Fighting for Our Democratic Socialist Soul in Coalition Work

By all accounts, Maryland DSA chapters helped to build Listen to Maryland into one of the strongest uncommitted campaigns in the United States to date — denying Joe Biden more than 60,000 primary votes to demand an end to the Israeli assault on the people of Gaza. For DSA, it was both an operational and strategic victory — all four Maryland chapters coordinated at the closest level they ever have and tens of thousands of people received literature that brought many new members into our organization. However, despite these successes, Maryland’s campaign and ultimately the broader uncommitted movement, is a textbook example of DSA working as a junior coalition partner within a liberal framework: DSA contested an important battle in Maryland, and did commendably, but we also bore witness to the ways in which coalitional organizing can constrain socialists from leading with our political vision.

 

From Michigan to Maryland

Shortly after the inspiring results of the Listen to Michigan uncommitted campaign in their state primary in February, members of Greater Baltimore DSA began having conversations about what an uncommitted campaign might look like in our state. Maryland’s primary was late, and we had time to lay the groundwork for a more extensive field campaign than existed in Michigan, where organizers only had a few weeks to contact voters. Greater Baltimore DSA reached out to chapter leadership from the other DSA chapters in Maryland (Metro DC, Frederick, and Southern Maryland) about what it would look like for our locals to work collaboratively on a state-wide campaign. 

Our chapters eventually joined a wider coalition called Listen to Maryland that Unity Lab PAC, a prominent Muslim civil rights-focused electoral group, organized and led. The coalition also featured the respective electoral arms of Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Our Revolution, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and other local progressive organizations.

With DSA’s help, Listen to Maryland’s primary goal was to push voters to choose “uncommitted” for President. When Maryland went to the polls on May 14 for the Democratic primary, more than 64,000 voters, or 9.8% of the primary electorate responded to our call. In Baltimore City, uncommitted received 14% of the vote, and more than 18% from voters who cast ballots on Election Day, one of the strongest showings for an uncommitted option in any black-majority municipality in the nation, including Detroit (9%), where the uncommitted movement first originated.

Reflections and Lessons 

By most metrics, Maryland’s uncommitted campaign was a relative electoral success. Over the course of the campaign, we raised $25,000 in grassroots donations from individual donors, and directly contacted more than 500,000 voters. DSA led the campaign’s field program, knocking on over 35,000 doors and reaching thousands more through public canvassing operations at the many public festivals and farmers markets that dot the state in the month of May. More impressively, we managed to do that on a shoestring budget of just a couple thousand dollars allocated to us for printing costs. Our later financial analysis revealed that we had one of the most extensive field programs of any uncommitted campaign in the country despite spending far less money than several peer campaigns. 

The campaign has also provided a foundation for expanding our Greater Baltimore DSA’s Palestine solidarity work. In the aftermath of the campaign, Greater Baltimore DSA is launching its local No Appetite for Apartheid initiative to press local businesses to take pledges to boycott Israeli products. We have activated many people we brought into DSA’s orbit through our Listen to Maryland canvassing. For example, we directed 40 unique volunteers in our chapter, many of whom are new to DSA and signed up over the course of the campaign.

Though the campaign was an important step forward for Palestine solidarity organizing in Maryland, several issues emerged in the coalition that conflicted with the political work DSA wanted to model with the campaign. In particular, the need to defer to the coalition limited our responsiveness and the militancy of our political message.

First, we had delayed announcing our uncommitted campaign, because we wanted the campaign to be led and shaped by Muslim and Arab voices. Rather than issuing a public statement and beginning to set up field operations once we had finalized our cross-chapter coordination, we waited several weeks for other organizations to commit to a statewide uncommitted campaign.

Once the Listen to Maryland coalition finally organized, Unity Lab PAC staff often had primary discretion over the coalition’s branding, social media strategy, and messaging, because a lack of structure within the coalition often prevented conflicts from being resolved, leading to inaction. The coalition’s 22-person steering committee included one member of Metro DC DSA as well as three members of Greater Baltimore DSA (including myself) and met to plan once a week. However, the coalition lacked an agreed upon process for taking votes internally and resolving areas of disagreement. Even when differences were spoken, they often defaulted to inaction in an effort to avoid conflict. For example, some coalition leaders felt that we should avoid using the word “genocide” in our promotional materials, as this might turn off certain segments of the liberal electorate, leading to conflicting messaging. “Genocide” was not used on our campaign literature or in our phonebanking script, though it was used in a victory lap post put out by the coalition the day after the primary. 

Disagreements over messaging, even when minor, were often symptoms of greater differences in our organizations’ orientations towards the Democratic Party within the coalition. The PAC staff’s messaging placed a strong emphasis on touting that uncommitted activists were “longtime Democrats”, and that there was a “chasm between Democratic leadership and its voters.” In contrast, my own analysis as a socialist considers that the chasm overwhelmingly exists between the Democratic Party itself and the working class. As one of the communications leads for the coalition, I rejected requests to publish a campaign video on my personal social media accounts because of a line in the script that read “America cannot afford another four years of Donald Trump”.

That said, I do not want to overstate these political differences or place any blame on these organizations for having different analyses from my own. Certainly, the coalition was united in its demand for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to US funding for Israel’s apartheid regime — but, led by Democratic Party activists and members of Democratic interest groups, the coalition often shied away from rhetoric that more aggressively charged Biden and his party with the blame for the Gaza genocide, and inevitably ran on a weaker ideological message. 

What is relevant and actionable is how we as DSA representatives within the coalition did not make enough effort to maintain our political independence in our messaging and orientation towards our base and the broader electorate. On the whole, DSA was timid and hyperconscious of what it means to be a primarily white organization on a campaign we all agreed needed to be led by organizers that were directly impacted by the genocide in Gaza. While this was an important consideration, we weren’t conscious enough of meeting the needs of the moment and adapting our orientation towards our coalition partners when the conditions required it. 

 

Roots of Our Reluctance

Our fear of leading with our politics was a direct consequence of our colossal failure to produce Muslim and Arab leaders from within DSA that could be protagonistic political leaders for the campaign. Identifying this failing is not to say we did not have Muslim and Arab leaders already. The Metro DC comrade in coalition leadership is a member of Maryland2Palestine. One of the members of Greater Baltimore DSA’s Steering Committee is a Muslim public school teacher and was one of our field leads and played a significant role in the operations of the campaign. I am part Iranian. However, the rest of our representatives in coalition leadership were not Muslim or Arab. Unlike Connecticut DSA, which recruited young Muslim grassroots leaders and used the phrase “No to Genocide Joe” in their materials, our inability to recruit Muslim leaders pushed us into a reactive, supporting role in the coalition rather than a leading one.

We were right to be careful not to speak over others, but, in my view, missed the mark on hashing out what asserting our politics looks like and conceded ground to coalition leaders on many of these areas of ideological disagreement rather than arguing for our positions. 

Our failure to develop Muslim political organizers of our own also made it more difficult to navigate the differences between civil rights NGOs like CAIR or Justice For All and grassroots organizations like Maryland2Palestine, the latter of which largely aligned with our more forceful positions and were supportive of the uncommitted campaign but were not significantly involved in steering the campaign’s direction. We could have been a stronger voice and connecting force for these positions that are a part of the wider conversation but were not well-represented within the coalition. We also did not address the contradictions presented by following the lead of Muslim-led NGOs in our Palestine messaging, but not elsewhere. CAIR has supported book bans in Maryland schools, a repeated point of controversy within the coalition. We would have benefited from having an understanding of how and when we should have disagreed with our coalition partners from the beginning, which would have also helped us maintain our political integrity and our ability to advocate for our positions.

We also need to consider how to maintain our commitment to democratic and member-led decision-making in coalitions with nonprofits and NGOs that are not governed by the same internal, member-led democracy that we know in DSA. These coalitions make it difficult to employ tactics and political messaging that advance the socialist struggle, because these forces operate within the same liberal ecosystem that supports the Democratic Party and are often beholden to the same capitalist interests. As socialists, we seek to upset that ecosystem entirely.

Uncommitted campaigns have taken many different forms across the country. In some states, like in New Jersey and Connecticut, it has been led, shaped, and directed by DSA and socialist forces. In Maryland and many other states, a broader coalition between DSA and liberal forces has taken on the uncommitted banner. In states which fall into the latter camp, uncommitted seems to have taken on a broader tactic of aiming to pressure the Biden Administration into supporting the demands of the anti-war movement in order to shore up support with the Democratic base going into the general election. This is best exemplified by former congressman Andy Levin, who has said “I feel like [uncommitted] is existential for Joe Biden’s political survival.” That vision deviates from put forward by DSA — No Money for Massacres; No Support for Genocide.

Disaffected Democrats may certainly be a segment of the electorate most naturally attracted to the uncommitted campaign and its immediate policy demands. However, if DSA intends to carry forward the uncommitted banner through the remainder of the primary calendar and beyond in order to build a political movement in firm opposition to the establishment’s war machine, we must be ready to confront the reality that these voters may not be the only demographic we need to win over — and they may even present certain challenges to our vision of Palestinian liberation in our lifetimes.