The “Democratic” in DSA

The Democratic Socialists of America recommitted itself to using “elections, public offices and legislation” to build support for democratic socialist ideas.

Joel Bleifuss

(Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

As the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) met August 2 in Atlanta for its bien­ni­al con­ven­tion, a num­ber of the 1,056 del­e­gates did so with trep­i­da­tion. They feared the gath­er­ing could devolve into fac­tion­al­ism, splin­ter­ing the orga­ni­za­tion that, in the last five years, has grown from 6,000 to 55,000-plus mem­bers across 150 chapters.

A new party? It’s socialist Dems who are already changing the nation’s political conversation.

Chris Rid­diough was among those wor­ried, a social­ist fem­i­nist from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., who has been a lead­ing DSA fig­ure since its found­ing in 1982. For the past two years, Rid­diough served on the strife-riv­en 16-mem­ber Nation­al Polit­i­cal Com­mit­tee, the group’s elect­ed gov­ern­ing body.

Going into the con­ven­tion, there were aspects that were rem­i­nis­cent of the whole mis­chegas with SDS,” Rid­diough says, refer­ring to the implo­sion of Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety at its 1969 con­ven­tion. The Left has a long his­to­ry of shoot­ing itself in the foot. My con­cern was that we not repeat that history.”

A few shots were fired in Atlanta, but none like­ly to cause irre­versible dam­age. I came out more opti­mistic than when I went in,” Rid­diough says.

Con­ven­tion del­e­gates affirmed that par­tic­i­pa­tion in elec­toral pol­i­tics is worth­while. By pass­ing the Class-Strug­gle Elec­tions” res­o­lu­tion, DSA com­mit­ted itself to using elec­tions, pub­lic offices and leg­is­la­tion as vehi­cles to encour­age work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tion, pro­mote pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion and build sup­port for demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist ideas.” The res­o­lu­tion includ­ed a caveat that says DSA’s ulti­mate goal is to break with the Democ­rats and their cap­i­tal­ist donors,” and form an inde­pen­dent work­ing-class par­ty,” rather than reform the par­ty from within.

A new par­ty? It’s social­ist Dems who are already chang­ing the nation’s polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. DSA mem­bers Rashi­da Tlaib (Mich.) and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (N.Y.) were elect­ed to the House as Democ­rats in 2018. And across the coun­try, DSA mem­bers con­tin­ue to be elect­ed to state and local office, 29 of whom attend­ed the con­ven­tion. Most of these pols have run as Democ­rats (with­out cap­i­tal­ist donors”) and won by turn­ing out reg­is­tered Demo­c­ra­t­ic voters.

One such elect­ed offi­cial at the con­ven­tion was Ruth Buf­fa­lo, a North Dako­ta Demo­c­ra­t­ic state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and mem­ber of the Man­dan, Hidat­sa and Arikara Nation who works as a pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­al in Far­go. In 2018, she oust­ed a Repub­li­can incum­bent who had led a GOP effort to sup­press the Native vote.

Anoth­er is Gabriel Acevero, a Mary­land Demo­c­ra­t­ic state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and an Afro-Caribbean LGBTQ activist who orga­nizes for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union (won­der­ful­ly, he swore his oath of office on a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time).

No DSA res­o­lu­tion will alter the fact that the major­i­ty of pro­gres­sives in Amer­i­ca, includ­ing the major­i­ty of peo­ple of col­or and union mem­bers, iden­ti­fy as Democ­rats. The Class-Strug­gle Elec­tions” res­o­lu­tion con­cedes as much, not­ing that DSA-endorsed can­di­dates can, for tac­ti­cal rea­sons, run on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty line for now,” which means that DSA is not break­ing with its decades-long tra­di­tion of work­ing with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

That for now” could be quite a long time — giv­en that America’s first-past-the-post elec­tions pre­vent the emer­gence of new parties.

The future of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism in Amer­i­ca is bright. To wit, DSA resolved to become an orga­ni­za­tion of 100,000 mem­bers by 2021. For an orga­ni­za­tion that has grown by 800 per­cent in the last five years, it’s an ambi­tious but achiev­able goal. At its Atlanta con­ven­tion, DSA demon­strat­ed that, despite grow­ing pains, it can accom­mo­date dis­agree­ment, unite around com­mon prin­ci­ples and not be torn asun­der by sec­tar­i­an pos­tur­ing that has so often divid­ed the Left.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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