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The DSA is dead and the Squad is Trump’s only path back to power
Why I left the DSA in 2021
Note: I wrote most of this in early 2021 but never published it. As it is relevant to debates still ongoing as the 2024 election heats up, I am sharing it now.
Biden won. Trump lost—and in defeat has proven yet again just how important his removal from office was. His attempt to overturn the election results demonstrates that the constraints of democratic rights—such as the free press and free association—and competitive elections themselves might not have survived a second term. And yet the Democratic Socialists of America did not only not endorse Biden, but made a show of not helping vote Trump out.
Such a political mistake, on such a fundamental issue, destroys any basis for confidence in it. While the DSA does not reflect the political priorities of the majority of its membership, who almost certainly voted for Biden, the activist minority that dominates it determines its character—what the DSA represents as an organization to the public.
I had hoped that a decisive Biden victory—and the predictable actions of Trump in such an eventuality—would drive home to substantial parts of the organization that another course would be necessary. In particular, I had hoped that the two public figures most associated with the DSA and most widely respected within it—Bernie and AOC—might themselves look at the results and become a rallying point for changing course. Bernie, to his credit, has—in the main—demonstrated a constructive approach to engaging the Democratic Party since his endorsement. However, such actions seem to have had no effect on the DSA, perhaps buttressed by the failure of AOC to likewise pursue a constructive approach—a point which I’ll elaborate on later.
The DSA is politically dead
Of course, the DSA will continue on. It will be able to live as a parasite off the discontent and resentment that is inevitable in any society short of paradise, attracting those alienated from it, and—instead of helping them learn to engage constructively—encourage their worst habits. But as a political organization—an organization capable of building enough support to govern—it is finished. It cut itself off from that when it refused to participate in the central and essential political task of voting out Trump.
Their approach can help you feel good—like you are doing the Lord’s work. You can present yourself as a pure, holy warrior, standing above the fray. You can do that, and you will harm all the causes you claim to care about.
The 2020 election results prove—again—the leftist electoral strategy is a loser
The expectation created by some polls of an absolute tidal wave in 2020 hid for many the extent of Biden’s accomplishment. He built the largest and broadest coalition in US history, winning the Electoral College with the votes of Republican suburbs without giving them a single policy concession. To have refused to have been part of this, to look at it with scorn or cynicism, is to demonstrate that one is cut off from any possible constructive engagement with society.
But—these leftists will say—it was mostly a vote against Trump, and therefore it had nothing to do with Biden. Of course, the size and shape of the 2020 election cannot be understood without that all-important context, but does that mean just anyone could've beat Trump--or that someone could've done better? No, it does not.
One of the surest demonstrations to me of the political dead end that the DSA is in is how willfully all elements are ignoring the reality of the election results. This is abetted by the fact that a large swathe of media pundits are engaging in that same ideological falsification. From columns in the Washington Post to the New York Times to left Twitter there’s this idea that Biden could have done better if he had adopted the progressives’ strategy (even though he generally outperformed them in their districts, whereas the Democratic House candidates who did outperform Biden were the some of the most moderate, see https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-strongest-house-candidates-in-2020-were-mostly-moderate/). (I didn’t expand this point on it not just being the Squad. One example I had saved for reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/opinion/latino-vote-democrats-election-2020.html. But mainly what this points to is something I didn’t analyze adequately in 2021, which is that while the Squad as elected representatives provide the starkest examples of this kind of polarizing ideology, it is far from confined to them.)
It’s been a sort of consensus of the US left that if only the Democratic Party ran someone more “left”—someone like, say, Bernie—it would do better in elections. But sadly, the supposed corporate establishment (or something, the mechanism here is never actually specified or analyzed in a rigorous way) intervenes to substitute these moderates, these centrists, these damnable neoliberals who just lose!
Bernie’s strong showing in the 2016 primary gave new life to this claim, which required ignoring that a chunk of his support turned out to be just people that hated Hillary Clinton and went on to vote for Trump—and also ignoring that it should be easier for a leftist to win a Democratic primary than the general election. The cognitive dissonance between the belief in the leftist electoral strategy being all-powerful and the reality of Bernie’s failure led to the unfounded claims that the DNC rigged the primary against him.
That did not happen—and if you’re wondering how Trump supporters could be so delusional, perhaps take a second look at how common the rigged claims were, with Sanders himself at times claiming that it was rigged.
But let’s be generous and assume for a moment that the evidence from 2016 was inconclusive—that this electoral strategy was a new thing and needed time to get off the ground. However, if you think the left electoral strategy is the way to go, it’s probably better not to examine the more extensive evidence of the 2018 midterms—and that is indeed what most did. AOC stole the show of newly elected Democrats in 2018—but her claim to fame was unseating an incumbent in a primary in a district that, as Pelosi later said, a water bottle with a D next to it would win in the general (Pelosi referred to her own district in that way as well).
And that is all the Justice Democrats and similar groups won—many primaries, but only four general elections that were not competitive and that in a wave election in which the Democratic Party as a whole flipped over 40 seats, taking back the House majority at a pivotal time to stymie Trump. But the Justice Dems and other Sanders-aligned PAC’s failed to flip a single one of those seats.
The minimum conclusion to the results of 2018 should’ve been “Something’s not quite right with our electoral approach” but instead we got…more of the same and 2020 just adds to that evidence. Despite Bernie essentially running for the 2020 Democratic primary for four years (yet never finding the time to talk to Rep. Clyburn in that time), it was Biden that accomplished what Sanders claimed only he could do--increase turnout appreciably in the primary as an indication of how he’d perform in the general.
Indeed, it is Biden that vindicated most of what the left professes to want about elections. We want money to not matter, just the message—and Biden winning the primary proved that to be possible, as for a key period of time, “Mr. Sanders spent more than twice as much on digital and television ads alone as Mr. Biden spent on his entire campaign operation — his payroll, his ads, his consultants, his events” ( from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/us/politics/biden-sanders-fund-raising.html).
No Justice Dem or similar candidate got more votes than Biden did in their districts. In fact, of all the Minnesota Candidates, Rep. Omar had the biggest deficit compared to Biden but somehow her messaging and campaign strategy were attributed as being essential to Biden’s victory there (https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1325181753204461569). Based on what? The fervent belief that it must be true, or else they’d have to rethink their approach, which takes work. Again, if one wants to understand how Trump supporters exist in an alternate reality, look at the Squad’s post-election analysis.
The Squad is Trump’s best friend
Ridiculous you say? First, it’s just a fact. You can consider what to do with that fact, but not liking it doesn’t change it. Consider the following:
Trump’s main line of attack on Biden was that he was Bernie. For a supposedly weak candidate, one would think Trump’s campaign could’ve come up with something else—which he did try to do by coercing a foreign government to make up information on Biden. (For all the claims Trump secretly feared Bernie the most, he never tried to coerce a foreign government to make up dirt on him). The Trump campaign also tried to convince people that Biden had dementia, which was pushed most heavily in March by Bernie supporters (see for instance Jacobin magazine https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/joe-biden-gaffes-democratic-presidential-campaign-trump).
Biden’s team’s research during the campaign “discovered that the real concern for many people wasn’t Mr. Biden’s age, or his health per se, but whether he was an easily manipulated tool of the radical left” (from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/06/technology/joe-biden-internet-election.html). But mainly just stop, take a breath, and think about it: Do you think that associating the Democratic Party label with “defund” and “socialism” could not possibly cause people to vote for Trump?
Consider those with family in Cuba or who know refugees from that dictatorship, consider them hearing Bernie praise Castro for his literacy programs when he could have said that teaching people to read while controlling what they read is not praiseworthy (see Masha Gessen’s excellent column). Or consider Venezuela’s self-proclaimed socialist regime has led to the “largest-ever refugee crisis in Latin America and one of the largest in the world” (https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disasters/venezuelan-refugee-crisis/), but the DSA sent a friendly delegation to Maduro (https://www.cfr.org/blog/democratic-socialists-america-embraces-maduro-dictatorship) without a word of criticism of his political repression or disastrous policies.
Are AOC and Bernie breathing fire about Venezuela or Cuba not truly representing the socialism they want?
So why shouldn’t voters be concerned that maybe that is what they want?
A dangerous spiral
Since the left electoral approach can win primaries but not competitive general elections, two important conclusions follow regarding how they hurt the Democratic Party and the political coalition it represents:
1) They can cost the party seats (by winning a primary but being unable to win a general election that someone else could), and
2) By winning safe general seats and getting media attention, they can increase national polarization—giving Trump a second lease on life electorally.
I have no easy solutions to end with, but to find those solutions, we have to face these problems. The DSA will not, though I hope some in the Squad might still come to reflect on them.
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