As American As Apple Pie
April 8, 2019 9:26 AM   Subscribe

“Schoonover is tall, blond, and ruddy-cheeked, with a goofy sense of humor that probably comes in handy during her day job teaching children about agriculture at a local museum. She’s finishing up her second year as the co-chair of the Central Iowa DSA, a position she sees as a way “to actually do something instead of being mad and upset every day after Trump became president.” Iowa’s Democratic Socialists Are Organizing To Go Beyond 2020 (The Atlantic) Chicago socialists cleaned house in last night's municipal elections, winning as many as six socialist city council members. The city's left has a historic opportunity to push back years of gentrification, police brutality, and austerity. (Jacobin) “For much of the 20th century, Milwaukee was run by socialists—and Time magazine called it “one of the best-run cities in the U.S.” (The Nation) Midwestern Socialism previously, Green Corn Rebellion, Radicalism 101
posted by The Whelk (19 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
The DSA's massive growth through and after the 2016 election got me pretty curious about what kinds of electoral successes they could accomplish within the Democratic party. I think the idea to use their existing infrastructure as a fundraising and advocacy caucus from within the Democratic party had a lot of potential! But I keep reading about very strange and silly goings on within some of these local chapters, and I've come to suspect that their decentralized structure is simply far too ripe for abuse. In particular, a series of articles by commentator Benjamin Studbaker has shown me both how easy it is for political advocacy groups to be hijacked by malignant forces, and how elements of leftist politics are often uninterested or incompatible with conducting change through electoralism.

How the Church Left Depoliticizes DSA Branches
James’ situation mirrors the situation Bernie Sanders is in, with large numbers of DSA regional branches resisting the national organization’s efforts to build an effective, nationwide campaign for him. In both cases these DSA branches are demanding that left-wing candidates say things that make it terribly hard for them to win general elections in exchange for their endorsements. In so doing, they put left-wing candidates in a trap. If they speak the way these DSA branches want them to speak, they can’t win general elections. If they don’t speak the way these DSA branches want them to speak, the DSA branches withhold their activism.
How a Petty Tyrant Turned a Functional DSA Branch into a Church
While Dara self-identifies as Marxist-Leninist, the clique has purged not merely democratic socialists but many socialists of other tendencies and traditions. The only principle to which the clique seems persistently committed is that of its own power, and the principal strategy it uses to pursue power is the affiliation of its perceived enemies with immoral ideologies. The clique contains and makes alliances with centrists like Darnika, if those centrists are willing to support the clique and speak in the language the clique propagates. All the while the clique hypocritically claims to protect DSA from “careerists” who are interested in political power. Theirs is a careerism of anti-careerism. By opposing everyone in Pittsburgh who tries to do anything meaningful for anyone, they have turned the DSA branch into an irrelevant organisation.
On the whole, I think it's great that DSA Central Iowa is getting some candidates onto the city council . I've always thought it incredibly backwards that the USA Green Party would stomp their feet and moan about the state of third parties - while doing absolutely nothing to try and adapt their positions to individual local elections, and ramming their head against the wall trying to elect congressional reps and presidents rather than state reps and council members.

But I am very fearful that the path that DSA on is easily susceptible to subversion, and that it would take little more than a night or two of bad mainstream media coverage of the antics within their worst chapters to do irreparable damage to whatever brand they might have been working towards.
posted by the_querulous_night at 10:46 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


That first Studebaker article was shared within my DSA chapter, and I have to say I found it myopic at best. His stance was that the chapter should have supported his personal friend, who was mounting a campaign for city council, and that the fact they voted against doing so after discussion was proof that they were just a "social club" without interest in effecting real change. He also referred to a member's detailed discussion of their city's troubled past with regard to race relations as a "tangent," and thought that the (white, male) candidate's very lip-servicey response should have been perfectly adequate to satisfy everyone that his racial justice platform was well-developed and serious.

It's hard to know the truth based on that article, but I can think of a lot of good reasons a small chapter might have decided against endorsing and committing resources to a candidate like that, despite having a lot of goals in common. Maybe they didn't think he had a serious shot at the seat. Maybe they thought he would win in a walk and didn't need the help. Maybe they were already committed to other campaigns or non-electoral work and didn't feel this one merited diverting resources away from those. One thing that got me excited about DSA is the explicit goal of being more than a pool of free labor for electoral campaigns, and I didn't get the impression from Studebaker that he understood that at all.
posted by contraption at 4:54 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]


I'm not in the DSA, but I've followed a lot of it, here and through friends elsewhere. I've generally found the discourse around electoral work to be a nuanced and very interesting discussion with important consequences in how time and resources are spent strategically. Studbaker seems to have no interest in that discussion, having already decided that maximizing electoral work is the correct answer. That's fine as far as it goes, I guess, but like contraption I can't help but notice the nuanced discussion that he's glossing over and which I know took place there.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 7:48 PM on April 8


Which is interesting for me, from a Chapter *Bronx/Uptown Manhattan" that like, actively opposes Electoral work and focuses on community engagement above all, like we voted NO on all endorsements.
posted by The Whelk at 9:24 PM on April 8


Re: Milwaukee run by Socialists, that was an interesting link, but I wonder if the author's implication that socialist mayors made some sort of utopia is the right thing. I mean, Milwaukee is currently still one of the most segregated cities in the US, which isn't a recent development.
posted by Metro Gnome at 9:57 PM on April 8


I said this before but electoralism/entry into the Democrats was part of the *original* original strategy of the DSA, and it never really got them that far, so while I don't have a problem with it I don't blame people who want to focus on direct action either.

I don't happen to know whether what Studebaker says about Pittsburg DSA is true, but I know you can find a lot of people writing tendentious articles about what's wrong with various DSA chapters, including claims that things at other chapters are skewed in very opposite directions. I'm sure there are real issues in many places but as an overall picture it doesn't make me think that decentralization is a problem - it makes me think one can't get everybody to do politics the way one would prefer them to, so one is going to have to let them do it they way they want to do it.

Cliquishness in leadership is probably a legit issue all around though - c.f. scandals at a couple chapters resulting from an inability to handle reporting of sexual harrasment or assault.
posted by atoxyl at 2:04 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


As a concrete example of tendentious claims in the opposite direction, people are always accusing East Bay DSA leadership of an excessive top-down emphasis on various within-the-system campaigns (e.g. Medicare for all), of suppressing further-left tendencies, of indifference to members' desire to do direct action projects, etc.
posted by atoxyl at 2:13 AM on April 9


from a Chapter *Bronx/Uptown Manhattan" that like, actively opposes Electoral work and focuses on community engagement above all, like we voted NO on all endorsements
Just out of curiosity - is that a position that you share? To purposefully steer a DSA chapter out of the realm of electoralism entirely seems like a tremendous mistake to me. AOC has roots in the Brooklyn DSA chapter, and though she's not on great terms with national DSA or Justice Democrats, she is now one of the most visible politicians in the United States with enormous power to direct the course of discussion.

Maybe I'm just fundamentally at irreconcilable odds with the radical left worldview that many DSA members seem to spring from. But it seems to me that in the US, if you wish to have a say over how the state operates, you had best be involved in electing candidates who share your values. The alternative that harder left ML and ancoms seem to be tacitly endorsing is... waiting for the material conditions to be ripe for "revolution"? I guess?
posted by the_querulous_night at 7:32 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Maybe I'm just fundamentally at irreconcilable odds with the radical left worldview that many DSA members seem to spring from.

DSA is deliberately and aggressively heterogeneous, which I think has served it well so far, and certainly it offers a great counterpoint to the traditionally hyperschismatic American left. This does mean it can be hard to pin down what we want to do as an organization, but I think it's safe to say that the majority do see a strong place for electoralism (I mean, we just voted by a huge margin to endorse Bernie Sanders.)

For me getting into DSA and leftist thought more generally has helped me take seriously the idea that "politics" is not synonymous with the state organization and electoral system; there is much that can be done to improve people's material conditions and build political power outside of state structures, and these projects can build self-reinforcing local momentum in ways that canvassing for campaigns just can't. This has led me to some frustration with my own chapter's focus on electoralism to the exclusion of other work, but I certainly don't want to abandon it altogether and I don't think there are many members who do.
posted by contraption at 8:29 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


To purposefully steer a DSA chapter out of the realm of electoralism entirely seems like a tremendous mistake to me.

Well for one thing, a lot of the members who are against electoralism are against it cause they worked to get Bill de Blasio elected, you know the single greatest local political disappointment of our lives. So I understand why they’re shy about it.

I personally believe you need use every instrument in your orchestra. Electoral work is just one of them , and Erik Loomis, who wrote The History of America in Ten Strikes, showed that without sympathetic politicians in place, strikes and labor actions in America are pretty quickly brought down.

That being said, we’re lucky to be just one of six! DSA chapters in the city, not counting YDSA chapters, and any one member is free to endorse or work for a candidate campaign if they wish. We just won’t be doing it as a chapter priority (also no elections have come up within our district so far, so it’s all been mostly hypothetical)
posted by The Whelk at 8:36 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Also I believe the Queens chapter has gone all in for Caban For Queens, even if there’s a vocal minority that says we shouldn’t we endorsing DAs (this is much less vocal after Krasner’s win in Philly tbh)

She’s pretty much the only politician in my lifetime who has been vocal about supporting the rights of sex workers and is a genuinely exciting, smart politician.
posted by The Whelk at 8:41 AM on April 9


The alternative that harder left ML and ancoms seem to be tacitly endorsing is... waiting for the material conditions to be ripe for "revolution"? I guess?

I don't have any position on the merits, but I don't think you have to be a marxist-leninist or an amcom in order to feel like electoral politics isn't something you want to focus your political energy on. There are also a number of alternatives that I can easily think of that are very important, such as lobbying existing electeds; organizing to more effectively lobby electeds; referenda / other avenues for legal change; supporting enforcement efforts; raising awareness; putting pressure on private actors; etc.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:46 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


But I keep reading about very strange and silly goings on within some of these local chapters, and I've come to suspect that their decentralized structure is simply far too ripe for abuse.

All politics is local. This is basically all politics! I can say this as someone who grew up in politics and has seen the sausage get made at a number of levels. The DSA just gets reported on more with this kind of breathless "can you believe the fails of these goofy leftists, lol green party nader naive amirite?" attitude. But believe me, I could point you to a lot of absurd and petty shit in non-DSA politics. The existence of a national org "centralizing" things would do a lot to dampen enthusiasm and energy and not a whole lot to keep things from being, well, politics.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:52 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Also, you always see this narrative in Politico and the like of a “disorganized left” when like in the last nine months a broad multi-group left coalition which included the NY DSA, kneecapped the future speaker of the house, flipped the state senate and sent the world’s wealthiest man packing.

But the framing is always “disorganized”
posted by The Whelk at 10:51 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


The alternative that harder left ML and ancoms seem to be tacitly endorsing is... waiting for the material conditions to be ripe for "revolution"? I guess?

The revolutionary position is that two things are needed: a sufficiently organized base of hard left socialists in large numbers, and a crisis point for the state at which point the base can step in and say, we've got this, thanks. We've got plenty of crisis points, but no appropriate base, so they see their role as creating the material conditions for revolution by building that base. The preferred method of this is creating self-reinforcing community structures and ties that pair services to improve people's lives with political education. Think forming tenant unions, running brake-light clinics, or the Black Panthers' free breakfast program. Their opinion is that electoral work can achieve concrete gains but doesn't do much on the organization/political education front. They also believe that their core political goals can never be achieved through electoral methods because if they ever get close their enemies will resort to violence and coups to prevent it. I'm not sold on that whole line of reasoning, but it's not just waiting.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:00 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Cooperation Jackson is a great example of an organization doing the sort of non-electoral base-building that many leftists (myself included) want to see more of. Once it gets going, a project like this can catalyze big electoral wins as people 1) see how well leftist ideas can work if put into practice and 2) have more time and resources to devote to electoral organizing because their material conditions have been improved by e.g. working in a co-op or union and having access to support from universal community programs.

This is why I give Studebaker the hard side-eye when he writes "These people are looking for community. They aren’t looking to make a difference." Buddy, community is everything.
posted by contraption at 11:38 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]


The Liquid Flannel Podcast talkes to some Chicago DSA members “you can’t spell Windy City without dsa wins!”
posted by The Whelk at 12:35 PM on April 9


I'm old enough that when I was going to college in Iowa, everyone would be excited when someone came back from visiting home in Milwaukee with copies of 'The Onion' newspaper.
posted by porpoise at 2:03 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


The latest "DSA Dispatch" from the national organization included this relevant paragraph on the DSA approach to building multivalent power:
DSA’s theory of power is that if we organize poor and working class people in three different arenas, the formal political system, our communities, and our workplaces, we create real leverage and something greater than the sum of these parts. Imagine if in the lead up to the Iraq War we had built an anti-war base of poor people in open rebellion in both urban and rural areas, demanding social programs instead of bombs; if we had built a coalition of elected officials willing to argue and vote against nationalistic calls for war; and if we had built up a base of workers, especially in strategic industries, confident enough to strike against the war and demand conversion of their jobs from military production to production for domestic use meeting human needs. Imagine if those protests had been more than symbolic and we had actually been able to stop the gears of the economy and governability of society.

posted by contraption at 9:00 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]


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