The Electoral Issue
Summer 2018

It’s About Power

By Maria Svart, DSA National Director

When I was a union organizer, we periodically did something called a structure test. For example, we might circulate a survey in the workplace about conditions. The data from the survey were useful in telling us what problems were widely and deeply felt, but so was the response rate and pattern, because it told us who was not participating.

Later in a campaign, a higher level, riskier test might be a “march on the boss.” Would everyone in the workplace sign a public petition, and would all those on a shift leave their posts and barge, together, into the bosses’ office to confront them with a demand?

With the union, bosses either felt intimidated by the workers united and met our demands or they did not. Workers would not plan a march on the boss unless they believed that their co-workers were ready and that the workers could come out of the march more powerful. In other words, the march on the boss was simultaneously a test and a tactic as part of our larger strategy.

Because we are in this fight to win, it matters whether we are unified or not and whether our strategies and tactics actually build power in measurable ways. It is not enough to simply feel radical.

DSA’s theory of change is that we must build power not just in the economy through workplaces, but also in the formal political realm. We know that who holds state power has a profound impact on our everyday lives and on the terrain of our war with capital. A recent popular tweet captures the essence of the issue: “You’re ‘just not that into politics?’ Your boss is. Your landlord is. Your insurance company is. And every day they use their political power to keep your pay low, raise your rent, and deny you coverage. It’s time to get into politics.”

November 7, 2017, was a test, as was May 15, 2018, and every other election this year. These were and will be real-world tests to find out whether DSA has the power to elect democratic socialists in local races. So far, we can be proud of our record, as, most recently, when nationally endorsed Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee joined locally endorsed Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale in winning their Democratic primary races for the Pennsylvania State House in May. Innamorato and Lee blew their conservative Democratic incumbent opponents, both members of a well-entrenched political dynasty, out of the water by huge margins.

A few lessons from our work so far:

1. When we win, we grow; and when we grow, we win, because winning gives us hope in dark times. Our state governments in many cases have been making austerity budget cuts or ratcheting up overt violence against our communities for years. In this environment, every time we feel that we have gained some power moves more people into collective action.

2. We aren’t going it alone. Unions, single issue, voter engagement, and newer ally organizations like Our Revolution are often with us in the trenches. For example, the United Electrical Workers union was the first to break ranks with labor and endorse Innamorato and Lee; Reclaim Philadelphia knocked on 50,000 doors for Fiedler; and the Sierra Club, other environmental, and reproductive rights organizations gave significant contributions to several candidates—and did the same for Lee Carter in 2017. DSA is the democratic socialist current in a broader movement, and if we’re to build a mass movement, we need to be where the masses are. This is one reason that power mapping and coalition work are topics in our Regional Leadership Trainings.

3. Finally, while we savor these victories and build toward the next ones, let’s keep in mind that electoral work as practiced by DSA is an extension of other movement work, something we do year round and in between elections. DSA’s three field organizers are traveling throughout the country this summer to help chapters think through how to build a powerful grassroots base through various campaigns confronting local targets. Elections are concrete tests. Election cycles are predictable and thus a useful scorecard of our effectiveness at building a multi-racial, working-class base that is self-conscious, strategic, and powerful.

Elections are also real fights in the class war, battles that we need to win because they have real consequences.

In this issue of Democratic Left, Amelia Dornbush and Sam Lewis’s piece explores how and why DSA electoral campaigns can be powerful engines for building independent working-class power and a base that is broader than DSA’s existing membership. Tom Gallagher profiles some of our elected officials, and Meagan Day looks at the work of a number of DSA chapters carrying out our national electoral strategy of using campaigns to build capacity in our chapters rather than simply providing ground troops for candidates. Puya Gerami’s piece is a case study of Central Connecticut DSA’s electoral work from power analysis to strategic plan. And rounding out the issue, Laurence Peterson, Jack Suria-Linares, Maurice Isserman, Nicole Díaz González, and Michael Hirsch look to current and historical situations and struggles that offer lessons that should inform our electoral work.


DL Summer 2018