Author’s note: This post was originally published in September 2017. It is reproduced here because most of it still applies, but it seems positively quaint now.
If you’ve become excited about the idea of a resurgent socialist left in America, then you’ve certainly run across the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA is indeed worthy of our enthusiasm. It is democratic, socialist, and — most improbably — unmistakably American in character. Much to recommend in all of that. However, as one raised primarily outside the USA, I condescend to offer a few remarks on a pitfall I’ve observed while cheering on as something of an outsider; namely, that the all-encompassing nature of the two-party system within the US has led well-intentioned comrades to expect the DSA to be similarly all-encompassing. I argue that only a narrowly-defined mission with clearly demarcated boundaries — rather than attempting to emulate the totalizing nature of the Democrats — will allow a broad and diverse set of people to meaningfully participate in the organization.
My experience of political organizations outside the US has tended to be defined by one attribute: an easily-described purpose, which is some kind of proposition that anyone can choose to accept or reject without reference to (many of) their other political positions. The choice of groups in which one might participate can be motivated by strong personal politics, but for any single organization to attempt to encompass the entirety of these views is absurd on its face. This leaves a lot of room for diverse folks to participate, and makes it easy to limit the scope of political disagreements within those organizations to those where you can universally assume good intentions and common foundations. In a New Zealand context, for example, the Green Party — which until quite recently was effectively a single-issue environmentalist party — was always a safe bet as long as you agreed with their basic proposals. The elegantly-named “Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party” leaves little doubt as to which proposition you are being asked to affirm when considering throwing your lot in with them. While differing political realities — particularly around voting systems — don’t allow for single-issue political parties in the US, this model has never applied only to parliamentary politics. Plenty of NGOs, charities, interest groups, informal political associations, and — dare I say — private enterprises have been successfully structured along these same lines.
When comparing this ideal of what a political organization can be to the American context, one must notice that American party politics aren’t simply a minor disfigurement or some quirk of history; rather, the roots run deep and they’ve sucked the ground dry. Compared to the cannabis enthusiasts of the South Pacific, could one pithily describe the function of the Democratic party without a preamble that touched upon every facet of modern society? It’s easy to illustrate: Could the Democratic party, upon being faced with some new hot-button issue, ever simply shrug and say “that’s not really in my wheelhouse”? It seems unlikely. Where two parties are supposed by all to cover the full range of political thought, it follows that every political concern must be — owing to lack of choice — attached to one monolithic party or the other. I fear that the same totalizing impulse is creeping into the DSA.
As an example, if I were to find myself massively concerned by the proliferation of mayonnaise as a condiment, I have effectively two choices for expressing that view. Given my strong reservations about the fusion of Christian fundamentalism with laissez-faire capitalism, I’m probably not going to express my concern through the vehicle of the G.O.P., owing to that other American vice: wanting to actually like politicians. The inevitable result is that the activity of doing politics in this context involves me using my energy to agitate for the Democratic party to represent my righteous cause. A political idea that existed outside this consensus was — in recent memory — marked for an early death.
Enter, then, the brave new era! Dissent is sexy. The Democrats have abandoned us all in favor of means testing more humane methods of capital punishment, and the once-hypothesized moderate Republican is busy vacationing somewhere up north with Bigfoot. Mercifully, for anyone feeling somewhat alienated by this catastrophic cluster-fuck, there’s a not just one, but many new games in town. The resurgent left is edgy, opinionated, and has an actual policy agenda. Best of all, it’s a big tent! It demands no particular acts of allegiance or articles of faith beyond a basic skepticism of the particulars of how society is currently arranged. No need to have read a lot of Marx, just bring some enthusiasm to the cause! Finally, we’re doing politics.
The perils of this arrangement emerge alongside the desire to replicate the same old structures. If you see an injustice in the world, it follows that the DSA — as a stand-in for the Democrats and one’s leftist organization of choice — should be similarly affronted. Here’s the catch: There’s no reason to believe that anybody else that chose to join a big tent organization is similarly animated by your particular cause. They might not agree with my mayonnaise crusade, or they might be rabidly in favor of the use of mayonnaise as a cluster munition in foreign wars. Neither stance precludes membership in the organization. The ubiquitous factionalism of the left arises in this case because there’s no legible socialist rationale for either of these positions. There’s no correct “socialist take” on mayonnaise. Those who swear that it is counter-revolutionary will quickly find themselves at odds with the faction that believe mayonnaise is vital to an anti-imperialist struggle.
The absurdity of all of this is not improved when one substitutes condiment-affiliation with any issue with actual moral weight. Indeed, it’s precisely the beautiful tune of a cause feeling righteous, urgent, and important that leads so many well-intentioned comrades off the cliff of believing that taking two good things — say, a righteous organization and a tenuously-related righteous cause — and sticking them together will produce something even better still.
This tendency is hard to criticize precisely because it is well-intentioned, but it is destructive to the extreme. A big tent must have walls. A big tent organization must be remain studiously agnostic on a vast number of issues. If the connection from a particular issue to a shared ideological or political goal is tenuous (or worse, absent), then it is better for an organization unified solely around that goal to say nothing at all. To attempt to expand the tent to include every cause that feels righteous is to tear it to bits in the ensuing chaos. We’ve seen the first hints of this whenever unofficial DSA blogs have waded into territory that is controversial. The people drawn to join the DSA are thinking, political creatures with a full spectrum of opinions on many issues — local, national, and global— that don’t necessarily have to connect to the goals of a single organization of which they happen to be a member.
A few decades of smothering liberal consensus (or the more nauseating “bipartisanship”) has succeeded in bleeding most of daily life of any quality that feels explicitly political. Owing to this, the path of least resistance for someone newly discovering a space that is inherently political is to realize every political thought or action within it. The full spectrum of political thought and action belongs everywhere else in society. Until the US heals from the damage of the two party system, though, I fear that we all may struggle with the latter point. It’s much easier to have a spirited disagreement as individuals about absolutely anything outside a narrowly-defined frame of a socialist conception of society without attempting to co-opt a democratic socialist organization into the fight. Drawing upon the membership of the DSA as a source of politically-aware people when one needs to recruit for a cause can give the organization the unsettling quality of being the readership of a boutique newsletter. Drinking over and over from the same well to find support for diverse issues isn’t doing the work of politics, even though it’s far easier than the less pleasant task of being tedious at dinner parties or trying to raise the hackles of indifferent co-workers. Worse, perhaps, is that given the examples of political organizations they will have had to draw on, it is too easy for potential comrades — whose participation is surely necessary to the success of any broad-based socialist movement — to get the idea that these causes are the actual central purpose of the organization and to be dissuaded from joining by their lack of enthusiasm for those particular issues.
I’m still excited about the prospects of the DSA and of the broader resurgent left. I just hope we learn to proliferate our politics into more areas of our lives, rather than over-concentrating them within the most promising big tent organization and rendering it uninhabitable in the process.