Just a little over a year ago at DSA’s national convention in Atlanta, delegates voted in favor of a resolution (Resolution 15: In case of a Sanders loss) that declared that DSA will “not endorse another Democratic Party presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail.” Several editorials and open letters have been published criticizing DSA for this decision and arguing that the left must unite to support Biden to defeat Trump in November. Much less has been published explaining why DSA might decide to forgo an endorsement. As a delegate who spoke on the floor in favor of said resolution at least year’s convention, I write now to explain and defend that decision, at least from my point of view, especially now as we are less than two months away from the 2020 general election.
After Trump’s election DSA membership boomed, and has only continued to boom, from around 7,000 members prior to the first bump to now over 70,000 nationwide. But not only are more people joining DSA, more and more DSA candidates are running for office across the country—and winning. From the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and most recently Cori Bush to Congress, to the election of multiple-candidate slates of DSA members to the Chicago City Council and New York State Assembly and Senate, DSA has in just a few short years become a major force in the electoral arena. DSA voted in 2017 and again in 2019 at our national convention to make electoral politics a priority of the organization.
DSA also voted at its 2019 convention to adopt a resolution laying out a strategy of “class struggle elections,” a framework that is key to understanding DSA’s electoral strategy and why the organization endorses some candidates but not others. The resolution states criteria for endorsement, including that candidates openly identify as socialist, “will use their public profile to popularize a class struggle perspective,” and “help build and unite socialist, union, and other worker organization and militancy independent of candidates’ campaigns and of the Democratic Party.” Another key provision of the resolution: “in the longer term, our goal is to form an independent working-class party, but for now this does not rule out DSA-endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line.”
Most candidates for office do not fit these criteria, whether or not the candidate is “a lesser evil” compared to a Republican opponent or even a progressive candidate worthy of support by individual members (Marie Newman in Illinois comes to mind). Why adopt such a strict criteria for endorsement? While electoral politics is a priority of DSA, the organization’s overarching priority is building the socialist movement. Electing progressives and defeating Republicans, essential work no doubt, are the tasks of many different political organizations. Supporting the election of open socialists running on class struggle with the horizon of building a mass movement of the working class and an independent working class party is a task unique to socialist organizations.
To be most effective DSA not only must evaluate whether or not a candidate meets the class struggle criteria, but also whether their election is such a priority that our limited resources should be used to support their campaign. This is a crucial distinction: DSA chapters have largely moved away from paper endorsement opting instead for endorsement as a pledge by the organization and its members to meaningfully support a campaign.
Neither Joe Biden nor any other former candidate for the Democratic nominee for president aside from Bernie Sanders met this criteria. This does not mean that DSA does not recognize the importance of defeating Trump nor does it mean members are encouraged not to vote for Biden. What it does recognize is that for any DSA endorsement to actually matter members need to turn out (volunteer, donate, etc.) to support endorsed campaigns and DSA members will only turn out to support an endorsed candidate if their campaign actually excites them (i.e., by meeting the class struggle criteria).
With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine a DSA endorsement of Biden that could be in any way meaningful. Alternatively, DSA could put out a statement vaguely in support of Biden against Trump while avoiding language of a formal endorsement, as some other socialist organizations have. Either approach would ultimately only amount to a symbolic gesture that helps neither Biden nor DSA but acts only as an appeasement to liberals who insist that a lack of organizational support for Biden is tantamount to support for Trump.
All this is separate from an examination of Biden specifically. Not only is Biden not a socialist, he is a conservative neoliberal Democratic who in addition to enacting harmful policy for the last several decades also has substantial allegations of sexual assault against him. Endorsement of Biden would be a betrayal of our principals of our organization, and it is exactly our commitment to our principals that distinguishes DSA.
None of this should be taken as an argument that DSA should endorse Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for president. Hawkins is a socialist and is running on a platform in line with DSA’s politics. His campaign is also completely unserious with no chance of victory. The argument has been made that even if unwinnable, Hawkins’ campaign would be an opportunity for DSA to agitate against the Democratic Party and preach the message of socialism. But this view totally overlooks that the majority of the working class 1) desperately want Trump gone, and 2) see voting for Biden as the way that happens. It’s likely that DSA’s support of a marginal presidential candidate would mostly serve to alienate people who might otherwise be supportive of our politics.
Defeating Trump will not be enough. Winning the transformative change we so desperately need will take a mass movement of the working class, in itself and for itself, against the bourgeoisie. At a minimum, it will require socialist organization at a scale far beyond where DSA is now. This is the task ahead of us.
DSA is not endorsing Joe Biden.