I have spoken to many Bernie Sanders supporters here at the DNC in Philadelphia who find themselves in a bind. For the last year, they have been volunteering, phone-banking, and door-knocking for a candidacy premised on certain principles: overcoming neoliberalism, privileging the concerns of the working class and poor, and shifting to a paradigm where economic security is regarded as a universal human right directly guaranteed by the government. Now, they are being asked to support a campaign that embodies the Democratic establishment they ran against.
They know that, if the next president isn’t Hillary Clinton, it will be Donald Trump, an authoritarian-leaning billionaire capitalist who emboldens neo-Nazis, armed xenophobes, and organized misogynists. They know that ascendant fascism threatens the lives and well-being of their comrades and that far-right wing government would make organizing to advance Sanders’s agenda much more difficult. But they are wary of rewarding Clinton with their support after her team’s paltry concessions to their movement. Capitulating to Clinton, it seems, would validate her decision to take them for granted and could therefore neutralize the energy fueling the “political revolution.”
“The delegates phone banked, canvassed, went to parks and held up signs, and got the word out for Bernie Sanders,” says Winnie Wong, co-founder of People for Bernie, “and here they are in Philadelphia, and when they get home they’ll be $5,000 dollars out and knowing that in four months they’ll have to vote for someone who does not represent their politics.” Wong says that a lot of the frustration and anger on display among Sanders’ supporters here in Philadelphia “comes down to the fact that a lot of the Bernie Sanders delegates are working-class people. Many of them had to fundraise to get here. They don’t have thousands of disposable dollars to pay for transportation and food.”
“They’re genuinely good people who fought really hard for a candidate who they thought would improve their life,” says Wong. “Now they have to come and be surrounded by corporate branding and suites for billionaires. The actual wealth divide is palpable.” Against that backdrop, however determined they are to defeat Trump, “It might be hard for them to vote for a woman who, up until last year, was making $250,000 for a speech at a bank.”
Maria Svart, National Director of Democratic Socialists of America, is proposing a strategy that could offer a way out of this conundrum. “What we’re urging our chapters in swing states to do,” she says, “is reach out and find out who’s organizing in communities of working class, poor, and precarious people and support them in doing voter identification, registration, and protection. In the process, we want them to identify and organize people who are interested in democratic socialism.”
By “voter protection,” Svart means providing poor and working class voters with resources to confront the many ways in which the right wing seeks to prevent them from voting. These include not just being dropped from the rolls, but more flagrantly illegal means as well, from robo-calls delivering incorrect information to direct voter intimidation. Tactics to counter these include setting up and staffing legal hotlines, doing voter education, and taking voters to the polls. Svart emphasizes the importance of developing relationships with people already doing voter protection work, so that in time DSA will not just be some outside organization in working-class communities, but a trusted institution.
The strategy advances both DSA’s short-term goal of defeating Trump and its long-term goal of building a base that can sustain a grassroots mass movement for socialism and a left-wing party, both of which rely on empowering the same constituencies. “Whether we want to elect people inside or, depending on local conditions, outside the Democratic Party, we need to focus on organizing in black, Latinx, and poor and working-class white communities,” she says. “To build a viable party nationally, we can’t skip the step of building a base, and that’s not going to take just a year.”
Though it has long been DSA’s policy to support the Identify-Register-Protect strategy, the organization hasn’t often emphasized it to the degree that it has this year, when someone as palpably dangerous as Trump is running and, on the other hand, someone as compelling as Bernie Sanders has ignited national excitement about democratic socialism.
That excitement is reflected in the numbers. Over the last year, the rate of people joining DSA has quadrupled. So has the rate of new organizing committees and chapters forming. “We get a new one every few weeks,” says Svart, pointing to recent successes in Tacoma, Washington, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas. “A lot of our growth is in the South, which is very exciting,” she says. New DSA groups are popping up at colleges too, and even in high schools. “Organizing in high schools is new, and we didn’t set out to do it. They found us!”
The growth is evident here at the DNC, where about 55 delegates are DSA members, including about 40 percent of Sanders delegates from Texas. “For years,” says Svart, “we haven’t viewed the DNC as a venue to organize openly as socialists, but this year it was obviously entirely different.” Svart is clear that the goal is not to realign the Democratic Party; “It’s just that the Democratic Party is where many progressive people do politics, and often it’s also where they experience the limitations of the current electoral system and become conscious of the need for a more radical long-term vision.”
“2016 will serve as an experiment in both supporting our own members as candidates for local office and developing the Identify-Register-Protect strategy.” DSA’s funding, she says, comes entirely from membership dues, which keeps its staff small, “so while we are urging chapters to do this, ultimately they’ll do what they feel is strategic in the context of their community. Some of our members will vote for Jill Stein and many others will vote for Hillary Clinton. Some chapters will focus on electing local, openly socialist candidates. Some chapters may not do electoral work at all.”
“We really fought a very, very long and sometimes difficult battle in order to win those states that we won,” says Wong of the Sanders campaign. “Sanders supporters are letting out their frustrations and processing all that they have experienced over the course of this primary cycle. They’ve really gone through some ups and downs.”
“But I also think that we as organizers—and Bernie as an organizer—can organize this frustration into something much more long-lasting.”
Jesse A. Myerson is an activist and writer living in New York City.
Correction: This article previously stated that two-thirds of Bernie Sanders delegates from Texas were DSA members. Svart estimates the number is closer to 40 percent. The text has been corrected.
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