Why the DSA Should Not Endorse Bernie Sanders — Yet
A critique of DSA leaders’ reasons for endorsing Bernie early.
I, like other members and recently lapsed members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), received an email last week titled, “VOTE NOW: Should DSA Endorse Bernie Sanders?”
I quickly made my selection and trashed the email. I wasn’t aware of the controversy swirling around the poll and the larger endorsement process until I logged into my chapter’s chat group.
The purpose of the poll is simply to gauge member support for an official DSA endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president. The DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC), taking into consideration the results of the poll, will make the ultimate decision. And that’s where the battle lines begin.
Some members are worried that letting the NPC decide is undemocratic and the endorsement should be decided at the DSA’s convention in August or by making the poll’s results binding. Others, especially members of the NPC, seem driven to endorse Bernie as soon as possible — even before the convention. Many folks like getting deep into the bylaws weeds. I’m sure there are other complaints I’m missing.
My concerns are far more quotidian. Pedestrian, even.
But, first, let’s go ahead and clear one thing up: I voted against endorsing Bernie. However, I recognize the tremendous value he has added to the democratic socialist cause, if only by moving the Overton Window back to the left. His 2016 candidacy helped to drag the Democrats to the left after decades of rightward marching. All Americans owe him gratitude if only for bringing issues like Medicare for All, Green New Deal, a living wage and other socialist goals into the mainstream national conversation.
My reasons to oppose a reflexive endorsement are simple and, I think, reasonable:
- Full field isn’t determined. We should not endorse a candidate until we can be fairly certain no other candidate will enter the race — even if the endorsement ultimately goes to Bernie anyway.
- Lack of public attention. Much of the country isn’t paying attention to the election yet. An endorsement in early 2020 would garner far more media coverage at a time when more voters are watching and persuadable.
- Undermines DSA reputation and persuasiveness. Immediately backing Bernie makes the DSA look like an adjunct of his campaign. It turns off people who are attracted to our message but don’t want to be “but of course” supporters of Bernie. (Interestingly, some members of the NPC say they worry about becoming an electoral-only entity while arguing for immediate endorsement.)
Now, those are my reasons for voting against the DSA endorsement of Bernie before the August convention. What are the arguments in favor of immediate endorsement?
Meagan Day, an NPC member who supported backing Bernie even before he announced his candidacy, argues that we need to endorse him as soon as possible because:
- If we wait until August, two televised debates will have already passed.
- The sooner we endorse him, the sooner we can build the campaign infrastructure needed to support him on the ground.
She writes on Facebook:
Waiting until August means that we won’t even have BEGUN TO CONSIDER building a national campaign until after two nationally televised debates have already happened, and that three more will have elapsed by the time the campaign is actually operational. It means small chapters that request materials will be getting them in the mail roughly two months before the first primaries, which gives them less of an opportunity to use the campaign to build the capacity of their chapters and turn them into effective machines for electoral and NON-electoral socialist organizing for the long term.
This is a very important objective of a national Bernie campaign in my opinion, and one that actually sets us entirely apart from NGOs. If you’re worried about NGO-ization, I would actually be worried about getting started super late. I think it’s MORE likely that chapter campaigns (and there will be many of them, regardless of a national endorsement) will end up being thin on socialist messaging and strategy and fall back on ordinary GOTV-style activities if the national organization doesn’t coordinate from the outset.
Now, I think my responses to those arguments are fairly logical (and obvious):
- There’s no reason DSA national can’t begin providing local chapters with “socialist messaging and strategy” prior to an endorsement. In fact, if national isn’t always already providing that support, what the hell are they doing? If national is going to wait until campaigns to provide support to chapters, we’ve already been NGO-ified.
- Similarly, there’s no reason DSA national and local chapters can’t begin building the infrastructure for coordinating with the ultimately endorsed candidate’s campaign. I’m sure Bernie can overnight campaign lit and signs once we’ve endorsed him.
- Who cares about missing a couple of debates? Why shouldn’t voters see him before endorsing him? What if he craters in those first two debates? Then we all look like a bunch of assholes.
Meagan isn’t the only one speaking out in favor of a pre-convention endorsement. Ella Mahoney, another NPC member, writes:
My short response?
But, seriously, they didn’t table a Bernie campaign event because there hasn’t been a national endorsement? Bullshit. Attracting new members is a core activity of the organization. It has nothing to do with any political campaign.
If the New York DSA chapter isn’t tabling every damn Democratic/liberal/progressive/leftist event they possibly can, that’s purely a failure of leadership. There is absolutely no reason DSA national and chapters can’t table at any and all campaign events. Arguing otherwise merely indicates incompetence by NYDSA leaders.
To be completely honest, I had absolutely no intention of my next piece published here being on this subject. In fact, I never would have commented on any of this if it weren’t for the thin excuses being provided by the DSA’s NPC leaders. Their poor justifications for rushing a Bernie endorsement make me wonder what their true motivations are.
I wonder, are these NPC members democratic socialists first or Bernie campaign supporters first? It certainly doesn’t appear clear to me through Meagan and Ella’s arguments in favor of immediate endorsement. In fact, given their expressed determination to endorse Bernie, it’s clear their personal, already-made choices reign over the results of any membership poll. If that’s the case, why even hold a poll?
The entire debate also makes me question the experience, professionalism and competence of national DSA leaders. I haven’t had a chance to examine the professional histories of all leadership committee members. Nonetheless, I worry that the folks who ran a 6,000-member organization may not be the same people we need to effectively and efficiently manage a 60,000-member organization.
Another thing I noticed, the National Electoral Committee includes no Southerners. Additionally, San Antonio (a very small chapter) and Knoxville are the only chapters in the South represented on the NPC. Given the rapid growth — and exploitative economies — of Southern and Sunbelt states, one would think there’d be a little more representation at DSA national.
Having voiced all the above complaints, I still believe pursuing significant changes in the economic system through democratic socialism is the best course of action.
Indeed, my vote won’t be determined by the DSA’s endorsement. In fact, I think we can all agree that most DSAers will be voting for whomever the Democratic nominee turns out to be.
The lovely thing about democratic socialism is that we can have these debates and disagreements. Under capitalism, who controls the nomination process is largely in the hands of wealthy donors and corporations. What so many free marketers/conservatives/libertarians/wealthy and uninformed people get wrong is assuming — and spreading the falsehood — that democratic socialism is a set-in-stone series of policies. Nothing could be further from the truth. All along, socialists have recognized that trying to predict what a new system would look like or how it would operate would be akin to building castles on sand. The form of the institutions and policies of a democratic-socialist country can only be decided by the people as we move toward a more humane system — one that isn’t beholden to profit for the few.
So, expect it to be a little messy. Democracy is messy.