In 2017, The Intercept headlined “Democratic Socialists of America Celebrate Record Membership in Chicago. Now What?” The mix of Sanders opening eyes to the words “democratic socialism” and the urgency to act from the election of Trump, delivered to DSA 25,000 dues-paying members. This was a figure up from “7,000 to 8,000 members” before the 2016 November election. Still, the growth wasn’t over yet. Momentum beget action, and action beget success. Under the dark years of the Trump administration, the still unknown player known of DSA started electing Socialists into office. NYC-DSA, with only a fraction of the 6000 members it has now, ran an open democratic socialist with no political experience in a Congressional House race to take out the fourth-ranking Democrat. Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she won. DSA elected what we now know today as “The Squad”. DSA elected officials ranked in the hundreds, with NYC DSA electing officials on every level but Congressional Senate. By 2021, In These Times noted that DSA experienced a membership growth of “1400%” in six years – peaking to 95,000 members.
All we knew how to do was win and win big, yet a number of factors began to change the way we viewed ourselves and the power we still have. We tried very hard to break the 100k barrier and failed. Hours of strategizing and organizing by Chapters nationwide had only maintained the membership rolls as they were. The beginning of the new decade bought in new horrors. The Pandemic disrupted how we recruit and communicate amongst each other and community. No more crowds, canvasses, or tabling. No more in-person meeting and socials. We failed to effectively engage during the George Floyd protests. Our efforts did not result in an upswell of members, not even particularly Black members. The Golden Age was over. In its place became a period of plateau and decline.
The past two years have been defined as a period of heightened conflict, both personal and political, and a struggle for the ultimate vision of the organization. “The Bowman Affair” became the first site of struggle. Some 25% of Chapters and over 1400 members signed on to urge the National Political Committee (NPC) to discipline Bowman. The DSA-endorsed House representative voted for Iron Dome funding and volunteered to go on a trip to Israel where he met the far-right PM Naftali Bennett. Contemporary framework posed this as a question of whether DSA was willing to discipline or even expel an elected official. But to go deeper into the minds of the NPC, this was a question of were we willing to lose an elected official, were we willing to lose our relationships with other DSA Socialists? The NPC answered “No”. National simply chose not to endorse in the next cycle but left the door open for Chapters to endorse – a door Bowman would never walk through. Discipline was instead metered to the agitators calling for it. The BDS WG was briefly dismantled, and after pushback, put back together with its leadership suspended. The decision to leave a suspension triggered a boycott from numerous other Palestinian organizations. But since our leaders were so afraid to lose our image, to lose authority, they voted again to keep the suspensions in place. In so doing, we lost valuable relationships in work together to organize in this area.
The ripple effect of being afraid to lose spread to NYC DSA, which in 2022, was both the home of multiple elected democratic socialists and the home of a number of stinging electoral losses in the recent cycle. In the days before the 2022 NYC DSA Convention, growing opposition rose to the “1-2-3-4 Plan”. The Plan would have required state-level SIO to work closely together by voting as a bloc, prioritize the term “democratic socialist” in communications & literature, downplay the use of the “Democrat” identification, and require campaigns to run on common issues. Opponents derided the plan as dangerous, an attack on electoral work, and most commonly just “too strict”. The debate dragged into Convention. Jaslin Kaur, a former DSA candidate, spoke against the proposal saying the required use of the term “democratic socialist” would not have helped her campaign. Zohran Mamdani, who was listed as a sponsor and signed up to speak for the Plan, instead outlined his concerns with the proposal – even saying he’s “not asking” us to support the Plan. The ultimate failure of 1-2-3-4 defined a marked shift away from the organization that elected our Socialists in Office. We were no longer the organization we were last year, which cast the wide net to rapidly expand democratic socialism in areas adjacent to elected Socialists. This was a decision made being afraid to lose was we already had. The thought of flexing our power by acting in unison and proclaiming our message far and wide was seen as a risk. We were afraid to win.
What’s true is that DSA is an organization that has achieved more with less. Most of our victories have come at a time where we were smaller, with less dues and less members. It was the unafraid, democratic socialist, Kristen Gonzalez that won NYC DSA’s major victory over the well-funded, machine candidate, Elizabeth Crowley. It was the unafraid, “unexperienced” DSA that charged headfirst into hundreds of electoral victories, that became an organization extending its reach to tenant organizing, labor, and mutual aid. It was the unafraid DSA that transformed, educated, and radicalized our membership into unafraid Socialists ready to win Socialism in our lifetimes. The past two years have weighed on our minds and tempted us to reject who we are, to reject that we are Socialists, to live in fear of losing the power we’ve attained so far. We must look around, past the headlines of declining dues and membership loss, and realize that we are still the largest Socialist organization in the country with a historic amount of power and influence we’ve yet to wield. We must liberate ourselves from the chains of our doubts and rise up to win the world we want to live in. Comradery, solidarity, forever!
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