Auditing Campaigns: Bernie 2020 and the Future of DSA

I like Andrew Sernatinger’s writing a lot. He is a very thoughtful writer, especially about DSA, and that contemplative care is a major benefit when the organization can get misdirected due to the skew of not-so-thoughtful social media. So I was excited to see Andrew write a piece on DSA’s Bernie 2020 campaign. It does not disappoint in compelling reflection. Andrew critically noted that DSA’s commitment to the campaign was not simply to campaign for Bernie but to do so in the following ways:

creating independent socialist political propaganda; building a strong DSA for Bernie campaign; supporting Labor for Bernie efforts to democratize union endorsement processes and win union backing for Sanders; and preparing to build working-class organization beyond the Sanders campaign, whether Sanders wins or loses.

Andrew then gets to work trying to determine whether DSA has stuck to the whole of this commitment rather than just campaigning for Bernie. While not coming to any definitive conclusions, he says that he doubts it has kept the commitment and infers even more that it has fallen far short of doing so. He ends with a call for DSA members to remain “rooted and self-critical,” and have a “larger view of how our forces can come out of this election stronger.”

This piece poses important questions and I hope it strikes up debates in the organization. My very brief summary above doesn’t begin to cover the many sub-issues Andrew touches on from the complications of having staffers in electoral campaigns to a push for local focus over national (which I actually strongly disagree with but that’s for another time). But I’m not writing this to rebut Andrew’s arguments in full. Rather, my qualm is largely methodological.

I agree with Andrew as to what DSA committed to. And aside from the aforementioned localism, I also agree with most of what he says DSA should do going forward. What I disagree on is whether DSA has not kept its commitments, and the evidence that Andrew looks at to come to that conclusion. This raises an issue we should debate at length, and perhaps in perpetuity: how do we audit our campaigns? If we are indeed to be “rooted and self-critical,” it is not enough for us to criticize, but to do so accurately so as to amend what needs mending and protect what has worked. I don’t think Andrew’s analysis is accurate for two main reasons: undue focus on media and social media and failing to actually look at the events chapters are holding and the messaging put out by national.

Jacobin Is Not DSA and Headlines Do Not Reflect Organizing Practices

If the Hamlet of Andrew’s piece is DSA, Jacobin is Horatio (or to use a less pretentious metaphor, if the Serena van der Woodsen of Andrew’s piece is DSA, Jacobin is Blair Waldorf). Jacobin is used by Andrew as a barometer of DSA’s stance towards the campaign, based on his assessment that (1) media “has been a central component of DSA’s activity,” and (2) the Jacobin writers are in DSA. Andrew notes that Jacobin has had 340 pieces with Bernie in the headline, and argues that these pieces have constructed “the de facto analysis that seems to inform DSA’s campaign for Sanders.” Lastly, he wraps up his criticism of what he believes is DSA’s Bernie campaign by unpacking the title of the Jacobin piece “The Long Shot of Democratic Socialism is Our Only Shot,” arguing that the title itself exhibits “a lack of confidence in workers and social movements to develop as a force beyond this election.”

Andrew’s Jacobin-as-DSA-barometer thesis is both puzzling and transparently lacking. It is puzzling in that Jacobin is not a DSA publication, is not involved with DSA’s Bernie campaign, and perhaps most importantly does not give a single narrative of what the campaign means and how it should be approached by socialists.

It is transparently lacking in that media and social media are per se a poor lens through which to analyze campaigns. This isn’t to say that campaign analysis should be the kind of metrics-fetishism of nonprofits, but it should at the very least be a materialist analysis. Even if Jacobin were DSA for Bernie’s official publication, looking at its headlines to analyze the campaign will present as skewed of a conclusion as if you only looked at posters for the campaign, or only looked at official chapter tweets about the campaign. Andrew’s analysis as to Jacobin is on the non-official examples of a sub-category of the campaign — it does not even give an accurate picture of the DSA for Bernie propaganda efforts, let alone the campaign as a whole.

Where Is the Analysis of the Organizing?

For a piece on how DSA is campaigning for Bernie and organizing around and off of it, there’s very little analysis of DSA’s campaigning. The assertions as to what is going on in DSA’s Bernie campaigning is either conclusory or drawing conclusions from events and media (as discussed above) that is not actually part of the campaign. The YDSA Fall Recruitment Drive is not mentioned in the piece at all. While a tweet from a NYC DSA member is featured prominently in the piece to highlight disagreement within the organization about how to campaign, the NYC DSA strategy of combining Bernie canvasses with canvasses for local candidates and campaigns is not mentioned. Chicago DSA’s breakdown of the four ways to campaign is mentioned, but not say Chicago DSA’s Bernie campaign literally saying its canvasses “[are]n’t just for Bernie!”

It’s not like this information is hidden either, both chapters have very easy to navigate and Chicago in particular posts weekly round ups of its events. Slightly more understandable but nevertheless inaccurate is Andrew’s conflation of DSA’s Bernie campaign with DSA’s largest chapters. There’s an easy explanation for why most DSA Bernie events happen in the biggest chapters — most DSA events in general happen in the biggest chapters. Chapters like Chicago and NYC have the resources and numbers to do multiple events almost every day. But that is not an excuse to neglect the work that smaller chapters are doing on the Bernie campaign. Let me just list a few:

Lastly Andrew fails to actually look at the material the national campaign is using to organize. Step one of how it suggests to start a Bernie campaign seems far flung from the “assimilate into Bernie” conclusion:

Since campaign work can impact all corners of your chapter it’s important to build a team of people who can represent, or who know about, all the work going on. A plan that does not accurately reflect the capacity of your chapter or doesn’t include the perspective of people who would be needed to work on the campaign will not be very successful.

I do not find the numerous examples of chapters using the Bernie campaign to push local candidates and other campaigns (as well as conduct general trainings for members on things like canvassing, public speaking, and workplace organizing) to be outweighed by one NYC DSA member saying that the Iowa DSA chapters should campaign for Bernie. The incident itself is weird for Andrew to cite since those Iowa chapters have repeatedly justified their opposition to campaigning for Bernie by saying DSA members can just go volunteer or work as staff for the official campaign, which seems to be what he is against.

Through the Looking Glass

Being self-critical in general is difficult. It is easy to be self-effusive or self-effacing; to be self-critical is to first know yourself wholly and then to challenge yourself rather than to accept or resign to what you are. I do think DSA needs to be rooted and self-critical. While I don’t think it is representative of the campaign as a whole, it’s undeniable that some DSA members and fellow travelers have pushed the “Bernie is our last chance” message that is at its core defeatist, having already designated all else lost. But how we push back on this is by plugging into our current organizing efforts rather than baselessly bemoaning them, to say “Yes we can fight for Bernie AND” rather than to question the fight for Bernie itself. Ironically the Jacobin piece title that Andrew cites as an example of “Bernie or death” mentality, “The Long Shot of Democratic Socialism Is Our Only Shot,” is actually a caution against social democracy as a road to socialism:

if Sanders wins, he will have to govern with the majority of Democrats in Congress who are not interested in that project. The contradictions of that could make what happened with Syriza look mild.

The conclusion of the piece is not that Sanders is the one shot for socialism, but rather that what comes after him is:

What the new generation will have to be engaged in, as it is engaged in electoral politics, is also a struggle to remake the working class. In the American case, to some extent, to make it entirely anew.

That struggle will only be successful if our internal assessments of it, our audits of our campaigns, are based on what’s happening on the ground rather than what’s happening in the headlines.

Written by

Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.

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