How Did DSA Build Out of Bernie?

With Bernie officially suspending his campaign, DSA members are left to assess our role and what we were able to achieve. John G offers his view of how DSA4Bernie looked at the chapter level, and how it grew our capacity to wage future struggles.

MDC’s original Bernie Working Group began in August of 2019 with a planning meeting and the election of our first two campaign co-chairs, veterans of multiple successful campaigns for DSA-endorsed socialists. We were excited to flex our chapter’s growing capacity since building up one of the most effective DSA electoral programs in the country over the past few years. Our first DSA4Bernie canvass was September 8, 2019.

Having such skilled co-chairs, however, was a double-edged sword, as both were soon hired in rapid succession by Bernie’s official campaign. To date, Metro DC DSA has had at least a dozen cadre and active members hired by the Sanders campaign. Thus many of our most dedicated and experienced electoral organizers, with whom most of our chapter’s institutional knowledge was concentrated, were suddenly unavailable to the DSA4Bernie Working Group.  

The fact that DSA’s campaign effort took shape as an Independent Expenditure (IE), forbidding coordination with the candidate’s campaign, rather than as a PAC or some other arrangement that does allow for coordination, was the right choice by DSA as a national organization. While the alternatives would have severely limited our ability to do work, the IE’s restrictions, which separated us from many of our best organizers, were definitely a huge hurdle for our DSA4Bernie efforts.

Veteran electoral personnel were also needed to lead and sustain other vital MDC campaigns such as supporting our endorsed candidate for DC Council Ward 4, and our efforts to improve DC’s Rent Control laws (inspired by similar work in NYC DSA).

This led to a rough transition. In the beginning there was a lack of effective leadership. For a time our canvasses were small and less organized than typical MDC DSA canvasses. Overall, working group activity was limited. Before they started with the Bernie campaign, the outgoing co-chairs did an admirable job of training others in the basics of campaigning, such as how to cut turf, order lit, etc..

This benching of previous leaders did, however, allow for new members to rise to the challenge and take on responsibility and leadership roles. We held an early DSA4Bernie Working Group meeting with only a few veterans, but with palpable and widely-shared energy. Of all attendees, about half of those who had been inactive before became very active, with some even taking on leadership roles in the campaign.  By the end of December the new working group was in full gear and thus, in a few short weeks, MDC added more cadre than it had the whole year prior.

The MDC DSA Working Group Strategy

The MDC DSA4Bernie approach has been to attract large numbers of non-DSA and minimally-involved DSA members, engage them in work that produces tangible results, and ultimately integrate them into the workings of the chapter—both to bring them into non-Bernie chapter work as well as to foster their education and development not just as pro-Bernie people but as actual socialists.

The working group hosted many low-barrier events such as debate & results watch parties and educational events. Those curious about DSA but who might be a bit intimidated by coming out to a canvass as a first activity, could come out and get to know us at one of these events.  We sought to build community and keep spirits high, and also to provide opportunities for more experienced members to conduct organizing conversations to move folks from being passive observers of politics to active participants. These events also allowed us to build our list for future email, text, and phone engagement about upcoming Bernie and non-Bernie DSA events and activities.

Once potential volunteers were identified through list work, we made concrete asks of them to canvass voters, to participate in future Bernie WG events, to participate in other DSA events, to donate money toward the purchase of canvassing literature, and to join the more active layers of the DSA4Bernie WG. 

To that end, the Working Group leadership made a conscious effort to create opportunities for highly engaged volunteers to take on responsibilities and join the core organizing and leadership team. This is critical both for scaling up our efforts and also for solidifying the engagement of those who are new to DSA, so that they keep coming back and continue to make DSA and socialist organizing a larger part of their lives.

Strategic Considerations

Metro DC DSA has a culture of seeking to get as many voter contacts as possible from each canvasser. Prior electoral campaigns involved a method of knocking on both Saturday and Sunday every weekend for months prior to an election with each volunteer expected to knock two packets of 40 to 50 doors each Saturday and one packet of 50+ doors on Sunday. At first, this high rate may seem like it would scare some new canvassers off. But MDC DSA has found that canvassers generally show up ready to work, and it’s up to us to take them up on it. By sharing substantive political activity together, a group culture emerges that creates accountability. And the material difference is significant: a campaign’s success or failure, as well as our organization’s capacity to meaningfully shift the balance, may come down to how big an ask we make of the people who show up.

This method was adjusted some for Bernie canvasses, in part because of differences in leadership, but also due to the sheer number of volunteers showing up to canvass. At one of the first big DSA4Bernie canvasses, we ran out of packets and so had to group some people up.

Since MDC DSA is one of the larger chapters in the country, we are used to operating our campaigns largely independently of national DSA, and Metro DC’s DSA4Bernie work generally followed this same pattern. We sought little and received little in the way of strategic coordination, training, or assistance from the national DSA Bernie effort. This was not a major issue except in one instance, where delays in getting access to VAN for Virginia stalled our canvassing operations there. Thus our canvassing remained relegated to Maryland, a state which votes much later and is therefore of less strategic value on its own.

The tech tools acquired by national DSA, however, have been instrumental to Metro DC’s DSA4Bernie work, and it was phenomenal to have them. VAN is a canvassing necessity. Spoke has allowed us to more quickly, easily, and effectively engage our contacts, and while Bernie work was its original impetuous, it’s been very helpful for non-Bernie work as well. We have just begun tapping into the potential of Action Network not only for Working Group fundraising but also for list building. These tools alone make the national effort more than worth it. 

Has it helped elect Bernie? 

Bernie Sanders did not win the Virginia Primary, and the campaign for Maryland and DC was over before the voting. Still, I believe that the DSA4Bernie did improve Bernie’s result. Door-to-door canvassing is among the most effective persuasion and turnout-increasing tactics in electoral campaigns and MDC DSA knocked on tens of thousands of doors, identifying supporters and persuading others to vote for Bernie Sanders in Maryland and Virginia long before the official campaign established much of any presence in these areas.

There has been some tension around whether DSA should mount its own effort on Bernie’s behalf, funnel all interested volunteers to work directly with the official campaign, or remain aloof from presidential politics altogether. Many who had been very skeptical of DSA’s involvement with Bernie Sanders have become diehard supporters while some who had argued passionately for DSA to endorse and set up an Independent Expenditure have decided socialists should direct volunteers to work directly for or with the campaign.

While in some contexts, such as in opening states like Iowa or New Hampshire where the Sanders campaign was heavily concentrated, an argument can be made that an independent DSA campaign for Bernie would not be the most efficient way to help elect Bernie since his official campaign would be best able to deploy eager volunteers. In states like Virginia, however, where there was very minimal official Bernie campaign presence until very close to the primary date, we were the only field program in operation.  Thus, not only did we benefit Bernie by creating a field program where none existed, but we also did not divert local volunteers since they had nowhere else to go. In fact, by being the only game in town, we were able to expose DSA and our message of socialism to Bernie-loving volunteers who otherwise had not come into contact with DSA.   

There was some opportunity cost in terms of knocking doors in a later state versus calling or texting with the Sanders campaign, but it appears (from the outside at least) like the Sanders campaign was able to maintain very healthy volunteer participation (frequently far surpassing already ambitious call/text goals) while DSA focused on its own work at the same time. On the weekend of February 22, Metro DC DSA had over two hundred members doing some kind of Bernie work, whether it was members employed by the campaign, those participating in a Bernie journey to South Carolina, or those knocking with the chapter in Virginia—all working in ways that didn’t cannibalize each other’s capacity. 

Also, simply getting Bernie to win the presidency, while a massive step toward the change we seek, is by no means sufficient, even by Bernie’s own admission. He needs a movement beyond a single election campaign to push our collective demands, and DSA, as part of the broader socialist and progressive movement, needs to be a lot stronger than it has been to help get that done. Thus, while sending people to the official Sanders campaign might in some short-term ways be ideal for getting him elected, the Working Group balanced that need against the need to build something that lasts beyond this campaign, win or lose.

Has it Helped Build DSA? 

In the goal of generating new cadre for Metro DC DSA, the DSA4Bernie campaign has been a smashing success. In a chapter whose active and cadre ranks had remained level for over a year, the DSA4Bernie Working Group has generated at least a dozen highly-active leaders for DSA who were not at all, or only minimally active prior to the relaunch of the DSA4Bernie Working Group, the largest such spike since 2017.  

Though Bernie brought these new cadre in, they have not stayed only with Bernie or even electoral work but rather have become active in other MDC DSA campaigns, including our Reclaim Rent Control and Migrant Justice campaigns. This is a familiar pattern for recruitment and leadership development. Electoral campaigns can benefit non-electoral work by bringing in people who in the past have mostly experienced political activism via electoral politics and exposing them to other forms of struggle which they often enthusiastically embrace.

DSA4Bernie events have been a massive success in engaging with large numbers of people.  Tens of thousands have been provided with explicitly socialist cases for Bernie and his policy agenda of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and more. Thousands have had a direct conversation about socialism, in most cases for the first time, because of DSA4Bernie canvassing.

DSA4Bernie events have also been wildly popular. Our Iowa Caucuses Results Watch Party was the single most-attended event in the chapter’s history (including local conventions) with about 200 sign-ins. Our regular weekend canvasses regularly drew 80+ attendees, larger than even many of our final Get Out The Vote (GOTV) canvasses for non-Bernie races in the past.  Our watch parties and educational events such as our screening of Bernie documentary on Eugene Debs, have been very well-attended without massive outreach. These are not just the same people who show up to all DSA events. One of the most frequent comments from longer-standing MDC DSA cadre has been, “this event is packed and I only recognize a couple people!”

Translating the excitement and participation in our events into large numbers of people actually joining DSA has shown mixed results. Although new member growth for the chapter is up in the last few months, it has not been as large a margin as we hoped or in proportion to the level of event participation.

MDC DSA membership growth spikes typically occur around major news events, some external to DSA such as the 2016 Bernie campaign and the Trump inauguration, but also some directly caused by DSA such as MDC DSA’s action confronting then Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as nationally-profiled DSA electoral victories such as that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and local DSA electoral victories in Montgomery County, MD, Northern Virginia, and DC.  

There were few such events in 2019 and chapter gains suffered as a result.  However, the number of joins picked up again since the DSA4Bernie Working Group reemerged in strength from late December 2019. As the weeks wore on, the Working Group continually strived to adapt its practices to more actively recruit for DSA, doing a better job of making explicit asks of event attendees in announcements and organizing conversations, having signage at events for donations and join links, and actively engaging the attendee contact lists.

Part of the explanation in the growth of participation outstripping growth in new joins is that Bernie work is drawing existing paper members to participate in DSA for the first time as well as bringing back burnt-out cadre whose participation in DSA had fallen off after the initial frenzy of the 2017 membership surge.

Our work of moving people who were canvassed into becoming active DSA members has had some successes, and some individuals whom we have canvassed have gotten involved in subsequent events. Unfortunately this has not been large-scale or systematic. In the days and weeks prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the Working Group was working on ways to improve this such as being more targeted in our turf selection, adjusting our pitches, and doing a better job of following up with those who do express interest.

Metro DC DSA suffers from many of the demographic imbalances of other chapters across the country. We’ve sought to use the DSA4Bernie campaign in two major ways. First, we aimed to canvass in neighborhoods with higher proportions of communities less represented in DSA. For this reason, our initial canvassing was in Prince George’s County in Maryland, a part of the DC metro area with the highest share of Black residents. Due in large part to the Working Group leadership transition issues and the shift in focus to Virginia, ultimately these efforts were not very successful.

More successfully, the DSA4Bernie Working Group had begun launching bilingual canvasses in which we specifically recruited canvassers who speak Spanish to go knock in neighborhoods with large numbers of Spanish-only or Spanish-first speaking households. This effort has been very successful in bringing in more Latinx canvassers as volunteers and also as Working Group leaders. 

Final Analysis

Metro DC DSA’s efforts in support of Bernie Sanders have been good for both Bernie Sanders and for DSA, helping us build power and bring more Americans into contact with socialist ideas and struggles.  

Metro DC DSA is a large chapter in terms of DSA chapters, but it is nowhere near as large as we would like it to be, and our chapter has been grappling with why it isn’t growing more and what to do about it. Most discourse has focused on internal culture (new people don’t join because the environment is more toxic than it should be, if we make the space safer more people will come) or on mobilization (if we do a better job of onboarding new members and doing better internal organizing activities, people will come, stay, and get more involved).  

These are of course necessary for ensuring people stay, but they are not sufficient for getting them to come in the first place. Bernie work suggests to me that an exciting campaign that taps into the popular imagination is not only an opportunity not to be missed, but an absolutely necessary component of making DSA and socialism a movement with enough mass to actually accomplish what we want to accomplish. For that, I value our DSA4Bernie work!

In the days since Bernie suspended his campaign hundreds of new members are joining DSA.  This spike in membership growth would not be happening if Bernie meant nothing to them and if DSA meant nothing to Bernie. 

The comrades I’ve met in MDC DSA’s Bernie Working Group will take the experience we’ve gained and the connections we’ve forged into the next fight, more capable than before.  This fight was worth it, and we—like DSA—are stronger for it.

John G is a member of the Metro DC DSA4Bernie Working Group Leadership Team.