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Let us discuss, let us disagree

Sam Salour highlights the need for open strategic discussion within DSA for the organization to meaningfully relate to political moments that can further the socialist movement.

In this short article, I would like to raise some questions about DSA’s response to the recent “Force the Vote” controversy. My concern here, as a member of DSA, is not at all with the content of this controversy but with the manner in which my organization, the largest socialist organization in the United States, responded to a popular and controversial political issue.

On November 27, comedian and political commentator Jimmy Dore put forward the idea that progressive congress members should withhold their vote from Nancy Pelosi for speakership unless she agrees to hold a vote for Medicare for All in the House of Representatives. Within a week, the idea began to circulate on the internet and a coalition of left-wing activists and independent media figures, such as Briahna Joy Gray, Krystal Ball,Cornel West, Kyle Kulinski, Justin Jackson, Katie Halper, and others, came out in support of the proposal. They issued a petition that, by the time of writing, had reached 41,625 signatures, and collectively organized a town hall on December 30 that was completely ignored by congress members.

In a series of tweets, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out very strongly against this tactic. Jacobin rejected it as well with multiple videos and articles referring to the need for “real organizing” instead of just shouting on the internet. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks explained the intricate political and bureaucratic mechanisms that would have made it impossible for us to win Medicare for All even if we had forced the vote. Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks, enraged by the accusations of opportunism against her, criticized the unnecessary fractures that have been created on the Left as a result of this controversy and the toxicity of Jimmy Dore.

DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) issued a statement on January 5 rejecting “force the vote” as a tactic on similar grounds, arguing that even if we had all the necessary bureaucratic leverage “we know that elected officials will never respond to our demands unless we organize our class to fight for them, not just in DSA but in the labor movement too.” The statement reminds us that “we are socialists, and we are organizers, so we know that there are no shortcuts to liberation.”

But could we not have used this controversy as a means of organizing? Why did we not call on all chapters to organize discussion sessions for members to deliberate on this issue? Could we not have organized different chapters to vote on the issue? Why did we not organize national debates between the critics and defenders of the tactic for our members to participate in? Could we not have used this opportunity to engage the followers of these media figures with DSA and socialist politics? Could DSA not provide an alternative space, outside the toxic environment of Twitter, to debate and think collectively? Even if major disagreements were to arise out of such debates, should we not discuss? Should we not disagree?

It may be said that this was a bad faith attempt by the Movement for A People’s Party to garner attention to itself, that we should not waste our time by playing their game, that they are ultimately not very relevant. All of this may be true. But shouldn’t our members have the opportunity to discuss and decide for themselves? Should we not have used this opportunity to reveal, at least to our members, the supposed irrelevance of these groups and their methods? Do we have a sense of what DSA members actually think about these issues? Let us discuss, let us disagree.

Putting up articles, videos, and statements is not the same as having actual debates. It is not enough to have a layer of leaders with similar ideas and debate issues, while the rest of us passively observe without any power to actually affect those debates or decisions. What if—despite all the flaws of “force the vote” and the wrong-headed intentions and methods of the charlatans advocating it—after a series of discussions and debates, we were to find that it was popular with DSA membership? What would have happened then? Would it be scary or exciting?

Forcing a floor vote on Medicare for All was part of our strategy in 2019, and many have pointed out the inconsistency in rejecting our own strategy. Yet, the political situation has changed and a strategy that was valid two years ago may no longer be valid today. The issue is not that we changed our strategy, but how we changed it. Should the NPC be empowered to unilaterally make such decisions when there is enough time to engage the membership? I personally did not even know we had such a comprehensive program to fight for Medicare for All. Should we not have used this opportunity to familiarize more of our members with the program? To think collectively about its strengths and weaknesses? What if we were to find that most members, despite the changing political terrain, still thought forcing a floor vote was a good strategy? Let us discuss, let us disagree.

These lead to further questions regarding certain structures of our organization: Do we have any mechanisms to respond to such political moments? What do we do if real events do not correspond to our plans, predictions, and organizing models? Faced with such situations, should the leadership be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the membership? Even if we have more than a month to discuss, deliberate, and potentially vote? Do we have resolutions specifying how we should interact with our elected officials after they take office? Are we allowed to criticize them or put pressure on them? Where and how can members have such political discussions? I personally do not have a clue what members in my branch think about the end of Bernie’s campaign, or about our engagement with BLM, or the need for anti-fascist organizing, or about this recent “Force the Vote” controversy amongst many other issues. Sometimes it feels as if we are actively avoiding such discussion fearing that we may disagree. Let us discuss, let us disagree.

The lack of national response to Bernie’s defeat prompted many leaders to
undermine our organization’s democracy and publicly support Biden. While many chapters and DSA members participated in the George Floyd uprising, DSA’s national response was nonexistent. Despite the growing threat of fascism, our national anti-fascist working group remains inactive. These examples, along with “Force the Vote”, show that our organization’s need to develop the tools and mechanisms necessary to respond, as democratically as possible, to new and unexpected situations. We cannot perfectly plan when and how politics happens; we do not necessarily know when the next police precinct will be lit on fire. But we do know that radical politics will happen, that those rare and precious moments when ideological veils are lowered will arise, and that more police precincts will be burnt. Such moments of rupture should only threaten those who benefit from the existing arrangements. For an organization aiming at the overthrow of the existing order, these should be moments of debate, engagement, growth, democratization, and, if necessary, radical self-transformation. Our role is not to subordinate the real movement to our pre-made strategy, but to give it the critical tools necessary to become aware of its own powers, aspirations, and necessary tasks.

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Sam Salour View All

Sam Salour is a writer and activist in New York City. He is a member of DSA and the Tempest Collective.