This is a tale of two tweets. The first is by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who is expected to be elected to Congress from Queens this November. Following the death of Sen. John McCain, she tweeted that his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service. … He meant so much, to so many.”
The next day, Kshama Sawant issued her evaluation of McCain. A two-term Seattle City Council member and leader of the Socialist Alternative Party, Sawant said, “An enthusiastic supporter of every imperialist war while in office, John McCain shares responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths. To whitewash that is to disrespect those who died in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere … Not to mention the countless working people’s lives damaged by McCain’s support, as a Senator, for brutal neoliberal social and economic policies in the United States.”
Ocasio-Cortez sparked criticism on the left as her comments come across as pandering to neoliberal and neoconservative elites. Sawant was praised by many while barely causing a ripple in the media as she often makes provocative statements from a left perspective.
Since her stunning victory over an old-style party boss in June, Ocasio-Cortez has become the most prominent standard-bearer of socialism in America besides Bernie Sanders. But with the media glare comes controversy. Even before her clumsy appraisal of McCain, the Left bashed Ocasio-Cortez for comments about deportations and Palestine.
A group of Marxists within DSA rebuked Ocasio-Cortez for her McCain tweet, and the Portland DSA chapter and Jacobin, which is tied to DSA, implicitly criticized her. But the silence from most chapters and the national DSA is telling.
Ocasio-Cortez and similar candidates will keep sparking social-media firestorms because DSA is a victim of its own success. Its growth, from 6,100 dues-paying members in early 2016 to 49,000 as of August 2018, has been matched by 14 DSA members who won election in 2017 and 26 candidates who have been endorsed by the national in 2018, and many more who ran as democratic socialists or sought a DSA endorsement this year. DSA’s membership is unprecedented for a U.S.-based left party since the heyday of the Communist Party USA in the 1940s.
DSA’s dilemma is as candidates like Ocasio-Cortez help it grow, they slip out its grasp and are prone to cross red lines. DSA’s rolls swelled by 8,000 members within a month of her victory. But having done the Stephen Colbert and Daily Show circuit, Ocasio-Cortez now answers to a higher power: the media and political establishment. DSA is left trying to figure out how to hang on to their stars when the gravitational force of media, lobbyists and Democratic Party honchos will pull them ever closer to elites, compromising their principles.
DSA was formed in 1982 from the merger of the anti-communist Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement, a New Left outgrowth. It’s always been a paper organization. You pay dues, you’re a member. No need to go to meetings, do any work, engage in collective political education, agitation, and organizing. Before 2016, DSA did little beyond get out the vote in elections. Some DSA college and youth chapters organized locally. And the DSA labor caucus agitated in labor struggles where members were active. (I was a member of DSA for five years, and part of its national youth leadership in the nineties.)
Now, in the post-Trump era, DSA is organizing in a concerted fashion for the first time. But it has few attributes of a classical left party. Far from a democratic centralist vanguard party, it lacks basics like an engaged leadership with a vision, a strategy to help realize it, campaigns to advance the strategy, and a committed base who organize on the ground and engage in study to create a mass base and consciousness. Neither does it have member discipline, a theory of the state, legitimate power, the agent of social change, and the role of force.
As a paper organization, DSA’s leaders are not necessarily those who can organize, build the base, articulate a detailed strategy, and lead campaigns to bring it into being. Leadership — internal and external — is based on elections, which are about personal affinity, social circles, social media, legacy media and fundraising. There is a role for ideology, but tweeting “I am a democratic socialist” doesn’t mean much.
DSA attracts those fed up with capitalism, but it’s not a party of those seeking to advance common class interests and fundamentally change social relations. It’s not attracting workers who say, “We want to democratically run the factories, schools, and offices and decide how to distribute the goods and services so as to exert control over our workplaces, our lives and communities.”
MEDICARE FOR ALL
So far for DSA, democratic socialism means redistribution. It’s joined with Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution to push for “Medicare for All.” All Americans would benefit by gaining quality healthcare, and workers would gain leverage against employers as healthcare would no longer be tied to jobs. But it does not directly democratize the economy or change social relations, which are the goals of a socialism that is democratic.
DSA is running the Medicare for All campaign mainly as a canvassing project, meaning it relies on electoral tactics such as phone-banking and door-knocking. The design of the campaign fits into the national strategy, which has three priorities: Medicare for All, supporting organized labor, and electing democratic socialists to office. While electoral tactics are useful, they create weak support because the conversations are more like quick sales calls than developing ongoing relationships and a deep commitment to a socialist worldview. R.L. Stephens, who serves on the National Political Committee, criticized the campaign last year as an “electoral program” that relies on advocacy instead of base-building. He suggested it should be part of a “movement strategy” that is “conducive to long term power-building that effectively organizes the disorganized masses.”
The Medicare for All campaign is symptomatic of DSA’s media-driven approach. DSA’s growth is fueled by social media, high-profile politicians, and dramatic moments, such as Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Jacobin, Chapo Trap House, and the shock of Trump’s victory. As a result, politics happens more in the mediated realm than in face-to-face discussions and site-specific organizing.
The centrality of media means DSA’s politics are overly personality driven. SAlt suffers from this as well because of the prominence of Sawant. For SAlt and similar formations like the International Socialist Organization, socialism is a historical project to build and advance working-class power and consciousness. (They also have differing strategies, with SAlt calculating that electoral politics is the primary means of building power, while ISO focuses on labor organizing.) But for DSA, democratic socialism is a floating signifier that takes many meanings, even contradictory ones. As such, DSA is multi-tendency, It includes liberals, Keynesians, anarcho-libertarians, social democrats, state socialists, and Marxists. Being multi-tendency enables it to absorb members quickly and avoid ruptures over fundamental political differences.
But the cost is strategy or ideological coherence is all but impossible. The default is reformism as most factions in DSA can agree on policies like universal healthcare and higher education to serve their own ends. It invites opportunism as many claimed when Cynthia Nixon announced she is a democratic-socialist in the middle of her campaign for New York State governor. While the New York City chapter of DSA endorsed her, one-third of leaders opposed her candidacy for reasons ranging from a lack of organizational capacity and Nixon’s extraordinary wealth to opposition to the Democrats as a capitalist party and electoral politics in general.
LIVE BY THE TWEET
Supporting a candidate like Nixon is tempting. She carries the DSA name wherever she campaigns, in the media, and across New York State, and DSA gains new members. But some leaders point out they cannot hold her accountable. Their ability to influence instant leaders like Nixon is limited to moral suasion and social-media criticism. DSA can influence a candidate like Julia Salazar, who is running for New York State Senate, as she has been a DSA member for two years, her paid staff includes members, and her ground troops are drawn from robust chapters in the city. But a campaign is tenuous and ephemeral at best, and success comes with the carrots and sticks from establishment politics and corporate control of digital channels that shape political activity.
That can be seen with Ocasio-Cortez. Her social media presence has exploded, with 840,000 Twitter followers. That’s five times as many as the national DSA with 164,000 followers, and it dwarves all chapters combined, such as New York City with 21,000, Los Angeles at 10,300, Chicago at 7,300, and Portland with 6,800. By dint of the media lavished on her, Ocasio-Cortez is “The Leader” of DSA without anyone’s approval and even as many grumble that she is betraying their principles.
In all likelihood, as soon as Ocasio-Cortez won, Sanders and other political insiders told her, “You must ‘moderate’ to win. If you don’t, elites will destroy you. You will never get elected to Congress.”
If the New York Times turned against Ocasio-Cortez, other liberal media and the Democratic establishment would follow. That could result in the Republican beating her in November or at best turn her into a one-term representative. In this context, her tweet about McCain is understandable. Pissing off the Left won’t hurt her. She wants to play it safe so the establishment doesn’t view her as a threat. DSA, meanwhile, does not have the capacity, strategy, or organization to have her back if she opposes the interests of the rich and powerful.
Sawant and SAlt can confront Seattle’s political heavyweights because the context is completely different. Sawant is a uniquely savvy politician on the Left. SAlt is based in Seattle, and it draws on cadre across the United States and its parent organization, Committee for a Workers International, for ground troops, fundraising, and strategists. Sawant ran for a local seat and is not under the spotlight like Ocasio-Cortez. Perhaps most important, SAlt is politically able to develop a strategy — focusing on a single issue like wages or rent — that cadre can implement into a base-building campaign, giving an outside source of power to wield in elections. Even then, SAlt had to pull out all the stops to re-elect Sawant in 2015, and it has been unable to reproduce her victory, either with Jess Spear’s campaign for the Washington House of Representatives in 2014 or Ginger Jentzen’s campaign for Minneapolis City Council in 2017.
Having her own base helps protect Sawant. She was re-elected in 2015 despite near-universal opposition from corporations, the mainstream media, and other city council members. She can slam McCain as an enemy of workers, women, and brown folk at home and abroad, which energizes her supporters while minimizing fallout.
POWER FROM BELOW
Lacking a solid base, more DSA members won’t translate into raw power or a disciplined, strategic organization. To their credit, many chapters are building the airplane as they fly, pouring energy into housing and tenants-rights campaigns, the Abolish ICE movement, and labor struggles. Study groups are spreading, but there is no systematic political education or development of cadre — the soldiers in any socialist movement.
For DSA, elections are one-off campaigns to advance individual candidates who are democratic socialists secondarily, like Nixon. DSA will find itself pushed and pulled by candidates like Ocasio-Cortez who catch fire. Winning generates enthusiasm. But DSA becomes hooked on new members, attention and money without the power or mass consciousness it ultimately needs.
SAlt is more effective because its candidates advance the strategy of building working-class power. To be fair, there is a dialectical problem. Sawant’s status leads to hypertrophism within SAlt. That is, those parts of the organization devoted to electoral politics become overdeveloped while grassroots organizing atrophies because hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work are needed to run an election campaign. Sources within SAlt concede that defending Sawant’s post sucks up resources, but they say that membership has quadrupled in the party since she was first elected in 2013 and elections are useful as training grounds for cadre.
DSA has a more basic conundrum. Will Ocasio-Cortez stay loyal to a distant grassroots when she is surrounded by media, lobbyists, and political operators? Calling McCain an “unparalleled example of human decency and American service” indicates the weak ties that already exist between her, the base and DSA leaders even before she is elected to Congress.
Should DSA criticize Ocasio-Cortez? Calling her out a second time makes it look like they hold little sway over her. Plus, scolding a candidate for every controversial remark leads to diminishing returns. But saying nothing will be seen as tacit approval of her remarks, leading to a slippery slope.
If socialists can’t say McCain was an unabashed warmonger and racist, when else will they shun pro-working class and anti-imperialist politics for the sake of expediency? DSA will inch closer to the establishment. Any upsurge risks being followed by disillusionment, infighting, and a sense of betrayal.
DSA will have to confront its grab-bag politics sooner or later. One option is to concentrate on non-electoral organizing, member education, and ideological focus. Elections have a role, if candidates come from within the party and run in local races. National politics carry greater risks for an organization with so many viewpoints. A cohesive organization along with bases in organized labor, education systems, neighborhoods, and local government could eventually enable DSA to carry out projects that are socialist and democratic, such as social housing and a public green-jobs program.
In the meantime, there will be many more cringeworthy tweets and comments by candidates. DSA is best off paying attention to its internal development rather than social media controversies. Then it can be confident its candidates will sound like socialists. And act like socialists.