DSA Must Strategically Embrace Imperfect Electoralism

DSA convention passed an electoral strategy refraining from national public confrontations elected officials. The authors argue that we will only achieve electoral independence through organizing and base-building, not pre-defined expectations for electeds.

DSA’s 2023 Convention passed the “Defend Democracy through Political Independence” resolution. Before it passed, delegates voted to divide the question in order to fail one contentious section while passing the rest of the resolution.  This removed passage reads:

“The NPC shall publicly communicate disapproval to endorsed candidates and elected DSA members who reject this strategy in order to explicitly or tacitly support centrist leaders of the Democratic Party (for example, by attending rallies on behalf of centrists, political communications, or explicit endorsement of centrist Democrats).”

While the exact form of public disapproval was not clarified in the language, we will assume that publicly-expressed disapproval would be practiced as online statements of censure. The floor passed the altered amendment, which was included in the final resolution.

This amendment intended to further DSA’s political independence by drawing political lines that clarify DSA’s distinct identity and politics from the Democratic Party. At contention was how strategic, principled, and conducive toward independence these statements of censure would be. We argue that the delegate body’s decision to strike out this language was the right decision for DSA.

Dedicating your time to ensuring individual politicians are acting right, especially without an active Socialists in Office committee coordinating with the elected, misses the forest for the trees. We cannot posture ourselves into an independent party; we can only build enough power to become one.

Passing this language would have been a green light for DSA to censure Rashida Tlaib’s attendance of a Gretchen Whitmer rally or AOC’s qualified support of Joe Biden, even in the articulated context of keeping the right out of power. After similar arguments were made during debate, the delegate body democratically decided this was the wrong approach.

This question goes deeper than retrospective tweets, though. It tugs at a core question of DSA: what is the role of electoralism in building socialism? To answer this and address the merits of the slashed lines, we must consider the balance of power between DSA and its endorsed electeds.

Their power is in their public image, legislative votes, and ability to represent DSA. From DSA’s side, there is often little we can do to wield power over our electeds. Many do not depend on their DSA chapter’s field program to continue getting elected, so it may not substantially hurt them to be censured or even expelled. To a theoretical extreme, we could exercise power in our ability to organize them out of office. We all agree this is unproductive (for DSA electeds, at least), so what are the merits of criticism? We argue that criticism has separate dimensions of intent and effect: an intent to be principled does not constitute an effective strategy.

Our electoral program should have two aims: to win material legislative gains for the working class and to grow DSA into a mass organization powerful enough to win independently. When potential recruits consider the value of joining DSA, they are deciding how to best use their time. Will it feel like a political home where they can engage in effective organizing? DSA is the largest —and only—relevant socialist organization in the US not only because of our principled stances but because we have shown we can win and make those policies a reality. When we recruit others into DSA, we must convince them that DSA is a productive usage of their time and capable of wielding power.

If our goal is to become a mass movement of millions, we should look to the broader progressive coalition as our recruiting base. We may see AOC as a DSA member, a democratic socialist, and distinct from the Democratic establishment. However, many of her supporters see her only as a progressive Democrat working hard to shift the Democratic party left and fighting the right. Many progressive people do not know what DSA is or that we are building the power to break from the Democratic party eventually. Meeting these people where they are means showing them the connections between our electeds and DSA. Want to get more AOC’s into office? Join DSA. 

Drawing a national line to distance ourselves from electeds for functionally trivial actions, especially the most popular left-wing figures in the country, alienates our most easily recruitable constituency. This harshness generally does not resonate with people who are new to socialist political thought and thinking of AOC-type electeds as representatives of a socialist movement.

DSA chapters should be allowed to come to their own electoral stances based on local conditions.

Combining praxis and principle, we argue that demanding correct lines is an expression of weakness. Strength is staying grounded to the task of building significantly greater political power and organizational relationships with our electeds. People respect organizations who get serious when real material gains are on the line. If our electoral program requires censuring of actions that may hypothetically undermine DSA’s political independence, without supporting these censures with our plan to build towards this power, it makes us look weak and conflicted on how we feel about an endorsed elected.

This is not to say pressure and criticism of electeds is without utility. However, it is rarely productive to exercise as a rule and should be thoughtfully justified within a chapter or regional context. When DSA can be determinative in a legislative fight, it shows our strength to stay principled and call on our electeds to act as democratic socialists and act as DSA. 

Our comrades in New York have shown this to be a successful tactic in the recent Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) fight, running DSA primary challengers in 2022 on the issue of BPRA to push the campaign over the line of success cementing our first DSA-written statewide bill into law. The eight DSA electeds involved in BPRA never acted as perfect DSA cadre; organizers of the coordinating Socialists in Office (SIO) committee did their best, but with our soft power approach, it will never be possible to control every action of our electeds. They should usually act on behalf of DSA, but they are also responsible to their constituents and other obligations as full-time legislators.

Still, the SIO Committee’s strong internal organizing ensured these electeds often acted as closely with DSA’s wishes as possible. These eight electeds would not have been able to wield this degree of power without the intentional, structured, and persistent movement behind them. Other chapters should strive to build this infrastructure if they want to exercise true accountability.

Instead of defaulting to publicly criticizing our closest legislative allies, we should use our SIO committees to get as much power as possible out of DSA electeds and understand that it may not always be enough to win at any given time or represent DSA perfectly. We should react to this by organizing and expanding our political power until it is enough. Organizers in New York kept this broader picture in mind and ran the campaigns to expand our legislative bloc when BPRA did not pass before 2022, understanding that only squeezing the right behavior out of DSA electeds does not build power comparable to electing another DSA member into office.

Building DSA’s power means also striving for concrete accountability when our electeds act wrongly. Those in office should understand why they’re serving and who put them there: the time and effort of DSA volunteers. If DSA did not play a significant role in an election, then we are simply relying on an elected’s personal, moral obligations to the movement. Otherwise, no leverage exists to demand better political behavior.

Your chapter may decide it is locally strategic to censure a DSA elected for being too friendly with moderate Democrats, and that may be true. However, we encourage you to back it up with the diligence and commitment that our comrades across DSA have shown in organizing until your electeds have others at their sides. Our political independence depends on what we build, not who we criticize.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the base resolution of the amendment. “Act like an Independent Party” was an amendment to the “Defend Democracy” resolution not the National Electoral Committee Resolution.