Over the past four years, I’ve had the privilege to work for two of the national organizations that took advantage of the political energy unleashed by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run for president. I first served as deputy director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and then as political director of Our Revolution. The two groups take quite different approaches to the critical question of how, or whether, to work inside the Democratic Party to turn it into a principled, social democratic force.
Our Revolution, which was created by the energy and core staff of the Sanders campaign, is dedicated to transforming the party. DSA, on the other hand, avoids engaging with internal party processes in any organized way. Our Revolution is following a more long-term and more promising approach: if you want to elect leftists to office across the nation, you have to take part in the internal workings of the mass organization that can make that possible. Strategically and realistically, if you do not engage in the Democratic Party, its apparatus will easily and continually be turned on you. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: you may not be interested in the Democratic leadership, but they’re interested in you.
Bernie Sanders launched Our Revolution via a livestream from Burlington, Vermont, a month after the end of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The nonprofit eventually grew to a handful of state committees, several hundred local affiliates, and over a quarter-million members. It focused on three arenas of struggle: passing transformative legislation such as Medicare for All, supporting progressive candidates up and down the ballot, and gaining a measure of power in the Democratic Party at all levels.
After the contentious and sometimes nasty contest for the 2016 nomination had ended, convention delegates established a Unity Reform Commission (URC) to bring more transparency to party affairs and open the primaries to more voters. The URC was born out of a resolution that addressed the concerns of many Sanders delegates that closed primaries, superdelegates, and party financing, among other issues, had unfairly slanted the primary in favor of Hillary Clinton. One of my first duties at Our Revolution, under the leadership of our chair, Larry Cohen, was to facilitate grasstops support—often but not solely consisting of pro-Sanders organizations—for the reform effort to codify the URC recommendations into party rules. After a nearly two-year-long internal campaign led by Sanders supporters, the DNC voted to retain superdelegates but only allow them to vote if the nomination battle goes beyond the first ballot. In addition, state parties were encouraged to open their primaries to independents, and fiduciary oversight was increased.
Beyond reforming the national party, Our Revolution began to compete for state and local party offices. Jane Kleeb, an Our Revolution board member, was one of the most successful cases. Raised a Republican, she began voting Democratic in the 1990s but became a dedicated environmentalist during the George W. Bush administration. This decade, she joined the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline that threatened the water table in her home state of Nebraska. Kleeb was impressed by Sanders’s strong backing of this movement effort by green and Native American activists against corporate power. In the spring of 2016, Kleeb helped him win the state’s caucuses by nearly fifteen points and then got elected chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
In December 2016, members of Our Revolution began a series of similar campaigns to take power in the infrastructure of local Democratic parties. The effort in New York state was one of the most extensive. After the 2016 convention, a group of Sanders delegates decided to form the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). One of their primary goals was to reform the state’s voter registration law that forced residents who had been independents to switch their registration half a year in advance to vote in the Democratic primary. Under pressure from NYPAN and other progressive groups, Governor Andrew Cuomo changed the rules for the 2020 primary, allowing New Yorkers to register with a party just two months before the primary.
Activists from Our Revolution had less success in their attempts to win effective power in county committees across the Empire State. Former Sanders volunteers did get elected to seats on the committee in the Bronx, but then some of them switched their loyalty to the party machine in response to continued pressure and promises from the establishment. In Queens, the party establishment managed to kick reformers off the primary ballot. To add insult to injury, it kept candidates on the ballot who later told reporters they didn’t even know they were running. It turned out the party could keep the elections a secret if there weren’t any contested races. But this corrupt finagling got the attention of a reporter for the New York Times. His reporting was likely more damaging to the party leadership than if the reformers had won a handful of seats.
In 2019, Tiffany Cabán—a candidate backed both by DSA and Our Revolution—nearly took the election for Queens District Attorney. But her opponent, borough president Melinda Katz, represented by lawyers working pro bono for the party, successfully challenged enough ballots to carry the recount by fifty-five votes. Outraged pro-Sanders activists, including a nearly all-DSA-run group called the New Reformers, are now running for posts as borough district leaders, the people who appoint the county leader who selects those attorneys. Activists have learned you can win races, but unless you have leverage in the party, your victories can be snatched from you. The maturing of their electoral strategy could help them to build the capacity to overtake the more conservative establishment and its machines in the coming years.
Democratic Socialists of America
In contrast to Our Revolution and those it has inspired, DSA has mostly remained unengaged with power struggles inside the Democratic Party. In 2017, the group’s leadership body, the National Political Committee (NPC), did vote to publicly endorse then-Congressman Keith Ellison’s campaign to be chair of the DNC. It also quietly backed the work of the URC. But that was pretty much the extent of DSA’s official involvement in party business. This represents a sharp departure for an organization founded back in 1982 by Michael Harrington and like-minded leftists who hoped to nudge the Democrats in a socialist direction—in tandem with feminists, the black freedom movement, and organized labor. (Before the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in 2018, just a handful of other DSA members had been elected to Congress, most notably Ronald Dellums from Oakland, California—who was also a vice-chair of the organization.)
The remarkable 1,000-percent increase in DSA’s membership since the first Sanders presidential campaign helps explain the organization’s reluctance to struggle for influence within the party. It now represents a broad spectrum of U.S. radicals, whose view of the Democratic Party ranges from critical engagement to blanket condemnation. In 2017, DSA conducted a survey of its members’ political views. One question allowed respondents to check off as many political tendencies that they identified out of some twenty options. Over three-fifths picked “Berniecrat,” “liberal,” or “social democrat.” But the rest chose more radical identities; 4 percent even chose “communist”—an option that would have flabbergasted Harrington and his anti-Stalinist peers. At the 2017 DSA convention, a substantial minority of delegates voted for a resolution labeling such groups as Our Revolution and MoveOn as rivals. Fortunately, a proposal to ask Sanders to form a third party was resoundingly defeated. A provision calling for the eventual creation on an independent party—albeit more as an ambition than plan—did pass with some notable dissent from prominent electoral activists.
Despite national calls against the Democratic Party, most DSA activists—even the party’s biggest critics—mobilize in support of comrades running on the Democratic line. Many local DSA chapters are deeply engaged in trying to elect left-wing Democrats—socialist and not. While indifferent at best to working inside the party apparatus, chapters’ electoral working groups often mimic what a club or machine would do. They mobilize voters to back the candidates they favor, help members get jobs on campaigns and with victorious politicians, and lobby new officeholders to promote DSA’s legislative priorities.
This ambivalence frustrates some veteran activists. Take the case of Daraka Larimore-Hall from Santa Barbara, California, who served as DSA’s youth organizer at the turn of the century and then was active in anti-racist solidarity work with social democratic parties in Scandinavia. The former grad student union leader is now chair of his county’s Democratic Party and a vice-chair of the state party. He views the lack of interest of most DSAers in this kind of work as a missed opportunity. In late 2016, when the San Luis Obispo party establishment promoted a rule that clubs would have to endorse the party’s nominees, Larimore-Hall encouraged his fellow Berniecrats to support it. He reasoned that progressives would soon take over the party’s infrastructure—and the rule would backfire on its initiators. As it happens, the rule change failed, while progressives won a number of party offices. But they lack the leverage the measure would have provided to compel the old guard to back left-wing candidates.
The 2020 election will test whether an inside or outside strategy best advances the aims of democratic socialists in the United States. In 2019, Our Revolution called for a climate debate among the presidential contenders and campaigned against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s policy of shunning consultants who work for challengers to incumbent Democratic congresspeople. The national convention in Milwaukee may show whether the reform measures enacted four years earlier were worthwhile. If the nomination fight goes to a second ballot, superdelegates will be able to vote, and this may damage Sanders’s chances. If he does capture the nomination, new DNC rules would limit what nonprofits that are tied to individual candidates, like Our Revolution, can do. (Specifically, candidates agree to not run duplicative messaging operations.) Furthermore, the rules return more power to the state and national parties, and away from candidate-turned-president groups such as Organizing for America, by forcing those organizations to turn over key data to the party infrastructure.
If the party chooses another candidate, some Berniecrats may be less committed to working inside the Democratic apparatus. Still, like Sanders, they are no longer merely radicals engaged in protesting “the establishment” but have some clout within the organization. So it’s likely they would keep waging local campaigns and seek to increase the power of the left inside the party.
For DSA, the future is both more and less clear. Since the socialist group is not engaging in any meaningful party building, individual members can follow their own electoral desires. However, as the Cabán example demonstrates, the Democratic old guard is quite capable of using party rules and arcane election laws to defeat its left-wing opponents. If DSA remains absent from these struggles, the candidates it favors will have a harder time prevailing.
DSA also faces the larger challenge of how to relate to the broader liberal-left. The organization has endorsed Sanders for president but neglected to make any down-ballot endorsements, and, at this writing, it has distanced itself from the impeachment battle, despite the fact that both Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are energetically endorsing it. Such isolation from the liberal center of the party could prove damaging. Throughout its history, the organized left has been strongest when it agrees to work with allies to its right—as during the Popular Front of the late 1930s.
A similar tension existed in the New Left, as Dorothy Healey, a former Communist leader who helped build DSA in the 1980s, noted in her memoir. She saw some younger radicals in the 1960s, especially Maoists, praising the Communist Party’s most sectarian period in the late 1920s and ’30s, when the party labeled its Socialist Party rivals “social fascists.” Healey considered this the least productive period of the party in her lifetime. Later in the 1930s, the Socialist Party’s rejection of the New Deal for saving capitalism cost it vital allies in the labor movement and prevented it from growing.
DSA can avoid a similar fate if its members embrace the politics of the possible. As socialists, we need to help decide who runs the Democratic Party. Abstaining from this task may only lead to isolation if a Democrat wins the presidency and activism deflates. There is no guarantee that most DSAers will renew their membership if they believe a resistance movement against Trump and his party is no longer necessary. Of course, the organization would continue to promote socialist ideas even if it spurns engagement with the liberal-left. But the only way to gain the power to make durable changes in the nation is through the electoral process.
A popular refrain against what I propose is that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. This quip avoids the fact that U.S. political history is also a cemetery full of third parties. DSA should remain an independent political organization, but one that returns to its roots of influencing and changing the Democratic Party. Absent such engagement, DSA’s electoral success will eventually plateau if not wane.
DSA must remain a socialist activist organization that challenges capitalist hegemony on multiple fronts, not just elections, and advocates for a post-capitalist future. This is what distinguishes it from Our Revolution and all liberal-left groups. DSA’s electoral program must be rooted in mass struggle. Today, and for much of the future, that means making the Democratic Party better. This will often happen in coalition; absolute political independence is a gateway to political irrelevance. The time for a decisive choice between these two paths will have to come soon.
David Duhalde currently serves on the Democratic Socialists of America Fund board, a 501(c)(3) sister educational nonprofit to the membership-based Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Duhalde has previously held roles at Our Revolution and as deputy director and youth organizer of DSA.