This article was originally posted at Jacobin.
Days after Bernie Sanders announced that he was suspending his campaign in the 2020 Democratic primary, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) tweeted its position: “We are not endorsing Joe Biden.” Liberal journalists and prominent Democrats weren’t happy. Two full-length articles soon targeted DSA’s decision, including an open letter by members of the original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a polemic by Harold Meyerson suggesting that non-endorsement was the path to becoming “a sect of blinkered Trotskyists thrilled by their display of callous, moronic rectitude.”
But the decision was democratically decided by DSA after serious deliberation and debate, and it is the stance all socialists should take. Socialists should not endorse Joe Biden.
I say this as the author of the resolution that was proposed and approved at DSA’s 2019 biennial convention, the highest decision-making body of our organization, with over a thousand delegates representing roughly fifty-five thousand members. Leading up to the convention, members submitted resolutions for consideration. Among those resolutions was my own, R15: “In the Event of a Sanders Loss,” which stated: “Be it therefore resolved, the Democratic Socialists of America will not endorse another Democratic Party presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail.”
As I explained at the time, it was important to decide proactively what we would do in the likely scenario that Sanders was not the Democratic nominee: “When the pressure of the election season is in full swing, it will be tempting to fall in line with the host of organizations calling for support of the Democrats. There isn’t a win here. As an organization, DSA should make it clear that we will not endorse corporate politicians, especially as this will create divisions among our own membership.”
Delegates first moved to include this resolution on our agenda in July, then heard the motion at convention, debated, and passed it. The floor overwhelmingly voted in favor of the resolution.
The convention affirmed that this was an important question to consider in 2019, and then democratically decided that the position of Democratic Socialists of America is that we would support Bernie Sanders but no other Democratic nominee. Far from blocking the will of the membership, DSA used the highest decision-making body with the most representatives of the organization to decide on its position.
The process for making this decision was a democratic one. But beyond a question of process, there’s the more basic political question: Why would a socialist organization endorse a neoliberal, warmongering politician like Joe Biden?
DSA understands capitalism to be at the root of social problems, and “reject[s] an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.” As democratic socialists, DSA members want to democratize all aspects of society, so that ordinary people have control over our lives, and we suggest that there is an alternative to business as usual.
The question is how to get from here to there. In the context of the US political system, this is tricky. How should socialists, who want to build a credible political alternative, relate to elections that present degrees of evil?
DSA had all the information it needed to chart its position in 2019. As early as last summer, DSA knew that the Democratic nominees were not compatible with socialist politics either in word or in deed. Elizabeth Warren, back when she wasn’t openly attacking the Left, stated, “I am a capitalist to my bones,” and she put forward a plan for combating climate change that was predicated on military readiness. Warren began with some credible reforms, though she quickly backpedaled on key issues like Medicare for All. More important, Warren presented herself as a uniquely smart, talented, and moral politician, a liberal technocrat to solve our problems, rather than understanding, as socialists do, that change happens through the activity and organizing of regular people fighting together.
Pete Buttigieg was capital’s willing surrogate, running his campaign on billionaire dollars to eagerly defend private health insurance and push back against free college and other social goods. Joe Biden was similarly terrible, telling immigrants to vote for Trump; attacking union members, women, and other voters on his campaign trail; and he has now been accused of sexual assault by a former staffer. All this came on top of a career that has consistently been on the wrong side of history: Biden worked with segregationists to defeat busing, championed the invasion of Iraq, and comforted the rich, telling them, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” The distance between Biden and Trump seems to shrink daily, as we can see in a racist campaign video that Biden recently released.
All of this is standard fare for elections in recent years. Biden’s record is awful, which is in keeping with most of the Democratic presidential candidates the party has put forward in the last two decades. Having our socialist organization endorse a lesser evil candidate would do little for them — but it would have major ramifications for DSA.
A socialist organization’s most basic reason for existence is to suggest that there can be a political alternative to establishment politics, that things don’t have to be this way. That starts with a rejection of what’s on offer, pointing out that the Republicans and Democrats are not good enough, and that they don’t truly represent the working-class majority. Many workers already know this and choose not to participate in electoral politics. They rightly perceive that both parties will essentially serve the same agenda and will not meaningfully improve their lives.
For a socialist organization to build a real alternative to business as usual, it has to begin by acknowledging that the two parties are unsatisfactory. This isn’t empty moralism — it’s in line with the attitudes of many workers in the United States, and we cannot seriously build an alternative politics if, at the same time, we’re validating the politicians who most workers rightfully distrust.
By endorsing Biden, whether outright or tacitly, DSA would appear to condone both Biden’s program and his personal profile. It would signal that when push comes to shove, the largest socialist organization in the United States would sweep sexual assault allegations and F- climate ratings under the rug. It would tell its members and anyone else paying attention that socialist politics and vision are dispensed with at the time of an election, and that speaking the truth only matters when it’s convenient. Endorsing Joe Biden would signal that DSA is not serious about creating a political alternative to the status quo that Biden personifies.
The Logic of Not Endorsing
The choices in this election are not good ones, at least as they’re presented (Trump or Biden). The position DSA took is this: as an organization, we will not legitimize Joe Biden or any of the other candidates put forward by the Democratic Party establishment. An endorsement is just that: public approval, and in politics, it usually entails committing some resources. DSA will not do that. Individual members are free to vote as they please, but the organization will maintain independence.
The Democratic Party depends on organizations like the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, National Organization for Women, and other progressive groups to maintain credibility and support among progressive voters. The leaderships of these groups are routinely asked to endorse party candidates regardless of the candidates’ actual policies, bringing their base back to the party to vote faithfully.
DSA’s refusal to endorse interrupts this process. And that interruption is a very good thing. Politicians aren’t entitled to our support — they have to earn it. And Joe Biden has not earned it.