An Independent Campaign Strategy to Build Our Organization
An independent DSA campaign is the only path forward to protect from the twin dangers of co-option and marginalization. Many comrades have made the case that DSA is too small and should focus its energy and efforts on electing democratic socialists at the local level instead of focusing on a presidential campaign. Some have raised concerns Bernie work will cause us to ignore our vitally important local electoral work. Let’s be clear: the worst-case scenario for local electoral work is competing for volunteers with the Sanders campaign itself or pro-Sanders local volunteer groups. From the perspective of experienced electoral organizers, the only situation where our local electoral work loses momentum would be a scenario in which we either sit out the presidential campaign or direct canvassers to Sanders’ official campaign efforts instead of building our own independent campaign. For groups without the support of capital, volunteer support is everything. Our path towards successfully navigating the Presidential campaign is providing volunteers an ever better option to volunteer or canvass for DSA-endorsed “progressive slates.” These canvasses would use joint materials and literature we independently produce that includes Bernie and our locally endorsed candidates and would highlight the common, socialist aspects of their platforms. DSA would be able to decide the messaging, emphasizing socialism, choose the doors we knock (working class voters who have been left behind by electoral politics rather than the most active primary voters a presidential campaign would focus on), and keep the data for future electoral and non-electoral campaigns. This independent campaign model allows us to build DSA as a mass party formation while avoiding many of the pitfalls of other left electoral efforts (SAlt, Working Families, Our Revolution, etc.).
Many have raised the question of why DSA should run an independent campaign when this strategy may not be what Bernie or other progressive organizations want us to do. While we should be considerate as to how we operate within the framework of the progressive left, our primary concern shouldn’t be what the official campaign, or other progressive pro-Sanders organizations, want. Obviously, we shouldn’t be directly hostile or antagonistic to one of our movement’s longest allies, but we do not control levers of power within the Sanders campaign and are not at the size where we could be reasonably asking for direct concessions like cabinet posts or even major policy concessions; therefore our goal should be to use the campaign to build ourselves as organizers, our organizational capacity, and the democratic socialist movement.
During the 2018 Democratic Primary in Montgomery County, Maryland, a large coalition of grassroots progressive organizations, labor unions, environmental organizations, and immigrants’ rights organizations endorsed many of the same candidates and were able to coordinate their work as the “Progressive Alliance.” A driving factor behind this unprecedented alignment of organizations was MDC DSA’s early endorsements within an extremely crowded field of candidates. Our chapter’s early fundraising and canvassing efforts let unions and progressive organizations know which Left candidates were viable and had real support. The result of this collaboration was the creation of a new infrastructure for the Left in Montgomery County, the election of 3 socialists, and the introduction of bold, socialist policy in the Maryland House of Delegates. This kind of coalition work will be extremely valuable in 2020. If aligned behind the same DSA candidates, the Bernie vote in an area will often be sufficient to win a divided primary; this close association with Sanders would be a major asset to our explicitly socialist candidates. DSA commitment to Bernie on the ground will also steer local unions and grassroots organizations towards our operation.
Most presidential primary campaigns are only active in certain states for short periods of time in the run up to their primary, often for just a few weeks before the election day. This is the reality of presidential campaigns: they cannot be everywhere at once, and they pick and choose their spots to best impact the vote count. The actual long-term organizing work for a candidate like Bernie is done by an ad-hoc collection of local grassroots groups that spring up. Many of these grassroots groups had more active members than local DSA chapters have been able to mobilize in the years since. At 60,000 members, with infrastructure and serious organizing experience across the country, DSA is in a unique position to step into this political space, and channel this organizing energy behind an explicitly socialist program. DSA chapters have the ability to build an organizing community for volunteers excited by the Sanders campaign that includes socialist political education, builds local electoral campaigns, and keeps this energy in the socialist movement past Election Day.
Next Steps for MDC DSA
Below is a list of our relevant primary dates for our chapter’s 2020 cycle.
Virginia – Tuesday, March 3rd (Super Tuesday)
Maryland – Tuesday, April 28th
District of Columbia – Tuesday, June 16th
MDC DSA’s electoral work in Virginia this year will conclude in June, giving us 9 months before the first presidential primary in our chapter’s area. How should we use this time? There won’t be any new council or delegate elections in Maryland until 2022, and there won’t be any new state elections in VA until 2021. That suggests that we might want to focus our electoral efforts on a ward seat for the DC Council in 2020. Radicals have a long history in DC government. Julius Hobson was a member of the Statehood Party and served on the DC Council during the late 70s. Hobson was followed by fellow radical and DSA member Hilda Mason who served until 1999.
But first we have work to do. How do we find a potential candidate? How do we build sufficient connections and trust with the community? Where can we run? How do we avoid interfering with the work of other progressive organizations?
Several districts stand out. Ward 2 is represented by a Republican-in all-but-name who proudly displays a photo of himself with Trump in his office. Ward 4 is home to countless DSA members and has a Councilmember that seems to change their opinion after every person they talk to. These seem like natural starting points for a discussion on a 2020 Council race.
Our work shouldn’t be limited to DC, but we should ask ourselves where we might want to run people in the future within our other jurisdictions.
Metro DC DSA is a fairly unique chapter in that it has till now functioned more as a loosely-knit confederacy of campaigns, rather than a political organization with explicit goals and collective strategy to accomplish them. The chapter has a number of exemplary campaigns that would all be improved by effective coordination. No campaigns exist in a vacuum. Electoral work channels specific demands into engagement with the state to accomplish those demands. Tenant’s rights work deal with the state through laws set by the legislature and administered by the courts system. The demands of the working class are just that: demands. They require a number of different tactics working in concert as part of a broader strategy to actually accomplish.
We believe that there are also countless opportunities for our electoral and non-electoral work to be mutually beneficial. An easy example of this would be for Stomp Out Slumlords to hand out a simple walk card with our “Slate for Working People” information on it. These walk cards could even be modified to be tenant specific. Simple language about the need for tenant protections, rent control, and social housing legislation could be added to the script. This can be modeled of off San Francisco DSA’s successful campaign of the same nature that experimented with joint tenant and electoral canvasses and ultimately passed a guaranteed right to tenants counsel for everyone in the city. Our elected officials have already done a tremendous job in forcing debates within their respective caucuses about what real state solutions to housing rights, labor rights, and educational justice would look like.
There are also huge opportunities for collaboration in organizing and accessing large buildings. Electoral campaigns can rarely reach voters in large apartment complexes. Our local’s tenant organizers have experience in working in buildings like these and could be a tremendous help to our electoral work if they could work with electoral organizers to access large working class buildings and engage with them about Metro DC DSA’s vision.
Our chapter’s unique location in the nation’s capital means that we can bird dog members of Congress and demand that they take positions on whatever issues we choose. This offers a number of opportunities for direct action.