Building DSA with Bernie

Bernie Sanders is running an unprecedented class struggle campaign for president that is capturing the imagination and enthusiasm of millions across the country. Students, union members, Walmart and warehouse workers, teachers, and the rest of the multiracial working class are donating and volunteering in droves because they believe they can meaningfully change their lives through a Bernie victory. But, even if Bernie wins the presidency, it will take much more to enact his democratic socialist platform.

(Illustration by David Hellman)

That’s where DSA comes in. Our membership formed an independent expenditure campaign for Bernie, with our own messaging and the ability to tailor the work to local conditions. As of February, more than 70 chapters have launched active DSA for Bernie campaigns, and these chapters are already making a real impact on the election. More than that, these chapters are structuring their campaigns to ensure we leave this primary season with a stronger, larger DSA that is ready to fight the ruling class and win our transformative demands.

In the Chattanooga DSA, their DSA for Bernie campaign is bringing in new members while laying the groundwork for campaigns after the primary. In a city without a formal Bernie field office, the local DSA chapter has attracted new active members who were looking for a way to support Bernie. This chapter, with around 100 members, regularly holds canvasses with around 15 volunteers, and several of the people leading these canvasses (including a chapter co-chair) have come from this new wave of members. One chapter leader outlines their strategy: “Obviously Bernie’s the leader of this giant wave of support across the nation, and we have to capitalize on this. And because we live in Tennessee, the battle here is completely during the primary, so we need to think beyond the Bernie campaign to build power in Tennessee after March 3.”

Chattanooga’s DSA for Bernie campaign has focused on canvassing within specific districts of the city, in places where DSA is considering running down ballot candidates in the future. The chapter is also working to build canvassing skills and lists for a future pressure campaign demanding a police oversight board in Chattanooga and other potential campaigns around cash bail or housing justice.

Meanwhile, New Orleans DSA is finding new ways to bring in Bernie supporters and challenge them to get involved in their organization. Louisiana is another state that lacks a strong Bernie campaign presence, so Bernie supporters have been turning out to DSA events and making recent general meetings and canvasses some of the largest in the chapter’s history. Through its DSA for Bernie campaign, the chapter is working to set up regular phone banks to Bernie supporters identified from canvasses to invite them to future meetings or to get involved in the chapter. New Orleans DSA also holds events beyond Bernie canvasses to get new folks engaged in organizing, including voter registration drives and tabling in targeted areas from the Mardi Gras parade to a high school. The chapter is also building up a pressure campaign with med student organizations demanding the city council endorse Medicare for All, and potential crowd canvasses at hospitals or other tactics will be a strong onboarding point for activated Bernie supporters who know we need a movement past election day to get this done.

Chapters often struggle making membership asks, but Los Angeles DSA has used its DSA for Bernie campaign to bring in dozens of new members by integrating deliberate and repeated membership asks in their public events. During a recent citywide canvass, where more than 150 volunteers attended, chapter leaders had DSA members identify themselves in the crowd, had volunteers make dues pitches, and set up a signup station for non-member volunteers. This single canvass netted around 20 new DSA members for the chapter. At the chapter’s debate watch parties, speakers go up during commercials to talk about their campaign, and work to get non-members to sign up. By practicing and experimenting how to best make pitches, DSA is preparing to make the most of our potential Bernie bump.

This is a unique moment. If chapters are strategic about bringing Bernie supporters into DSA, we have the opportunity to build a 100,000-strong socialist organization. We are challenging chapters to host public-facing events to bring in Bernie’s base shortly after their state primaries and to plan long-term to keep them in our movement. Chattanooga, New Orleans, Los Angeles DSA, and others have already gotten the ball rolling, and I can’t wait to watch chapters with and without DSA for Bernie campaigns seize this moment to grow bigger and stronger.

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