DSA’s Moment of Truth

Now that Democrats control the House, Senate, and the Presidency, expectations have been raised around covid relief, rent relief, a Green New Deal, cancelling student debt and Medicare For All.

Covid has especially elevated the demand of Medicare For All: the trillion dollar healthcare industry that annually leaves tens of thousands of uninsured dying unnecessary deaths — while bankrupting hundreds of thousands more — has proven a historic failure in the face of the pandemic, while pushing millions more into the realm of the uninsured. The totality of the disaster is similar to a poorer nation in the throes of war or famine.

The demand for Medicare For All was further elevated recently by a coalition of independent Left media figures, such as Jimmy Dore, Krystal Ball, Katie Halper, and Briahna Joy Gray ( herself a DSA member) with the campaign to “Force the Vote,” i.e., force Nancy Pelosi to hold a Medicare For All vote in the House of Representatives.

The idea was brilliant in its simplicity, arguing that it was criminal for the AOC-led “Squad” to vote for Nancy Pelosi to be House Speaker, yet if they were to be accomplices they should withhold their votes — which Pelosi actually needed — until they forced her to schedule a House vote on Medicare For All.

What the Force the Vote campaign didn’t expect was the vitrole and energetic opposition from sections of the Left. The debate that ensued resulted in some discrediting of individuals or groups like Jacobin magazine — who unleashed a torrent of abysmal arguments to discredit the Force the Vote campaign.

The debate became politically significant because so many people engaged in a discussion around key issues for the Left, including power, organizing, strategy, and the limitations of depending on the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

The weak arguments used to discredit Force the Vote betrayed years of common sense around organizing around Medicare For All — and organizing in general. The key anti-Force the Vote arguments can be summarized as “now isn’t the time,” “the demand isn’t strategic,” and “Jimmy Dore [the comedian/podcaster who invented the strategy] can’t be the messenger.”

Perhaps the worst argument against Force the Vote came from DSA, whose leadership waited a month to even issue a statement.

DSA’s Problematic Response

On January 5th DSA published a response to Force the Vote that deserves close inspection, since it says a lot about how the leadership views organizing, the Democrats, and how political change occurs.

The first major error in the DSA statement occurs in the 3rd paragraph:

“But we also recognize that Speaker Pelosi alone can’t deliver us a floor vote. The Medicare for All bill in the House needs to pass through six Committees’ jurisdiction, and it currently lacks financing language (i.e. how to pay for it), so it’s not a bill that can be voted on yet.”

This argument amounts to the same, tired proceduralism often used by the establishment to justify inaction on progressive causes.

In fact, Nancy Pelosi can deliver a floor vote: as House Speaker she has tremendous power to push legislation through Committees and out onto the floor, and she often does this quickly.

Pelosi regularly bends committees to her will when she wants a law to pass, creating endless committee shortcuts when legislation is prioritized. Pelosi’s power ultimately is rooted in her position in the party, where she and other leaders cajole less powerful Democrats to do their bidding or face the consequences.

Even if this weren’t the case, political bureaucracy should never be an excuse for socialists to put on the brakes on organizing.

The DSA statement is also incorrect to suggest that the Medicare For All bill “currently lacks financing language.” Section 701 of House Bill 1384 contains the funding language, which includes the Universal Medicare Trust Fund and taxation language. There may need to be additional details to work out, but this can also be done quickly and is not a legitimate basis for opposing Force the Vote.

The next DSA error is another obvious one:

“But without a majority of Democratic Representatives cosponsoring, and many of the progressive members shut out of powerful House committees, we simply don’t have the leverage right now to force it through for a floor vote.”

Again, committees are not the insurmountable barrier the DSA statement makes them to be. Nor do you need a majority of Democrats to co-sponsor a bill before it gets a House vote — though currently 112 out of 122 Democrats have co-sponsored the bill, i.e. the majority.

Using co-sponsorship and committee positions as the key indicator of “leverage” is not only misleading, but dangerous. It suggests that socialists shouldn’t organize around demands until sufficient progressive Democrats have been elected or appointed — by the corporate Democrat leadership — to important committee posts.

This could take years if it ever happens at all, and to suggest such a strategy lays the groundwork for demoralization, delay, and inaction (incidentally the DSA statement was released days after AOC was publicly humiliated by Democratic leadership by being refused a committee position she was assumed to get).

The DSA statement then bolds a sentence for emphasis: “Even if we had all these things, we know that elected officials will never respond to our demands unless we organize our class to fight for them, not just in DSA but in the labor movement too.”

So…even if we get all the progressive Democrats elected they “will never respond to our demands” unless there is an additional, undetermined amount of outside organizing?

This point is true of all demands when they are placed upon an adversary who has a self interest in maintaining the status-quo, yet in this case it’s being used to sidestep the question posed by the Force the Vote strategy. Yes, we need to organize for power, and Force the Vote could have been — and may still be — an organizing opportunity to help us do exactly that.

DSA’s main point is thus no point at all — a tautology. Imagine If a workplace demanded a better healthcare plan but the union leaders dismissed the demand by saying “the boss will never respond to our demands until we organize as a worksite to fight him” — missing the fact that the demand for better healthcare is precisely what you organize around to build the power necessary… to win better healthcare. It’s the union leadership’s job to help do this, just like it’s DSA’s job to help “organize as a class” around demands such as Force the Vote.

This is organizing 101, which in this debate has been shelved in favor of defeating a campaign that has succeeded in many respects, despite open hostility from some on the Left. Force the Vote has put Medicare For All back on the table after the election of Biden had presumably sunk it. This alone is reason enough to support the demand, even if it’s done passively by signing a petition; but actively causing the campaign harm by promoting shoddy arguments is reprehensible.

It also hides the fact that the Force the Vote tactic could actually work: the Squad currently has immense leverage they aren’t using, and if they waged a public campaign to pressure Pelosi to hold a Medicare For All vote, she’d have a difficult time saying no. A floor vote in this context is not mission impossible like the DSA statement makes it appear. The Squad is thus a legitimate and strategic organizing target for the Left, a key fact ignored by DSA’s statement.

The last bolded sentence of the DSA statement says: “We are socialists, and we are organizers, so we know that there are no shortcuts to liberation.”

It’s true that shortcuts are imaginary, but this truism turns into an excuse when it’s used to justify inaction — “we would help you organize your campaign to apply leverage but there are no shortcuts to liberation”. A key job for an organizer is overcoming barriers, not dwelling on them like DSA’s statement does.

How Organizers Actually Think

The best critique of the DSA statement comes from DSA itself. As Jimmy Dore noted on his podcast, DSA published a document in 2019 called ‘House Pressure Campaign Guide for Medicare for All’, which includes the following:

“…single-payer advocates have been successfully turning Medicare for All into a litmus test for politicians. A floor vote in the House will force representatives to finally reveal whether they’re on the side of healthcare profiteers or the side of the working class.”

This was true in 2019 and remains true now. Countless organizing campaigns have made use of floor votes, not only to reveal what side the politician is on but to agitate the community prior to the floor vote, so that a “no” vote is more politically consequential, i.e., floor votes are often used as opportunities to educate, agitate, and organize.

The fact that DSA leadership, Jacobin, and other sections of the Left now view this long-standing approach to organizing as “unstrategic” portends badly for the future and mis-educates in the present.

Force the Vote simply used a classic organizing strategy that placed a demand on someone in power. And while DSA leadership did not believe the demand was strategic (anymore), they failed to propose a better strategy, which reminds us of that old organizing axiom, “don’t oppose, propose”, i.e., don’t stall the campaign, help push it forward. This concept is related to another organizing axiom “lead, follow, or get out of the way” — these truisms were abandoned by some Leftists in their rush to get in the way of Force the Vote.

Both axioms point to the critical importance of momentum in organizing: once a demand grips the mind of enough people the more realistic it becomes, since power is building. The last thing an organizer should ever do is sour momentum — which is the jet fuel of organizing — especially if there’s no better proposal on hand.

What does the DSA statement propose in response? Abstract power building/electoral work that includes “…forming tight socialist voting blocs in every district…,” i.e., nothing that relates to the present moment rife with opportunity while doubling down on an electoral strategy dependent on the Democrats.

There are no shortcuts in organizing, but it’s also true that an organizer must always be on the lookout for organizing opportunities — issues that come up during the course of a campaign that can be used to agitate and unite the base while putting pressure on the organizing target.

An organizer takes issues like health care and transforms them into a demand — like Medicare For All — using it like a battering ram aimed at people in power who have the ability to advance the issue. The organizing target in this case was the Squad. The target was excellent and the demand was solid, so what went wrong?

The Wrong Target? 

The likely reason that some Leftists chose to attack Force the Vote is because the Squad was the organizing target, and the campaign was actually succeeding in applying pressure that made them look bad.

How did the Squad react to considerable media and social media pressure? Except for a few bad arguments from AOC the rest of the Squad completely ignored the campaign in a deafening silence. When Force the Vote held an online town hall that included some prominent Left figures and invited the Squad to attend— another long standing organizing tactic— the invitation wasn’t acknowledged and the Squad refused to even send a staff representative (even establishment politicians send their staff to show at least feigned interest in the issue).

If the Squad won’t interact with popular Left demands because they’re aiming for “party unity” — as AOC has mentioned repeatedly — then how is the Squad fundamentally different than any other Democrat? And If DSA politically follows AOC while she’s committed to following Nancy Pelosi, what role is DSA actually playing?

Force the Vote exposed an inconvenient truth for some on the Left: the Squad have been moving to the political Right, playing the inter-party game that has effectively tamed radicals for decades inside the Democratic party.

For example, after AOC was first elected she used radical rhetoric and participated in a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. But the new AOC is “maturing” into a typical politician, who justified her vote for Pelosi as House Speaker by… blaming Trump. A later statement showcased a further change in rhetoric, away from Medicare For All towards a “push” for “healthcare”, and instead of a Green New Deal “climate justice” was used.

The Squad increasingly resembles a PR stunt with no political cohesion, its different members holding wildly different views on important issues, all bound together under the Democratic Party leadership — the strongest section of the U.S. ruling class, where at the top billionaires dictate policy to party leaders.

Moving Towards Socialism? Or somewhere Else?   

A key part of organizing is the ongoing process of assessing your supporters and your opponents. A new assessment is needed with each new action, or demand issued, since those who fought with us yesterday often become tomorrow’s adversaries.

Some on the Left refuse to assess the Squad this way, because these politicians are being used to justify a theory of change tied to the Democratic Party. Some still believe that the path to socialism involves the Democrats, in the hopes that the party can be taken over by socialists (though this has badly failed with every attempt for nearly a 100 years). The back-to-back destruction of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign by Democrat leadership was merely the establishment doing what it did to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 80’s.

Presenting demands to the Squad is one way to determine if a Democrat-centered strategy has any hope or if it’s hopelessly flawed, like the majority of socialists have claimed for decades.

If the Squad is not a viable avenue for change, then political independence must be sought — a key task of socialists for decades that some on the Left have dismissed as “impossible.” The creation of a mass working-class party has been attempted several times and has failed, in part, due to sections of the Left undermining the efforts by clinging to the Democrats.

The newborn “People’s Party” is another attempt at political independence, though it’s too new to know if it can evolve into a working class alternative to the Democrats. But such efforts should be treated kindly, since wherever there exists a large political vacuum attempts will be made to fill it — if the People’s Party ultimately fails, a new attempt under a different name is inevitable. While there exists no working-class party people will attempt to build one.

DSA must be flexible when such efforts are created, rather than dismiss them or view them with hostility.

Socialists should know that political vacuums will be filled with the energy of class struggle funneled through unexpected channels (comedians continue to fill these voids in different ways in various countries, while prior generations had radical clergy leading class struggle). Under these conditions new parties can grow suddenly, just like DSA’s unexpected explosion of growth in 2016.

Ultimately DSA will either spend its energy building independent political power or invest their energy building the Democrats — the two strategies represent paths going in opposite directions.

DSA should conduct a membership-wide discussion on how it’s going to relate to the Squad and the Democrats more broadly, while re-evaluating strategies like Force the Vote. The time is too urgent to simply accept political submission to the Leftwing of the Democratic Party, and there are too many DSA members uninterested in re-trying the strategy.

In a pandemic people deserve and are demanding bold action, and DSA must help lead these efforts rather than stymie them. If DSA doesn’t step up in a powerful way a new or existing socialist organization will become the funnel for the political energy that continues to build.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com