Imagining an MDC DSA Bernie 2020 Campaign: It’s Not Just About Bernie

This will be part of a five-section outline on MDC DSA and the Bernie 2020 campaign, with each piece linked below.

This article was written prior to the release of internal poll results and final NPC endorsement vote.

Rashida Tlaib posted a photo taken with Bernie Sanders on her Instagram account, jokingly calling Bernie “Uncle” and saying “This man gets me.” The photo stuck with me, as it’s a perfect representation of the conditions that the emerging left finds itself in. We have new leaders that have been tossed into the spotlight, but at the presidential level there’s only Bernie. The photo also struck me because the location was Hunan Dynasty, a small Chinese restaurant close to Capitol Hill. For years, Hunan Dynasty was Metro DC DSA.

When I first joined DSA in March 2016, nearly a quarter of all Metro DC local meetings took the form of monthly “Socialist Salons,” in which 5 to 15 people would get together in one of the restaurant’s backrooms and discuss democratic socialism over noodles and fortune cookies. I was always impressed by the dedication of the folks that attended those meetings. Those days are long gone. We now have over 50,000 members and nearly 2,000 in the Metro DC chapter alone. However, a part of me will always wonder whether our chapter would still be meeting in Hunan Dynasty had we sat out the Bernie 2016 campaign like every other socialist organization.

There has been an emerging consensus among members that DSA will likely endorse Bernie Sanders, but not a lot has been published yet on what a DSA for Bernie 2020 campaign would actually look like. And while many have written about the transformative power a Bernie presidency would have on the US political landscape, less discussed is the transformative potential such a campaign might have on our organization. The Sanders campaign revived DSA in 2016, and if we are prepared to seize the opportunity, it may again.

In late 2014, DSA endorsed a campaign called “We Need Bernie” aimed at encouraging Bernie Sanders to run for president. While DSA’s Bernie campaign was certainly not the key factor to his unprecedented success, our relationship to that work made sure that we were well positioned to be seen by a portion of his millions of supporters as a logical continuation of the movement that Bernie had built for democratic socialism. Most of this work was basic electoral organizing and base building - canvassing and pamphleting outside of metro stops and even hosting meetups like “Beers for Bernie” along with educational events about his platform. Many DSA chapters got their start as unofficial local Bernie support groups that looked for ways to stay involved after the primary was over. The effect on YDSA was even more pronounced as many different progressive organizations tried to start their own youth sections to convert former Students for Bernie chapters into their own chapters.

The Comcast-sponsored 2016 Democratic National Convention, which was planned to be a coronation that would put the spectre of socialism to bed in the party, instead only placed its developing fissures into sharper focus. Over 50 Sanders delegates, and 40% of the Sanders delegation from Texas, were members of DSA. The convention even held a Socialist Caucus that was overflowing with delegates interested in learning about democratic socialism. Even at this point, long before the nightmare of a Trump presidency was a reality, DSA was becoming a conduit for the white-hot energy the Sanders campaign had unleashed, foreshadowing the explosion in membership that would take place months later.

But this newly found credibility of DSA didn’t fall from the sky; it was the real investment our organization made in that campaign. This work must have seemed incredibly modest at the time, even for an organization too small to have any real influence over the people running the Sanders campaign, but it was absolutely essential to the revitalization of the org, giving it an important jolt of energy when it needed it most.

First and foremost, we must use the Bernie 2020 campaign as an opportunity to build the real world power of the socialist movement by talking with workers honestly about our plan to turn our ideas into a reality and bring them into an organization that can be a real vehicle for their demands. The Sanders campaign provides a sharp lens for thousands or millions of working people to think of their political interests in terms of class.

So what does a democratic socialist organization’s campaign for an independent running as a Democrat look like? Let’s first ask what we hope to accomplish with a Metro DC Bernie 2020 campaign. We should:

  1. Use the MDC Bernie 2020 Campaign to engage with working people about explicitly socialist politics in a way that ties local material conditions to national issues.
  2. Use the Bernie campaign as a way to bring in progressive allies and have them volunteer through our electoral and non-electoral campaigns.
  3. Build “progressive” coalitions that are lasting in all of our jurisdictions that can be activated for electoral and non-electoral work.
  4. Use Metro DC’s incredibly important location as an opportunity to engage with organized labor about the importance of supporting independent socialist politics.
  5. Use the Bernie 2020 campaign as a process within MDC DSA of targeted recruitment, onboarding, and leadership development.
  6. Use the Bernie 2020 campaign to build connections between members and parts of the organization locally, regionally, and nationally.

I hope that the ideas offered in the following pieces provide some suggestions of how we might achieve these goals.

An Independent Campaign Strategy to Build Our Organization

Bernie, Labor, and DSA

Building DSA Community and Leadership Development

Practically and Structurally

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