trump administration and bring Democratic Socialism to the White House. There are lots of reasons to criticize Bernie, and he’s by no means a perfect candidate. But if we are truly committed to protecting the rights of the disenfranchised and ensuring a future for all, then the time for our collective and vocal support of Senator Sanders’ bid for the Presidency is now.
This is a hard truth—we fight over minutiae and let people suffer as a result. To overcome this struggle, we have to embrace it, identify what’s important to our cause, and move through it. 2020 is the cycle where, for the sake of our country and our working-class brethren, we can overcome this pitfall through a unified front of socialist and progressive strength. Again, there is no time nor energy to fight amongst ourselves. Our homeless comrades, our sick comrades, and our marginalized comrades are in immediate and desperate need. The 2020 presidential election is our chance to bring this to the forefront of the discussion again.
A Bold Socialist Message to Build DSA
Trump puts socialism in the spotlight — our DSA campaign for Bernie should, too.
Philip Locker was the Political Director of the campaigns to elect Kshama Sawant, the first independent socialist on the Seattle city council in 100 years. He is contributing to the debate on behalf of Reform & Revolution.
With DSA’s decision to launch an independent campaign for Bernie, we have a vehicle to support Bernie that takes a critical and independent socialist position. Not only will this help elect the first socialist president of the US, but if DSA is bold in the politics it puts forward, it can become a qualitatively larger force. We can create the beginnings of a new socialist party of 150,000 members with deep roots in the multi-ethnic working class.
As the 2020 Presidential Primary document adopted by the DSA National Political Committee says “we are not rubber-stamping Sanders, but instead [we] have high demands on him politically, and [we] will push Sanders towards our positions as much as possible.”
This needs to be concretized with a specific set of policies. Reform & Revolution argues for DSA to put forward the demands below to popularize them among Bernie’s base and pressure Bernie to adopt these demands.
Some dismiss the ability of DSA or others on the left to have an impact on Bernie. Yet the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the demands of Black Lives Matter activists on Bernie specifically, played a key role in pushing Bernie to adopt a far better anti-racist program in 2015 than he initially started with. Another example is how Bernie responded to former staffers speaking out against harassment and pay inequity in his 2016 campaign. Sanders developed a comprehensive sexual harassment policy, and negotiated a union contract that includes anti-discrimination protection, pay equity, and grievance processes for harassment.
a) An Anti-Imperialist Foreign Policy: Bring the Troops Home and End the US Wars and Occupations
Too often Bernie puts forward merely a left-wing version of a liberal foreign policy. Socialists should argue instead for an anti-imperialist foreign policy that stands in solidarity with workers and oppressed people around the world. We should call for bringing home all US troops from abroad, ending US military aid to right-wing regimes (such as Guaidó in Venezuela, Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Saudi monarchy, and the Israeli right-wing regime, etc.), and slashing the US military budget.
b) A Bold Feminist Campaign
Our campaign should link the fight against sexism to an anti-capitalist vision that works to build a socialist feminist wing of the newly emerging feminist movement. DSA should highlight its opposition to sexual harassment and assault, as well as the new wave of attacks on abortion rights, and demand that all reproductive healthcare (including abortion and contraception) be free as part of Medicare for All, along with free childcare and an end to the gender pay gap. We should agitate for mass protests to defend abortion rights, and call on Bernie to actively do so as well.
c) Bring the Giant Energy Companies into Public Ownership as Part of the Green New Deal
While supporting the Green New Deal, DSA should work to popularize the socialist case that it is time to end the tyranny of the giant fossil fuel corporations. Democratic public ownership is the only realistic way to fundamentally overcome the undemocratic power these corporations exercise over the political and economic system.
d) For a Democratic Internet - Take Amazon, Facebook, and Google into Public Ownership
Elizabeth Warren’s call for breaking up Amazon, Facebook and Google provides another opportunity for DSA to better define its distinctly socialist politics. While Warren’s proposal would no doubt represent an improvement from the current situation, we should argue for running these giant internet platforms democratically as 21st century open source public utilities rather than breaking them up into smaller profit-driven companies.
e) A Socialist Vision for a Fundamental Transformation of Society
When Bernie explains his view of socialism, he calls for a major expansion of social welfare programs but does not link this to a transformation of society that puts an end to capitalism itself. Our campaign could go further than this.
Trump and the Republicans will be putting socialism on trial throughout the presidential campaign. This is a huge opportunity for the DSA campaign for Bernie to proudly argue the case for replacing the chaotic capitalist system with a new socialist society. This would be based on collective ownership of the key productive resources, rational planning of the economy, and real democracy in our workplaces, schools, and communities. This would lay the basis for a new egalitarian society which can uproot racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression.