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The DSA Electoral Strategy for 2018

Article published:
Bernie Sanders talking with 2 women

The following notes are from Christine Riddiough’s presentation for a webinar on the role of socialists in the 2018 elections, hosted by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

I want to cover three points related to DSA, our electoral strategy, and our recent growth:

  1. The background on DSA’s entry into the electoral arena in the 2016 election.
  2. Our electoral strategy and program strategy for 2018.
  3. Looking to the future – 2020 and beyond.

DSA’s entry into the electoral arena

In 2014 DSA made support for Bernie Sanders campaign for President its number one priority. DSA’s work on the campaign included sponsoring teach-ins that introduced Bernie activists to basic democratic socialist principles. As a result, DSA grew healthily through the Sanders campaign, going from 6,500 members in fall 2014 to 8,500 by election day 2016. And, of course, events since then – the Trump victory and inauguration, the rise of the alt-right and the demonstrations last year in Charlottesville, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – have all resulted in further growth. DSA’s membership is now close to 50,000.

In endorsing Sanders DSA wound up being a leading force in what has been a resurgence of socialism not seen in the United States in the last hundred years. And it was clear that involvement in electoral politics was an important piece of that resurgence. At the 2017 national convention DSA set as one of three priorities electoral work, along with Medicare for All and Labor work. The resolution highlighted supporting viable openly socialist candidates for office either in Democratic primaries or as independents. It directed the National Electoral Committee to work with other national committees and working groups to develop electoral best practices for DSA locals. Thus in 2017 chapters began working on a variety of local campaigns. Perhaps the most notable one was that of Lee Carter in Virginia. Carter, with the support of the Metro DC local defeated the Republican majority whip in the Virginia legislature to become the first socialist in Virginia House of Representative.

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Our strategy in 2018

In the beginning of 2018, the DSA National Political Committee adopted a more detailed electoral strategy that included a National Electoral committee focused on helping each chapter build its capacity to create independent electoral structures and facilitating collaboration and communication between DSA locals. Electoral work is one aspect of building power and should be the natural extension of other local campaigns around issues like housing, health care and education. Locals had the opportunity to get national endorsements for candidates and in 2018, DSA has so far endorsed 26 candidates.

And, of course one of the big victories, this year has been that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York in June. That was followed in July by the win for Rashida Tlaib in Detroit. But in many respects the real victories are those at the local level, from school boards to city councils to state legislatures.

By encouraging people to run in those kinds of races and by providing the chapters with tools, through webinars and other trainings, to act effectively in campaigns, we are getting our message about socialism out to a broad audience, building a bench of increasingly experienced legislators who can move forward to federal office, and extending opportunities for our locals to work on, and succeed in carrying out our priority campaigns on health care and labor.

Looking forward

The electoral strategy initiated in 2014 and built on each year since has seen many successes. Already, activists are looking to 2019 and 2020 as opportunities to expand our democratic socialist base.

But simply having Bernie Sanders or even an Elizabeth Warren in the White House in 2021 doesn’t go far enough. Even with two DSA members in the House of Representatives Sanders as President is not going to be able to enact the changes that we want.

To actually make the change that we need, we must have a longer perspective – we need to look not just two years down the road rather we must develop a strategy that has looks 20 or 30 years down the road. This may seem impossible but let me take you back to 1964. That year Barry Goldwater suffered a devastating loss to Lyndon Johnson in the Presidential election. Goldwater was, for that time, a hard-right politician; his loss was viewed as wreaking havoc on the right. Sixteen years later Ronald Reagan was elected President. Over the course of the 1970s the right had a strategy. It took Goldwater’s base in the South and turned it into ‘a Southern strategy,’ a strategy that allowed it to put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980. In doing this it was able to capture the debate on the role of government – for example, in 1972 Congress voted for a universal child care bill (vetoed by President Nixon), eight years later the mantra was becoming ‘get the government off my back. Now – more than 30 years later – the Republican Party’s long trek to the right has culminated in a party led by Donald Trump. It not only relies on a conservative Southern base, but one that has been captured by the alt-right, conspiracy theorists, and racists.

We now face a Trump administration wreaking havoc in the United States and the world. What lesson can we learn from this? We need to learn that our approach to the 2018 elections must be part of a strategy for the next 20 years. We’re now able to impact policy and politics, but we need to build stronger grass roots organizing capabilities. As we fight against ICE, against Kavanaugh, against the alt-right, we need a strategy to start laying the groundwork now for a democratic socialist victory in the future. How do we even start to think in these long-range terms?

To bring about the changes we want, to move the US in direction of democratic socialism, we need power. Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement, a position paper of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, states, ‘The socialist feminist strategy aims at realigning power relations through the process of building a base of power for women…. We oppose the utopian position which argues against any change until the perfect solution is possible.’

They go on to describe the three criteria for choosing issues:

  • They should materially alter women’s lives.
  • They should give women a sense of their own power.
  • They should alter the relations of power.

Today as part of a democratic socialist movement we can learn an important lesson from that. Our electoral strategy must focus on those three criteria:

  1. Our electoral work must be linked to our fight against the program of the right to divide the working class and we must work for programs like Medicare for All, college for all, childcare initiatives that will materially alter people’s lives. Electoral work is not simply about electing good people to office but about both electing them and then holding them to their positions.
  2. Our electoral work must give people a sense of their own power. Today elections are dominated by money, voters are given little reason to vote and are often stymied in their attempts to vote. By working at the local level and building up a base at the state and ultimately the national level, we can reach out to people to get them involved and to see that what they do is important in shaping the world we live in.
  3. Our electoral work, in conjunction with our work on issues like health care and labor, has to alter the relations of power. For example, we recognize that simply enacting a Medicare for All bill will not do that – there will still be opportunities for insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, hospital corporations will still be able to undercut gains we might make. Nonetheless, by regulating such corporations and moving toward a progressive income tax to fund these kinds of changes, we can begin to help people take power.


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