Against Litmus Tests
By Sam Lewis
A recent article in the Socialist Call argues that DSA should not endorse any candidates that do not endorse Bernie Sanders, and offers support for a resolution to that effect that will come before the NYC-DSA Citywide Leadership Committee this weekend. This is one of many litmus tests that have been proposed or passed by DSA chapters across the country – that we should only endorse socialist candidates, only endorse DSA members, only endorse candidates who sign on to a specific policy or program, only endorse candidates who have unionized staffs, only work with groups that meet specific political criteria, only engage in campaigns that have a particular type of target, and on and on.
The Bernie litmus test has specific problems, but there is a problem with litmus tests in general. They reduce the concrete political questions we should be considering, debating, and voting on to abstraction, and thereby they weaken our only source of power: an excited, engaged, and increasingly politically sophisticated membership.
The argument for the litmus tests typically boils down to one of two inverse positions: either we need to “define our politics” which are currently insufficiently rigorous, or we are all socialist and already agree on the question at hand, so we might as well formalize it as a rule. Regardless of the rationale, they take a decision that could be considered, debated, and voted on by members and turn it into leadership dogma that prevents such engagement.
“Do I trust this person’s political commitments?” becomes “This person is not a DSA member.”
“What are the merits and risks of engaging in a broad coalition of non-profits and unions around this issue?” becomes “We don’t work with groups that are foundation-funded.”
“Does this candidacy advance our political aims?” becomes “This person is not a socialist.”
“Will this campaign build power and advance class struggle?” becomes “Legislative campaigns will never give us socialism.”
We don’t need litmus tests because our members are able to arrive at sound conclusions through principled debate and a democratic process. Our political endorsements go through a rigorous series of steps including a recommendation by the electoral working group, a super-majority vote by the local branch, and super-majority vote by our citywide leadership. We have voted on a wide array of candidates through this process. We have considered candidates who were not socialist (and some people were upset about it!), but our members have only endorsed candidates who publicly identified as socialist. We have twice rejected efforts to restrict our endorsements to DSA members (and some people were upset about it!), yet every candidate we’ve endorsed has been a card-carrying member of DSA.
Though we don’t have a formal litmus test about accepting campaign contributions from the real estate industry, we still played a central role in elevating this to a key political issue in New York State – because it is something that members care passionately about. We have never previously imposed a litmus test around Bernie, yet we did a damn good job building off of his 2016 run – supporting Bernie delegate Jabari Brisport and electing Bernie organizer Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in their respective campaigns.
Passing litmus tests undermines our only source of strength – our members. Such tests make members less likely to invest in DSA because they hand political decisions to a passive membership rather than engaging that membership in making them. Litmus tests stunt leadership development. People grow – as organizers, strategists, theorists, socialists, and leaders – through experience. We struggle together, we evaluate our successes and failures, we analyze new developments, and we get better and stronger.
The struggle can be challenging, and sometimes people don’t want to do it. Many members of the electoral working group have faced difficult questions about strategy and asked: what does NYC-DSA think about this? What does NYC-DSA do in this situation? I have never been shy about responding to these questions with my perspective, but it is an obligation of good leaders to balance our own views with the fact that the power of NYC-DSA comes from putting decisions in the hands of the membership. Leaders have an important role to play in shaping the direction of the organization by proposing frameworks for thinking about our decisions, developing strategic plans, and prioritizing our efforts, but our job is to ask members to engage in these strategic questions, not short-circuit their opportunity to do so. There is no substitute for rigorous political analysis and democratic decision making.
Against This Litmus Test
Litmus tests in general weaken DSA, but the particular Bernie litmus tests has its own problems. First, most candidates for local office don’t endorse anyone else, especially for higher office. That is largely because no one cares who they endorse. A meaningful endorsement generally comes from someone who holds a position of power, represents a group, or perhaps has some other high status (like a celebrity or policy expert). The litmus test was clearly not proposes with the vast majority of DSA races – first time, local candidates – in mind. A brand new candidate like Jabari Brisport in 2017 or Julia Salazar in 2018 creates the opportunity to introduce thousands of new people to class struggle politics, and most rightly focus on building as broad a coalition as possible. This proposal needlessly constrains the options for our organization and local candidates, offers little or nothing to the Bernie campaign, and was likely not written with much consideration of the majority of races it would effect.
We *do* have a lot to figure out about 2020 electoral strategy. We may want to try to replicate the developments of the 2018 cycle when progressive forces (Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams, the No-IDC candidates, AOC and Julia Salazar) ended up forming an informal slate with many cross-endorsements between them. We need to decide if DSA will have joint campaign literature. How will the Bernie IE field campaign fit into our other campaigns? How will we connect his national program, like his recent call for National Universal Rent Control, to our local demands? The proponents of the litmus test have raised some of these questions to justify it. A more responsible role for leadership is to propose a strategy or plan that addresses these questions and ask people to consider it, debate it, and if it has wide support, execute it. But the proposal isn’t a plan or a strategy that invites people to think, it’s an instruction not to.
Finally, to the extent that this proposal is intended to draw clear political contrasts and cohere a socialist pole in American politics, its authors seem not to have considered that the Bernie primary campaign, win or lose, will be over in less than 9 months. Whether this proposal achieves all of its proponents’ goals, or whether it doesn’t pass at all, in 9 months we will be left with a completely new national political landscape and without the Sanders campaign as a North Star. But we won’t be left with nothing. We will have built a dynamic, national field campaign accountable to our membership. We will have elected very possibly hundreds more socialists to local office, who are committed to movement building and class struggle. If we’re lucky, we may even have the first socialist president in US history. Regardless of what happens, it will be new terrain and this proposal will have done absolutely nothing to prepare us for it, or prepare our members to analyze it.
What This Is Really About
The proponents of this resolution could have been more straightforward. They want to leverage an endorsement decision to influence exactly one person, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who has already ruled out making a Presidential endorsement in 2019. I would be devastated if she endorsed Warren, given that it would undermine the Sanders campaign, her own position as a compelling leader in the democratic socialist movement, and would likely alienate many or most DSA members from one of our most dynamic public figures. But the most powerful way to influence AOC is not to pass what amounts to a sternly worded letter, but to continue to build grassroots organization for Bernie Sanders in Queens. This organization is the source of our power.
Three years ago it would have been hard to imagine that we’d be faced with the decision of whether, when, and how to endorse a wildly popular incumbent socialist Congresswoman for reelection. Thankfully, NYC-DSA already has a process by which to navigate these challenging questions. If Alexandria wants DSA’s support, Queens branch members will have a chance to debate and vote on what to do. They are not on any mandated timeline, and they are not obligated to vote yes or no. Those who have strong feelings that the presidential endorsement is the key issue in that decision will have their opportunity to make their case like everyone else.
At the end of the day, we have to trust the members.