Small but positive
Peter Moody looks at DSA attempts to ensure that their elected representatives remain accountable to the organisation
The Democratic Socialists of America seem poised to have two members in the next sitting of the House of Representatives - albeit elected on the Democratic Party ballot line - which would be historic for both the DSA and the representation of self-described socialists in Congress generally.
This would also be notable in terms of the group’s electoral strategy, as these candidates are well-known as members of the DSA, and one of the candidates in particular - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - has been endorsed by the national organisation and received material support from it; this has also been true to varying degrees for a number of candidates for state and local office.1 This represents a shift for the organisation - likely brought on in part by the ‘successful loss’ of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which helped start the ball rolling in terms of membership to get the DSA to its current claimed figure of 50,000.
Previous DSA interventions in elections can probably be best described as uneven. While it is best known on the left for promoting a strategy of ‘realigning’ the Democrats - working with trade union leaders, left liberals and progressive social movements to transform the party into a social democratic formation - its official stance has historically been one of agnosticism between explicit realignment and more tentative support for building some sort of independent political formation.
That said, in practice the DSA has given at least tacit support to the Democrats, and generally looked askance at electoral efforts to the party’s left - whether in the form of non-socialist radicals like the Greens, or explicitly socialist campaigns. Nevertheless, such efforts were indeed tacit: little energy or organisational resources were spent promoting Democratic candidates. Even when the DSA had elected officials previously (including former Democratic member of Congress Ron Dellums), such candidates went largely unremarked, the unspoken logic behind such a stance being that socialism was saddled with too much baggage to be electorally popular outside of some minor-edge cases, and the duty of socialists was to act as the best builders of the ‘broad, progressive’ camp in order to either promote reforms or at least keep conservatives from winning office and ‘making things worse’.
In a post-Sanders political environment, however, things have changed in the DSA’s estimation. Now that some conception of socialism has entered into wider American consciousness as a positive, the group has taken a much more proactive approach to supporting in particular candidates who are DSA members. By and large, the candidates it supports are still running on the Democratic Party ballot line, but uphold a document passed by the DSA’s national convention last August - now national priority is given to supporting “open socialist candidates”.2 Furthermore, the convention document fleshes out a commitment to “building a mass socialist political formation in the United States” and speaks of developing candidates (and by extension, elected officials) who are “accountable to DSA’s political agenda and who can serve as the base for increasingly assertive and widespread independent socialist electoral activity in the coming years”.
The accountability question is a vital one. In an electoral strategy document adopted by the DSA’s national political committee earlier this year, which fleshes out the principles adopted at the August convention, the desire to hold candidates running with DSA endorsement accountable to the politics and platform of the organisation runs strongly throughout. In particular, the document correctly notes some of the weaknesses of the DSA’s earlier electoral efforts. Under the old method, the resources of the DSA largely existed as campaign fodder, subordinate to the candidate running; once elected, said candidate
possesses not only elected office and the power of incumbency, but all of the resources (staff, skills, experience, a donor list) required to run a successful campaign and stay in office; the organization, meanwhile, has little leverage over the candidate and little to show for the work of its volunteers.3
The piece goes on to argue - again, correctly - that this model had the practical effect of subordinating the broader organisation to the elected official, rather than the other way round: in order to retain access to the official they had to be provided with resources and loyal support, while criticism of their actions had to be either muted or silenced completely. With such an arrangement, the elected official then had the freedom to pursue whatever agenda suited best their own political career, and the DSA either needed to stop supporting said official - thereby losing the much coveted access that they were aiming for by supporting them in the first place - or provide left cover for what may have ended up being an increasingly centrist or rightwing agenda, so undermining the politics that a socialist organisation is supposedly fighting for.
Thus, from the perspective of rhetoric, the DSA’s electoral strategy document represents a positive step, if perhaps a hesitant one. Unfortunately, though, practical proposals for how candidate accountability is to be achieved are rather thin on the ground, which leads to a de facto slide towards the previous model of jockeying for candidate access, while committing greater energy and resources.
This slippage has already started in the case of the DSA’s highest-profile candidate - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While she prominently featured her DSA support during her campaign for the Democratic nomination (and still calls herself a “democratic socialist” on her website), her Twitter profile was largely scrubbed of DSA content after the primary, and DSA endorsement now only exists on her website as one among a constellation of progressive and left-liberal groups also supporting her campaign - as opposed to the prominent place that one would hope for the organisation of which she is a member and supposed representative (and to which - again hopefully - she is accountable).4
Moreover, Ocasio-Cortez has made public statements pitching herself as a loyal Democrat, seeking to support all party nominees regardless of their actual politics. This has led the New York City chapter of the DSA to publicly criticise (if perhaps rather mildly) her position. It is positive that this unconditional Democratic Party loyalty is not going unchallenged, but is yet another sign that any process of developing candidate accountability to the DSA itself has a long way to go5.
1. The other US House candidate, Rashida Tlaib, has not been endorsed by DSA nationally, but was endorsed by the Metro Detroit local of the organisation.