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Is ‘Bernie or Bust’ the Future of the Left?

ATLANTA — Three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America had 5,000 members. Just another booth at the campus activities fair, another three-initialed group an uncle might mention over lunch.

Today, dues-paying D.S.A. members exceed 56,000. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American politics, is one. So are a couple of dozen local elected officials across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate, is not, but he may as well be: He identifies as a democratic socialist and enjoys a totemic status with the group’s members.

Mr. Sanders’s popularity during his unsuccessful 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nomination helped swell D.S.A.’s ranks. But a very different figure is primarily responsible for the group’s staggering growth: President Trump, who recently associated “radical socialism” with the “destruction of the American dream.” In fact, the majority of current D.S.A. members signed up in the last two years.

“Trump scared a lot of people,” said Maria Svart, the national director, in an interview. “So they joined.”

Most of the roughly 1,000 D.S.A. delegates who gathered at the biennial convention last weekend to set organization policy doubtlessly share Ms. Svart’s resoundingly negative view of the president. And nearly as many would agree with her that Mr. Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, is the one to beat him. The group endorsed Mr. Sanders in March.

But if Mr. Sanders is not the nominee? The group passed a resolution Friday afternoon saying that it will not officially endorse anyone else, regardless of what that might mean in a general election against Mr. Trump. For D.S.A., it is “Bernie or Bust.”

The lopsided passage of the resolution, known by that pithy nickname, prompted happy whistles in the ballroom of the Westin Peachtree Plaza, one of Atlanta’s few union hotels. The silent, raised-arm, wiggling-hands of American Sign Language applause, which over the convention’s three days crested throughout the room like ocean waves, was unusually ecstatic.


The vote could not help but flabbergast a certain kind of mainstream liberal, anxious that left-wing purity might detract from unseating President Trump next year. Mr. Sanders himself has said there are “no ifs, buts, or maybes” about the stakes in 2020, pledging in a recent interview, “If I lose this thing, I will be there doing everything I can to defeat Trump.”

Charles Lenchner, a D.S.A. delegate who supports Mr. Sanders but opposed the Bernie-or-Bust resolution, concurred. “Defeating Trump is the most important priority for a progressive or leftist,” he said.

The vote does not mean D.S.A. members cannot vote for a non-Sanders nominee in November 2020, of course, nor even that D.S.A. cannot mobilize swing-state votes for such a nominee, as it did in 2016 when it did not endorse Hillary Clinton.

Yet the vote was a quintessential reflection of this charged moment for left-wing activists as well as the singular role Mr. Sanders plays in the minds of many members.

“Bernie” — over the weekend, he was always referred to by just his first name — “is a uniquely unifying figure in D.S.A.,” said Thea Riofrancos, of the Providence chapter.


Several D.S.A. members made the persuasive case that Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign fundamentally shifted the Democratic Party leftward, particularly on the signature issue of single-payer “Medicare for all.”

And Winnie Wong, a Sanders campaign adviser who said she was attending the convention as a rank-and-file member and observer, not a delegate, in turn credited the D.S.A. for helping popularize Medicare for all, a policy it endorsed at its 2017 convention.

“I am extremely happy that the activist base of the D.S.A. is energized around making sure we move the goal posts,” she said.

Blame ‘zombie neoliberalism’

While no large signs or ubiquitous stickers actually stated that Bernie Would Have Won — the line is, perhaps, so very 2017 — there was no mistaking the undercurrent of continued bitterness around the 2016 race.

It is a crucial part of D.S.A. ideology to treat the last general election less as President Trump’s victory and more as Mrs. Clinton’s loss.

“The zombie neoliberalism of the Wall Street Democrats created this crisis with their free trade, their austerity budget cuts,” Ms. Svart said in her opening speech, “and they are complicit in Trump’s shock doctrine against our communities.”

Councilman Khalid Kamau, of nearby South Fulton, Ga., recalled protesting at the 2016 Democratic National Convention with nearly 2,000 other Sanders delegates over a primary they deemed “rigged.”


“We walked out,” the councilman said, “and then the people that we represented stayed home” on Election Day.

Not that the primary was the exclusive talk of the convention. Oscar Wilde quipped that the problem with socialism was that it occupied too many evenings, but few of the convention goers, whose median age appeared to be around 27, seemed to share his objection.

There was a new governing board to elect. The more than 30 candidates represented one of many informal D.S.A. caucuses, which include Socialist Majority, North Star, Bread and Roses (basically Marxist), Build (which considers itself a “project”), Emerge and Libertarian Socialist (“No President 2020”).

There were speeches Friday morning and drinks in the evenings and, on Saturday, a fund-raiser titled “A World to Win,” after a line from a once-viral blog post called “The Communist Manifesto.”

The loudspeaker played Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”

Robert’s Rules of Order governed the voting sessions, in which the delegates voted on a host of resolutions. Practically everything required someone to second it. Majorities carried the day, unless the vote was on whether to suspend the rules, which required a two-thirds majority.

“Five hours against this and against that, five hours for this and that,” the prominent activist Linda Sarsour said at the fund-raiser. “There are people dying in this country.”


But if most delegates would have admitted that the emphasis on procedure lapsed into self-parody, some argued that it stemmed from an authentic desire to accomplish things. The contrast with Occupy Wall Street’s general assemblies, which sought to establish consensus rather than decisive victors and losers, was unmistakable.

“It’s not your grandfather’s socialist party that sits around debating theory and then tries to sell you its paper,” said Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, one of six D.S.A. members on the Chicago City Council. “It’s serious about building and wielding power.”

D. S.A. started in 1982, a rare group in the faction-happy left-wing firmament created from a merger rather than a split-off. Its purpose was to move the Democratic Party toward “the left wing of the possible,” in founder Michael Harrington’s phrase.

The possible has never seemed more probable. Of “the squad,” the four first-term congresswomen in the House of Representatives who have been elevated to the Republican Party’s main foils, two — Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — are D.S.A. members. A news conference Saturday featured more than a dozen local elected officials from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Oregon.

The group’s most concrete successes have come at the local level, where supporters say the energy created by national spectacles — the Sanders campaign, the Trump presidency — has been harnessed: to help pass a paid sick leave law in Austin, Tex., and a rent-control law in New York State; to elect a judge in Houston, a state representative in Maine, a state senator in Colorado.

Denise Joy said she had won her race for City Council in Billings, Mont., on a platform to fund housing and infrastructure. Her priorities recalled the early 20th century “sewer socialism” that ruled cities like Milwaukee, which is the site of next year’s Democratic National Convention.

“I would knock on doors, and that’s what I would talk about,” Ms. Joy said. “Streetlights are really important!”

If inside the ballroom Mr. Harrington’s frank involvement in mainstream politics held sway, just outside on the mezzanine, the whimsical spirit of Occupy reigned.


Haymarket Books and the socialist magazine Jacobin hawked wares. One of the marshals — they wore green armbands, and had been trained in conflict de-escalation — propped his feet on an empty table, a handwritten sign announcing,

Anti-Fascist Organizing and Tactics

Not Official

(Just Hate Nazis).

The group DSAMedics offered free sundries: vitamin C powder, several flavors of tea, earplugs, tissues, condoms.

For all the attention “Bernie or Bust” drew, much of the conversation centered on the “Pass the Hat” resolution, which would have drastically redistributed dues away from the national organization by giving every chapter $100 per month (it failed).

Support for a ‘capitalist’?

But many attendees were eager to discuss the Democratic presidential primary. Despite the “Bernie or Bust” vote, a good number expressed fondness for Senator Elizabeth Warren, who professes economically left-wing policy views but identifies as a “capitalist.”

Shahid Buttar, a Bay Area lawyer who ran against Speaker Nancy Pelosi in last year’s primary and is running against her again next year, said that while he supports Mr. Sanders, he believes he can defeat Ms. Pelosi head-to-head in California’s top-two primary system with either Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren atop the ticket.

In an interview, Ms. Svart allowed that “a lot of our members like Warren,” but added that the Massachusetts senator was “very different from Bernie.”

“Warren has a theory of power, about how change happens, which does not involve a mass movement,” Ms. Svart said. “And we believe nothing happens without a mass movement, especially nothing that benefits working people.”

Whether or not that belief is confirmed next year, it was plain that D.S.A. constitutes a true movement, and of some mass.


Itzhak Epstein, a D.S.A. member since 1985, expressed a combined pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will when asked if he was surprised the group had grown so large.

“Why only 56,000?” he said of D.S.A.’s membership ranks. “At least a million people agree with us now.”


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