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The DSA moment is over

In a follow-up to a previous article, Did the DSA Convention Move Left?, Tempest’s Andy Sernatinger looks at the crisis facing the Democratic Socialists of America. He argues that the exceptional moment when DSA offered a dynamic political space to the left of the two-party system has decisively ended.

In 2022, fully two years after Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign and joined with Joe Biden, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) started to grasp that the situation had changed. Not DSA as an organization formally, but its constituent elements: caucuses, associated publications, leaders, and so on. Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara began that year with an editorial describing the situation as being stuck in purgatory: “There is no doubt that we’re at the end of a period of rapid politicization and settling into one of either gradual decline or slow advance.” Scattered throughout the year, a soft debate went on about what socialists should do. Most of these writers did not comment on the state of their organization, but each acknowledged, in their own way, that what had worked since 2016 was not working any longer and things would have to change in the politics and strategy of the organization.

The elephant in the room was that DSA’s fortune had changed, and certainly not for the better. Without elaboration or discussion, National Director Maria Svart announced at the DSA convention in August 2021 that membership growth had “slowed to a trickle.” At the February 2022 National Political Committee (NPC) meeting, DSA Observer reported:

The NPC and staff were realistic in outlining the major challenges DSA currently faces. Staff cited “political malaise” among members, and noted that many chapters were demotivated by political and interpersonal conflict. According to the recent chapter survey, at least a third of chapters are struggling. The staff report also noted that many of their chapters are citing “atrophy and loss” in their desire to engage with national work, and are instead retreating to chapter-level work.

By November 2022, NPC member Jenbo released figures that were damning: in August 2021, DSA had approximately 94,687 constitutional members, 81 percent of whom (77,177) were in good standing. One year later, it lost twelve thousand members in good standing, and the total roster fell to approximately 87,000, only 74 percent of whom were in good standing. In one year, the membership contracted by 15 percent. The 2023 Growth and Development Committee report shows a worse picture still, with 57,982 members in good standing.

A chart showing DSA’s decline in membership—both Constitutional and Members in Good Standing (MIGS)—between February 2020 to January 2023.
A chart showing DSA’s decline in membership—both Constitutional and Members in Good Standing (MIGS)—between February 2020 to January 2023. Image Credit: DSA finance report 2023.

The end of booming growth, loss of membership1, exhaustion of active members, disintegration of chapters, and constant strife on the national leadership are not self-contained problems arising spontaneously and coincidentally. The political moment has shifted, and there is no longer a sense of opportunity and purpose that was easily identifiable in the Trump/Sanders period. In the ensuing period, with Biden in the White House, the exhaustion of the electoral Left internationally, and the far right’s rise, DSA members became disoriented and demoralized with no clear path to advance. Problems that had been tolerated for years became untenable, and DSA as an organization lost its appeal as a dynamic alternative to politics as usual.

An exceptional period

The arc of the new DSA (2016-2020) has been an exception in the organization’s history. For the first thirty-five years of its existence, DSA remained stagnant at approximately six thousand members. It consistently allied with “socialist” Democrats in office, a political orientation that stressed working in the Democratic Party, and a “big tent” organizational model. From its founding in 1982 to 2015, DSA was unsuccessful in growing beyond its initial numbers and was regarded more as a Left AARP rather than a serious organization that attracted new activist layers.

If there was a political change in DSA’s politics, it occurred after the influx of new members, not before. DSA continued doing what it had always done, and somehow it ballooned in size beyond anyone’s expectations—least of all its own. What had changed was largely external to DSA, and by an accident of history DSA became the beneficiary of political currents much larger than itself. This is crucial to understanding DSA as an organization. DSA’s success is not a story peculiar to the United States, nor is it the victory of one set of Left politics over another. The accidental and contingent growth of DSA has been the U.S.-expression of a global political moment, and its trajectory has followed a similar path here as it has elsewhere.

Between 2012 and 2020, “left-reformist”2 electoral challenges arose in countries largely in Europe and North America, following the recovery from the global economic crisis. After demonstrating the enormous power of capitalist states to pour trillions of dollars into bailing out private financial firms, traditional parties that governed from the center faced crises of legitimacy that opened up political space both on the far right and the Left. The international Left’s efforts each had their own specific dynamics, but what they represented was an electoral challenge to the political establishment, and each drew largely on politicized youth as their base of support.

Beginning with SYRIZA in Greece, there were the campaigns of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise, Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for leadership in the U.K. Labour Party and his narrow defeat against the Tories in 2017, and then Bernie Sanders in the U.S. in 2016 and 2020.

Corbyn and the Labour Party group Momentum were of particular importance to DSA in 2016/2017 as an English-language counterpart and the loose parallel of a democratic-socialist challenge within an established political party for executive office. Young DSA members exchanged political notes directly with Momentum and outlined the campaigns for universal healthcare often with reference to the U.K. experience.

By 2020, each of these left reformist efforts had been exhausted, with the far right either victorious or primed for advance. Anticapitalistas, who split from Podemos in Spain, described the rise of the far right that followed:

The reactionary turn in the situation has underlying causes. The first and most decisive is to be found at the international level, in a succession of defeats and capitulations of the left that emerged after the 2008 crisis and which have provoked the rise of a new right: from Syriza in Greece to the integration of Podemos into a government with the PSOE, passing through Corbynism or Sanders. The feeling that remains is that the left is not capable of consolidating stable mass projects or putting forward a programme that it can implement.

DSA’s trajectory has to be understood as part of this greater international tide: objectively, seeing the common catalyst in the crisis of 2007 and the bailouts and austerity pursued by centrist governments that had ruled over neoliberalism for half a century; subjectively, in finding the inspiration for a U.S.-specific project in the efforts in other countries. The exhaustion of these efforts should be instructive both in terms of the greater dynamic of ruling class resistance to left-reformist challenges, and in the subjective failures of orientation, electoral-primacy, and internal democracy common to all these projects.

In 2020, a problem was already clear: it was not possible for DSA to continue as it had for the previous five years. DSA’s basis of unity from 2016-2020 operated on two de facto agreements:

  1. the need to resist the Trump regime; and
  2. the articulation of “left” / social democratic politics in the United States, largely related to Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns.

By the end of 2020, these ceased to exist. Sanders performed far worse in the 2020 primary than he had in 2016, and rather than take his challenge to the Democratic National Convention again, he instead conceded early, endorsed Joe Biden, and vowed to be his staunchest advocate. Nearly overnight, Sanders went from being the “opposition” candidate to being part of the establishment. And then, Trump lost the election. Biden’s election marked the closing of the exceptional period and of the conditions that produced DSA. The end of economic growth and the tech boom that undergirded the period halted as central banks raised interest rates and began an inflationary crisis designed to weigh on workers.

Build Back Better – The end of opposition

In the 2016-2020 period, DSA’s posture was that of an opposition organization: both to Trump and to the Democratic Party leadership. Its success was largely in opposing the consensus that recovery from the 2007 crisis would mean further immiseration, particularly borne out by younger people in the United States. This was spelled out initially in documents published in June 2016, and then developed at the 2017 DSA Convention.

Beginning in 2020, DSA fundamentally shifted its self-conception and posture, mirroring Sanders’ integration into the Biden Administration. DSA’s leadership largely accepted that the path to winning its desired national reforms like Medicare for All, labor reform, and the “Green New Deal” was now through Build Back Better3, particularly as Bernie Sanders promoted the legislation. In a statement dated February 10, 2021, the National Political Committee wrote, “This weekend was just the beginning of an intentional shift in our organization … As our top external priority, DSA will embark on a national campaign to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act).”

On the left, a photo portrait of Bernie Sanders smiling and looking off to the left next to a photo of Joe Biden, also smiling, and looking off to the right.
DSA leaders, following Sanders’ lead, went from criticizing leading Democrats to promoting Biden’s Build Back Better agenda as an advance for the Left. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore.

DSA’s membership never voted on this shift. The 2019 Convention voted overwhelmingly not to endorse Biden, but sections of the leadership never accepted that position and worked to subvert the policy and prepared to shift the organization back to its historic lesser evil position. However, the 2019 Convention did not discuss or debate what to do as a contingency if Sanders’ strategy should fail. This ambiguity, combined with the lack of democratic mechanisms within the organization, allowed the National Political Committee (NPC) to reposition the organization without member debate or vote.

By late 2020, DSA had accumulated allied elected officials in Congress, state legislatures, and numerous local governments. The leadership4 shifted its rhetoric decisively to the realities of governing, and acted as though it had won government and would need to accept the compromises involved with being in power. Kristian Hernandez, member of DSA’s Steering Committee, submitted,

It doesn’t matter if you’re a socialist, you in practice cannot be because you can’t get anything done. We’re navigating how we actually get things done, how we actually win our demands. I think we’re gonna start contending with the reality of what level of power it takes to actually achieve the things that we wanna do.

Chris Maisano’s essay, “Walking the ‘Perilous Tightrope’” carried the subhead, “How can we effectively balance our two main strategic imperatives—the need to be a “party of opposition” and a “party of government”—at the same time?” Maisano’s essay makes clear that he reserves opposition for Republicans while soft-pedaling criticism of Democrats. Then NPC-member Megan Svoboda put it like this:

Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, is the chairman of the Senate budget committee. We have four DSA members in the US Congress, and many more in elected State offices all over the country. This is in an interesting new political landscape for a growing socialist movement.

The DSA’s plan to realize its programmatic goals became 1) ensuring Build Back Better succeeded and 2) redoubling its support of “socialist” Democrats, such as Congressman Jamaal Bowman. Those objectives informed DSA’s informal mobilization of members to campaign for Senate Democrats in Georgia at the end of 2020, rationalizing its support for Democrats it viewed as necessary for winning a Green New Deal. DSA’s “Workers and the World Unite” campaign articulated its strategy with the slogan:

To solve our climate and economic crises, we need a Green New Deal. To win a Green New Deal, we need mass worker power. To build mass worker power, we need to pass the PRO Act.

On its own terms, this created a series of dependencies on national-level politics that DSA had little power to control.

The DSA strategy for winning labor reform was phone banking U.S. Senators, leading to the embarrassing proclamation that DSA had “flipped Joe Manchin” (never revisited when Manchin torpedoed said legislation not long after). In doing this, DSA deployed its version of Schoolhouse Rock liberalism. What had been DSA as a radical alternative to business-as-usual became a left rationale of and ardent support for Democrats in power. The disastrous consequence of this turn is that it ceded the role of opposition to the far right.

 A graphic features the face of Senator Joe Manchin next to text that reads: “WE FLIPPED JOE MANCHIN! DSA pressure worked. Our 500K phone calls pushed Senator Manchin to co-sponsor the PRO Act!”
Currying favor with Democratic Party politicians failed to move the needle on passing the PRO Act, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, or other key reforms championed by DSA. Image credit: @DSAecosocialism.

This strategy of course failed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi separated the social programs and much of the climate spending from the party’s proposed infrastructure bill, allowing for the pretense that Democrats were interested in progressive social programs while ensuring that they failed.

By the 2021 Convention, DSA had no prospects for advancing its national demands. The exhaustion was then codified in the 2021 electoral resolution retreating to state and local races, and distancing the organization from the goal of political independence. During the convention debate, Eric Blanc intervened against “dirty break” positions that he popularized just a few years earlier, using his position as a former-Bernie surrogate to ensure talk of breaking from the Democratic Party stopped dead.

The huge intellectual effort to produce a rationale that could explain away the obvious contradiction of the Democratic Party strategy, whether “dirty break” or “party surrogate,” became strained after Sanders and then collapsed entirely without much reflection. DSA’s electoral orientation shifted to David Duhalde’s slimy “dirty stay5,” which rhetorically draws on the previous position but, in his own words,

is just using existing apparatus without necessarily seeking to transform the Democratic Party or even become a formalized faction. Importantly, it means avoiding or at least not taking necessary steps to build a new socialist party.

Dissent in the ranks

The first signs of dissatisfaction with the post-Sanders turn came in 2020, following DSA’s approach to the protest movement following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The conflict was somewhat hidden because it was borne out at the chapter level. Political lines were drawn over abolitionist anti-racism and social democratic “universalism”; that strife split the active layers of many DSA chapters.

After the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were finally suppressed by the state, DSA activity was moved from the streets into local government, with contests over budgets, legislation, and elections. The fierce internal struggles over direction only became visible nationally during the 2021 Convention’s delegate races, where delegate slates suggested a referendum on chapter leaderships during BLM. The 2021 Convention, however, was tightly constrained and did not address the new political situation under Biden or a strategy for DSA.

But just because it wasn’t talked about, didn’t mean that the tensions were resolved. Less than two months after the Convention, DSA was wracked over the votes and propaganda activities of DSA-endorsed House Representative Jamaal Bowman. Joel Reinstein anticipated this scenario three years earlier:

Access to Democratic politicians is absolutely going to come into conflict with the boycott, and Palestine activists will come under intense pressure to put the boycott in the backseat in exchange for “real political power.”

The particulars of the situation have been discussed at length, but are noted briefly here given the enormous significance the “Bowman Affair” had on DSA. Starting in October 2021, 52 DSA chapters and 11 YDSA chapters, as well as the BDS & Palestine Working Group (BDSWG), Afrosocialists & Socialists of Color and Muslim caucuses all came out in favor of expelling Bowman for the clear and unapologetic actions he took against the Palestinian struggle and DSA’s own positions. While members of the Socialist Majority and Bread and Roses caucuses petitioned against expulsion, no similar bodies of DSA voted to support Bowman. In December 2021, the NPC announced that it would not expel Bowman. Instead, the leadership disciplined the membership, de-chartering the BDSWG and suspending its leadership; NPC member Austin Gonzalez resigned from DSA in protest.

The Bowman Affair had the effect of taking DSA from malaise to crisis. The membership graph above shows that the decline in membership has a sharp dip that roughly coincides with the events beginning in the fall of 2021. The irony is that while the DSA Right mobilized to defeat democratic proposals like referendum and NPC recall, these devices would have spared the organization a bitter feud by putting the question to a deciding vote. The NPC could have even given a rhetorical slap on the wrist to Bowman that would have vented some frustration without a significant shift.

Instead, the NPC’s heavy-handed defense of Bowman and suppression of the BDSWG only deepened the crisis and further polarized the organization, leading to disenchantment and a wave of resignations or “soft quits” (ceasing activity and refusing to renew membership), while simultaneously losing the confidence of pro-Palestinian organizations. Reports from the NPC itself showed dysfunction at best and political corruption at worst. The lesson for a considerable number of DSA members was that the organization had dug in on Democratic Party politics at the expense of principled issues and organizational democracy. Given the tremendous effort and mobilization of members, chapters, and internal bodies of DSA that had been rebuffed by the leadership, it had become clear that certain politics were no longer welcome in DSA. As noted at the beginning of this essay, DSA staff then reported in early 2022 that “at least a third of chapters are struggling.” The staff report also noted that many DSA chapters were experiencing “atrophy and loss” in their desire to engage with national work. It is impossible to draw a straight causal line, but it is not difficult to surmise what happened.


In June 2020, the NPC announced their intent to “launch a long term process of consolidating DSA,” allowing greater direct control over the organization by the leadership. The political insertion of the NPC’s will has already been discussed, but this resulted in a series of “NPC recommendations” to the 2021 DSA convention, which make national committees appointed by the national leadership rather than selected from within their ranks, introduce trusteeship of local chapters, and expand the organization’s paid staff.

The Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC) was stripped of its ability to elect its leaders, replaced with NPC appointments, and renamed the National Labor Commission (NLC). DSA’s Ecosocialism Working Group was supplanted by the centrally-controlled Green New Deal Campaign Committee (GNDCC), with an explicit turn towards Biden in its rationale6. The Ecosocialist Working Group—guided in part by the revolutionary indigenous “Red Deal” that was endorsed by convention delegates in 2019—had a broader scope than Green New Deal legislation. GNDCC’s exclusive jurisdiction meant that the Red Deal and other ecosocialist efforts were disbanded nationally. This makes clear that the “organizational” consolidation was always political and necessitated the powers of the NPC to politically redirect DSA towards narrow electoral ends.

Winter 2021 marked the beginning of the ideological shift towards a specific concept of social democracy and the closing of the political space in DSA, particularly in response to the Bowman Affair. While Dustin Guastella had earlier argued against “fringe positions,” Ken Barrios has pointed out that this became a common refrain, with Ramsin Cannon decrying “ultraliberalism,” Bhaskar Sunkara calling out “hyper politics,” and Bread and Roses’ Neil Meyer warning of “dogmatism.” NPC member Sydney Ghazarian and others from the NPC majority advanced that there was a Trotskyist conspiracy behind the Bowman Affair from which they needed to protect the organization. The consensus among leadership layers and caucuses was that it was time to adjust the bounds of the “big tent.” Susan Chacin, writing for Socialist Forum, argued,

It’s not okay to chant “Eat the rich!” or “Defund the police!” if doing so alienates people we could attract. If we only support avowedly socialist candidates, it can isolate us from community movements that have local working class support. Calling for the founding of a labor party in today’s political landscape marks DSA members as wildly unrealistic.

Positions like those of Chacin, from the old guard of DSA, found new purchase in the organization since they now aligned politically with what DSA was already doing in practice. At the same time, veterans of the 1960s New Left began writing articles intervening in DSA, such as Peter Olney and Rand Wilson, Max Elbaum, and others who had moved decisively to the right on political independence in favor of “progressive” Democratic Party politics decades earlier7.

By the end of 2022, the fight over direction in DSA was essentially over. Moving from anti-imperialism to domestic labor politics, the Rail Deal passed with some muted grievances, but nothing that came close to the mobilization over the Bowman Affair. While the Squad voted to break the strike and force a contract on the rail workers, DSA had already pledged itself to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) in anticipation of a strike at UPS that would not materialize. The tangled interests amounted to a quiet passing of the rail contracts and a statement of disappointment, but no strategic reflection in DSA8.

Bread and Roses member Laura Wadlin expressed the new commonsense in DSA, “The horse is out of the barn with our … electeds.” She goes on to say that accountability for elected officials is no longer an expectation or desire within DSA. “I think, in the year of our Lord 2022, we are all electoralists now,” stated former NPC appointee Marvin Gonzalez in an interview with Dissent magazine’s Sam Adler-Bell; Adler-Bell continued, “This, Gonzalez told me, is the real strategic conflict in DSA—not between electoralists and non-electoralists, but among different varieties of electoralism.”

This marks the consolidation of DSA into a kind of social democratic sect, with a prescribed range of acceptable politics policed in the organization9. As Charlie Post put it,

[T]he rightward drift of DSA and almost all of its leading caucuses is a clear practical repudiation of the futile attempts to find a third way between realignment and the hard work of preparing for a clean break with the Democrats.

The process has largely been completed with the 2023 convention, a process tightly controlled from the top and politically narrowed to negotiating what kind of electoralism to pursue. Dissolving the BDSWG, the standard-bearers for upholding political positions, makes the point starkly.

The moment is over

The main conclusion to draw is that the DSA moment is over. The moment was when DSA became a center of the U.S. left, drew divergent tendencies into a single organization, and had a dynamic life that seemed much more like a social movement in terms of its creativity, bottom-up organizing, and transformative radical vision. This time has clearly passed, and the prospect of DSA making a radical course change has been foreclosed.

That DSA, a stale, right-wing social democratic organization, would become the home of a strange rebirth of socialism was something no one anticipated. The potential of the DSA moment might have been realized by using this exceptional time to establish an independent socialist opposition, transforming it into a broad socialist organization capable of intervening in social struggles and promoting a class-struggle alternative within U.S. politics.

The task within DSA was to make the most of a moment that had a definite timeline and prepare membership with a longer-term vision that was not dependent on political actors or events outside of its ability to control. This required rapid democratization of an organization that was designed to concentrate power at the top; equalization of information and access; developing a historical perspective; and leadership that could see beyond the immediate conjuncture and prepare for the inevitable. DSA was never going to be a revolutionary organization, but revolutionaries could play an important and leading part. In turn, the larger Left could provide an expanded audience and the activity required for masses of people to reach revolutionary conclusions. Robert Brenner notes, “The expansion of working-class self-organization, power, and political consciousness, dependent in turn upon working-class mass action, has provided the critical condition for the success of reformism as well as of the far left.”

Instead, DSA leaders disarmed the suspicion of Democrats that had fueled the interest in a socialist alternative to begin with and tailed the Democratic Party in search of more immediate wins. Particularly after 2019, leadership factions worked to consolidate DSA organizationally and politically to ensure it was best suited for its role as a Democratic Party-hanger on. Both chapters and the national organization became bureaucratic nightmares, controlled by caucuses that filled in the lack of democratic mechanisms in DSA with private control of insider information, debates, and decision-making. These groups continue to obscure the role they play and deny that there is a dynamic of unequal power within the organization. The result is an NGO-type organization whose democratic process puts the worst unions to shame.

Many of the lessons are simple, even classic ones, but need to be said again. Breaking from the Democratic Party is not an automatic process borne from “internal contradictions,” and it is not a feat accomplished by deferring. Political independence is won by those who are committed to it in the here and now, who always press for the maximum independence possible, and organize towards that goal. It is a conscious, subjective process, and it will not happen unless there is a political effort to accomplish it. In brief, there is no dirty break. The DSA experience proved this in theory and in practice: conceptually, the timeline of a break was initially tied to the Sanders campaign, extended ten years, then to fifty years, and finally dropped entirely. No “independent” infrastructure was ever created; no independent campaigns were run.

The ideology of DSA evolved to justify the real activity, which acclimated to the electoral cycle and limited its vision to what was electorally viable. Beyond the immediate turns, the ideology of “democratic socialism” presented itself as a new phenomenon—a Left that transcended all the problems of prior lefts, superior to the revolutionary Left, vindicated by its size and those in its orbit. The triumphalism of this ideology has made it prone to delusional claims (e.g. Manchin) and unable to account for obvious setbacks.

But beginning with the emphasis on “non-reformist reforms,” democratic socialism is nothing new. The concepts were developed by Ralph Miliband, Andre Gorz, Nicos Poulantzas, Michael Harrington, Eurocommunism, and the Socialist Register school. Most of these thinkers were explicit in wanting an alternative to revolutionary strategy; the best of them were honest that their theories of achieving governmental power would almost inevitably require revolution if they were successful, as the bourgeoisie would not accept them. Today’s democratic socialism borrows many of the concepts, but has deployed them even farther to the right to opportunistically attach itself to incremental changes in the twenty-first century.

In the end, DSA as an organization will continue, despite the crisis it now faces. It existed for decades before the moment, and even in decline it will likely be around for some time to come. Whatever ground was gained in 2017 seems to have been lost: there is no longer any serious discussion of independence; Palestinian solidarity is barely a commitment even in name; a permeationist monster now masquerades wearing the face of the “rank and file strategy”; and scores of Black and Brown radicals have disavowed the group. Undoubtedly, there are and will be many strong activists in DSA who should not be written off. But it should be clear that this is no longer a project that will advance class independence or serve as a much needed opposition.

What comes next is the very hard question. But we can’t begin until we’ve come to terms with the moment we face now.

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Andy Sernatinger View All

Andrew Sernatinger is a Teamster and labor activist in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint, Jacobin, and In These Times .