DSA Should Re-Endorse AOC as a Rallying Point for Democratic Socialism

There is currently a debate within DSA over whether or not to re-endorse AOC in her 2024 reelection campaign. This article argues in favor of endorsement, you can find the opposing article here

For millions of Americans and thousands of current and potential future DSA members, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of democratic socialism. At a time of weakness for DSA as an organization and a time of precarity in the role of “democratic socialism” as a rallying point against the ascendent threat of fascism in the United States, it would be a serious mistake for DSA to withhold a national endorsement.

The materialist analysis for re-endorsing AOC is supported by both her status as a “floating signifier” for the national base of democratic socialists that DSA has not yet absorbed, and because she represents democratic socialism in the coalitions that are necessary to stop the Right.

Jonathan Smucker’s book, Hegemony How To, looks at how our politics can become the “common sense” of the majority of Americans. He discusses floating signifiers in the context of Occupy Wall Street: 

“When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad political alignments are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday became visible on the horizon.”

DSA’s “big tent,” largely undefined commitment to “democratic socialism,” (especially as expressed by Bernie Sanders) was a sort of floating signifier — and a key ingredient in making DSA the landing place for thousands of organizers. 

Two distinguishing features of the Left in the last decade are: the mobilization of millions of people around broad signifiers like Black Lives Matter or defund the police, both Bernie Sanders campaigns, immigrant defense campaigns against the Trump administration, the Green New Deal, or Ceasefire in Gaza, and the failure of any organization to durably organize the vast majority of those mobilized into sustained political action.

Most people’s politics on the Left are informed by identification with these big amorphous movement demands. The figures who emerged from these campaigns as popular public figures — mostly elected officials and occasionally labor leaders — represent an opportunity to cohere and continue these campaigns.

AOC, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Greg Casar, and Jamaal Bowman are among the only popular, powerful leaders on the Left with a base of support in the millions. The presence of members of Congress calling for a ceasefire from the earliest days of the Israeli offensive was a catalyst for the immense popularity that demand has achieved since, and was unthinkable before the rise of the Squad. For millions of Americans, the demand for Palestinian liberation was not a part of their politics until it was articulated by leaders whose views they identify with on other issues.

If we intend to build a durable base within the working class, we must be within the movements that find leadership, articulation, and support in these figures. For the millions yet to be organized, where will they find their home? Not in an organization that proudly claims not to represent them or the figures they identify with on most issues. This is as true for new leaders we may seek to recruit in the future. What rising democratic socialist would want to be endorsed by the organization that booted AOC?

But AOC is more than a floating signifier operating separately from DSA. People who identify with her as an expression of their political goals have grounds to do so. She has actively and powerfully participated in dozens of major campaigns, using her position to advance our aims. The list includes the No Amazon campaign, Defund the Police, Tax The Rich, New York’s Build Public Renewables Act, helping launch COVID Relief 2020 mutual aid networks, backing more than twenty NYC-DSA candidates, Good Cause protections from evictions, the 2019 rent laws, and contributing to the ousting of Governor Andrew Cuomo. On May 20, as the controversy over the national endorsement raged on, AOC endorsed the Not On Our Dime Act, a bill stripping tax-exempt status from New York charities complicit in illegal Israeli settlements sponsored by DSA State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani and DSA State Senator Jabari Brisport.

This is why NYC-DSA, those best positioned to evaluate AOC, have chosen to re-endorse her. It would be unwise for the national organization to substitute its judgment for people on the ground in her district. 

Furthermore, AOC is key to supporting the growing block of Left electeds in Congress, defending Rashida Tlaib against censure for her support of Palestine, fundraising for Left elected campaigns, and more. It would be a disservice to the other Left electeds we support in Congress to terminate support for AOC. 

If you don’t believe that AOC and the other members of the Squad  are key pillars of Left power in the United States, ask our enemies. They take their threat so seriously that AIPAC and other right-wing groups are spending millions to remove the Squad from congress. This is not a miscalculation by the Right.

This observation brings us to a core part of a materialist analysis: determining the “primary contradiction” at the current conjuncture. In other words: what conflict at a given moment has the greatest likelihood of changing the balance of forces if resolved, and which conflicts may be “in play,” but secondary? Coalitions are the essential key to power in a complex society, and we must form coalitions based on the shape of the primary contradiction. 

Right now, the primary contradiction in US politics is between a resurgent fascist Right and the collective front of forces, including the Left, the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and its corporate wing. It is a conflict between two futures: one in which the Left has conditions favorable to securing power through organized labor, community organizing, and electoral campaigns, and one in which we are on the defensive where gains will become difficult or impossible. Within the conjuncture, there are secondary contradictions which also need to be fought out, but we must engage those secondary fights in a way that “wins the advanced over to socialism, influences the intermediate, and isolates the backwards.” AOC and the base she represents cannot be objectively called the “backwards” of this coalition.

DSA is not the protagonist of history, we are a part of a Left ecosystem and a coalition. AOC is part of our coalition and part of coalitions we are not. Until and unless the residents of AOC’s district are so organized by DSA that their demands and ours are one and the same, AOC and all electeds navigate a relationship to DSA that includes conflict.

Although AOC may not be a fully disciplined cadre of our organization, we still have a responsibility to recognize her symbolic and material significance to democratic socialists around the country and act accordingly. There is too much at stake for an adventurist, disloyal, or defeatist path. The only way through is to organize with the army we have — including AOC and her base.