The Question Dividing Democratic Socialists

Do they still need Bernie?

Andrew Harnik / AP

Last weekend, hundreds of members of the Democratic Socialists of America across the country kicked off local efforts to elect Senator Bernie Sanders as president of the United States. But not every DSA chapter is campaigning for the Vermont senator.

With just five months to go until the Iowa caucuses, chapters in the state have chosen to focus on local projects and tenants’-rights work rather than spend time and resources working for Sanders. But some DSA members in other parts of the country think their Iowa comrades are wasting a crucial opportunity. “Early states will be key for momentum and Iowa DSA chapters’ failure to help energize the progressive Iowa voters and new caucusgoers is a giant mistake,” tweeted Honda Wang, a DSA member from Brooklyn, recently, igniting a days-long Twitter spat among DSA members from various regions.

The Iowa chapters’ decision—and the exasperated response from other members—illuminates the divide within the DSA over how best to build a socialist movement: One theory of growth is through a concerted effort around electoral work; the other is rooted in prioritizing local efforts and direct action. The dustup gets at another key question: Does the DSA want Sanders, specifically? Or do its members merely want socialism, with or without the movement’s most visible surrogate? How and whether DSA members can reconcile these tensions could have significant implications both for Sanders’s 2020 campaign and for the success of the socialist movement in America for years to come.

There are currently five official DSA chapters in Iowa, none of which existed before 2016—the year the organization began to see explosive growth nationwide on the heels of Sanders’s first presidential bid. Members in the Iowa chapters have been clear from the get-go about their 2020 plans: “We don’t talk about Bernie,” Caroline Schoonover, a co-chair of the Central Iowa group, told me back in April. “He’s not a factor in our organizing at all.” Individual members would be welcome to volunteer for Sanders on their own time, she said, but campaigning for him as a chapter would distract from their local efforts, which include advocating for tenants’ rights and raising the alarm about so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

Back in March, the DSA’s National Political Committee leadership team voted to endorse Sanders, after a controversial vote in which only about a quarter of DSA’s membership weighed in. The committee then established an independent campaign for Sanders called DSA for Bernie, which operates separately from the official Sanders campaign and which individual chapters can join.

But as the February 3 caucuses creep closer, Iowa DSA members will be focused on local efforts, including organizing local tenants’ unions. Three Iowa DSA leaders told me that while members are allowed to volunteer for Sanders on their own time, the chapter won’t formally campaign for him. “Iowa DSA chapters don’t have as many resources compared to other larger cities,” said Alex Loehrer, 32, who co-chairs the DSA chapter in Iowa City. “As much as many of our members love Bernie, we see our importance more so in building class consciousness and working-class power in our communities, because that will ultimately last longer.”

It’s “a lot bigger than a few back-and-forths on Twitter,” Javier Miranda, the 25-year-old leader of the DSA chapter in Ames, Iowa, told me. “There’s a fear that if we engage in too much electoral organizing we are losing our capacity to imagine outside the system that we are currently living in,” he said. People criticizing Iowa’s DSA chapters tend to live in larger cities with active labor movements, Miranda told me. “In Ames, Iowa, that is not the case,” he said. “It makes more sense for us to focus on building that movement, to make that longer-lasting change.”

Another part of the Iowa members’ aversion to formally participating in electoral politics is their disdain for their state’s biggest claim to fame: the caucuses, which every four years help determine the rest of the presidential race. “The caucus is not an accessible process,” Joe Ellerbroek, who co-chairs the Des Moines DSA alongside Schoonover, told me. The state Democratic Party has been fielding complaints to this effect for years from Iowans with inflexible work or personal schedules. (This cycle, the caucuses will take place on a Monday.) It’s both an undemocratic and a “deliberately confusing” process,” Ellerbroek said—a process neither he nor members of his chapter want to prop up with their time or funds. He and other Iowa DSA leaders want their groups to provide a consistent force for socialist change in the state long after Sanders campaign staffers have packed up and left.

“That’s what Bernie Sanders is asking people to do when he talks about a movement that needs to be bigger than just getting him into office,” Ellerbroeck said. “If you’ve ever been here in March after a caucus, all the serotonin has left the state,” he added. “There’s vacuum of energy and purpose—but there are still people getting evicted.”

Other DSA members, though, fundamentally disagree with the Iowa chapters’ approach. They argue that the state’s first-in-the-nation contest makes local chapters uniquely positioned to help Sanders win the Democratic nomination. After all, the Vermont senator only lost by 0.25 percent to Hillary Clinton in 2016—the closest margin in the history of the Iowa Caucus. Support from local DSAers, members argue, will be crucial.

“People are more tuned into politics during presidential elections than at any other point in their lives,” Michael Esealuka, the 26-year-old co-chair of the New Orleans DSA chapter, told me. She respects that individual chapters can make their own decisions, she said, but not joining DSA for Bernie is the wrong one. “We have a rare opportunity to have an out-and-proud socialist front-runner. We need to be running with this opportunity.”

By not campaigning for Sanders, some said, Iowa chapters are missing an opportunity to attract new members to the group. “If they could take some credit for flipping [Iowa] to Bernie, they would get so many Bernie Sanders supporters calling them up,” says John, a DSA member from a chapter in a metropolitan area who asked not to be further identified in order to speak candidly. John told me that “the majority of DSA” is frustrated with Iowa chapters’ approach to the presidential election. He also doesn’t understand their reluctance to participate in the caucus system; all electoral politics is “unfair” and “corrupted by money,” he told me, echoing Sanders’s own language on the stump. “We’ve got to fight on that terrain, though. If we don’t, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

Campaigning for Sanders, by definition, means campaigning for everything he stands for—from Medicare for All to building working-class power, members said. “Bernie connects all of these other things,” Megan Svoboda, the chair of the DSA for Bernie campaign and a member of the DSA’s National Political Committee, told me. The national organization would never tell local chapters what to do, she added, but “we’re hopeful people will be working on Bernie.”

Although Sanders has been a top candidate since he entered the Democratic presidential primary in March, he still hasn’t managed to pull ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden nationally. But he’s polling better relative to Biden in Iowa.

The February caucus could be extremely close, and while the internal debate over how best to grow the socialist movement is happening, some members fear that the chance to do so might be slipping away.

“The Bernie campaign is building a socialist political culture in America,” John said. Sanders “presents us with a very good tactical opportunity and we need to take advantage of it.”