Bernie's Lasting Legacy is DSA
As Bernie Sanders nears the end of his political career, it's worth remembering just how remarkable the growth of socialism in America has been.
Before Bernie Sanders, most of the heroes of the American left seemed irrelevant or were dead. The idea of someone campaigning seriously for president on a socialist platform was ludicrous for much of the last 40 years, as Bill Clinton became the hero of a new kind of liberalism that explicitly rejected the legacy of an expansive federal government. Leftists could look longingly at old photographs of Eugene Debs lecturing massive crowds at train stops and wonder how and why socialism could flourish in capitalist America and why it was ultimately crushed. When the two major political parties converged in the 1990s, embracing neoliberalism and austerity, leftists were adrift. Some reluctantly backed Democrats. Other hoped Ralph Nader could build a viable third party movement. The Greens, however, could never offer the promise of power. As thrilling as it was, as a college student, to interview Nader, I understood implicitly that the kind of victories socialists sought could not be won that way—not at the ballot box, at least. Why would the 2010s be different? Occupy Wall Street exploded in 2011; critics derided it for producing few material gains after Michael Bloomberg viciously broke up the encampment.
Those critics, of course, ultimately missed the point. Occupy, through brilliant thinkers like David Graeber, offered a language for the discontent and longing of a lost generation, which graduated into what was then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It helped us understand why wealth in the United States didn’t seem to reach us and how oligarchs exploited our labor for their comfort. It was marvelous, briefly, and then it was over. Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, socialism seemed to fade from view, and the decade—with all its precarity for this millenial generation—grumbled onward.
Very few people cared when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president. He announced his campaign to a sparse cluster of reporters in Washington D.C. He was running, chiefly, because Elizabeth Warren had refused to; someone, it was understood, needed to stand for the left against a Hillary Clinton candidacy that had unabashedly forged close ties with Wall Street and supported disastrous foreign interventions, including the Iraq War. Obama himself had risen to the task in 2008, campaigning against the war. Clinton’s husband, Bill, had eviscerated the welfare system in the 1990s, deregulated the financial sector, and continued Ronald Reagan’s work of dismantling what the New Deal left us. Sanders, it seemed, would run a protest candidacy against all of that. Soon—to even his own surprise—he was a viable candidate for the president of the United States, and the left could taste power again.
Sanders popularized single-payer healthcare, rebranded Medicare for All, and convinced Senate colleagues like Kamala Harris to sign onto the bill. He shattered fundraising records. He inspired a generation of young people, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to throw themselves into politics in a radical new way. In his second campaign, he demonstrated a major candidate running in the Democratic primary could reimagine American foreign policy, particularly its inhumane approach to Palestinian suffering.
As Sanders, now 79, enters his final years in elected life, it’s worth considering what he’s leaving behind. For liberals disdainful of his candidacy—Clinton and Warren backers in particular—their hope is that he will fade from view and be forgotten. In their eyes, he was too coarse, too stubborn, even sexist. He occasionally surrounded himself with dubious individuals. His attempt to build a multiracial, working class coalition meant, for some, he too often ignored issues of identity. There are Democrats who revile Sanders almost as much as Trump. They will point out, rightly, few of the major candidates for the Senate and House in 2020 are campaigning explicitly on backing his Medicare for All bill. Most favor a public option add-on to Obamacare, which is thinly described. With Joe Biden ascendant, it could seem like Sanders made only so much of a difference, running and losing twice.
Yet his critics must concede one crucial point: he is the only losing presidential candidate to ever leave behind a mass movement. Few presidents, if any, ever do. Sanders has, almost single-handedly, bequeathed us the Democratic Socialists of America, who are on a drive right now to swell their membership to 100,000. If they hit this goal—they probably will soon, with 70,000 members already—it will mark a new high point for the American left and the beginnings of a permanent infrastructure that can thrive no matter the political climate. In past eras, organizing and enthusiasm on the left was too often yoked to who held the presidency. Complacency, in particular, took root in the Obama years. What DSA represents is a resilient base of electoral activism. More than 100 DSA-endorsed candidates have won office nationwide. This doesn’t include members of DSA who won without a formal endorsement, which would make the number much higher. Unlike the Working Families Party and most labor unions, DSA hands out relatively few endorsements, subjecting candidates to a lengthy questionnaire and a multi-tiered, decentralized voting process. DSA’s startling growth can’t be undersold. Before 2016, the organization had around 5,000 members nationwide and were a nonfactor in local elections. When I started reporting in 2012, I had not even heard of DSA, which was founded in 1982 to promote democratic socialism and tug the Democratic Party left. The brainchild of the renowned author and political theorist Michael Harrington, DSA spent decades in the relative wilderness, attracting a handful of socialist die-hards and few others.
Sanders changed all of that. Before his first campaign, the American left had what I would consider two high water marks: the 1910s and 1930s. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the upstart Socialist Party of America was able to elect more than 1,100 members to office on their own third party ballot line across America. Socialist city council members and assembly members were elected in New York, along with a member of Congress, the Lower East Side’s Meyer London. Socialists took control of the city of Milwaukee. Debs ran for president five times, drawing millions of votes, if no Electoral College victories. For a brief time before World War I, the Socialist Party appeared ready to challenge the supremacy of the Democratic and Republican parties. But President Woodrow Wilson’s ruthless Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare weakened the Socialists, along with their inability to fend off the combined might of Republican and Democratic Party bosses. America’s winner-take-all presidential system has always been hostile to third parties and the Socialists failed to sustain a third party movement, particularly when leftists were drawn to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Great Depression, though, did embolden the American Communist Party, founded after the Russian Revolution. Deeply involved in labor organizing and more skeptical of electoralism, the Communists attracted as many as 70,000 members in the 1930s, seeping deep into American culture. The Cold War and the revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities—the American Communists, to their detriment ultimately, were Soviet-funded—drove members away, and the Communists lost relevancy after the 1950s.
Without Sanders, there would have been no DSA boom. Unlike other resent left-oriented activism, it began in earnest before the election of Trump. The 2016 Sanders campaign drew many thousands of people to left politics for the first time and proved an avowed socialist could mount a competitive national campaign. Many of DSA’s top organizers entered politics through the 2016 election. It was Sanders’ explicit embrace of a socialist vision that brought them there. The growth continued with Trump’s election, as many thousands of people sought outlets for their frustration and fear. DSA, already strong thanks to Sanders, was there to welcome them in and channel their efforts into local politics and organizing.
In New York City, DSA will have sent two members to the State Senate by next year, when socialist activist Jabari Brisport takes office. They will have at least four state assembly members. DSA members are likely to ascend to the City Council in 2022. Branch meetings, now virtual, teem with new members. Beyond certain labor unions and nonprofits, DSA is the only serious interest group that can marshal hundreds of volunteers for given cause. They have supplanted reform Democratic clubs as the hub of activist energy for the young. They lack WFP’s prestige, but the number of people actively participating in DSA dwarfs whatever number WFP can reasonably claim. WFP is an important political action committee and progressive think tank masquerading as a political party; DSA is a member-driven mass movement organization, even with certain limitations, like its lack of reach in working class, less-educated communities.
Sanders lit the socialist match, but now it can burn without him. Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, DSA will keep organizing. Its power will only grow. There is no Red Scare waiting to derail them, the Cold War long dead. People under the age of 35 have no working memory of the Soviet Union. Unlike the old Socialist Party, DSA has recognized that engaging with the Democratic Party is the only path to power. Seizing the ballot line for their own ends is far more simple than attempting doomed third party campaigns. Sanders proved this when he ran for president as a Democrat. In another era, he would have been a Green or a Socialist, easily swatted away. It is a testament to his foresight that he never charged down that path.
What DSA will need next, as it hurtles toward 100,000 members, is professionalization. It is, amazingly, volunteer-run. Members can be paid by the campaigns they work for but most of the organizing is done on their own time, for free. The best and brightest young organizers, when not on a campaign roll, earn nothing for their relentless engagement. This is admirable but unsustainable. DSA should not repeat the mistakes of the Communists by evolving into a doctrinaire and deeply hierarchical organization, with party leaders valuing discipline over democracy. At the same juncture, a layer of paid organization will ensure the socialists retain their talent. It will also guarantee the narrative of their movement is not skewed or misunderstood in the press, since there are rarely individuals designated to speak for DSA. The WFP employs a media strategist for a reason. Prestige media continues to hold them in high esteem, even at a time when most of the labor unions that powered WFP have departed. The average DSA member may roll their eyes at this stuff—who cares about media optics?!—but it matters for bending the will of politicians, who are most attuned to perceptions of power. Imagine if DSA had aggressively backed Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, as WFP did last year. After Warren failed to win a single state, large news outlets would have blamed socialism for her failure and openly speculated about whether DSA was terminally weakened. But no pundit, as far as I could see, ascribed Warren’s collapse—a profound inability to outflank Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar—to WFP’s deficit of national power. Instead, WFP glided on as if the Warren campaign had never taken place.
WFP is able to command loyalty from the elected officials they helped elect and rally those who they spurned. Their current campaign, to save their third party ballot line, has been masterful, likely convincing tens of thousands of Democrats that the only way to safeguard progressive power in New York is to protect WFP’s ballot status, even though DSA has won great gains without any sort of ballot line. WFP lacks a mass constituency, but it is utterly professionalized, able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain a staff of organizers and consultants. DSA can have the best of all worlds, marrying a mass organization with professionalization. It can do this without sacrificing its commitment to democracy; it is the only political organization that genuinely engages with its membership before making an endorsement, rather than picking candidates in relative secrecy. Unlike WFP, DSA does not have to beseech billionaire donors like George Soros to fund their campaigns. In 2020, they used their budding online mailing list to fund their local campaigns, relying on small donations from engaged members—just as Sanders did in his presidential campaigns. Staffing up can be done this way too. Newly-elected DSA members should prioritize hiring organizers from DSA so talent is kept in-house. And those who win without DSA’s support, like Democrats who triumph without WFP, must be pressured to pledge some kind of fealty to socialism. The day should come when Chuck Schumer is forced to pander to DSA too. If that happens, Sanders will have, at last, won.