Can Bernie 2020 Build Chapter-level Capacity? Opportunities, Trade-offs, and Strategic Dilemmas

By Thea Riofrancos

How should a growing socialist movement position itself vis-à-vis the recent announcement that Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist whose last campaign resulted in an unprecedented boost in our membership and in political-ideological visibility?

DSA is now in a different place than we were in 2016. We are over 50,000 members strong, with chapters in every state. We have recruited, endorsed, and campaigned for multiple successful candidates for local and national office. We have waged local battles against slumlords, private utility companies, ICE detentions, and corporate welfare for Amazon; picketed in solidarity with striking teachers, nurses, and communications workers; organized mutual aid programs, and much more. We are perceived as a political threat by not only Donald Trump but by the right-wing media machine and neoliberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, every passing day the contradictions of the American political, economic and social order appear in starker relief. There is mass discontent with the status quo, but despite tremendous gains, DSA, and the left more broadly, is not yet in a position to organize at a mass level. Therefore, the upcoming 2020 elections will in some ways be decisive for our organizational trajectory, and for that of the U.S. left more broadly. In what follows, I attempt to outline some of the considerations we should bear in mind as we decide on whether to vote for DSA to endorse the Bernie campaign, and, should we endorse, how local chapters might relate to it.

Given that the organizational unit of DSA is local chapters, and these chapters are a vehicle for member recruitment, do campaign work, and are the outward-looking ‘face’ of DSA in any specific state or locality, the question arises: Can Bernie 2020 build chapter-level capacity? I argue that to answer this question we need to think carefully in terms of opportunities, trade-offs, and strategic dilemmas.

On the one hand, national electoral campaigns (i.e., presidential primaries or the general election) do take time away from local work, on the individual and organizational levels. By local work, I mean fighting specific bosses, landlords, utility companies, police departments, pushing for more just public policies and more democratic governance, and combating the neoliberal establishment. In other words, the everyday work we need to do as socialists.

Despite what we tell ourselves when we are on the phone and responding to an email and eating lunch at the same time, you can’t do multiple things at once. You can’t fight a landlord and canvass for Bernie at the same exact time, or at least not effectively. What economists call ”opportunity costs”–what we lose out on when we chose one alternative over another–are a real thing. On the other hand, national electoral campaigns can, under certain conditions that we may not be able to predict in advance but that we can try to foster, build organizational capacity. Specifically, such campaigns can (1) increase membership; (2) boost our political visibility; (3) teach essential organizing skills; and (4) help us develop new relationships with allied organizations. Bernie’s 2016 primary run contributed to several of these desirable outcomes–especially the first two.

In the medium or long term, these capacity-building dynamics might very well mitigate or even outweigh displacement of ongoing campaign work. But that doesn’t mean that there is zero opportunity cost to local chapters campaigning for Bernie.

Politics unfolds over time and is contradictory all the way down. Anyone who says elections only take attention away from local issue-based campaign work or only build capacity with no downsides is to some extent simplifying history. The real question is: What are the relative weights of the opportunity cost and the capacity-building dynamics, respectively?

In other words, is your chapter losing more of the time and energy of existing members or gaining more of the time and energy of new members? If you are lucky enough as a chapter, or nation-wide organization, that capacity-building outweighs the fact that some energy has been diverted from issue-based campaign work, there is still the complex tasks of routing new member capacity back to local campaign work: fighting the bosses, the landlords, the neoliberal politicians, etc.

As a brief aside, I want to make it clear that the dynamics are different for local races. With regard to local electoral work–by which I mean municipal elections, state-level elections, and senate and congressional elections (which are national offices, but local or state-level campaigns)–the tradeoffs and strategic dilemmas presented above are often mitigated. It is much more possible for the organizational benefits (in terms of capacity growth) to greatly outweigh the opportunity costs of diversion from other campaign work. In addition, in the case of local electoral work, the task of routing new members from that electoral campaign into ongoing issue-based campaigns is much easier.

Especially if the candidate is someone who was recruited by and accountable to the DSA chapter in question, it’s very likely that i they highlighted those issues in their platform and voter-mobilization. The local electoral campaigns that DSA chapters have played a key role in organizing in New York City, Houston, Pennsylvania, Providence, and many other places–including those where the candidate lost on election day–have overall been a benefit to those chapters, not only in terms of membership, but also concrete skills like canvassing, as well as local political visibility, and new allies and coalitional relationships. However, in a national election, all of these organizational benefits are more challenging to achieve, and the tradeoff between time dedicated to the national electoral campaign and local work is starker. In addition, with local electoral campaigns, we have a lot of experience and data points to work with; whereas nationally, we only have one: Bernie 2016. Therefore, we should be cautious as we draw conclusions from the experience, and make predictions for the future.  

If the Democratic primaries and subsequent general elections are going to be game-changers, we need to think carefully about how DSA can take advantage of this critical juncture. The key issues that the Bernie campaign is centering–Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, Free Public College–are battles that have to be fought both nationally and locally; we won’t win them through local campaigns alone, but we also won’t win them without localized movements doing the work, keeping the pressure on, and targeting the powerful wherever they exist. It is also worth noting that this is a two-way street: the Bernie 2020 campaign will be more powerful, and more transformative, as it connects its platform and mobilizing strategy to the local struggles that DSA and other grassroots organizations are already engaged in.

If DSA does endorse Bernie, DSA chapters ought to make concrete plans for how national electoral work will cycle back into their ongoing, issue-based campaigns. This can be done. We can be strategic about using Bernie 2020 as a platform to attract new members, build our capacity, and continue the fight whether he is elected or not. But this won’t happen by inertia or automatically; it will only happen with foresight, and organizational structures and practices that foster positive feedback between his campaign and our struggle for socialism.


Thea Riofrancos is a member of DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group Steering Committee and a former co-chair of Providence DSA. She is also a professor of political science at Providence College. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, n+1, In These Times, Dissent, and The Guardian.


Photo: The author’s chapter in action, in solidarity with the AT&T mobility workers on strike in May 2017.