Organization Trends

The Left of the Left: The Democratic Party

The Democratic Socialists of America

The Left of the Left: The Democratic Socialists of America (full series)
What Is the DSA? | A Radical Agenda
A Twisted Worldview | The Democratic Party

The Left of the Left: The Democratic Party

The DSA thus inhabits a political space that is well to the left of the mainline Democratic Party, even as the Democrats have lurched considerably to the left over the past decade—a process has been driven to some degree by the DSA itself. This tees up what is probably the core strategic question confronting the socialists: Just how closely should the DSA align itself with the Democrats? There is substantial internal debate on this issue, with some arguing that the DSA can be most effective through leveraging its power as a dedicated far-left bloc within the Democratic Party. Others argue that socialists should closely guard their identity as an independent political force and that any permanent alliance with the Democrats would be a mistake.

On the one hand, the DSA has seen unprecedented electoral success over the past several years, often (though not always) by running on the Democratic ticket. A report from the group’s 2023 national convention claimed that 207 DSA members held national, state, or local elected office, including 52 who had been endorsed by the national DSA. At the federal level, the DSA at one point had six members in Congress: Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Cori Bush (D-MO), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Shri Thanedar (D-MI), Greg Casar (D-TX), and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Rep. Bowman reportedly allowed his membership to lapse in 2022, while Rep. Thanedar renounced his membership in the wake of the DSA’s response to the October 2023 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel. Others, most notably Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), self-identify as democratic socialists but are not actually DSA members. These politicians have personally accounted for an outsized share of the DSA’s increased national profile.

On the other hand, the DSA fundamentally considers the Democratic Party to be centrist and capitalist. After enthusiastically backing Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries, it declined to endorse either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden in the general election. The DSA has said the latter’s differences from Sanders “could not be starker.” Of course, not all within the DSA agreed with the decision to go “Bernie or Bust,” and some argued at the time that members should work for a Biden victory, if for no other reason than to defeat Donald Trump. Put simply, the DSA is broadly united in its antipathy for the Democratic Party but divided over what to do about it.

Some DSA chapters that have tested the Democratic Party waters have found them wholly inhospitable. In 2021, DSA-backed candidates won all five leadership positions in the Nevada Democratic Party, giving the socialists effective control of the state party. Fearing this outcome, the party establishment preemptively transferred $450,000 in state party funds to the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and within days of the DSA-backed takeover the entire Nevada Democratic Party staff resigned. Multisided infighting and intraparty politicking reportedly ensued to such a degree that the Las Vegas DSA chapter declined to endorse anyone in the 2023 state party elections, writing that “this is our lesson, and we hope socialists everywhere will pay close attention: the Democratic Party is a dead end.”

Perhaps nowhere is the DSA’s electoral conundrum more evident than in the candidacy of longtime DSA member Cornel West, who is running as an independent for president in 2024. West was elected to the DSA’s national executive committee way back at its 1985 convention, where he reportedly spoke of the need for the organization to adopt an “anti-racist” and “anti-imperialist” strategy. More recently, he has even served as one of the DSA’s honorary chairs. Ideologically, he would seem to be a shoe-in for the DSA’s support, but that has not yet materialized. Whether or not the DSA ultimately endorses West will say much about the relative importance of political purity versus political pragmatism within the organization.

An amended resolution adopted at the DSA’s 2023 national convention illustrates the group’s attempt at finding something of a middle ground. By a wide majority, delegates approved language affirming that the “DSA wants to be independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties and present at third alternative. . . This is the key to defeating the far right and beating the neoliberal Democratic Party.” At the same time, it also said that it was “not advisable for us to form an independent political party with its own ballot line at this moment.” The resolution affirmed that while the DSA will continue “tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line,” it will simultaneously strive to be “organizationally, strategically, and visibly independent of the Democratic Party.”

The relationship between the DSA and the Democratic Party is of course a two-way street, and the latter has also been forced to reckon with the former’s ascendancy on its left flank—and with socialism more broadly. There are genuine divisions within the party, though public opinion polling has suggested substantial support for socialism among its electoral base. Potentially upwards of two-thirds of Democratic-leaning adults view the ideology positively. When the Green New Deal—probably the most high-profile piece of DSA-supported legislation in recent memory—came before the Senate in 2019, just four Democratic-caucusing Senators broke ranks and joined Republicans in voting it down: Joe Manchin (WV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Doug Jones (AL), and Angus King (ME). All other Democrats voted “present.”

While an admittedly imperfect proxy for understanding precisely where the Democratic Party falls on the issue of socialism, a resolution passed by the House of Representatives in 2023 provides some clues. That resolution explicitly denounced socialism “in all its forms” and opposed “the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America.” In that vote, 109 Democrats joined all Republicans in supporting the resolution, but 86 Democrats voted against it and 14 voted “present.” Thus, while most Democrats at the federal level are willing to flatly reject socialism on the record, a remarkably large minority are not. Of course, abstract openness to socialism does not automatically translate into support for the DSA or its specific platform.

Most recently, the DSA’s hatred of Israel is what has prompted the strongest pushback from the Democratic Party. After the group’s New York City chapter promoted an “All Out for Palestine” demonstration while the October 2023 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians were still ongoing, the New York State Democratic Party released a statement denouncing the DSA for supporting “a rally that sought to justify the wholly unjustifiable acts of wanton violence, terrorism, kidnapping and murder that was perpetrated on the people of Israel this weekend.” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) was unequivocal in his condemnation, calling the DSA’s New York City chapter “an antisemitic stain on the soul of America’s largest city” and observing that “there is a special place in hell for those who glorify the cold-blooded murder of civilians and children.” He later called the group “despicable, detestable, disgraceful, and disgraced.” Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-MI) renounced his DSA membership, saying that he could “no longer associate with an organization unwilling to call out terrorism in all its forms.” Some commentators even began to speculate that the DSA was finished as a political force in New York City after the episode.

Final Thoughts

Despite its recent ascendancy on the American political stage, the DSA remains (or in some ways, has become) a deeply radical organization that touches the very ideological extremities of the Left. It certainly seems fair to wonder—as some have—whether Michael Harrington, who was far from a political moderate, would even recognize himself in today’s DSA.

Indeed, considering its affinity for authoritarian regimes and equivocation on terrorist violence, the influence of revolutionary Marxist/communist tendencies in its internal politics, its relative emphasis on noneconomic issues such as police abolition, and its steadfast hostility toward the United States and its global allies, the name “Democratic Socialists of America” may have itself become something of a Holy Roman Empire–style misnomer, in that the group is neither particularly democratic, nor socialist, nor American. At least in the sense that those terms would be commonly understood by folks.

Democrats, just like Republicans, will always need to deal with a certain percentage of fringe political figures within their ranks. But the crucial difference is that there is no organized independent political force on the radical right that even comes close to matching the DSA’s level of penetration into and influence over the Democratic Party. Establishment Democrats might not like the DSA—and the feeling is certainly mutual—but if the socialist influence within the party continues to be treated as a fait accompli, look for an emboldened DSA to keep pulling the country’s political conversations toward increasingly frightful places.

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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