Tribunes for Socialism: Reflections on DSA and Electoral Politics

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DSA members at the 2017 Women's March in New York City.

A timely, freely downloadable ebook, Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics brings together new and previously published writings on socialists, strategy, elections, and power in the midst of an ongoing left electoral insurgency in the United States. Activists and scholars from across the socialist left grapple with politics in the wake Donald Trump's election and the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders' primary campaign in 2016, as well as the failure of center-left parties across the world to halt the ascent of right-wing populism. While their contributions push, probe, and often challenge one another, all contributors seek to help the left understand where it should go from here, and inspire those not yet organized and active to join the socialist movement.

Here we present Meagan Day's contribution to the book.

When Bernie Sanders announced in 2015 that he would run for president, most socialist groups declined to officially support him. Bernie calls himself a democratic socialist, but his immediate platform is squarely social-democratic, consisting of vital reforms that would materially empower millions of working-class people but won’t directly transform capitalism out of existence—and in fact, without a mass socialist movement, may even have a stabilizing effect on capitalism. Additionally, Bernie’s decision to run as a Democrat smelled of compromise to a movement that has long identified the need for an independent political party of the working class, one that isn’t dependent on corporate donations and subservient to the capitalist class by design.

But one socialist group threw its weight behind Bernie, even before he declared his candidacy. That was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Its members’ wager was that Bernie’s reliable and clarion agitation against economic elites, performed before millions on the massive platform provided by the Democratic Party primary, would unleash rather than bridle a new wave of American class politics. They shared the rest of the socialist Left’s desire for an independent party and rejection of highly-regulated capitalism as an endpoint. But they hypothesized that by enthusiastically and genuinely supporting Bernie, and running an independent campaign in support of his candidacy, organized socialists could take advantage of the unique opportunities presented by a Bernie run to both spread socialist ideas and grow groups like DSA, building our forces and strategically bringing us closer to a serious confrontation with capitalism.

In April of 2015, Dustin Guastella explained the theory in an article on DSA’s website:

The real benefit to building a viable campaign for Sanders in 2016 is the possibility of uniting burgeoning social movements and newly radicalized youth into an organized force. With the help of thousands of grassroots activists, Bernie could run an effective and inspiring campaign. It would be a chance for leftists to flex our electoral muscles and for millions to see that there is an alternative to the policies of neoliberal capitalism. If we’re smart, a Sanders presidential campaign could help us build DSA nationally while uniting coalition forces at the local level that could be mobilized for future socialist campaigns.

In a follow-up article, Guastella added:

Bernie running for president, even if as a Democrat, could serve as a referendum on an ideology and as a temperature check for the voting public. It could raise an interest in radicalism in millions of Americans who have been seriously questioning capitalism since 2008. And, it gives us the chance to organize those freshman radicals towards an immediate goal and build connections and skills to mobilize sympathizers in the future. We need Bernie, not as a savior but as a tool for future organizing.

Google saw a tenfold increase in searches for the word “socialism” between December 2015 and February 2016, when Bernie’s candidacy was swiftly becoming viable. As his popularity unexpectedly surged, and as his class-struggle message began to permeate mainstream discourse, DSA’s ranks began to swell—slowly at first, then seemingly all at once.

Growth wasn’t a foregone conclusion. DSA organizers knew that socialists must work hard to seize the opportunities presented by electoral politics, or else the energy will dissipate or be absorbed elsewhere. DSA made an enormous effort to reach people who were excited by what Bernie had to say, to educate them about capitalism and class struggle, and to transform their social-democratic curiosity into socialist conviction.

The organization’s #WeNeedBernie campaign created its own literature enthusiastically detailing Sanders’ twelve-point agenda, which they paired with a pamphlet titled “The Sanders Campaign and the Revival of Socialism in the United States” that provided a distinctly socialist analysis of economic inequality. They tabled and flyered, they canvassed and rallied. On doorsteps and on social media, they did everything they could to spread the word that if you like what Bernie Sanders has to say, you might be a socialist, in which case there’s an organization willing to welcome you with open arms.

DSA counted roughly 6,000 members when Bernie announced his candidacy. Today DSA boasts 55,000 members and counting.

The Bully Pulpit

Democratic socialist candidates for public office can dramatically alter the discursive terrain of electoral contests, raise the expectations of the public, and bring new people into class struggle and socialist organizing. But two ingredients are needed in order to pull this off. First, a good candidate is necessary—someone who has a strong class analysis, is a good rhetorician, is willing to pick open fights with economic elites, and has a platform that features ambitious reforms that explicitly rely on redistribution (like aggressively taxing the rich to pay for social programs) and decommodification (moving necessary functions of society into the public sphere).

Second, there is a requirement for strong grassroots movements, housed in independent institutions, that can reach the candidate’s supporters an a large scale and assert that electing the candidate is not a cure-all. These movements must assert that electing the candidate is part of a larger process of building a mass movement, a process in which the candidate’s supporters play a vital role that extends far beyond casting a ballot, or even the electoral sphere itself.

Sanders’ campaign demonstrated the extraordinary value of having a high-profile candidate who intentionally stokes the flames of class conflict, drawing a sharp dividing line between the workers who generate society’s wealth and the capitalists who skim off the top and control our society.

If Sanders hadn’t run, the establishment-anointed Hillary Clinton would have sailed through the primary without much substantive opposition. But Sanders’ candidacy changed the terms of the debate, foregrounding economic inequality and forcing Clinton to answer for her billionaire donors and her evident pro-corporate political commitments. To many people she appeared to fail this test, offering only vacuous platitudes and weak imitations of Bernie’s progressivism. For example, when Bernie demanded a $15 an hour minimum wage, Clinton was forced to concede that the wage floor should be raised, but suggested that $12 would be more reasonable.

The spectacle of Clinton’s failure to clear the new bar set by Sanders clarified for many onlookers the distinction between a liberal and a socialist, between a class compromiser and someone who fights for working people against those who exploit them for personal gain.

Class politics had been moribund in the US for decades. Sanders himself was not a product of strong existing movements against capitalism, but was instead a rare holdover from the last time there was any prominent political current that identified class as the—or even a—main cleavage in society. Before Sanders entered the fray in 2015, most people simply weren’t thinking in class terms. Many saw politics as a battle between two vast culturally distinct armies, each commanded by a tier of elites: minorities and liberal urbanites represented by upper-class cosmopolitans versus conservative “red-blooded” Americans represented by reactionary aristocrats.

Of course, these elites occupy the same class position and have a shared agenda: keep taxes low and profits high. Politics often consists of their bickering over what to privatize first, how swiftly, and how thoroughly. Most Americans understand this on some level, which is why voter turnout is so low and why even those who do vote regularly report feeling disillusioned with the political process. But despite their innate understanding that the game is rigged, Americans have not often felt confident that an alternative is possible.

Bernie used his campaign as a bully pulpit from which he told a different story about America, one that wasn’t new, but hadn’t been told in a long time. In this story, the antagonist is the elite capitalist minority—or as he calls them “the millionaires and billionaires”—and the protagonist is the working-class majority, which transcends lines of racial and cultural difference. This story resonated anecdotally with millions of people, activating a potential for renewed class politics that was there all along.

Bernie’s open identification as a democratic socialist gave many of those people a new vocabulary to match their evolving political understanding. Most people who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primary, and plenty who didn’t but warmed to him over the coming months and years, became more amenable to the idea of socialism, loosely defined. It helped that Fox News and the right-wing establishment, resting on their laurels after the twentieth-century collapse of state socialism, began to slander everything as “socialism” that didn’t fit their aggressive conservative agenda, unwittingly inoculating millions of people and vacating the term of the ugly specific associations it had adopted during the Cold War era.

Far from forestalling the self-activity of the working class, or channeling movement energy entirely into a single campaign at the expense of non-electoral activity, Bernie’s candidacy galvanized people to work collectively and act decisively to demand better lives. For example, many rank-and-file leaders in the 2018 teachers’ strikes have acknowledged the role Bernie played in emboldening them to fight harder against the school privatizers who seek to profit from education, the industries that refuse to pay taxes needed to sustain public schools, and the legislators who routinely side with business elites over the vast working public.

Bernie’s candidacy was only one ingredient in the cocktail that led to the current rise in teacher militancy, and by no means the most important one, but it also shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s not a coincidence that the first American strike wave in four decades happened less than two years after a democratic socialist burst onto the national political scene and began to preach class struggle to millions of people—saying of the Trump tax cuts, for example, “This is class warfare, and we’re going to stand up and fight.”

West Virginia strike organizer Jay O’Neal told me in an interview, “For me personally, and for other strike organizers, the election was a watershed moment. We thought, we’ve just gotta do something, because we can’t just sit by anymore. A lot of us Bernie Sanders supporters saw what happened with Clinton and ultimately with Trump, and we just snapped into action in one way or another.”

The Militant Minority

The number of Bernie supporters who became rank-and-file teacher activists is small, but as the teachers’ strikes demonstrate, a dedicated militant minority has enormous potential to steer the activity of grassroots class-struggle movements in a radical direction, perceptibly altering the balance of power between workers and capitalists in the broader political domain.

Similarly, the portion of Bernie supporters who joined socialist organizations is humble but notably impactful. DSA’s membership had idled for years. It started to grow in early 2016, and increased by 25 percent during the lead-up to the general election. When Trump won, the organization saw an additional 30 percent increase nearly overnight. By early 2017, it was more than twice as big as it had been at the beginning of the previous year.

While these new socialist recruits represent a small number of the people whose political outlooks were transformed by Sanders’ candidacy, they represent an enormous percentage of the organized socialist left. Today, the large majority of people who are members of any socialist group in the US are members of DSA. This is largely because DSA has actively positioned itself as a welcoming organization for Bernie supporters at every level of political development, with a low barrier to entry—but with plenty of opportunities for political education upon recruitment.

Following the 2016 election, DSA was minting socialist cadre—or militant, politically developed, and fully-dedicated organizers—in numbers not seen in half a century or more in the US. Tens of thousands of people who had been left-liberals or apolitical began showing up in DSA spaces, where leaders engaged them in external-facing campaigns that taught them vital organizing skills, as well as political education programs that taught them class analysis in the Marxist tradition. Most members of DSA are paper members, who at most occasionally turn up for protests or volunteer infrequently on campaigns organized by the leadership. But hundreds of members have become cadre, devoting every non-work waking hour to the cause of building DSA and spreading socialism, and even changing jobs to better accommodate this task.

Since the two major American political parties are not really parties in any traditional sense (no membership criteria, no democratic decision-making, no political education, no discipline of candidates, no accountability to a platform), socialist cadre are some of the only non-professional people in the United States who are trained as dedicated political actors. Very few people who aren’t paid to do so spend all their time thinking about how to build their forces, persuade masses of people to adopt their perspective, and engineer situations favorable to their politics. In this vacuum, socialist cadre have outsize influence in the political sphere, despite their small numbers. (Not to say that smallness is a virtue—bigger is better, and DSA cadre are always seeking to grow their ranks.)

By mid-2017, DSA was a different entity than the one that existed two years prior. This new formation was ideologically diverse, but united in its disdain for business-as-usual Democratic Party politics—which it identified as inadequate to combatting the mounting threat of the Right under a Trump presidency—and its goal of making socialism mainstream.

Local chapters immediately undertook an enormous amount of non-electoral work. Much of it consisted of setting up shop, like building chapter infrastructure, writing bylaws and forming committees, staging debates and holding elections, and organizing political education for members. But a great deal of it also consisted of local and national external-facing organizing projects, designed to raise DSA’s profile while also cohering working-class political constituencies and building pressure for socialist demands, from Medicare for All to fair contracts for workers to ending evictions.

As the group’s membership numbers continued to soar, its imprint on American politics grew too—demonstrating again the outsize impact a proportionally small group of committed organizers can have in a bleak political landscape, where most citizens don’t see politics as part of their daily lives and most politicians are completely divorced from an organic and active working-class base. Mainstream media took major notice. Some headlines from 2017 included, “Why Are So Many Young Voters Falling for Old Socialists?” (the New York Times), “Democratic Socialists are taking themselves seriously. Should Democrats?” (CNN), and “Is Democratic Socialists Of America The Future Of The Left?” (Huffington Post).

Throughout 2017, Bernie Sanders also refused to recede from the public eye, cementing his status as one of the most recognizable people in the US and, according to polls, the nation’s most well-liked politician. He used his notoriety to continue talking about class, corporate power, and democratic socialism. As DSA member Ben Tarnoff has written in the Guardian, Bernie’s “approach to politics is rooted in conflict rather than consensus…not conflict between the parties, exactly, but conflict between the classes…There aren’t just rich people and poor people, he reminds us: the rich are rich because the poor are poor.”

There’s no way to know which contributed more to DSA’s growth during this period: the group’s own public-facing activism and organizing work, or the catalytic effect of Bernie’s high-profile advocacy for a new American class politics. Surely it was a combination of both—Bernie opened people’s eyes to the class war already underway, and DSA gave people a way to be part of the fight. By late 2017 DSA boasted 30,000 members, and by mid-2018 that number was 40,000.

DSA received another huge influx of members in July of 2018, precipitated by the primary election victory of 28-year-old DSA member (and 2016 Bernie campaign volunteer) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over entrenched Democratic Party establishment incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York City congressional race. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign video, written by her and directed by DSA members, dripped with class-struggle rhetoric:

Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family… My name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker… After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, healthcare covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us.

Ocasio-Cortez, a charismatic, young Latina pursuing an unconventional path to office, became an overnight media sensation—not least because she struck terror into the heart of the political right. Ocasio-Cortez’s and DSA’s stars rose together. Mainstream headlines from the period after her primary election included, “What You Need to Know About the Democratic Socialists of America” (NPR), “Are You a Democratic Socialist?” (the New York Times), and “Capitalism Only Works for the Rich. We Deserve to Share the Wealth: Democratic Socialists” (USA Today).

Ocasio-Cortez immediately began using her fame to agitate for an ambitious short-term agenda that mirrored the organization’s, and to speak openly about the class divide in America and its implications for politics and daily life.

For example, when asked how we would pay for Medicare for All, Ocasio-Cortez effortlessly responded live on CNN,

Why is it that our pockets are only empty when it comes to education and healthcare for our kids? Why are pockets only empty when we talk about 100 percent renewable energy that is going to save this planet and allow our children to thrive? We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do, but when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money very easily.

The press made much out of Ocasio-Cortez’s DSA connection. A lot of the coverage was surprisingly positive, evidence of a (possibly short-lived) window of tolerance for socialist ideas in the media. However, centrist news outlets also routinely downplayed the organization’s radical politics, assuring readers and viewers that democratic socialism was synonymous with a tepid variant of social democracy and posed no existential threat to capitalism.

DSA members took the opportunity to correct this misunderstanding and explain our objection to capitalism in as rational and non-alienating a way as possible. We saw the confusion from the center and the attacks from the right as a fantastic opportunity to talk about the inherent flaws of a system that requires some people to sell their labor on the open market while others reap the profits of that labor.

With this goal in mind, I wrote an article for Vox titled “Democratic socialism, explained by a democratic socialist.” I know I made some headway dispelling the myth of our fundamental innocuousness because Newt Gingrich penned a response calling DSA members “demons” who were being “unleashed” by hapless and unwitting Democrats. That chance to plainly argue against capitalism before a wide audience, and as a result to draw vocal opposition from a leading accomplice of the capitalist class in the state, would have never come along were it not for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful insurgent campaign for office.

The Art of Persuasion

By the time the midterms were over, Ocasio-Cortez had been joined by DSA member Rashida Tlaib of Michigan in Congress, the number of DSA members in state legislatures had grown from four to eleven, and the number of DSA member had surged to 55,000.

Now, don’t get too excited. There are a total of 535 member of both houses of Congress. There are 7,383 state legislature seats. There are 330 million people in the United States. Despite the truly stunning amount of media coverage, DSA is not in a position to take over either the state or civilian society any time soon.

But DSA does have organizational opportunities that didn’t exist before. Democratic socialism is gaining recognition and legitimacy, people are becoming politicized and radicalized in unprecedented numbers, and we have a shot at funnelling that new energy into real fighting institutions, instead of simply watching it diffuse as it did after Occupy.

In times like these, when we have a dash of popular notoriety but don’t have state power, the chief task of the socialist movement is to persuade. We must seize every chance we get to persuade millions of people that the hardships they experience stem largely from the fact that we live in an unnecessarily class-stratified society, that ending class stratification requires ending capitalism, that there is a viable and achievable alternative to capitalism in the form of socialism, and that attaining it requires working-class solidarity and self-organization.

For some of our ideas, there is already mass support. For others, there is great potential for such support. Working people don’t want to be exploited, don’t want to spend most of their waking lives performing alienating tasks in service of someone else’s profit and still struggling to make ends meet. But under neoliberal capitalism, the working class is usually too disaggregated and disorganized to feel confident in its ability do anything about the situation. As DSA member Chris Maisano put it, “People accept the rule of capital not because they’re duped by ideology and discourse, but because, in most times and places, they correctly perceive no realistic alternative to its rule.”

Electoral politics provide us with many such opportunities for persuasion. That’s because a lot of people wouldbuy what we’re selling, if only it were ever advertised to them—which it rarely is, since the elimination of an alternative to capitalism in the popular imagination has been one of the chief triumphs of neoliberalism. And because people in a depoliticized culture mostly confine their political thought to election time, electoral campaigns for democratic socialist candidates are a rare opportunity to cut through the fog of resignation and articulate a positive alternative political vision.

A growing number of Americans view socialism favorably, including a majority of people between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Across age groups, Americans’ view of capitalism is at an all-time low in polling history. Union membership itself has been on a steep decline for decades, but there’s been a recent uptick in public support for unions—in fact, 55 percent of Americans view unions favorably according to the Pew Research Center. According to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Corporation, 48 percent of people who are not in a union said they would like to join one, up from only 32 percent in 1995.

Our policy ideas are popular, too, now that Bernie Sanders has lent them legitimacy on a national stage. According to a 2018 Reuters poll, 70 percent of Americans said they support a single-payer or Medicare for All health insurance system—up from only 21 percent in 2014. 60 percent of Americans say they support tuition-free college, another one of Bernie’s flagship policy proposals. This shows that in key areas of life, many Americans want to move in a socialist direction. They just needed to be shown it was possible.

Democratic socialist candidates for office and elected officials can talk to people on a mass scale, using readymade media platforms, about whywe don’t have universal healthcare, whywe have a $1.5 trillion student loan debt load, why our unions are nearly destroyed, why wages are low while profits for the super-elite are skyrocketing like never before. And organized socialists can treat each instance of this public agitation as an opportunity to elaborate the analysis, to make connections between issues, and perhaps most importantly to give people a sense of purpose and a way to get involved when they decide they’re ready to do something about it.

People are naturally inspired and politicized by the efforts of democratic socialist politicians to highlight inequality, demand redistribution, galvanize workers, redraw battle lines, and raise our expectations for how we can organize society. DSA understands that its role right now is to intercept those people. It’s to meet them in their moment of heightened hope, rage, and novel understanding and invite them into a stable and active institution—one where they can begin to engage in organized class struggle, in most cases for the first time in their lives.

The Means and the Ends

Working to elect democratic socialists can have both a catalytic and a systematizing effect on class-struggle organizing, but only if we understand it as a tactic among many and not simply a means to the end of winning office.

Electoral campaigns invite media attention. They also naturally foreground multiple issues at once, giving socialists a good opportunity to make connections between them and promote a broader class analysis. They cohere coalitions, bringing socialist organizations into close contact with groups that may not share our entire perspective but sympathize with us and have an organic working-class base. And they provide socialist organizations with opportunities to build infrastructure, and develop skilled socialist leaders who can take the helm in non-electoral class struggle fights as well. All of these are possible benefits whether or not a candidate wins office.

One example of this can be seen in California’s East Bay, where DSA member Jovanka Beckles narrowly lost a state assembly contest to handpicked establishment Democrat Buffy Wicks. Beckles is an eight-year Richmond, California city council member who cut her political teeth fighting Chevron, the city’s largest employer, successfully regulating emissions and aggressively taxing the corporation to pay for social services for working-class residents.

Wicks had never before been elected to office, but was a veteran of the Obama and Clinton campaigns as well as the world of PACs and political and corporate consulting. Wicks had earned the nickname “Buffy the Bernie Slayer” for her work orchestrating Clinton’s defeat of Sanders in the California Democratic Party primary in 2016. Her campaign was awash in corporate money from around the country, particularly from pro-charter school and anti-union PACs, but also from the real-estate and tech industries.

Beckles used her campaign against Wicks as an opportunity to talk about corporate money and influence, and class conflict generally. Her platform was probably the most progressive in the entire country this midterm season: single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public college, a $20 minimum wage, a shortened workweek to be eligible for benefits, universal childcare, mandatory paid parental and sick leave, universal just-cause termination, banning private prisons, universal rent control, and hundreds of thousands of new units of social housing—the latter of which she proposed be funded by taxing real-estate developers and vacant luxury housing units.

East Bay DSA helped directly with the Beckles campaign, consulting on the platform and helping with social media, and also ran its own independent campaign for Beckles, foregrounding capitalism and socialism. Members of the chapter wrote multiple op-eds for local papers, and canvassed and phonebanked nearly every day leading up to the election.

The chapter also created a website, buffywicks.money, to expose Wicks’ complex web of big-money donors, several of whom have ties to the Trump administration. The website generated an impressive amount of media attention and put Wicks on the back foot for the duration of the campaign. Beckles frequently asked in public, “Who are these donors who’ve thrown nearly $3 million into my opponent’s campaign, and what are they expecting as a return on their investment?” Corporate donations emerged as the most important topic in the entire contest, with even press outlets favorable to Wicks going out of their way to justify her hefty independent expenditures from billionaires.

The district is enormous, and the campaign was one of the most contentious (and expensive) in its history. Big players from around the country took notice: Bernie Sanders endorsed Beckles, and Barack Obama endorsed Wicks. Hillary Clinton made robo-calls for Wicks the night before the election.

Outspent four to one, Beckles lost narrowly. But she raked in over 90,000 votes—more votes that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Julia Salazar combined. And East Bay DSA had used the opportunity presented by the campaign to transform the contest into a referendum on corporate Democrats versus democratic socialists, on the capitalist class versus the working class.

The loss stung, but because DSA doesn’t see elections as a simple means to an end, the East Bay chapter didn’t skip a beat. The chapter had built up a tightly-organized operation during the campaign, equipping dozens of leaders with political skills from speechwriting to political graphic design to canvass-organizing. They refused to let it dissolve. Within a month, the chapter had begun to channel the energy from the Beckles campaign into the Oakland teachers’ fight against the school district, a local iteration of the national teachers’ strike wave. Not coincidentally, the villains in the new fight were the same as the previous one—the Oakland school board is staffed by pro-charter members whose political careers are bankrolled by the same forces who backed Wicks.

This example demonstrates the importance of thinking of electoral campaigns as iterations of ongoing class struggle, which can and must strengthen our organizing work outside the electoral sphere. Winning office is only one of our objectives as we dive into a campaign. An electoral campaign itself is an opportunity to build class consciousness by agitating against capitalist elites, to train new leaders in crucial political skills, and to whip our internal operations into shape. If our candidate wins but we haven’t attended to these tasks, we’ve lost a major opportunity for growth and advancement. On the flip side, if our candidate loses but we’ve effectively used the campaign as an opportunity to build our capacity as an organization, we can hit the ground running on the next fight—and we’ll be better positioned to win it.

Democratic socialism is an extreme minority position in the capitalist state, a bourgeois institution that is presently designed to protect the interest of elites. That will only change if a mass movement of millions of ordinary people organizes for socialism and working-class power outside the electoral sphere. Any DSA-endorsed candidates elected to office should be expected to view their role expansively—not as mere representatives of a movement, but as its organizers, using their offices to expose and oppose the domination of the capitalist class and encourage working-class resistance to it.

Meanwhile, socialist organizations must view all of our electoral campaigns as opportunities to build an organic social base for our politics. We do this by picking open fights and naming our enemies: the capitalist class, and the politicians in both parties who carry their water. Then, when the campaigns are over, we must keep up the momentum and fight those same enemies on other fronts.

As democratic socialism emerges into the US political mainstream, we will start to encounter a lot more pushback than we have so far. The moment we begin to pose a real threat to the Democratic Party establishment, we will see a combination of outright attacks and subtle attempts at cooptation; these have already begun. If we do eventually take state power and begin to implement policies that aggressively redistribute wealth and decommodify goods and services on a mass scale, reactionary elements in the state will resort to anti-democratic means as they desperately cling to power, and the capitalist class will resort to wildly punitive measures like capital strikes.

Provoking the retaliation of our enemies will be, at long last, a sign of relevance. It is a guaranteed reaction to the self-organization and empowerment of the working class. We’re a long way off, but DSA has chosen to dive headlong into these contradictions. For fifty years or more, American socialism has been little more than a subculture. We have a chance now to give our movement a mass character, but we can’t do it from the bleachers. We must take the plunge.

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