How the Church Left Depoliticizes DSA Branches
by Benjamin Studebaker
I have another DSA story. If you haven’t heard, the DSA is the Democratic Socialists of America. It’s a left-wing organization that’s been around since 1982, but it’s become politically more significant over the last couple years. Inspired by Bernie Sanders, DSA’s membership has expanded from 6,000 to about 60,000 over the last few years. The DSA is committed to lots of nice things, like a Medicare-for-All Single Payer system. I heard a story about a YDSA branch at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It’s a local story. A small story. But it tells us a lot about the condition of left-wing organizing today.
I know a guy by the name of James Blanco. Inspired by Bernie Sanders, James decided to do what I’ve long encouraged red state lefties all over the country to do–he’s actually running for office. James is starting small, going after a city council seat in the modest college town of West Lafayette. He showed up to file his candidacy wearing a Eugene Debs t-shirt. The Democratic Party in Indiana is so desperate for candidates that nobody tried to stop him and nobody fought him in the primaries. He’s a democratic socialist and he’s on the general election ballot. James has a clear platform. He wants the city bus service and recycling service to be free to all residents at the point of use. He’s proposing a suite of reforms to encourage the construction of affordable housing and to protect residents from predatory landlords with regular inspections to ensure units are well-maintained and restrictions on unwarranted evictions. The Indiana state government restricts municipalities from doing many left-wing things, but James is being creative and coming up with bold ways to defend the interests of poor and working people in his community. Here’s what he looks like, if you’re curious:
James thought the Purdue University YDSA (Young DSA) branch might be interested in policies that help ordinary folks. So he visited them to seek their endorsement. At this meeting, he was asked what he would do about structural racism. James pointed out that many of his policies disproportionately benefit poor people, and since people of color are disproportionately low income, they would disproportionately benefit. But he also went further than this, listing a couple policies that are explicitly about race:
- James wants to strengthen the West Lafayette Human Rights Commission’s power to investigate and fine employers and landlords for discrimination by paying commission members, increasing the size of fines, and giving the commission a statutory mandate to pursue more meaningful forms of legal action.
- James wants the city to pass a resolution denouncing and rejecting the racist posters that have recently been appearing on campus at Purdue.
This was not good enough for Purdue YDSA. They voted against endorsing James. A Purdue student who attended the meeting tells me that one of the members went on a long tangent about the fact that West Lafayette was once a Sundown Town, i.e. a town in which African-Americans were not permitted after dark, and wanted to know how James would prevent something like this from happening again. Another member reportedly wanted James to explain what he was going to do to confront white supremacy as an ideology, independent and distinct from economic policies. They didn’t seem to have any specific ideas for James to take up. As this student put it: “they were basically just requests for him to performatively express how anti-racist and deferential to PoC he is.” The student, understandably, wants their name withheld, because within DSA circles dissent is often met with doxxing, ostracism, and other forms of abuse.
Purdue YDSA didn’t endorse James not because they disagreed with his policies but because he wasn’t using the language and conceptual framings to which these members are accustomed. They’re not willing to help the people of West Lafayette get affordable housing or a universal bus service unless the person attempting to deliver these things talks like them.
The thing is, James Blanco is about as left-wing as it gets in West Lafayette politics. There is one other democratic socialist councillor–Nick DeBoer–but Purdue YDSA hasn’t endorsed him either. All the other candidates are establishment Democrats or Republicans. So by choosing not to support James or Nick and choosing not to run any candidates of their own, Purdue YDSA is essentially declining to participate in electoral politics altogether. If they’re not willing to support any local candidates, then no local candidates will be reliant on them to canvass or fundraise for them. If there are no candidates who rely on Purdue YDSA for support, then no local candidates will feel a need to consult Purdue YDSA, or give them a seat at the table.
James is the first candidate to reach out to Purdue YDSA. Other candidates don’t even talk to them, presumably because they think Purdue YDSA are too extreme, that their endorsement would be unhelpful, or that their canvassing would be ineffective. James didn’t have to reach out to them. Even speaking to them is a risk for him, politically, in a deep red state. Nevertheless, James offered this organization a real opportunity to become relevant in local politics. What did they do? They told him to shove it.
If James Blanco cannot get their endorsement, no one who can run a competitive campaign in Indiana can get it. If Purdue YDSA doesn’t help left-wing candidates, can it even meaningfully claim to be a political organization? What purpose does it serve?
James’ situation mirrors the situation Bernie Sanders is in, with large numbers of DSA regional branches resisting the national organization’s efforts to build an effective, nationwide campaign for him. In both cases these DSA branches are demanding that left-wing candidates say things that make it terribly hard for them to win general elections in exchange for their endorsements. In so doing, they put left-wing candidates in a trap. If they speak the way these DSA branches want them to speak, they can’t win general elections. If they don’t speak the way these DSA branches want them to speak, the DSA branches withhold their activism.
They can only do this because many of the people in these DSA branches are materially comfortable members of the professional class. They don’t really care about affordable housing or buses because they have plenty of money. Few of these Purdue students are really worried about being evicted. Few of them are really worried about not having money for the bus. In far too many cases, Mommy and Daddy will take care of it. They have the luxury of being able to prioritize the way a person speaks over meeting the immediate needs of people. Many of these students plan to move out of West Lafayette at the end of their degrees anyway. They don’t care about the citizens in their community who are confronted everyday with the visceral misery of poverty.
For them, DSA is a social club, where they meet up with other people from the same educational background and social class to critique and complain about the society in which they live. They get together and have discussions about how to have discussions about white supremacy and patriarchy and all the phobias and they never do a damn thing for anybody. It’s like the discussions church groups have about how to get teens to practice abstinence. The people talking about these things feel like they’re participating in a moral cause, but everyone knows abstinence-only education doesn’t work. Its purpose is to make the people who go to churches feel like they’re part of something, and nothing more. For churches, the best thing about abstinence-only education is that because it accomplishes nothing, they can keep trying to do it forever, uniting their congregations around tilting at windmills that never come down.
These people are looking for community. They aren’t looking to make a difference. Their feelings and the discourse that gives them pleasure are more important to them than the needs of the most vulnerable. And they prove this, every single time they withhold endorsement from the candidates who actually care and are actually trying. If the left should fail again in 2020, these are the people who will have made it so. They don’t run for stuff, they don’t endorse the people who run for stuff, they don’t work for the people who run for stuff, and their feckless indifference aids and abets the centrist and right-wing forces that are ruining this country.