2020 Foresight: A Response to the Bernie 2020 DSA Exploratory Committee Report

- Caucus Statement

In the likely event that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders decides to run in the Democratic Primary, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) will almost certainly endorse his bid.

Whether or not DSA should endorse Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is not the topic of this statement.

Despite the seeming inevitability of this endorsement we stress that the process by which we as an organization pursue this endorsement is consequential to our understanding of ourselves as a democratic organization. Therefore, we insist that any process by which the DSA as a national organization arrives at the decision to endorse or not endorse Sanders be fully transparent, that it allow for extensive debate, that all relevant stakeholders (particularly local chapters) have a say in any part of the decision which affects them, and that it otherwise live up to a socialist conception of radical democracy.

It is to explain this consensus on the question of the endorsement process, and not take a position on any particular outcome (on which opinions differ within our ranks), that we have chosen to issue this statement.

This weekend, a proposal from a Bernie 2020 Exploratory committee comes before the National Political Committee of DSA, and along with it a proposal for a large expenditure for technology to handle electoral canvassing data. Members have been granted less than a week to review these proposals. We have strategic and practical concerns with these proposals, and we strongly object to them on the grounds that such an early endorsement made without any effort to solicit the input and feedback of our membership, as a whole, undermines the internally democratic character of our organization.

Any decision to lay down expensive infrastructure for a nationwide electoral campaign is essentially a step towards committing local DSA chapters across the country to participating in such a campaign. Regardless of what the eventual outcome of an endorsement debate will be (and it will likely be pro-Sanders), the simple fact is that investing in the infrastructure for a DSA Sanders campaign before the endorsement has even been made is premature. At the very least, since such infrastructure assumes that local chapters will be canvassing on behalf of a nationwide electoral campaign, it stands to reason that the locals should be consulted extensively on any plan of which they will be the primary executors. Those affected by decisions and those expected to carry them out should be the ones making the decision; anything less is a betrayal of the democracy at the heart of our socialism.

Before our national leadership convenes to deliberate about our organization’s strategy during the 2020 presidential election, basic democratic practice requires that our members should be discussing this strategy first amongst ourselves. Our leaders must not assume as a foregone conclusion that the whole of our membership is somehow of the same mind about our national electoral strategy. As a volunteer-driven organization, it’s crucial that those who will be doing the work have a chance to participate in national endorsement decisions. We as organizers need to assess how a 2020 presidential race will fit into our larger goals and our present capacity. We must determine what our contribution will look like as a democratic collective and we can only do this by working together.

The paramount concern we have with this proposal is the sense of urgency and haste with which it is being put forth, especially considering the candidate in question has not himself declared an intention to run. At the time of its publication, this report granted a mere five days for members to respond before being submitted to NPC for review and decision. Given that our chapters typically meet on a monthly basis, we ask: is five days an adequate and realistic interval of time for members to deliberate and discuss with their comrades the merits and pitfalls of such an endorsement with both national and possibly international consequences? Furthermore, no attempt that we can see has been made to collect, analyze and respond to organizers’ comments. Because we have seen much greater efforts made to solicit member feedback for much smaller, less impactful decisions affecting the organization, we are obligated to ask: why is something this significant and consequential being made without the consultation of our highest democratic body, the membership convention?

There are a good many socialists within DSA who remain skeptical as to the efficacy of electoral politics in advancing the socialist movement at this time. Without necessarily rejecting the value of electoral politics in the socialist struggle, many nevertheless balk at the insistence that electioneering must always be centered in our work, without criticism, question or analysis. The tacit implication of an elections-first posture is that all other strategies and tactics are rendered less relevant to our collective struggle to build working-class power.

All of theses concerns would hold true for any candidate. While there is a great deal to admire in the political figure cut by Bernie Sanders, he has acted in his capacity as Senator in ways that progressives and socialists alike have found objectionable and these concerns should be foregrounded in our conversations surrounding his endorsement. For example, given DSA’s national prioritization of Medicare For All and ultimately universal healthcare, we believe that we would be failing ourselves as socialist activists if we did not see this endorsement process as an opportunity to inspire Bernie to push further and make greater demands, paving the way towards a comprehensive healthcare policy that includes long term care and trans health care. Examples of other concerns include his stances on issues of sex worker rights, the abolition of ICE, and the bipartisan imperialism that currently constitutes American foreign policy. An organization carrying the banner of democratic socialism must realize that critical dissent, even of the best politicians available to us, is an important means of contesting and challenging entrenched systems of power; careful criticism must not be dismissed as mere anti-electoralism.

Much of the rhetoric employed by the authors of this report implies a false impression of consensus around DSA’s organizational strategy and assumes a great deal about what 50,000 mostly new members think about socialist organizing, not to mention what it would take to build a grassroots socialist movement in our time. This plan asks DSA to commit significant organizational resources to a presidential campaign that would demand resources orders of magnitude beyond what our organization is presently capable of supporting. We must be asking ourselves, What is the opportunity cost? What else might we be doing with our time, energy and resources across the next 600 days? How much will this plan cost our organization’s volunteers? Lastly, how much can an organization of our size really contribute to something as massive of an undertaking as a presidential campaign?

By no means do we discourage Bernie’s supporters from participating in his campaign, if he should choose to run. Many of us surely will be volunteering alongside you. But at the same time, given the likelihood that supporters who want to volunteer for Bernie will go first to his own offices to contribute and given that several other structures for organizing Bernie’s supporters already exist in groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, MoveOn and others, we are not enthusiastic about the prospect of DSA becoming a tertiary canvassing operation. We believe our members, given the opportunity for thought, will see the value in continuing to support the efforts of grassroots organizers working outside of elections, who commit themselves to organizing rent strikes, organizing anti-fascist mobilizations to counter the violence the Trump campaign is sure to generate, or building food sovereignty programs. We are committed to the ‘big tent’ model of organizing, as we believe nothing short of a mass movement comprised of a diversity of tactics will build socialism in our time.

We are also not at all convinced that an extremely early endorsement is the strategic move in this situation. Bernie Sanders has not yet even announced his bid for the Presidency in 2020, which provokes a variety of questions. Why are we moving away from the down-ballot precedent of sending all eligible candidates a policy questionnaire and submitting each candidate to the internal democracy of our endorsement procedure? Why is Bernie made to be an exception to the precedent that we’ve established across multiple chapters and have been executing now for the past two years? Moreover, should we endorse a candidate in the 2020 Presidential Race with still 600 days left until the election, what strategies does this exploratory committee suggest for holding our endorsed candidate accountable on the policy positions and actions where this organization diverges from the candidate? For example, if Bernie votes to recognize the legitimacy of a South American coup, what position does this leave anti-imperialist activists in an organization that so enthusiastically moved to endorse him?

The point bears reiterating: we are putting the cart before the horse–and it’s not even certain the horse will ever run. Sanders has yet to announce his bid for the Presidential nomination in the Democratic primary. Rushing an endorsement–especially at this early hour–undermines the ability of members and chapters to strategically weigh the consequences of such an endorsement and consider, carefully, how it will affect their local organizing. On the other hand, a delayed endorsement could help the organization hold Senator Sanders accountable to a larger socialist horizon, affording our members potential leverage over the planks of his platform. If DSA delays a widely-anticipated endorsement to deliberate on its merits as a democratic body, people are likely to notice. Generating a sincere leftist critique of the Senator’s platform as the nation’s largest socialist organization would likely garner attention among media outlets, encouraging the Senator to more closely consider DSA’s concerns. But an early endorsement would forego any leverage we might otherwise have over the Senator’s platform. And to those who argue that we are not large enough to have any influence over his decision-making, we again ask: why are we in such a hurry to pour our limited resources into the race?

Another strategic concern is that presidential primary seasons evolve over several months, but begin in earnest in a series of early primaries in a small handful of states. Advancing a quick national endorsement and moving our limited resources to staff a national campaign office rather than prioritizing coalition with chapters already organizing in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina at the local level does not seem to us a particularly prudent strategy nor do we anticipate that organizers in early primary states are likely to take kindly to being cut out of the strategizing process.

Thus, we inquire as to how local chapters in early voting states have been consulted. With a tiered primary system, would it not be thoroughly more democratic for National to assist states in organizing their own endorsement vetting processes? Even if the vote is a straw poll conducted online, at least granting states autonomy in organizing their own endorsement proceedings would be a nod towards expanding internal democracy within the decision-making of our organization.

Lastly, almost as an extremely specific aside, how member and canvassing data is to be used during this campaign raises a considerable number of troubling questions. Will this endorsement for Sanders involve sharing member data with outside organizations? Is data collected from canvassing to be shared as well? Who oversees the protection and distribution of our data in such a scenario? Are DSA members permitted to opt out and, if so, how long do they have before their untimely response is simply considered a passive consent?

By joining a network consisting of Democratic Party NGO front groups as suggested by the Data and Tech proposal, we risk losing what should be closely-guarded strategy. Even if other groups cannot access our member data, there may be little protection against the use of metadata: where and how and when we cut turf, when we are likely to canvass, how often we canvass, and the results of canvassing. Extrapolations can be made with metadata that have the potential to undermine our effort and mission. We would like to see these concerns addressed before moving forward with this plan.

We contend that an enthusiastic endorsement that comes from below will have far more legitimacy in the eyes of the working class than the model currently proposed in the Jan 2019 Exploratory Committee Report. A grassroots endorsement that begins with chapter discussions and concludes at the convention would be an expression of our democratic socialist values, and an exercise of our people power. A top-down endorsement, especially one that commits significant resources to a particular strategy without involving key players in that decision, would betray the trust of DSA members and the commitment we made to one another to organize ourselves democratically. We would like to look forward to a National DSA Convention where organizers can sit down with one another to build consensus together, in the bright sunlight of democratic socialism, not the dim backrooms of a past we wish to leave behind.