DSA Isn’t Endorsing Biden. That Doesn’t Mean Members Can’t Work for Him

As I expect all readers of the Washington Socialist know, Democratic Socialists of America as an organization has opted to sit out the remainder of the presidential campaign. DSA had gone all-in for Bernie Sanders, and when he withdrew from the quest for the Democratic nomination (although not the quest to amass delegates) the organization issued a tweet announcing that it would not endorse Joe Biden, the last candidate standing.

Nor could it have endorsed Biden, for that die was cast at the DSA convention last August when the majority of delegates approved a “Bernie or Bust” resolution – if Sanders did not capture the nomination, the organization could endorse no one else (not even Elizabeth Warren if her candidacy had survived).

Although this Rubicon had been crossed months before (apologies for all the Julius Caesar references) it exploded anew into the left chatter and social media following the tweet. But this was reaction to a very old resolution, and if DSA wasn’t going to consider endorsing Warren, it surely wasn’t going to consider Biden.

All of this is history. The real question is what DSA, and DSA members, are going to do moving forward.

This commentary is not to attempt to relitigate the convention decision. I believe it was a mistake for DSA to have painted itself into a corner when it embraced Bernie or Bust. The delegates could have created a mechanism for allowing a re-examination of the electoral playing field should Sanders had fallen short. It could have, should have, considered the destruction another four years of Trump would wreak, not only on the country – on the economy, the social safety net, race relations, health care (not even taking into account his disastrous mangling of the COVID-19 response) and democracy itself - but also on the prospects for building a left-progressive challenge during yet another term. Yes, Trump’s 2016 election was a boon for DSA – its membership has grown some twelve-fold since then – and for the broad left, but the prospect of four more years of Trump, emboldened by another election mandate and freed from any electoral restraints, is truly frightening for the country and for the movement to resist him.

We might, as a country, survive four more years of Trump’s blundering nationalism and racist pandering. But the environment may not – things might already be too far gone to prevent the worst effects of climate change, but they very likely will have after four more years of climate denial and increasing use of fossil fuels. It’s very likely that COVID-19 will still be with us after Inauguration Day, but Trump will continue his attempts to tear down the health-care system we have. The country will survive, but at the cost of real lives: of COVID-19 sufferers (who are disproportionately poor and non-white), of migrants stranded on the wrong side of the border, of African Americans lynched by “very good people.” The failure of impeachment emboldened Trump to ignore any attempts to check his power– imagine how he will use another victory at the polls.

I will not argue that Biden is anything close to an ideal candidate. His record is a mixed bag of bland liberalism peppered by appeasement of conservatives and fealty to Wall Street. However – and I made the same argument in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, a candidate very much in the Biden mold – there will be hope for progress under a Biden presidency. He will take climate change seriously. He will cleanse the White House of the casual racism, misogyny and coarseness that Trump oozes. He will head an administration that the left will have a chance to pressure into moving in a better direction; under Trump, we can only fight a rear-guard action to prevent things from getting worse. He will appoint Supreme Court Justices who actually value justice. Another Trump term could mean two more appointments to the Court – which could cement a reactionary majority for a quarter century or more. Goodbye, Roe v. Wade.

No, DSA will not and cannot endorse Biden, but individual DSA members can and should help him win. It’s not clear that all of the traditional pre-pandemic methods of campaigning will be possible by the fall, but there is much else to do – if nothing else, phone banking, posting on social media, making contributions. The campaign should have ideas for how volunteers can contribute. And DSA members must work not only for Biden, but for a Congress that will undo the harm of the Trump administration and make meaningful strides forward, which will mean turning the Senate blue.

The “Open Letter to the New New Left from the Old New Left” published in The Nation in April was dismissed by many in DSA as coming from leaders of a long-defunct organization – Students for a Democratic Society – few of whom ever belonged to DSA. But the substance of their argument was valid: while endorsing Biden might be “a step too far,” the specter of four more years of Trump demands “all hands on deck” to turn him out. Bernie Sanders agrees and endorsed Biden. So did America’s second-most-prominent socialist, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Perhaps a more cogent argument for DSA members to back Biden came from noted African American author and activist Bill Fletcher Jr., speaking via Zoom at a Metro-DC DSA meeting on May 17. Riding above the fray in this election is a choice that comes from privilege, he argued; African Americans and Latinos and others with real stakes in the election don’t have the luxury of aloofness. “Anybody who thinks we can sit this election out is not a socialist,” Fletcher told the members.

And living in a deep-blue jurisdiction like DC or Maryland, or a Democratic-leaning state such as Virginia, doesn’t excuse inaction. Voting is the least of a citizen’s responsibilities. As Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience: “Cast your whole vote, not a piece of paper merely.” We must actively campaign to make sure Trump is a one-term president.

So the lack of a DSA presidential endorsement does not mean DSA members should sit on their hands when it comes to national politics. Those who look plainly at the destruction four more years Trump would bring have a duty to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Responses to this commentary are welcomed.

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