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The Bernie Advantage

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By Emma Caterine 

I want to confront a common argument worth rebutting in detail: that whether DSA endorses Bernie Sanders is unimportant, and that a more pressing priority is making DSA’s inner politics more democratic. I will start by criticizing the assumptions that underpin the argument, then suggest that this is actually a technocratic gloss of other broader arguments about engaging with the current political system. Not only is a Sanders endorsement compatible with making DSA more democratic, it would contribute to fostering a more open and participatory organization.

I. The Argument: Its Assumptions and Conclusions

The argument is generally given in the following way:

  1. An endorsement should be based on the feasibility of having a substantial impact on the election.
  2. The 2020 presidential campaign will be a nationwide free-for-all.
  3. DSA is a small organization.
  4. Small organizations cannot have a substantial impact in a nationwide free-for-all
  5. Thus DSA cannot have a substantial impact in the 2020 presidential campaign.
  6. And without a substantial impact, DSA should not endorse Bernie Sanders 2020.

It is almost indisputable that the 2020 presidential campaign will be a cross-country hot mess and that DSA at 50,000+ members and with very little funds will be a relatively small organization compared to other key players. But there are two fallacious assumptions in this argument that bring it to the wrong conclusion: point (1) and point (4).

A. Chance To Change Everything

We will start with (1): feasibility. To be clear, feasibility is important — after all, the Green Party has had such a failed electoral strategy particularly because it refuses to weigh feasibility as a factor, and thus has little impact. It has failed not only in winning any substantial number of elections but also proffered candidates so unfeasible that their ideas, like a Green New Deal, did not break into the mainstream discourse until elected Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started advocating for them.

But the lesson to learn from that is not to shift to feasibility being the sole factor of consideration. This should be apparent because Leftists frequently criticize this singular focus when used to justify the Democratic Party’s lack of participation in conservative districts. Socialism is about making the impossible possible. Our greatest successes (Ocasio-Cortez’s election being a good recent example) often occur against all the odds.

While a number of factors should be considered in an endorsement, I will give just one that interrelates with feasibility: potential gain. A candidate who DSA could clearly make the difference for but who wouldn’t do much to push forward the development of socialism is not worth endorsing. Conversely, a race where DSA’s impact is less certain but the candidate would bring about historical change progressing us towards socialism is worth endorsing.

At this point some endorsement opponents will likely revert to the main argument they have made: that Bernie Sanders has bad policy positions on imperialism, racism, sex work, and so on. We of course should not trivialize these issues — the predominating ideas have resulted in very real economic deprivation and loss of human life. But it is important to realize that policy positions are not the same as potential gains; after all, my fervent beliefs in a one state solution and the end of Israeli apartheid do not produce much political gain by themselves, aside from maybe convincing a few people not to buy Sabra hummus. Political gain must be viewed through the lens of material relationships of power, and with Sanders 2020 we are talking about nothing less than the President of the United States.

The U.S. is a constitutional republic that grants broad power to its chief executive, the President. The President commands the military. The President can veto bills from Congress. The President can take executive actions that are only subject to the Supreme Court’s review. And most importantly, but most frequently neglected, the President has control of the federal administrative apparatus. The Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, Transportation, Treasury, and so on are under the direct supervision of the President. And even independent agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Reserve, and National Labor Relations Board are all subject to presidential appointments and other actions.

The President heads the country’s largest employer: the federal government (as some have learned quite well from the recent shutdown). And delving into the realm of the symbolic, the President has since the late 19th century been able to internationally define capitalism and imperialism itself. Ronald Reagan’s “it isn’t nutmeg that’s at stake” is often evoked to characterize U.S. military interventions in the Americas. George W. Bush’s assurance at the beginning of the Great Recession that “democratic capitalism is the best system ever devised” is paradigmatic of baseless faith in the free market. The consequences of electing even a moderate social democrat like Bernie Sanders to the most powerful position in the world cannot be understated.

“But Emma,” you may respond, “All my work is local and my problems come from mayors and sheriffs and the landlord next door.” The idea of local and federal power being separate distinct spheres is a myth. The far right of this country pushes this misnomer, to stop Leftists from connecting the two, while they deftly push their agenda through both arenas. The President appoints judges that will be making decisions over the lives of you and your neighbors, from debt collection to drug possession to immigration. Under our federalist legal system, the federal government sets a “floor” for what happens at the local level. So, while Brown v. Board of Education did not instantaneously dismantle Jim Crow, it did provide the “floor” for civil rights activists to challenge law and policies at every level: mayors could not order de jure segregation, sheriffs could not enforce explicitly racist laws, and so on.

Even our underwhelming liberal federal governments have been one of the few barriers to reactionary law and policy across the country, like the so-called “TRAP” (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) laws that would shut down clinics providing abortions. And this is the lens endorsement must be considered through. Even if DSA gave Bernie just the hair thin margin to win the primary, it could result in the biggest gains of power to the socialist movement in U.S. history. We could mitigate, maybe even stop, the constant repression of our movement by federal law enforcement. We could implement socialist programs, from public universal welfare to worker ownership, at a national scale. I think it’s safe to say that our membership are the kind of people who would go above and beyond for any working class person. It only makes sense then for us to support a chance to transform the lives of every single working class person in the U.S.

B. The Heart Of The Movement

The second fallacious premise of the argument is that small organizations cannot have an impact of the election of the President of the United States. Obviously our ultimate goal is a mass movement of and for the working class, and also obviously at 55,000 members we are not quite a “mass movement” in a country of 325 million people. But the presidential election, both technically and even more so in practice, is not a popular election. In the last two presidential elections without an incumbent (2008 and 2016), victory has been attributed to a small concentrated group of politically savvy people who were able to mobilize large numbers of people to vote.

In 2008, new technology like VAN and groups like MoveOn were able to motivate grassroots campaigning that went far beyond the usually political active and cinched the election for Barack Obama. The election of 2016 shows the evil twin of the 2008 victory, with a small group of “fake news” propagators cleverly targeting the weak points in the Democrats’ “firewall” so that Trump could win despite losing the “popular vote.” 2016 was decided by only 107,000 votes in three states. Assuming strategic planning and outreach capabilities via social media, DSA could hypothetically have a similar impact simply from getting three people who would not otherwise vote to vote. Only 62.3% of the voting age population voted in 2008, which sunk to a pitiful 58.1% of the voting age population in 2016.

If the concern is the Democratic primary, and particularly how it is “rigged,” there are two major factors that improve Sanders’ chances in 2020. First, voter registration in the Democratic Party has increased, mitigating the ability for the DNC to use closed primaries to shut out an outsider candidate like Bernie Sanders. Second, DSA is not alone – groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution have been able to make major improvements to the internal mechanisms of the Democratic Party, and our combined ability to unseat party favorites like Joe Crowley demonstrates that the DNC big-wigs no longer have absolute power over nominations.

None of this is to say that Sanders nomination is a sure thing. After all, if it were, I would not be advocating so intently for DSA to endorse the campaign. It will be a close call, likely decided both at the primary and general election by a few votes. However, we elected a judge in Harris County, Texas. We dethroned a 27-year Democratic veteran in Brooklyn by electing a 28-year old, sex worker rights advocating socialist who had only recently registered with the Democratic Party. DSA may be relatively small, but our membership is committed to democratic socialism and has been able to make the difference in extraordinary ways.

II. How Bernie Sanders 2020 Can Make DSA More Open And Participatory

One of my favorite quotes as to democracy and organizing comes from Grenadian revolutionary Maurice Bishop:

The right of freedom of expression can really only be relevant if people are not too hungry, or too tired to be able to express themselves. It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.

The interest in making DSA more democratic and participatory is one I share. However, there has been an unfortunate misconception by some advocating for DSA to be more democratic and participatory that such change is accomplished by vigorously monitoring and opposing any action by DSA leadership that appears undemocratic.

Certainly leadership have a responsibility to the DSA membership that includes answering such concerns. And some of those who criticize this monitoring unfairly assume that it is made in bad faith and has no factual basis. Let’s instead assume the criticisms are made in good faith and are rooted in fact. It is still inherently a losing strategy in making DSA more democratic. It is reactive, and at most mitigates undemocratic actions by leadership rather than facilitating democratic action.

The main means of making DSA a more democratic organization are by (1) providing vehicles for participation and (2) bringing in new members. The Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign can accomplish both of these aims. It is a clear campaign with a straightforward ask, so the barriers to participation are low and the means of participating incredibly diverse. Medicare for All advocates can focus on Bernie as the single payer healthcare candidate. Advocates for a Green New Deal can focus on how Bernie could provide full employment and the end of fossil fuel consumption. Because it is the campaign for President, it gives people an opportunity to develop their messaging on an array of issues.

And in regards to bringing in new members, our membership increases following the 2016 primary and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election speak for themselves. But you may be asking “What does increasing membership have to do with making the organization more democratic?” The answer goes back to our aim of building a mass movement by and for the working class. There is nothing democratic about small groups of sectarian leftists seeking to impose their political program on the 325 million people of the U.S. And it is especially undemocratic if they are mostly of an unrepresentative (white, college-educated) segment of the working class.

Like it or not, regardless of contentions as to whether he is “really” a socialist, Bernie Sanders created a sea change in the public discourse on the acceptance of socialism. Whether his socialism is your socialism or not, it was appealing enough to a wide segment of the population that your socialism will not have the door slammed in its face. By participating in the Sanders 2020 campaign, we can meet people we might not otherwise reach, let them know we are interested in their ideas, and that we want their participation, not just their vote.

Conclusion

Bernie Sanders 2020 is an opportunity for DSA, even as a relatively small organization, to have an impact on the election of the President of the U.S. and thus literally the entirety of governance and law in the country. Even if the chance of us having an impact is as low as 50-50, the gains we would make from that impact more than justify us making the endorsement. And the contact with millions of people within Sanders 2020 could grow our organization and thus make it more democratically robust. There is no need to pick and choose between Sanders 2020 and having a more democratic DSA — in fact, it is by interweaving the two that we can best accomplish both.