Why Socialists Do Elections
DSA engages in electoral organizing because elections are one of the primary avenues through which working people experience politics. Electoral campaigns provide a critical opportunity to articulate democratic socialist politics to millions of people, draw the lines of class struggle, build support for transformative reforms, and win material demands. Moreover, DSA uses electoral campaigns to build a durable political organization and grow the collective strength needed for our membership and elected officials to effectively wield political power.
The Organization DSA Is Building
Winning the power necessary to reshape society into a more just and democratic vision will require the mass participation of working-class people acting in their own interests. While our ultimate goal is to build a democratic member-led working-class political party, in the meantime, we will build our chapters so that they can master all of the functions and responsibilities of a party independent of the influence of the Democratic Party establishment and capitalist class. The capacities we seek to develop include recruiting and running candidates on a unified political platform; training campaign organizers and legislative staffers; providing access to financial resources; crafting working-class policy to be introduced in government; and organizing members and voters to support not just candidates, but also fight for reforms around immediate material demands. We recognize that at this moment, we do not yet have the size, social base, or a militant labor movement that a major working class political party in the US would require. DSA’s membership is disproportionately young, college educated, and located in major cities. While increasingly diverse, our membership is still whiter than the working class as a whole, and as an organization we do not have significant bases in black, latino, or immigrant communities. DSA’s task is to create a working-class coalition where unions, churches, and other social institutions unite in a socialist politics and eventually into a mass organization that can speak for the whole working class.
The Role of DSA, Chapters, and the NEC
Each part of DSA, including the national organization, local chapters, and the NEC, has a role in our electoral organizing. Local chapters know best the conditions on the ground in their communities and focus on recruiting and endorsing candidates and running an effective, volunteer-driven field program, with the goal of building capacity that extends beyond the election cycle. The NEC evaluates candidates for national endorsements and provides strategic guidance and training to locals. Together with the NEC, the national organization will build a national fundraising program and engage with national media around current campaigns and recent victories. Money is the biggest obstacle to working-class people running for office, and a fundraising program has the potential to raise millions of dollars to support working-class socialists running for office. The NEC will coordinate the DSA In Office Network, which connects DSA electeds from across the country to build relationships, and maintain a library of legislation fought for by DSA members in office and chapters.
DSA selects races and uses the platform of public office in the service of a transformative democratic socialist movement, not as an end in itself. Our campaigns fight not just for specific reforms, but advance class struggle, polarizing people against the capitalist interests that actively work to disempower them. Our candidates are socialist organizers with a relationship to a working-class base, not just individuals who run on “good ideas”. They could be DSA core organizers or other working-class organizers with an existing base of support. Chapters should also identify clear opportunities to win power, grow DSA, and organize the working class, not just make a statement or raise awareness around an issue. This means examining their or their coalition’s capacity with respect to the geographic extent, the number of votes, and the material resources required to win. This also means identifying races with a strategic opponent. Bad incumbents often make good targets: not only do they present barriers for progress in the state legislature, they are also easier to draw contrasts with than progressives who do not go far enough.
The potential to win material victories through our electoral organizing is an opportunity to bring labor unions and community organizations into political alignment with DSA. We are not the sole representatives of the working class, and we cannot build a democratic socialist majority alone. We must demonstrate that class struggle can deliver real returns for working people. Every community is different, but a key role for socialists everywhere is to seek out organizations where working people are already independently self-organizing and create the political conditions that will allow those organizations to align with the socialist movement.
Strategic Recommendations for 2021-2022
The mass protests in the wake of the public execution of George Floyd were the largest in American history – representing a mass, multi-racial, black led movement against white supremacy that has the potential to transform US politics. The NEC recommends that where possible DSA chapters work with Black Lives Matter organizers to advance racial justice demands through elections, and that DSA chapters make efforts to recruit and support Black socialist candidates.
In 2021, chapters should engage in districted legislative races and ballot initiatives at the municipal and state level if scheduled. While local races are an opportunity to build the organizing infrastructure and political base needed to tackle larger races up ballot, municipal governments have limited power to enact transformative reforms, as they can be overruled by state governments. If there are no compelling races, chapters should focus on researching and strategizing for races in 2022, including candidate recruitment where possible.
In 2022, chapters should focus on state legislative races, which have been some of DSA’s biggest successes to date. State legislatures wield an enormous amount of power in the US and are fertile grounds for advancing transformative reforms including healthcare for all, raising the minimum wage, and rent control. In blue states, unseating reactionary Democratic incumbents can drastically alter the dynamics of a legislature, while in more red states, democratic socialists in office can help popularize key demands and provide a positive alternative to conservative politics that would materially benefit working people. Chapters should approach federal races with caution, only engaging if a strong on-the-ground coalition or base exists before the election. In the absence of such a coalition, chapters should work to build one through state legislative electoral campaigns and issue-based organizing with an eye toward 2024.