Inside the Democratic Socialists of America’s Big Decision To Endorse Bernie Sanders

10,000 members voted “yes” in an endorsement poll, outnumbering “nos” 3 to 1, but the debate continues.

Emma Whitford

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a 2020 presidential campaign rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 9 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Steve Pope/Getty)

At an emergency meeting March 21, the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Political Committee, the organization’s 18-member board, voted 11 to 4 to endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in his 2020 presidential run. The endorsement followed a decision to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in new staff and resources for DSA’s 100-plus chapters.

The process has also highlighted the challenges of democratic decision-making in an organization that’s already grown so much, so quickly.

The vote also came after a one-week advisory poll open to all dues-paying members that endorsed Sanders 3 to 1 (13,324 people, roughly a quarter of DSA’s membership, weighed in.) But it’s just one event in an ongoing internal debate about how DSA, which saw an explosion in membership after Sanders’s primary run in 2016 — from 6,100 members to 56,000 today — should approach this second go-around. It is also, importantly, not binding for individual chapters.

Many DSA members agree that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has popularized policies like free college and Medicare for All, is the only presidential endorsement worth considering. Some large chapters, including Philadelphia DSA, Detroit and Chicago, doubled down with their own local endorsements. Members argue that entering the race early will ensure an organized and effective field strategy.

But dissenting contingents counter that the board’s process was rushed and opaque. I think that the smaller and more rural chapters especially feel that they are being ignored and not listened to,” says Emily Cameron of Fresno DSA, who circulated a petition to defer the vote to the national convention in Atlanta this August. With 649 signatures and buy-in from 27 local chapters to date, the petition argues that only a delay would allow for a transparent” process.

And on the day of the endorsement vote, DSA’s Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus issued an open letter urging the NPC to withhold an endorsement until Sanders acknowledges the validity of black demands for reparations in America,” and noting the organization’s deficiencies on issues of race and racism.” The statement came in response to a February 25 CNN town hall in which Sanders declined to say he supported reparations.

Proponents of the Sanders endorsement argue that the poll opened the vote to more members than the convention would, and express hope that the campaign will help DSA continue to grow. Ideally, says NPC member Ella Mahony, 25, DSA can convert that energy from Sanders towards our social movement work, towards our labor work, towards our tenant organizing.” Yet the process has also highlighted the challenges of democratic decision-making in an organization that’s already grown so much, so quickly.

Does Sanders help or hinder? 

One major point of disagreement is whether campaigning for Sanders will complement or detract from local organizing efforts. At DSA’s August 2017 National Convention, attended by close to 1,000 members, the organization passed a resolution establishing three top priorities: Medicare for All, solidarity with labor organizing, and electoral politics. But how these balance and relate remains an open question — one brought to the fore by the Sanders endorsement debate. 

In Detroit DSA, electoral committee chair Jessica Newman, 32, sees knocking on doors and phone banking for Sanders as a useful opportunity to rally voters against bad corporate actors in the state, like manufacturer 3M, whose chemical compounds have entered Michigan waterways. We will highlight how measures like the Green New Deal, backed by Bernie Sanders, are essential measures to fight back against the corporate greed literally poisoning and exploiting our communities across the state,” Newman says.

In the long term, she adds, the success of much of DSA’s non-electoral work depends on the success of a Sanders campaign: We need to be sure that the person in charge is going to be willing — and has the courage of their convictions — to stand up to super powerful interests that are already trying to crush us.”

Ugo Okere, 22, a member of Chicago DSA, also sees electoral politics as an important lever of power. Okere is fresh off a local campaign for City Council that fell a few hundred votes short of a runoff. He campaigned on rent control — one of his local chapter’s major priorities. In Chicago DSA, Okere says, we understand as an organization that elected officials are not going to be our savior. Are not going to liberate black and brown working class people. But I always view electoral politics as an apparatus in which we fight to do those things.”

But some branch leaders told In These Times that their chapters prefer to focus on local, issue-based campaigns over national electoral politics: like condemning cooperation between immigration and law enforcement in Fresno; or expanding access to menstrual products in Birmingham; or fighting for food sovereignty with the native Kanaka Maoli community in Hawaii. Mikey Inouye, 34, co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of Honolulu, says he respects his comrades’ electoral work, but has serious concerns about DSA as an organization investing too much time and resources in electoral politics, without a comparable amount of resources and support to chapter projects that lay outside of our broken electoral system.”

We love getting into the fields and planting kalo with our native Hawaiian comrades,” Inouye added. And learning from them, and working towards the long-term project of decolonization. And decolonization is not going to happen within the political system that introduced it.”

Among the chapters that have chafed at the timing of the endorsement is the Des Moines-based Central Iowa DSA. Local bylaws prohibit that chapter from even considering an endorsement unless a candidate requests it, which Sanders has not. This was never in our plans,” said Co-Chair Caroline Schoonover, 28. In this early and consequential primary state, her chapter is excited about disrupting the Iowa Caucus, which, she says, exemplifies everything that is wrong with the Iowa Democratic Party; it’s inaccessible, exclusionary, and completely focused on gaining national prestige and attention rather than actually improving the lives of Iowans.” The chapter plans to use the parade of presidential hopefuls to bring attention to other issues — when Michael Bloomberg made an exploratory visit in December 2018, members interrupted his speech to challenge his investments in energy companies.

DSA National Director Maria Svart emphasizes that the NPC endorsement does not compel individual chapters. I think there are misconceptions that individual chapters will be forced to do Bernie campaign work,” she says.

A question of resources

Dissenting chapters also take issue with the use of national resources. Even before Sanders announced his run, the NPC laid groundwork for campaign work on his behalf. At their January meeting, the board approved $149,000 annually for DSA to join The Movement Cooperative, a suit of tech tools that assist campaign work. In addition, they approved a proposal for up to four new staff: one or two Bernie-focused campaign staffers, a compliance expert, and a tech and data expert.

The total cost of these new hires hasn’t been determined, Svart confirmed, adding that the compliance and data positions were not contingent on a Sanders endorsement. January meeting minutes haven’t been released, either, to the chagrin of some members. (DSA’s press department says some work reshuffling due to new hires created a backlog.) Though the 2019 budget is not yet available, DSA’s 2018 budget was $1.66 million.

In response to criticism that these expenditures were an implicit Sanders endorsement ahead of the vote, NPC members argued that they will take pressure off small chapters in many ways. They are not dependent on the Bernie endorsement and also usable by any local for canvassing work,” says Renée Paradis, 41, an attorney from North Brooklyn DSA who serves on DSA’s National Electoral Committee.

How to hold Sanders accountable? 

DSA members also disagree on the most effective way to influence Sanders on issues where his stances have diverged from their own. Widespread concerns include Sanders’s recent comments on the U.S. intervention in Venezuela, which have fallen short of DSA’s condemnation. Sanders also voted in 2017 for SESTA/FOSTA, anti-human trafficking legislation that’s made it more difficult for sex workers to safely work and gather online.

Ana Mri, 25, a sex worker and former member of Las Vegas DSA, thinks that DSA has lost crucial leverage to push Sanders on SESTA/FOSTA by endorsing so early, and should have waited at least until the convention to debate the best way to proceed. As it stands, notes Mri (who preferred to use a pseudonym), the NPC has no official position on decriminalizing sex work. If the board hasn’t formulated its own position on the issue, how can they articulate clear demands for Sanders? Our struggle and our lives, they just feel like a footnote that can be addressed later,” says Mri, who left DSA after the endorsement.

At a packed debate on the endorsement question hosted by New York City DSA’s Socialist-Feminist working group on March 10 in Manhattan, Tatiana Cozzarelli, 32, argued that any attempts to change Sanders’ policy positions, regardless of the timing, would be futile. I actually think it might be a little naive for us to think that our 50,000 members can pressure Sanders away from the Democratic Party behemoth establishment,” she said. 

Later that evening, Fainan Lakha, 24, stood up from the audience to insist that an early endorsement and a critical Sanders campaign are compatible. We’re talking about an independent campaign for Bernie Sanders,” she said. We’re talking about a campaign that DSA runs and controls, where we collect all of the information, where we organize all the people, where we have our own materials. Where we make our own arguments.”

Thea Riofrancos, 35, a political science professor and former Providence DSA co-chair, believes, like Lakha, that DSA can and should work to elect Sanders while retaining critical distance. But, she cautions, maintaining that distance will require care.

We know that one of the virtues of Bernie, is that he is somewhat receptive to social movement pressure,” she said. So I think that in order to hold an administration like that accountable we need to be organized, and in order to be organized, our strategic vision can’t begin and end with the Bernie campaign.”

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Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter in Brooklyn.
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