As you might have heard, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is going through a renaissance right now. Just before the 2016 election season, the party counted around 5000 members. Since then, the DSA has added more than 50,000 new members to their ranks. That represents a ten-fold increase in their membership in under 5 years. The DSA is now visibly active in cities across the United States, holding rallies and meetup events in New York, Seattle, LA, and Miami. Podcasts like Chapo Trap House and a loose association of Youtube channels known as Breadtube featuring channels like the David Pakman Show have given new life to ideas that were long dormant in Liberal circles. The Left, and specifically the Socialists, is back in the mainstream for the first time in more than a generation.
The most influential figure in this milieu and the person who is arguably responsible for single-handedly waking up the slumbering socialists of America is Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders has never been a Democratic Socialist, but he has long been associated with the organization. Until his historic primary run in 2016, he was mostly dismissed as a fringe leftist who could safely be ignored. After the failure of the Obama administration to pass a healthcare bill with a public option, it became clear to many Americans that the Democrats were too cozy with business elites to protect working-class people. If Americans wanted true universal healthcare, they would have to look farther to the Left. Sanders’ time had come.
The DSA in its current form is essentially an extension of Sanders’ movement. Most of the new members are Bernie supporters. Around three-quarters of participants in an online poll this summer demonstrated support for Bernie. Some of them are even staffers for his campaign. But the surest sign that the DSA is fully invested in Sanders as a politician came just recently at the DSA’s annual convention, where they passed Resolution 15, which guarantees that the DSA will not endorse any other Democratic candidate for President in 2020 if Bernie loses. The DSA will not even endorse Elizabeth Warren, who has absorbed many of Sanders’ policy positions into her own platform. The main problem with Warren, according to the DSA: Warren is a self-avowed capitalist, and the DSA does not like that. In another resolution, the DSA committed to only supporting candidates who publicly call themselves socialists. With these two resolutions in place, the DSA has now fully endorsed a “Bernie or Bust” position.
Not surprisingly, there are cracks forming between various caucuses within the party around the fact that the party as a whole is so tied to Bernie Sanders and by extension the Democratic party. After all, Bernie was elected by Democrats within the Democratic party. This means that the DSA has very little influence over Bernie’s platform. Moreover, there are factions within the DSA that do not support the strong focus on national electoral politics that currently dominates the conversations within the DSA party leadership. These factions, like the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), would prefer to focus on local organizing and political activism of the sort that put Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), another prominent DSA politician, on the map. AOC fans within the DSA point to the success of her campaign and the DSA’s success in working with her to cancel Amazon’s plans for a new campus in NYC as an indication that there is a viable path toward a truly socialist labor movement grounded in local politics. They argue that national electoral politics, from which the DSA is largely excluded except by derivative representation via the Democrats, is a waste of time.
Of the major caucuses within the DSA, the Bread and Roses caucus has done the most to tie the party to Sanders. Granted, there is general support for Bernie across the party. But the Bread and Roses caucus is one of the most influential, if not the most influential caucus in the party at the moment, and they are completely behind Bernie. They were responsible for proposing and passing the “Bernie or Bust” resolution at the National convention this year, and they openly advocate for a centralized power structure within the DSA that is focussed on supporting electoral efforts of politicians in the Democratic party who are Socialists, especially Bernie Sanders. In fact, the Bread and Roses caucus is so dominant within the party that they were able to get nearly all of their resolutions passed while other caucuses, like the LSC, struggled to even bring their resolutions to a vote.
One major problem with the Bread and Roses approach to supporting national electoral politics and Bernie Sanders so single-mindedly is that they are attaching the party to Sanders platform, which is often at odds with the DSA’s own stances on certain issues. For instance, Sanders voted to fund border security, which the DSA, so far following the lead of other DSA politicians like AOC, has opposed. This is no surprise considering that Sanders supports closed borders, unlike the open border policy of the DSA. In another jarring difference, Sanders, who is otherwise a strong advocate of Palestinian rights, has so far followed the Democratic party in opposing the Palestinian movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Meanwhile, DSA politician Tliab supports BDS, as does the DSA generally. Finally, Sanders voted to criminalize sex workers, which is fully out of step with the DSA platform. Again, because Bernie is an elected Democrat, the DSA has little to no influence over his policy positions. If these differences grow as the party evolves, Bernie may eventually be out of sync more significantly with the DSA, which would pose a significant threat to the Bread and Roses caucus as well as the DSA generally. Should Bernie Sanders win the Presidency while moving away from the DSA as his already, the problem might force a full-blown identity crisis within the nascent party already struggling to define itself.
Perhaps a more significant danger looming for the DSA is that Bernie might not win. Given the lead that Biden has enjoyed all summer in the polls, this is a very real possibility that DSA members would do well to consider. The “Bernie or Bust” resolution that the DSA passed essentially ties them to his fate in the primary, ensuring that his failure would signal a major defeat for the DSA as well. If Bernie’s campaign sinks, the DSA will go down with his ship. In the eyes of potential new party members, this might seem like an act of valiant loyalty to a leader, but it could also just be foolishly short-sighted. After all, one of the major criticisms that Liberals fabricated against Bernie supporters in the 2016 campaign is that they did not help Clinton defeat Trump. In 2020, the DSA will not even have the fall-back position of saying that the alternative to Trump is worse or just as bad. It will be a tall order to argue to potential liberal recruits that the DSA made the right decision to withhold support from another candidate should Trump win reelection. And if Warren or Biden (or any other Democratic candidate) wins the presidency and defeats Trump, the DSA cannot claim to have been part of that victory.
The debate within the DSA about how much to support Sanders and Democratic electoral ambitions is really a proxy for a larger conversation happening right now on the American Left: should socialists work with the Democratic Party of U.S. imperialism? In summary, there are three courses of action open to socialists: build a workers party and move towards a true socialist revolution; join with the Democrats to win elections for now, and then perform a so-called “dirty break” from the Democrats to spark a socialist revolution based on an electoral mandate from voters; or work to reform capitalism to be more in line with social democratic principles. DSA members who are reading between the lines suspect that Sanders is going for the second option of the three. Accordingly, many DSA members, like Eric Blanc who writes for the Jacobin, prefer to follow Sanders’ middle way, that is, win elections on the Democratic ticket and then perform a “dirty break” from the party in order to usher in true socialism. This position is perhaps best exemplified by the Bread and Roses caucus. In contrast, more conservative DSA members join the Bread and Roses caucus in supporting the Democrats but prefer to aim for an expanded social welfare system within capitalism a la the New Deal without instigating a true socialist revolution. This is closer to what Sanders himself is advocating publically as he runs for office with the Democrats. But the hardcore socialists within the DSA are not interested in so-called centrist reformism and parliamentarism. The die-hard socialists in the DSA want a true revolution. These are the party members most likely to feel betrayed by the Bread and Roses caucus as they work to get Sanders into the Presidency.
There is undeniably a personality cult around Sanders within the Bread and Roses caucus and the DSA broadly, which is just as open to criticism as every other personality cult in recent American politics, from Trump to AOC to Obama. The problem with personality cults is that they tie the success of policy initiatives and platforms to the success of a single politician and sacrifice ideological goals in favor of the whims of the leader. Of course, it would be an overstatement to say the future of the DSA is entirely dependent on Sanders. After all, the new members are not likely to go anywhere no matter what happens to Bernie in the primary or general elections. And when Sanders inevitably passes on from this world, he will be remembered as a father of the modern American socialist movement. But the close connection of this current version of the DSA to Sanders limits its flexibility and threatens to harm the wider Leftist movement in which many Liberals are participants. In turn, this single-mindedness will be seen as a mistake in the future should anything other than a Sanders Presidency come to fruition since it will likely alienate caucuses within the party who do not favor centralized national electoral strategies constructed to support Democratic politicians. If those fissures grow, the party could weaken and split. Meanwhile, the Bread and Roses position following a Sanders loss will hurt the recruiting efforts of the DSA among Liberals who are sympathetic to other candidates and to less hardline socialist policies. If the DSA is smart, they will pass resolutions to allow for a cushion between the party and Sanders in order to absorb the brunt of a Sanders loss in 2020. Otherwise, they will suffer the consequences with him, as will the workers for whom they fight.