USA: developments around the Democratic Socialists of America- interview with Rosemary Dodd

We publish the interview of Rosemary Dodd, who is a member of the Reform and Revolution caucus in the DSA

Q: 2 years after the inauguration of Joe Biden, how is his administration perceived in the eyes of the working class in the US?

RD: Biden has had poor approval ratings for much of his presidency, dipping to a low of 36% and since rising to around 40%. This isn’t as low as Trump’s approval ratings, but it’s still not good. Since October 2021, more than two thirds of Americans have believed that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, temporary COVID relief measures like child tax credits are over, abortion rights are under attack, and there’s a massive housing crisis, with more and more people on the streets.

When Biden took office, many people were relieved to get rid of Trump, and initially he delivered some improvements for working-class people. However, his ambitious Build Back Better program didn’t get through Congress even though both chambers were controlled by Democrats until the midterms. It’s been some time since his administration has been able to deliver anything tangible for regular people aside from some progressive executive orders (for example, the limited but still important student debt cancellation that is tied up in the courts). Now that the Republicans control the House, passing new legislation that can deliver on his campaign promises is vanishingly unlikely. There is also a growing feeling–maybe still a minority and for now only expressed by Trump and the right-wing–that the Ukraine war is exacerbating the cost of living crisis and that US working-class people shouldn’t have to pay for Biden’s huge military programs.

At the moment, it feels like nothing is happening in favor of working-class people. Congress is split, and people don’t feel satisfied with the status quo. I think a lot of people, even Democrats, feel like Biden is too old and not up for the tasks ahead. At the moment, it looks like the front runners for the 2024 presidential election are Biden and Trump, two deeply unpopular politicians. I worry that with Trump in the race disingenuously claiming to want to protect Social Security and Medicare and prevent World War III with Russia that we could wind up with another Trump presidency.

Q: DSA gained a lot of support and recruited thousands of members during the last years. How did this happen and what is the situation now?

RD: After decades on the retreat, the Occupy movement and then the two primary campaigns of Bernie Sanders reinvigorated the left in the US. DSA was able to fill a void and attract radicalizing workers and youth, going from an organization of several thousand to more than ninety thousand. People were also inspired to organize against the far-right policies of the Trump Administration, and DSA was able to capture some of that energy. We have several high-profile national politicians, numerous local electeds, and have played key roles in struggles from labor actions to abortion ballot initiatives.

However, DSA has struggled to find its footing under the Biden Administration–we’ve been losing members, 12,000 between August 2021 and November 2022 (see the Tweet from an NPC member below), and many chapters are at low levels of activity. Some of this is due to factors out of our control: the pandemic decimated organizing work; the Biden Administration’s mix of attempted neo-Keynesian reforms and more conservative policies have left many confused as to how to respond; there’s been a lull in mass movements since the Black Lives Matter uprising.

But some of the crises DSA faces are of our own making. We’ve had several of our elected representatives take unacceptable votes. This is because our national elected representatives for the most part are not tied to the organization, but are close to the Democratic Party.

Our leadership body, the National Political Committee (NPC), has been unable to work together or hold the electeds accountable. Until recently, it was dominated by DSA’s more moderate forces, who are still to the left of Bernie Sanders. When Sanders speaks about socialism, he refers to Denmark or Scandinavia. In contrast, the more moderate wing in DSA are reformists who still have a horizon beyond capitalism. But they are not willing to break with the Democratic Party any time soon. They don’t want to get in any confrontation with liberal labor leaders. After some resignations, there’s a stalemate and stagnation on the NPC. But the Convention to elect a new one is coming up in August this year.

In my opinion, the organization isn’t doing enough to build mass movements, for instance on abortion. While we can’t substitute ourselves for organic uprisings, we are big enough to be more of a factor. However, without a determined leadership that wants to use the mobilization power of the organization, it’s just left to local chapters of DSA in all the different cities to try to have some impact.

But the resurgent labor movement offers some hope. In general, trade unions in the US are still in decline and membership overall is going down (it’s around 10 percent). However, there have been inspiring unionization efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, and more. The Teamsters and United Auto Workers have recently elected new presidents who are more open to strikes. While DSA as an organization might not be playing the biggest role possible, DSA members have been at the heart of many of those efforts. I think there’s a new generation of working-class activists developing that is looking toward socialist ideas and gaining experience in workplace action. I don’t want to exaggerate the numbers, but I think qualitatively, that’s important.

Q: What are the current debates inside DSA?

RD: Key to DSA’s explosive growth is that it’s a “big tent” socialist organization with everything from Bernie-style social democrats to anarchists to Marxists, so there are naturally a lot of debates. One of the main ones is how to relate to the Democratic Party and what our goal should be in terms of forming a new, independent socialist party. More conservative DSA members who are in favor of “realigning” the Democratic Party into a workers’ party, or who at least want to put off the question of forming a new party until the indefinite future (thereby being de facto in favor of realignment), currently control many of the key staffing positions in the organization. Therefore, although we democratically voted to take on the goal of forming a new party at the 2019 convention, there’s been little to no movement in this direction.

Another huge debate is on electoral strategy and how to relate to our elected representatives. Many in DSA are afraid of alienating our electeds if we take too critical an approach. Others, particularly anarchists, think socialists running for elected office is a waste of time. Others, including me and my caucus, Reform & Revolution, think that electoral campaigns are a vital element of building the socialist movement, but that, to be effective, we need to take steps to have class-struggle elections and hold our representatives accountable.

There are also a lot of debates on international issues. Lots of DSA members have a limited conception of international socialism. A significant part of DSA, including some of the comrades who are usually on the left in DSA, are in practice supporting the Biden administration’s approach to the Ukraine war. Often – with understandable motives of worrying about the suffering of Ukrainian people and their right of self-determination – they end up supporting the imperialist interests and actions Biden and the Democrats are pushing through.  

There are also many campists in DSA, particularly on our International Committee, who take an uncritical approach to governments who were perceived as standing up to US imperialism, for instance in Venezuela or North Korea. There is a perception that socialists in the US should just support the left forces that are popular in the global South, like Lula and the PT in Brazil. 

While I agree with them that US imperialism is currently the biggest threat, the starting point for socialists should be solidarity with the international working class, not supporting flawed regimes just because they’re better than the US or left forces who have proven to implement pro-capitalist policies. 

Q: We are reading that AOC and other senators abstaining or voting in favor of military expenditures and anti-worker contracts. What was the reaction of the DSA members?

RD: A lot of anger, but also uncertainty over how to respond. We have four members in the House of Representatives. There was a vote on funding for the Israeli military, and one of our representatives, Jamaal Bowman, voted in favor, and AOC abstained. Additionally, our representatives have been consistently voting in favor of military spending on Biden’s proxy war in Ukraine. Most recently, three out of four of our representatives joined the two parties of big business in breaking a potential railway strike by voting to impose a deeply unpopular contract on the workers. This was done with the blessing of union leaders in order to pursue some parliamentary maneuvers. These maneuvers completely failed, so socialists ended up voting to ban a strike for no benefit for the workers.

Many in the organization feel that this is a red line and these representatives (all except Rashida Talib, who voted against imposing the contract) should be expelled. Others are worried that expelling our prominent members would be a devastating blow to DSA and cause more harm than good. Our NPC put out a statement disagreeing with the vote and organized an online meeting on the railway contract that didn’t include the representatives being asked to explain their position. It also had several panelists that made excuses for their vote and only one panelist that was critical. This is not adequate.

Instead of immediately expelling the representatives, a real town hall-style meeting should be held where the representatives hear the criticisms of our organization and are asked to explain their votes. Censorship and even expulsion should be on the table, but only as part of a process that would be educational for our membership and would give these representatives a genuine chance to come back in line with the politics of our organization. This outcome won’t happen under the current leadership unfortunately, and we’re likely to see more problematic votes in the future.

Q: Is there a public debate for a new workers’ party in the US, against both the Democrats and the Republicans? Which do you think should be the position of left organizations and what initiatives should be taken?

RD: Although you’ll never hear this talked about in the mainstream news and most commentators think the idea of a third party is “fringe,” a little over half of Americans are dissatisfied with the Democrats and Republicans and think we need a third party. Of course, some of these people are coming from a right-wing perspective, but there are plenty of people who could be won over to a socialist or workers’ party if they saw it as viable. As I mentioned earlier, one of the key disagreements in DSA is whether or not to build a new party independent of the two parties of big business. We are the third largest socialist organization in US history and stand the best chance in the current period for launching a new party.

With a few notable local exceptions such as Robin Wonsley in Minneapolis, most of DSA’s candidates who get elected are still running on the Democratic ticket. Working within the Democratic Party, pursuing an “inside-outside” approach, and accepting the short-term benefits of playing nice deeply impacts the most prominent representatives of DSA, which in turn impacts the rest of the organization as well. Our Congressional representatives are generally unwilling to openly campaign for a socialist party or offer an adequate alternative to the Democrats. AOC has said she will “enthusiastically support” Biden if he’s the nominee in 2024.

There are several approaches in DSA in regards to forming a party: realignment of the Democratic Party, which will never happen; not discussing building a new party until DSA has grown in size and experience; using DSA as a “party surrogate,” AKA performing many of the functions of a party such as running elections without actually becoming a party; the “clean break” strategy, which advocates for breaking away from the Democratic Party immediately; and the “dirty break” strategy, which advocates for sometimes using the Democratic ballot line while we prepare our own independent structures, thereby peeling away as many working-class people from the Democratic Party as possible when we launch our own party.

While I think the dirty break strategy is the best one, unfortunately some proponents of this strategy resist actually taking concrete steps to prepare for a break. In many places in the US, it’s actually extremely difficult to get on the ballot if you’re not in one of the two big parties, which is part of why you see so many DSA candidates running on the Democratic ticket. But just because strategically using the Democratic ballot line in some cases is justified doesn’t mean we can’t build an independent profile and raise awareness about the need for a new party.

Such steps would include finding local and national races where we can run DSA candidates independent from the Democratic Party; having our candidates run explicitly as socialists in opposition to the Democratic Party establishment; and having our national elected representatives leave the Progressive Caucus and form a Socialist Caucus that votes as a block and answers to DSA’s elected leadership. Fighting for these steps could actually unite proponents of the clean break, dirty break, and party surrogate approaches. In New York DSA, a group of pro-dirty break members tried to pass a resolution titled “1-2-3-4” which would have been a step forward in terms of holding electeds accountable. It lost, but spurred an important discussion that will no doubt continue at the convention this summer.

Besides these electoral measures, DSA’s membership needs to be prepared and educated about the need for a new party. One reason why the clean break strategy is flawed is that large sections of our organization are not yet convinced a new party is viable. I also believe that a new party shouldn’t just consist of those forces already in DSA, but also other left organizations, unions, and regular working-class people. Even if the most advanced and active people in DSA declare a break, we must also win the activists in the trade unions, in the women’s and queer rights movement, in the environmental movement, the anti-racist movement, and the wider working class to support and build a new party. And this isn’t going to happen if our organization and our most prominent members aren’t making the case for political independence.

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