Why Chicago DSA Should Go All In for Bernie

Why Chicago DSA Should Go All In for Bernie

“Bernie’s 2016 backers don’t know ‘if he can pull it off'” reads the first headline of Shia Kapos’ October 9th edition of Politico’s daily Illinois Playbook. Catalyzed by Illinois State Rep Will Guzzardi’s endorsement of Senator Elizabeth Warren for President the day prior, along with other 2016 Illinois Bernie Delegates lining up behind Warren, Kapos’ write-up goes on to speculate that “Democrats are rethinking who should carry the progressive mantle in trying to reclaim the White House.”

The most notable statement from a former Bernie delegate now backing Warren comes from Wilmette Public Library Board member and progressive lobbyist Dan Johnson:

“‘Fairly or unfairly, the establishment wing of the party doesn’t really accept Bernie,’ … but Johnson says Warren ‘is able to attract support from the three big circles — the movement wing of the Democratic Party, the establishment or governance wing, and the independents. She’s able to do that and that’s not easy.’”

For the more self-declared pragmatic progressive type, it’s a convincing point. Sanders is clearly pushing a bolder agenda, but Warren may have a better chance of actually getting hers enacted if she’s able to get establishment Democrats onboard. Fighting the Republicans will be challenging enough; why would the next Democratic president want to deal with a civil war within their own party as well?

Of course, Bernie is not ‘a real Democrat,’ as his critics often note. A career independent, Bernie has been giving the same stump speech against the capitalist class for decades. His rhetoric manages to resonate among both the party’s base and independents, while at the same time deeply alienating the Party’s ‘establishment wing’ bourgeoisie. Yet despite strong polling in a crowded fielded and a massive donor and volunteer base, the Democratic elite are still doubting that Bernie has any chance at all at becoming the nominee. That doubt seems to have carried over to progressive Democrats who see Warren as the safer pick.

As socialists we know that it will take a mass movement of the working class in order to transform our society into one that values people over profit and brings prosperity to all. That movement will not and cannot be built in coalition with the same Democratic party establishment that has supported endless wars, the bailing out of Wall Street, and the rolling back of our country’s already deeply inadequate welfare system, just to name a few. A two-party political system may dictate that we share a ballot line with the Democratic establishment, but we will never share the same class interests. It is exactly because Bernie’s candidacy highlights this division that his 2020 campaign is a major opportunity for DSA to build political power independent of the Democratic party, a goal outlined in the ‘Class Struggle Elections’ resolution passed at our national convention back in August.

The true nature of the Democratic party is especially clear here in Chicago where the Cook County Democratic Party has held a monopoly on power for nearly a century, a monopoly they’ve mainly used to prop up the criminal syndicate that is the Chicago Police Department, sell off city assets to private capital, and enact brutal austerity measures like the closing of six of the city’s twelve public mental health clinics, all while coddling the capitalist class with tax breaks and other incentives to grace us with their business. They still retain one-party control in the city, but the Chicago Democratic machine is far from what it used to be. The machine ran for decades on patronage and precinct-by-precinct organizing to mobilize voters to the polls, building super majorities with the strength of the New Deal coalition and the support of organized labor. Today, it mostly runs on television ads and mailers, low turnout, and the lack of any alternative but voting Republican.

The 2019 municipal elections not only illustrated this weakness but the emerging opposition to the CCDP’s hegemony. The most visible sign was the disaster that was county party chair Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign for mayor. Preckwinkle was able to launch her campaign with haste following Rahm Emmanuel’s announcement that he would not seek a third term, collecting 60,000 petition signatures and then immediately mounting challenges to thousands of signatures from petitions filed by her many opponents. She even managed to get the endorsement of regarded progressives like 35th Ward Alderman and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. Yet despite all her institutional support and campaign infrastructure, Preckwinkle ended up losing all 50 wards in the April runoff, including the 4th which she had previously represented as Alderman for nearly two decades.

Chicago voters’ distrust of Preckwinkle and the machine led to the election of Lori Lightfoot, a self-proclaimed progressive who had never previously been elected to public office. While activists had warned us about Lightfoot before her election, her six months in office have made it very clear that the policies of her administration are going to be very different from the platform she campaigned on. It’s one reason that unlike Harold Washington before her, Lightfoot has not faced major opposition from most machine Democrats.

The opposition Lightfoot has been facing so far has been from the left: the Chicago Teachers Union and United Working Families, an independent political organization backed by progressive groups and unions in the city. UWF was responsible for building the campaigns of many progressives who now form a small block on Lightfoot’s council. Their emergence is another clear sign that the party establishment’s hegemony is wavering and that a message of “a government that provides for the many, not the few” is resonating with voters across the city.

Chicago DSA got a lot of attention for the six socialists that were elected to the City Council in April, but it is UWF that deserves a lot more credit — they were actually running many of the socialists’ campaigns. Chicago DSA worked with our endorsed candidates to craft a shared Chicago For All platform and encouraged our members to volunteer and donate to the different campaigns, but ultimately it was UWF as well as other organizations like Reclaim Chicago and the 25th Ward IPO that were running most of the actual operations. After all, an organization like UWF has the necessary funding for staff and a PAC, as well as a clear mission to recruit and run candidates for office. On the other hand, Chicago DSA is an entirely volunteer organization primarily focused on political education and organizer development through issue-campaigns.

UWF looks like they will be sitting out on endorsing any candidate for president in the March primary, as the organization’s candidates that have been elected to public office are split between Bernie and Warren. Chicago’s machine Democrats also lack consensus around a presidential candidate, unlike they had in 2016 with Hillary Clinton. Of course, both UWF and the CCDP will be focusing on other major down-ballot races, races where some candidates may benefit from not tying their campaign to any presidential candidate.

This exemplifies another key difference between UWF and Chicago DSA, as ultimately DSA is working to advance a specific political ideology — socialism — rather than develop candidates and campaigns for office. That’s not to downplay UWF’s sizeable impact, or to say that they are non-ideological, that their focus is entirely electoral, or that their campaigns haven’t been rooted in the same transformational working-class demands that DSA is fighting for. However, it does mean a necessary difference in the two organizations’ political approach, and as a result in political outcomes. UWF may build a larger coalition by avoiding the socialist label, but ultimately DSA’s embrace of the term, as well as more and more candidates whose membership in a socialist organization actually boosts their campaign, is likely what precipitated Chicago DSA’s disproportionate media attention after the municipal elections.

This same difference in organizational nature means Chicago DSA can approach our Bernie campaign very differently than a traditional electoral campaign. While we are obviously trying to win Chicago for Bernie in the March primary, and thus increase his delegate totals for the convention, the primary goal of our Bernie campaign is to raise class consciousness in Chicago, to grow our organization in the city, and to train up organizers and develop new leaders.

The All In For Bernie proposal put together by the Chicago DSA For Bernie committee and other chapter and campaign leaders outlines a cross-city, multi-prong approach to achieving these goals. The proposal includes four main “buckets of work:” field, campus recruitment, communications, and internal organizing.

Our field strategy involves organizing around four target areas: precincts in Bridgeport, West Humboldt Park, Uptown, and Woodlawn. All four targets include precincts that went for Hillary in 2016, and offer a mix of both areas where Chicago DSA is starting to grow and where we have yet to develop a base. By coordinating organizing committees for each targeted area, our Bernie campaign gives members the opportunity to engage in structure-based organizing. That is, organizing around an existing structure with a measurable number of people who relate to each other as a “bounded constituency,” such as a workplace, church, school, or electoral precinct.

A central thesis in Jane McAlvey’s book No Shortcuts is that structure-based organizing on a mass level, as opposed to self-selective mobilizing of activists, is the way social movements build real power. McAlvey writes:

“In structure-based organizing… it is easy to assess whether or not you have won over a majority of the participants in the given structure to a cause or an issue. A workplace or church will have, say, 500 workers or parishioners, and to reach a majority, or even a supermajority, the quantifiable nature of the bounded constituency allows you to assess your success in achieving your numbers. An organizer intending to build a movement to maximum power who is approaching a structured or bounded constituency must target and plan to reach each and every person, regardless of whether or not each and every person has any preexisting interest in the union or community organization. Beyond understanding concretely when a majority has been gained, the organizer can gauge the commitment levels of the majority by the nature, frequency, and riskiness of actions they are willing to take.”

In contrast, Chicago DSA mostly took a mobilizing approach to the municipal elections in 2019. Most of the work taken on by the chapter’s electoral ad hoc committee to support our endorsed candidates involved turning out our existing membership to volunteer on the different campaigns through Chicago DSA days of action around key issues, as well as creating media around the socialist candidates and our Chicago For All platform. That does not discount the effectiveness of our municipal work, which not only helped elect a caucus of socialists to the city council but also engaged our membership on the largest scale our chapter had seen up until that point. Further, since we were coordinating with candidates’ campaigns rather than running one of our own, mobilizing was really the only approach we could take.

Our Bernie campaign, however, is entirely the opposite. Since we are running an independent expenditure campaign that cannot coordinate with the official Bernie campaign, our operation is entirely ours. We have our own VAN, are making our own literature and materials, and can run our campaign as Chicago DSA. Our members will be knocking doors and introducing themselves as members of the Democratic Socialists of America, using Bernie’s candidacy to talk to masses of people about socialism, our local campaign work, and our organization.

Likewise, our campus organizing strategy involves targeting working-class students, especially at city colleges. These are also campuses that are unlikely to have existing Students For Bernie operations that coordinate with the official campaign. Our goal at each school will be to identify and recruit organic leaders, another key component of structure-based organizing, who can turnout their classmates for Bernie, start YDSA chapters and campus campaigns, and if successful, bring in a whole generation of young people across the city into socialist politics.

Our cross-city field operation and campus organizing program will be anchored by two other major buckets of work: communications and internal organizing. Chicago DSA has already produced beautiful socialist media for our various campaigns and events; with our Bernie campaign, we have the chance to expand our efforts and reach by creating campaign media for Bernie with explicit socialist messaging around the key issues we’re already organizing around like Medicare for all, public ownership of energy, rent control, union power, or ending child detention. Meanwhile our internal organizers will coordinate our different task teams and onboard new and prospective members into the campaign and into DSA.

Chicago DSA will need to coalesce our entire chapter’s efforts in order to pull off a campaign of this scope and ambition. If we do so, the result will be worth it. Not just because it could help elect Bernie Sanders president or double our membership, but because it would be a major step in building the mass movement we need to win a Chicago For All. With this election we have the chance to give socialism a larger mandate in this city than Lori Lightfoot has, and put us on a path towards true political power for the working class that’s independent of the bourgeois Democratic party.

Finally, to paraphrase Eugene Debs:

Comrades, the campaign before us gives us a supreme opportunity to reach the people of this city. They have yet to know the true meaning of socialism. Let us all unite as we never have before to place the issue of socialism squarely before the masses. For years they have been deceived, misled and betrayed, and they are now hungering for the true gospel of relief and the true message of emancipation.

2020 is our year in the United States; socialism is in the very air we breathe. It is the grandest shibboleth that ever inspired ordinary people to action in this world. In the horizon of labor it shines as a now-risen sun and it is the hope of all humanity. 

Vote YES on going All In For Bernie and commit now to a win for the working class on March 17th by joining our campaign.