This document now has an addendum: bit.ly/NESPAddendum
National Electoral Strategy Proposal
Formulated By a Coalition of Local Electoral Organizers
This document puts forth an electoral strategy for DSA based on the following set of principles:
1. Locals will have the authority to choose their own electoral strategies.
2. The National Electoral Committee will be elected, transparent, and accountable, and its primary role will be to support locals in their electoral work through skills building.
3. The NEC will focus on helping to build each chapter's capacity to create independent electoral structures and facilitating cross-local collaboration and communication.
4. Electoral, as only one aspect of building power, will to the greatest extent possible be the natural extension of other local campaigns around issues like housing, racial justice, mutual aid, etc.
An addendum with more detail on implementation is available here: bit.ly/NESPAddendum.
The Electoral Option and the DSA Consensus
Why should a socialist organization engage in electoral work? The question is an old one, but the Bernie Sanders campaign has invested it with new life. Today, socialist majorities are still on the distant horizon, but as Sanders and others have demonstrated, electoral work can make enormous contributions to advancing socialist politics and building a majoritarian left-wing coalition.
First, electoral campaigns can advance popular demands and force their recognition by the establishment, as the Sanders campaign did for Medicare for All on the national stage and Kshama Sawant’s election did the Fight for $15 in Seattle. Second, electoral work can politicize and organize people; an electoral campaign is an ideal platform for stretching people’s vision of the possible and for involving whole communities in the fight for better lives. Third, effective electoral work provides leverage: DSA chapters all over the country are discovering the importance of pressuring politicians on issues like housing, healthcare, and workers’ rights, and an organization that can credibly threaten to run and win elections has a stronger hand in negotiations with politicians than one that can’t. Fourth, it gives us a ready-made way to demonstrate credibility to potential allies, such as labor unions and community organizations. Finally, placing leftists in office gives our movement a permanent, public platform to advance its demands; elected officials bring the moral authority and legitimacy of a whole community to the causes they take up.
Yet many socialists, including many in DSA, are suspicious of electoral work—and they’re right to be. They worry that working to elect candidates grants legitimacy to a system dependent on the disaffection and cynicism of the voter-citizen; that socialists elevated to office will find themselves a powerless minority, forced either to vote in coalition with compromised liberals or consign themselves to irrelevance; that electoral work expends the energy of the movement advancing the career of an individual who is likely to be captured by the careerist ambitions of the political system; that electoral work leaves activists in the role of passive spectators after the election is over, hoping (but incapable of ensuring) that their elected officials represent them well; and that the start-stop rhythm of the election cycle disrupts and detracts from the long-haul task of building mass movements for change.
We believe these concerns have some validity and deserve a response; in this document, we will attempt to offer one. But we don’t think that these concerns should stop us from engaging in electoral politics. Any project within a capitalist society short of full scale revolution will be fraught with similar dangers; electoral work tends to throw these into sharp relief. But socialists need to struggle for power using every tool available to us; the electoral field is too important to leave in the hands of our enemies. Electoral strategy has a key role to play in building a mass movement to bring the left to power; for us the question is no longer whether to engage in electoral work, but how and why. How can we use electoral work to build not just campaigns, but movements?
The Old Model: Assisting the Campaign
Historically, many progressive organizations have approached electoral work in a campaign-centered way. In this model, when a candidate espousing progressive positions runs for office, the organization supports their campaign by channeling donations and volunteers to it and by giving its public seal of approval to the campaign through endorsement. The goal is simply to elect as many people as possible who are sympathetic to the left. The link between candidate and organization here is quite weak: the organization may endorse an indefinite number of politicians, and the candidate, in turn, is likely to seek dozens of such endorsements.
In this model, candidate accountability is a very serious problem. After a successful race, the candidate possesses not only elected office and the power of incumbency, but all of the resources (staff, skills, experience, a donor list) required to run a successful campaign and stay in office; the organization, meanwhile, has little leverage over the candidate and little to show for the work of its volunteers.
Organizations that operate this way often settle for access to the candidate rather than accountability over him or her; the candidate may take meetings with the organization’s leadership, or attend its events. But over time, there is an inverse relationship between the imperatives of access and accountability: the organization will find itself lowering its standards merely to maintain access to those in power, in the vain hope of wielding influence over the officeholder, while perpetuating the concentration of power with the leaders of the organization who can enjoy that access.
The New Model: Building the Organization
The old model serves a purpose, but its limits are real. DSA chapters all over the country in 2017, together with other left and progressive electoral organizations, have been assembling a new model: a model centered not on helping campaigns but on building a sustainable socialist political organization. Instead of loaning out our volunteer capacity to political candidates, we have begun to build electoral capacity within DSA—capacity responsible directly to the organization and democratically controlled by its members. What would this entail?
First and foremost, chapters that endorse candidates would build an independent field/canvassing operation trained and run directly by DSA, not the candidate. Canvassing is the single most important factor in down-ballot races; equipping the chapter to control its own canvassing team immediately increases its capacity for electoral and non-electoral projects alike. Second, DSA should collect and maintain its own data: the enormously valuable data generated by field operations, which campaigns and party machines usually hoard, should stay with the DSA volunteers who generate it, for use in future campaigns—electoral and otherwise, allowing us to map neighborhoods and communities, in the same way we would do a workplace for a union drive. Third, DSA should have independent messaging. Locals should retain their own voice and canvass on their own issues with their materials and scripts, not merely borrow the messaging of the campaign. Fourth, DSA should have its own research capacity. Locals should be able to evaluate electoral opportunities and policy issues, and should not be forced to rely on the expertise of others on issues of candidate viability.
In other words, DSA chapters should strive to develop the full range of capacities required to run a down-ballot campaign from start to finish. It goes without saying that this goal is aspirational: Few if any DSA chapters currently have the skills, experience and capacity to fully embody it. But we believe it’s a long-term goal worth pursuing, for several reasons.
First, because it will allow us to operate strategically and independently as an electoral force. Rather than simply reacting to the candidates available, a DSA chapter operating on this model would even be able to recruit and run its own candidates for office. Eventually, rather than passively evaluating candidate platforms, our chapters will be able to run candidates on the issues they consider important, in coordination with non-electoral work they are doing. And they will have increased leverage over the candidates they do run because they will have significantly more power to put them into—and hence to take them out of—office.
Second, because it will allow us to break out of the election cycle and transform electoral work into organizing work that will help us grow our chapters, identify and train more leaders, and build up our collective capacity to achieve all of our chapters’ goals. The skills and knowledge required for electoral work, after all, are enormously useful in other kinds of campaigning: an organization that canvasses for a candidate one month can use the skills and data it collects to canvass for tenants’ rights the next month, if in canvassing for a candidate it has built its own campaign apparatus rather than loaning out volunteers to the candidate. All of us hope that DSA will be an organization that fights on many fronts in many ways, not only winning elections but organizing tenants and workers and pressuring the state for reforms; we can best accomplish this by doing electoral work in a way that contributes to our organizational capacity rather than distracting from it.
Third, because it will build working-class power independent of the Democratic Party and its local fiefdoms. Discussion of independence from the Democrats tends to revolve around the question of the ballot line, but it shouldn’t: most party power rests not in ballot access as such but in the network of consultants, politicos, lawyers, and party functionaries who control the means of electioneering in each state. Like most in DSA, we see the ballot line question as a tactical one to be addressed by local chapters in accordance with local circumstances—but we consider it essential that DSA escape the welter of Democratic patronage networks that have controlled and limited politics in the US for too long. To operate independently of this network we need to build our own electoral capacity, democratically controlled by DSA. Ultimately, it is not the name of the party under which a candidate runs that governs their decisions while in office, but the material conditions that inform the composition and capacity of the groups that form their coalition.
Local Strategy, Chapter Focus
DSA can make no claim to have invented this model. Left electoral experiments along the lines suggested by this proposal have sprung up all over the country, from the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California to New Haven Rising in Connecticut to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Jackson, Mississippi to the Progressive Party in Vermont. Each has used an electoral model centered on organizations rather than candidates, together with deep, community-based non-electoral organizing, to build left power. Our best chance at working-class electoral power is a thousand Richmond Progressive Alliances. But it’s worth emphasizing one thing all these organizations have in common: they began with a sharply local focus, aiming to express the will and serve the needs of a single city, rooted in a local union or community organization. This is not an accident. The kind of power we want to build is inextricably rooted in particular communities.
In contrast to these local efforts, many national left of center political organizations have had only limited success in putting together a true nationwide grassroots movement. Democracy for America, Progressive Democrats of America, Move On, and Organizing for America, for instance, all started with much fanfare about their national organizing strategies to keep voters engaged as activists, but have ultimately become vehicles for raising and distributing money and collecting email lists: astroturf rather than grassroots. It is likely too soon to see whether Our Revolution will break free from this pattern, but if it does it will be because it continues to value and respect the local networks that sprung up around the Sanders campaign.
Ultimately, a national organization is no replacement for focused local organizing; even if DSA had ten times the membership we do, 300,000 people wouldn’t be capable of projecting the electoral strength of a few dozen people laser-focused on advancing power in a particular community through grassroots organizing and a sound electoral strategy. DSA’s electoral strength must build through hundreds of local races, and only the locals can do that building. National’s role should be to help the locals do this work. Locals are already engaged in a multitude of electoral experiments. Rather than instituting a top-down approach, DSA National can be most effective through building skills, making collaboration possible, and amplifying the work of locals where appropriate.
The philosophy outlined above can guide our national strategy, but ultimately, building left political power requires trusting locals to make choices about their own electoral work. Letting locals take the lead has value both because it is the best way to implement an electoral strategy that makes DSA a powerful political force and because it reinforces the best aspects of DSA’s democratic structure. Ultimately, a successful left electoral strategy will rely not just on the thousands of current members of DSA, but the preferences of millions of working class people around the country—what we do now is just the beginning of a long process of engagement. Locals are natural laboratories for different electoral strategies in different electoral contexts. None of us can pretend to be experts on how to elect socialists and build a socialist party, or build working-class power within the American political structure in the twenty-first century. Rather than requiring locals to conform to a predetermined top-down set of mandates, the national electoral strategy should be to let one hundred flowers bloom.
The National Electoral Committee
The National Electoral Committee (NEC), comprised of DSA members engaged in electoral work around the country, is the national body empowered to execute the NPC’s political strategy by assisting locals and recommending national endorsements. The structure and role of the NEC should follow from the electoral strategy adopted by DSA; this proposal will now outline how the NEC can best empower chapters to run the best campaigns they can in their local contexts, building electoral power for DSA, while remaining democratically responsive to DSA membership. The NEC should be (1) local-focused; (2) collaborative; and (3) democratic, transparent, and accountable.
Democratic, Transparent, and Accountable
The NEC should provide assistance and programming to any local that wants to take advantage of its resources, regardless of whether they are working on a nationally endorsed campaign. However, national endorsements still have a role to play under this electoral model.
Any candidate endorsed by national should be thoroughly researched and vetted. Before endorsing any candidate, national should establish that the local chapter has a plan to ensure that a victory for the endorsed candidate will be a victory for DSA, not just a victory for the lesser evil. Candidates should be running to win, meaning they should have a credible path to victory, and be endorsed by their local DSA chapter. The flexibility and knowledge of local conditions gained by basing much of the organization's decision-making power in the chapters will be the greatest asset available for guidance in this area.
National DSA is well placed to build a coherent narrative in the media about the rising tide of socialism, by strategically spotlighting nationally endorsed candidates and using the megaphone provided by DSA social media accounts to elevate chapters’ electoral work. Furthermore, nationally endorsed candidates can be aided by national DSA’s assistance with fundraising.
The ultimate goal for the NEC should be first, to see the local achieve its electoral goals, and only second, to ensure any particular candidate is elected. While running to win the elections we enter into is key, the goal of DSA’s national endorsements should always be to build long-term local power, not to get a slightly better breed of progressive politician into office.
Socialist electoral campaigns offer extraordinary opportunities for DSA. Elections can mobilize hundreds of thousands or millions of people around a socialist vision, far beyond the reach of most other organizing campaigns within our capacity. Winning elections will allow us to implement vitally needed reforms that build the power and confidence of working-class people. Perhaps most vitally at the moment, developing and running campaigns is a key way for our locals across the country to build power where they are organizing right now. Electoral organizing can and should be an integral part of DSA’s work, and we fully support the decision of the membership to make it a national priority. Socialists must be relentless in struggling to build power in a hostile climate - electoral power is too important to leave in the hands of our enemies.
In order to build a movement that can, one day soon, claim hundreds or thousands of elected officials, our priority should be to build powerful independent electoral operations in DSA locals around the country. It is the thousands of activists in these locals who will develop specific local strategies, win elections and policy victories, and refine the mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable in the face of inevitable opposition from the one percent.
The Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated that there is an enormous desire among millions of Americans for democratic socialism. Translating that desire into a sustained socialist movement of millions will require long term work, starting from the bottom up in communities across the country, rooting our efforts in an independent, democratic organizing model. Above all else, the key to a successful national electoral strategy is empowering DSA’s locals to experiment and grow in the pursuit of that vision.
Jamal Abed-Rabbo, Chicago DSA, Electoral Working Group
Ravi Ahmad, NYC-DSA, National Political Committee Member
Heather Allen, North Texas DSA, National Electoral Committee Member
Michael Antonacci, Pittsburgh DSA
Jake Barszcz, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group
Zac Bears, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Matt Beatty, NYC-DSA, Bronx/Upper Manhattan Electoral Working Group
Austin Binns, Philadelphia DSA/Temple YDSA, Electoral Evaluation Committee
Stefan Bishop, Metro DC DSA
Will Bloom, Chicago DSA
Jamin Bogi, Pittsburgh DSA, Pittsburgh DSA PAC Vice-Chair
Christian Bowe, Metro DC DSA,National Political Committee Member, National Electoral Committee Member
Leann Bowen, DSA-LA, Electoral Committee Campaign Coordinator
Benjamin Bradlow, Boston DSA
Rod Brady, Central Jersey DSA
Jabari Brisport, NYC-DSA, DSA nationally endorsed candidate (2017)
Glenn Brown, Cleveland DSA, Electoral Committee Chair
Edward Burnell, Boston DSA
Chris Caragianis, Louisville DSA
Michael Cavadias, NYC DSA, Lower Manhattan Electoral Working Group
Adam Chaikof, Boston DSA, Boston DSA Electoral Politics Working Group
Arielle Cohen, Pittsburgh DSA, Co-Chair
Allie Cohn, Knoxville DSA, National Political Committee Member, National Electoral Committee Member
Arman Cole, DSA-LA, Electoral Politics
Sean Collins, Albany DSA, Chapter Chair
Nick Conder, Louisville DSA, Electoral Politics Committee
Emma Corngold, NYC-DSA
Laura Couch, Seattle DSA
Dresden Craig, Central New Mexico DSA
Max Crema, Metro DC DSA
Benjamin Crosby, Boston DSA
Jonathan Danforth-Appell, DSA-LA
Isaac Davis, North Texas DSA
Sam Dean, DSA-LA, Electoral Committee Chair
Xavier Doolittle, Green County DSA, Connie Johnson for Governor (DSA Chapter endorsed candidate)
Francisco Diez-Buzo, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Member
Amelia Dornbush, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Communications Coordinator
Nan Alexander-Dowiak, At Large Pittsburgh DSA
Kirk Duval, DSA-LA
Mitch Eagles, St. Louis DSA
Max Earnest, DSA-LA
Brian Elliott, NYC-DSA, Bronx-Upper Manhattan Electoral Working Group Co-Chair
William Figliolini, Boston DSA
Mark Firla, New Haven DSA
Drew Flanagan, Boston DSA
Angela Flowers, Pittsburgh DSA
Max Gelula, Chicago DSA
Sam Ghitelman, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Member
Tony Ginocchio, Chicago DSA
Kara Gloe, Red River Valley DSA
Ted Glomski, Madison Area DSA
Sam Goldstein, Boston DSA
Julian Graham, NYC DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Group Data Coordinator
Walker Green, Metro DC DSA
Alyssa Greenberg, NYC-DSA
Brittany Griebling, Philadelphia DSA
Bruce Griffiths, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group
Tim H, NYC-DSA, Veterans Working Group
Emmy Hammond, NYC-DSA
Robbie Harwood, Boston DSA
Kristian Hernandez, North Texas DSA
John Hess, Temple YDSA
John Hieronymus, Chicago DSA
Catherine Hoffman, Detroit DSA, National Political Committee Member
Matthew Hoffmann, Chicago DSA, National Electoral Committee Member
Peter Hogness, Central Brooklyn DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group
Beth Huang, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Alec Hudson, Chicago DSA/UIC YDSA
Richard E. M. Hughes, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Katherine I, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Sam Joyce, Chicago DSA/UChicago YDSA
Susan Kang, NYC-DSA
Stuart Karaffa, Metro DC DSA, Co-chair Metro DC DSA Electoral Caucus,
James Kelleher, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Field Coordinator
Rafael Khachaturian, Pittsburgh DSA
Michael Kinnucan, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Research Coordinator, National Electoral Committee Member
Paul Kirk-Davidoff, Carleton College, DSA
Nate Knauf, YDSA GT Chair
Jacob Kramer, Boston DSA, Electoral Woking Group
Jacob Kramer, Cleveland DSA, Electoral Committee Member
Jason Krigsfeld, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group
Danya Lagos, NYC-DSA
Gregory Laynor, Philadelphia DSA
Drew Layton, Denver DSA
Priscilla Lee, Central Jersey DSA
Adam Leeds, Boston DSA, Mobilizer Coordinator
Jennifer Lenow, NYC-DSA
Tal Levy, DSA LA, Membership Committee Co-Chair
Connor Lewis, Centre County DSA
James I. Lewis, BuxMont DSA
Joel Lewis, Twin Cities DSA
Sam Lewis, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Co-Chair
Brandon Liebhaber, DSA-LA, Electoral Politics Committee
Ella Mahony, NYC-DSA, National Political Committee Member
Stephen Maples, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group, Finance Coordinator
Gabriel Markoff, DSA San Francisco, Electoral Committee Co-Chair
Nicholas Marro, At-large DSA
Stuart McMuldroch, Boston, DSA
Justine Medina, NYC-DSA, Queens Electoral Working Group Organizing Committee
Matthew Miller, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Dan Moraff, Pittsburgh DSA, Electoral Working Group, National Electoral Committee Member
Carrington Morris, NYC-DSA, North Brooklyn Branch
Karen Narefsky, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Lindsay Nelson, National Electoral Committee Member
Châu Lan Ngô, Austin DSA
David Paesani, DSA-LA
Renée Paradis, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Compliance Coordinator, National Electoral Committee Member
Louise E. Parker, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Michael Patterson, Anchorage DSA, ADSA Electoral Committee
Lucas Pérez-Leahy, Omaha DSA
Robin Peterson, Chicago DSA
Presley Pizzo, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Alan Pugh, Cleveland DSA, Cleveland DSA endorsed candidate (2017)
Sanjeev Rau, YDSA Bloomington
Nic Raymond, Twin Cities DSA, Co-Chair
Adam Reilly, DSA-LA
Rachel Reyes, DSA-LA Steering Committee
Chris Riddiough, Metro DC DSA, National Political Committee Member, National Electoral Committee Member
Thea N. Riofrancos, Providence DSA
Rita Rosenfeld, NYC-DSA, Electoral Working Group Member
Andrew Schriver, Cleveland DSA, Electoral Committee
J.T. Scott, Boston DSA, DSA nationally endorsed candidate (2017)
Shaun Scott, Seattle DSA
Andrew Shelton, Boston DSA
Kenzo Shibata, Chicago DSA, Co-Chair Chicago DSA Labor
Adam Shuck, Pittsburgh DSA
Bilgesu Sisman, Chicago DSA
Keaton Slansky, Seattle DSA
Jacquelyn Smith, Metro DC DSA, Co-chair of Electoral Caucus
Will Speck, Providence DSA
Ivy Steinberg, Pittsburgh DSA
Joel on Stillman, NYC-DSA
Paul Swartz, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Communications Coordinator
Penelope Taylor, Boston DSA
Ari Teer, Pittsburgh DSA, Electoral Committee, Pittsburgh DSA PAC Comms
John M. Tryneski, Chicago DSA, Co-Chair, Electoral Working Group
Erika Uyterhoeven, Boston DSA, Electoral Working Group
Tascha Van Auken, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Co-Chair, National Electoral Committee Member
David Vines, NYC-DSA
Chance Walker, San Antonio DSA/UTSA YDSA
Jared Watson, South Brooklyn DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group
Henry Weaver, Central Connecticut DSA
Scott Wood, Salt Lake DSA
Matthew Wolfsen, Metro Atlanta DSA/YDSA GT
Alex Wolinetz, DSA-LA
Abdullah Younus, NYC-DSA, Brooklyn Electoral Working Group, National Electoral Committee Member
Timothy Zhu, Honolulu DSA