“Rebuilding from the ground up”
Activist editors Elias and Griffin spoke with Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht about their book Bigger Than Bernie: How We Can Win Democratic Socialism in Our Time.
Could you start by providing a brief overview of the book? What inspired you to write it? And did you write with a DSA audience in mind?
Micah: The 2016 Bernie campaign transformed the sense of possibilities in American politics. It opened the door for a reborn socialist movement in the United States, which we haven’t seen for at least half a century. It opened the possibility for running campaigns rooted in class politics, in working-class politics, that named the capitalist class as the enemy. And it led to an explosion specifically within the Democratic Socialists of America.
This is really, really important. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. This is not the kind of thing that is the status quo in American politics. So we wanted to write a book that could take stock of everything that has happened over the past five or six years, note what was important about Bernie Sanders’s campaign in particular, but then spend the majority of the book talking about what we should do now. We take stock of what’s happened within DSA over the last few years, we talk about successful electoral campaigns in a handful of cities around the country, we talk about what non-electoral organizing needs to happen including in the labor movement.
We wrote the book with two audiences in mind. One, DSA members who already know some of the basics about democratic socialism and are trying to figure out what the best strategy going forward is. And two, people who liked Bernie and like Medicare for All but don’t know much about democratic socialism beyond that and are interested in getting involved beyond the second Bernie campaign. We wrote a book that speaks to both of those audiences at the same time and tries to inspire people into joining this newly reborn Left. Because, quite literally, the world is on the line in our ability to seize these opportunities.
How do you see the trends on the Left in the last few years in comparison to before Bernie? Where do you think they’ll go now? Do you see us moving away from electoralism and toward direct action? Or is there a balance being struck between the two?
Meagan: In the 1990s and 2000s and the first half of the 2010s, it was taken as dogma on much of the Left that electoral politics were a fool’s errand. Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign challenged that orthodoxy by demonstrating the potential of elections in action. Itt created a new consensus on the Left that electoral politics could be done in a way that would advance socialism, that would speak to masses of people, and that could strengthen or bolster extra-parliamentary work. Which is to say, electoral politics could create new socialist organizers and new opportunities for socialist organization if done correctly.
If we want to periodize it, we can call the years between 2015 and 2020 “the Bernie era” of the Left. During that era, we saw a lot of experimentation, resulting in the election of six democratic socialists to the Chicago City Council, democratic socialists in the New York state legislature, and several democratic socialists in the House.
After Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 race, it was only a couple months before we had these mass protests in the streets. Micah and I were incredibly supportive of the protests and participated in them, as did many people who had been actively involved in those electoral experiments — people who had canvassed, people who had worked on democratic socialist campaigns, and so on were very much involved in the demonstrations that happened last summer.
We don’t see them as mutually exclusive, and I think a lot of us were a bit disconcerted at the time to hear the triumphalism from people who had been waiting in the wings to say that electoral politics was a dead end all along, and the real way that you get things done is by getting into the streets.
The book is suffused with this idea that in order to actually advance our agenda in office and defend our gains, we have to mobilize people in the street in precisely that way, to create political crises in precisely that way. But the last year has demonstrated that just as we believe electoral politics is hollow without extra-parliamentary action, extra-parliamentary action without a strong power bloc in the state is ultimately going to hit a brick wall.
There have been some victories and is still good organizing happening in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but the gains that have been won so far are not actually of the size that we want or should expect from the largest uprising in American history. There is a gulf between those two things. The fact that we don’t really have a significant foothold in the state helps explain why there’s such a discrepancy.
The book discusses the idea of “non-reformist reforms.” During the Sanders campaigns, there was a lot of imagination and creativity that went into what socialists should do once they are in government. We had to figure out what had to be done because we were in new terrain, socialists had been out of government for so long. Has your thinking changed regarding how socialists should use office? Is there value in things like forcing votes, or should we really only go after tangible gains?
Micah: We’re all figuring out how to build this new 21st century Left politics as we go. Meagan and I both approach answering this question with a bit of humility — we’re building the ship as we’re trying to sail it. That said, Bernie did both of those things. He put up all kinds of bills that failed. He put forward the Stop BEZOS Act specifically to stoke anger towards Jeff Bezos, and the Stop WALMART Act. Of course, Left elected officials also need to figure out how to do real wrangling in the halls of power to actually pass substantive legislation.
At the same time they have to be rooted in the movement that they come out of — the working-class movement and DSA. That is what we haven’t fully figured out in DSA yet. We all recognize that it’s a problem that we don’t have a real left-wing party in America, that we’re stuck with this fundamentally capitalist party, the Democrats. So we’re using DSA like a pre-party organization. But for most of our elected officials around the country, we don’t yet have formal mechanisms for ensuring any kind of fealty to the DSA program. There are not formal mechanisms to make sure that they don’t get pulled rightward in a more conservatizing direction and to ensure that they are faithful to the DSA program.
In Chicago, we have half a dozen DSA members who were elected to the city council, and one of them decided to vote yes on the mayor’s austerity budget in November 2020, and did so against the wishes of both the left-labor movement of the city, through the Chicago Teachers Union and other unions and groups in their orbit that were urging a “no” vote, and against the wishes of Chicago DSA. Chicago DSA formally censured him, and he is not part of this newly formed socialist caucus in Chicago city council.
I bring up that example to say, this is the kind of thing that DSA chapters around the country have to figure out how to do to move to the next stage of disciplining their members who do get elected to office and figuring out how to keep them faithful to DSA. That’s an essential piece of acting like a party, which is something that DSA has to do.
Meagan: Forcing votes is a tactic that we always have to have in our toolbelt. In general, what’s more important than individual tactics is a general approach to strategy, which should be an outward-facing orientation intent on emboldening and building the capacities of millions of working-class people. We call that approach “class-struggle elections.”
Our criteria for how to run a class-struggle electoral campaign are to, first, raise the expectations of the working class, knowing that neoliberalism has so far successfully destroyed them. This is best illustrated in Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that “there is no alternative” to privatization, deregulation, and austerity — just flatly smashing the expectations of the working class, and shifting the responsibility for fitting into an intractable social order onto individuals. We have to campaign and govern in a way that reverses the resulting demoralization, which is pervasive.
Second, it’s really critical to campaign and govern in a way that creates unity across lines of difference, while also highlighting the real fault lines and contradictions that actually do exist in society. Democrats promote a false harmony. They simultaneously represent corporate landlords and people who are evicted by corporate landlords, health insurance companies and people whose medical claims are denied by health insurance companies. That’s a false unity across class divisions.
Meanwhile, Republicans are experts at division, but not along class lines, instead along cultural lines, national lines, race, sexuality, gender, and so on. Our task is to unite the vast working-class majority across those lines of cultural and racial difference, and help that majority understand who it’s most different from, which is this tiny capitalist minority.
The third criteria is quite simple, deceptively so. Our elected officials or would-be elected officials need to be building movements. They need to be leaving the ecosystem of social movements stronger than they found it. Their strategy should be oriented toward building movements composed of ordinary working-class people, giving them opportunities to take action and develop skills, build organizations, and learn lessons in active struggle. Socialists in office need to forego a bureaucratic or technocratic path in favor of a deep democratic approach that fosters working-class initiative and builds the working class’s capacities, networks, and institutions.
That doesn’t mean a politician shouldn’t try to use their power and influence to secure reforms that transform people’s lives. It just means that building the independent capacities of the working class is paramount.
One of our favorite parts of the book was when you tell the story of how during a campaign event Bernie lent his platform to Destiny Harris, a young black activist in Chicago fighting against the construction of a police training center. Policing has become an issue that even leftists are divided on. Bernie himself doesn’t seem to be a big fan of “defund the police” rhetoric. Which side of that debate do you think will come out victorious on the post-Bernie Left, and what does that say about the shortcomings of the losing side’s approach to policing?
Micah: We had the largest protest movement in all of American history last year; despite that, we haven’t been able to make much progress on the key goals of that movement, which were about defunding the police and redirecting those resources to social-democratic measures that can allow people to thrive — demilitarizing the police and rebuilding communities. That is not the fault of protestors themselves; that is the result of the structural barriers that make it extremely difficult to dislodge these powerful institutions in our society.
We might need different rhetoric around some of these demands while maintaining these aims of demilitarizing the cops, lessening police budgets, and redirecting the money for social goods. That is a goal that everyone from police abolitionists to Bernie Sanders believes in. I don’t always think that it is most useful to tie those goals to maximalist demands like “abolish the police” in the same way that we fight for Medicare for All and don’t say “full communism now.” We focus on goals that are broadly felt and understood and agreed with by the majority of society. That doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes stake out unpopular positions and insist upon them even when they’re polling badly.
In this case, polls have shown people are broadly down with this agenda — they do not like seeing poor people and people of color gunned down in the streets or a cop with a knee to George Floyd’s neck. They’re horrified by that and understand that there’s something wrong with policing in this country. So our efforts should focus on those points where we have an in with people and can make real progress on getting the incredible amount of money that currently goes to cops to actually serving human needs.
Meagan: A poll came out recently showing that around 65% of Americans are in favor of transferring away some police responsibilities to non-police agencies. That’s a central pillar of what people mean when they say “defund the police,” and was one of the explicit demands we saw elevated throughout the George Floyd protests.
It’s really exciting that 65% of people are in favor of that idea. Unfortunately, another poll came out recently showing that only 18% of people are in favor of “defund the police,” which is the slogan that we are currently using to refer to things like investing in housing and education instead of policing, and building and transferring responsibilities to non-police public safety alternatives.
The size of that gap tells us we have a rhetorical problem that we should address. There’s too big a difference between the number of people who are on board with the kinds of ideas that “defund the police” is meant to denote and the actual words “defund the police.”
Personally I think there’s an explanation for this. Last summer, a majority of Americans said they were in favor of “defund the police,” and that majority evaporated in a matter of months. So something happened between last summer and this summer. I think that what happened is that the right wing took the ambiguity in “defund the police” and exploited it. They made it their mission to associate it with total abolition of law enforcement, which is confusing and generally unwanted, as many people are negatively impacted by not just policing but also crime, and can’t imagine society functioning with no way to enforce the law, especially in instances of violence. I think that confused people and turned them off.
We have a couple of options going forward. We can ditch the slogan and come up with one that hasn’t been so badly beaten in the court of public opinion. If we do that, I think we should pick one that emphasizes investment alongside divestment. I really like some of the slogans currently in use that do this, like “Care Not Cops.”
Or we can rehabilitate “defund the police” and re-link it to the demands that have majority support in the United States right now, support which is not guaranteed to stay high for long. That’s not exclusive with continuing to connect it to a longer-term vision of a society that stops seeing police and prisons as the solution to every problem, and invests in stabilizing social programs that actually reduce crime. But it does mean not reflexively conflating our maximum and minimum demands, which is something we try not to do for example with Medicare for All.
Either way I think we need to be honest about the gap in support for the ideas and the current umbrella term for the ideas, and pick one strategy or the other. Otherwise we’re just leaving mass popular support on the table.
Micah: No slogan in our movement should be seen as sacrosanct. Just as we’re figuring out how to do class-struggle electoral campaigns as we go, we’re also figuring out how to make demands of the carceral state and of policing in ways that resonate, in ways that actually succeed in lessening its power. We as a Left need to be open to debating the best way to go about achieving these things.
Staying on this broad topic of political messaging, toward the end of the book you warn leftists against scolding members of the working class for their individual consumption habits having to do with climate change. You contrast that with a class narrative that places most of the blame for climate change on the ultra-wealthy.
Do you feel like groups like Y/DSA and Sunrise get it right on this issue? And beyond climate change, what do you see as some of the most glaring messaging problems on the contemporary American Left?
Meagan: When it comes to climate, the Left’s shortcoming has long been mirroring the language of austerity and telling people that if they want a livable future then they’re gonna have to stop being such greedy little piggies. It’s unwise to tell people to tighten their belts and rein in their excesses when in fact most people don’t feel like they’re living lives of luxury and excess — they feel that they are living under extreme constraints.
To the extent that ordinary Americans participate in consumption, a lot of that is necessary like groceries or gas to get to work. And a lot of the rest of it is consumption of cheap goods that make their lives a little bit easier and maybe a little bit less dull. Does the Left really want to be the force that tells people that they need to give up small comforts, and make even more sacrifices than they already do?
No, because in order to actually have an effective climate politics, we’re going to need two things: we’re going to need a numerical majority of society to join us in this endeavor, and we’re going to need specifically the working-class majority, because the working class has the ability to hit capitalists who are driving climate change where it hurts.
The working class, due to its special role in the system of production, has the ability to withhold or threaten to withhold profits and compel then capitalists to come to the table. Workers are the goose that lays the golden egg. And since capitalists and capitalist production are the driving forces behind climate destruction, workers are a unique force that’s capable of actually meeting the capitalists toe-to-toe, if they’re organized. When it comes to organizing workers, scolding and castigation are not good ways to go about it.
Micah: What you just said also applies to politics of all kinds — the impulse to castigate people, the sort of hair-trigger denunciatory culture that we have developed on the Left, both against our political enemies but against each other sometimes, is something that we really have to avoid.
We have to approach each other with a generosity of spirit that befits a group of people who are trying to do the hardest thing that any group of human beings has ever done together, which is: transform the world into one that serves human needs rather than a small number of people’s greed. The fact that we’ve got a posse of people that we’re doing that with is incredible. It’s also delicate, fragile. We should treat each other as partners in that project of building a better world — that’s the only way we can hold our ship together and actually achieve the things that we know are possible.
It’s also what makes us appear like an enjoyable group of people to hang out with. People don’t like constant denunciations or constant negativity or a constant sense of a conflict for conflict’s sake. We have to represent not just a good set of politics, but a better way of approaching life and each other. That will make it both more pleasant for us to be a part of this movement together for the long term, and it will make us seem to be a cooler group of people to hang out with to people who aren’t yet a part of our movement.
You write about how DSA has moved left since 2016, that before then it was “tepid in support of Palestinian liberation from Israel, for example, and often supported Democratic candidates of any stripe over Republicans rather than withhold endorsements in the absence of socialist politics.” To what extent are those tendencies still present within DSA? Is that a problem to be dealt with, or is it an inevitable consequence of having a big-tent multi-tendency organization?
Micah: On the main political issues we were too far to the right on, like DSA’s support of Palestine or our participation in the Socialist International, those questions have been rectified. Our positions on paper are, for the most part, good and where they should be.
The bigger danger is that people may drift further to the opposite pole, where they want to foreground maximalist demands that are not rooted in a seriousness about building a mass political project. We constantly have to figure out how to stay between two poles: we don’t want to drift off into opportunism and conservatism, watering down our messaging to try to meet people where they are. But on the other hand, we don’t want a movement that is ultra-left and needlessly alienating.
Meagan: I have a prediction. I think that pre-2016, DSA’s problem was that it was far too conciliatory toward the political establishment and had a relatively milquetoast, non-class-struggle orientation. That changed in 2016, and then between 2017 and 2020 the major threat to the organization was actually that it might drift too far in an ultra-left direction and wall itself off from the working class. There were some bitter factional struggles, as well as some very good and necessary political debates, that happened in DSA during that window, which resulted in the organization surviving that crisis.
But, post-Bernie, my prediction is that we’re gonna find ourselves with a new set of threats on the right flank, because our proactiveness in pursuing electoral experiments has put us in a position where we are increasingly getting people into office. We’re getting enmeshed in local, state, and sometimes national politics, and that comes with pressures of its own that are gonna come down to bear on people — not the same group of people from pre-2016 DSA, but instead the people who came in after them — and those pressures are extreme.
There are some obvious ones, like how do you get money to run campaigns? It’s a lot easier if you are not constantly alienating the people in society who have money in society, for one thing. So far, our people are pretty good at avoiding that by running good small-donor-driven, no-corporate-money campaigns. But the donor class sirens are always singing.
Another pressure that comes to bear is trying to not marginalize or alienate yourself from important working committees and positions and relationships with other people who have been elected, establishment Democrats in particular. This is especially problematic because a natural inclination on the part of elected officials is to get things done for your constituents, for the democratic socialist movement, and so on. What starts from a place of passion and principle can actually be over time conservatizing, as you seek to ingratiate yourself to people who will give you the opportunity to do what you know you’re capable of.
And then a third pressure is something that the late Leo Panitch once told me, which is that it’s underestimated how moderating it is for elected officials when they realize that their colleagues actually “don’t eat babies.” That actually they’re relatively nice people, even if they take a check here and there from the real estate or the health insurance lobby. You develop a sort of collegial attitude toward the people that you’re working with up in Albany or in Sacramento or in D.C. or down at city hall. You even, despite yourself, develop an identification with the group, which can come at the expense of an identification with the class.
We’re not just talking about individual office-holders. Each of our electeds, if they run a really good campaign through DSA, has circles of people around them. Ideally, those people are going to help keep them from falling prey to those conservatizing pressures. But it can also go the opposite direction, which is that the people that surround and support DSA members in office might start to think differently about what it really takes, the kind of pragmatic approach you should really have to getting things done when you’re in office. Lots of people with experiences and thoughts like those will inevitably change the character of the organization.
It’s precisely because we are developing and advancing that we’re putting ourselves in a position to experience new gravitational pulls from the right. I don’t wanna go back to 2017-2020 DSA where ultra-leftism appeared to be newly on the march. I think it’s good that we’re having these problems instead of those problems. To put it another way, I think this is a sign of maturity. But I also think that we need to be on guard.
Biden is no Bernie, but he is popular. Because he will be the incumbent, maybe, in spite of his age, he could be difficult to challenge. I’m wondering what you think the prospects are for electing a socialist president in the near future, if there’s someone you think can take Bernie’s role at the national level or if, for the time being, we should give up on that goal and realize Bernie was a fluke that we took advantage of.
Meagan: I think Bernie was a fluke. Over the five years during which he was a viable contender for the presidency, we got used to having a presidential candidate whose politics aligned with ours. But it wasn’t inevitable, far from it. There was a new appetite for democratic socialism in the United States and progressivism writ large, and it so happened that we were lucky enough to have a person who was in decent health who was still alive from the last time there was such an appetite, like fifty years ago, who had built a career in DC and was willing and able to run for president.
I don’t think that we have anyone waiting in the wings who is actually ready to do that and whose political vision aligns with ours. Progressive and democratic socialist politics on a national stage are not dead for the time being or anything, but I don’t think that we should get used to having a presidential candidate who’s in our corner.
Partly this has to do with the fact that socialist politics were so successfully repressed between when Bernie came to socialism in college and when many of us came to it from the first Bernie presidential campaign. There are whole generations missing in the middle. The good news is that the Bernie era gave us the opportunity to start rebuilding from the ground up, and that’s gonna pay dividends for many many decades.
Another reason we don’t have good socialist candidates waiting in the wings each election cycle is that we don’t have a mass independent working-class party. Right now we’re kind of waiting for suitable candidates to materialize, while a party would create them.
Bernie’s presidential campaigns, but especially the second one, kind of functioned as an ad hoc independent political party. It served a lot of the same functions that parties traditionally serve. It mobilized “members,” by which I mean people who donated $27 to Bernie Sanders campaign and saw themselves as part of a movement. The campaign developed political consciousness, developed skills, developed relationships, developed organizations. It was a bounded political force with its own identity that could engage in conflict with other distinct political forces, which is one crucial purpose of a party.
Then it evaporated overnight, and that’s because we never actually had an independent party that could outlast the campaign cycle. It was an illusion, a beautiful illusion. But I think we should take it as encouragement to work toward the eventual goal of having an independent political party.
I say “eventual” because it’s not like it’s gonna happen tomorrow or the next day. It’s easier said than done, and we have to be intelligent about it, which is where the idea of the “dirty break” strategy comes in. But if we are able to build first a party surrogate and then ideally hopefully an independent party, then we can be an incubator for candidates and we can actually have a viable candidate to run for president in our corner every single time. This is several decades out, I think. But if we want that, we just have to get to work and play the long game. There’s not another Bernie coming around the corner.
Micah: I think where we are is more normal for a movement that is trying to get itself off the ground. We’re at the lowest rungs of the ladder at this point. It was a totally weird thing that the Bernie campaign happened. Overall, we should just be very grateful that the Bernie campaign jumpstarted this new Left. But we should also remember that while we are doing all this really essential stuff — where people are putting roots in different workplaces to do labor work over the long term, people are running for city council seats and state rep seats and dog catcher as part of long-term electoral efforts — there’s no substitute for having figures on the national scene who have this galvanizing effect.
The campaign for Bernie Sanders on the national level, AOC’s election, the other DSA members or DSA-friendly people in the Squad on the national level — they play a really catalytic role in politics. There’s no substitute for that. We need more of our people vying… maybe not for the presidency in the next go-around but certainly for more national-level offices like the House of Representatives.
That said, if AOC or Sara Nelson want to run for president, sign me up. I’m ready to knock on doors.
We have have been working on The Activist for the last two years. Its mandate is to elevate YDSA’s level of political discussion. Jacobin is not just about popularizing everyday arguments for socialism, but also recovering history and theory of the socialist movement in the past. I’m wondering if there are particular things that aren’t being written about or not covered in a certain way, a sort of absence of some kind of writing or publishing on the Left right now.
Meagan: The main vacancy I see is forums for robust intra-Left debate.
Obviously we could use many Jacobins, and it would be great if we could publish ten times the volume that we’re able to publish. Jacobin has been able to build a reliable machine that responds to current events from a socialist perspective. I think that was much needed. I needed it. It helped develop me into a socialist before I came to work at Jacobin.
But what’s really missing is activists talking to activists in elevated terms. Socialist Forum is an example of what I’m talking about, and Micah works really hard on that. But it’s true that a lot of activists and organizers don’t even consider contributing to it because they’re so busy being activists and organizers.
In our organizational culture, there’s not an expectation that every person should be able to write out an argument for why they are doing what they are doing in the organization, and when they see something they disagree with, respond with a convincing case to the contrary. This has been an expectation in many socialist groups throughout history, but not ours yet.
It’s possible that there’s too much of a division of labor in our organization. Me and Micah are the writerly-editorly types, you guys are as well. We represent a minority, and I think a lot of people in the organization feel like we’ve got it covered. But I actually think everybody in the organization should be writing and reading a lot more, not to show off their smarts but to convince others about which strategy to pursue. You know that people are actually capable of this when you see these interminable Twitter fights, and you just wish that people would pause, log off, and go and write a two-page argument instead of going back and forth in 240 characters.
Micah: Every Y/DSA member should be able to engage in the kind of articulation of their ideas that Meagan just laid out. That is why it’s so important for people to participate in The Activist or Socialist Forum or Democratic Left. Because even if you don’t end up becoming a staff writer for Jacobin, which most people are not, the skills that you get in writing for The Activist or for Jacobin provide multiple things: 1) It forces us to have substantive discussions with each other. 2) It increases your ability to articulate your ideas in clear ways that make you a more effective political communicator, which is essential to being a good political activist and organizer.
Not everybody has to write some 800-page tome of Marxist theory. But people do need to be able to articulate their ideas in very simple and easy-to-understand language. That is essential for the internal health of DSA as well as communicating our ideas to the outside world. And writing for publications like The Activist is a great way for you to learn how to do that.
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