Challenges for TCDSA and Endorsees




Written by Josh K

More Wins, More Problems

When I began attending Twin Cities DSA electoral committee meetings in 2018, we met in a vacant commercial space with unfinished floors, unadorned with furniture except folding tables and chairs. Ginger Jentzen had lost to Steve Fletcher a few months earlier; there were no elected officials with the Twin Cities DSA endorsement. Some meetings were me, the person who recruited me, and the committee chair. The stakes couldn’t have been lower.

Aided by incredibly dedicated endorsed candidates, the hard work of hopeful members, and luck beyond measure, the TCDSA has had incredible electoral success and the stakes have changed. The purpose of this background isn’t to celebrate the electoral success of TCDSA but rather to highlight the foundation from which it grew, with the intent of better understanding the challenges we create for endorsed elected officials. TCDSA is not an organization that was designed for highly visible electoral success as its primary purpose. The structural foundation of the organization is radical democracy. The shape of the chapter changes based on member energy and how members choose to engage with the organization.

The structure of the chapter, the competing interests within the chapter membership, and the high-focused lens of right-wing agitators and media have combined to create significant challenges for wielding political power. For the benefit of membership, endorsed elected officials, and prospective endorsees, this is an attempt to unpack these challenges through an analysis of four intersecting factors. 

  1. An organizational structure built upon radical democracy, which is a challenge to navigate for both members and endorsees if they are not enmeshed in the culture formed around the chapter’s democracy. 
  2. Internal political tensions from a big tent membership organization that engages with radical democracy.
  3. Communication silos which hamper both democracy and chapter function, and at times can exacerbate internal conflict when political tensions occur.
  4. Finally, a baseline anti-capitalist principle that can create expectations of endorsees which run contrary to their broader coalition, and may impede their political career in the long-term. 

By better understanding how these factors interface with political realities, we may better anticipate and address challenges as they arise.

The “Dramacratic” Socialists of America: Radical Democracy as an Organizational Structure

Every member has a vote but no single member is in charge. Every member has a voice but no single member represents TCDSA. The co-chairs can act as spokespeople for the organization, per our bylaws, but they’re constrained to express only the democratic will of the membership. For decision making between general meetings, an elected steering committee does their best to represent member interests through voting on actions and resolutions, always mindful that the will of the member body is the ultimate decision-maker. Chapter priorities are democratically determined and the all-volunteer membership is free to advance these priorities with chapter resources and other members as they see fit.

There is a frequent expectation for endorsees to adopt chapter priorities, even when the priority runs contrary to the elected’s other coalition partners or creates conflict with other electeds. Our democratic structure also make it possible for any member to motion to censure or unendorse an elected official at any general meeting; even if the motion was unsuccessful, our general meetings are open to the public, and a motion like this would have the potential to negatively-impact reputations, be a microphone to communicate damaging information, and create tension within the larger community. All these realities constitute meaningful risk for elected officials when engaging with a democratic organization in a way that makes them accountable to that organization.

The radical democracy TCDSA performs is markedly different from other organizations that issue endorsements. Most nonprofits engage in a top-down hierarchical decision making process, with paid staff that have been issued specific roles and responsibilities for carrying out those decisions. Alternatively, TCDSA also differs from Leftist organizations that practice democratic centralism, in that membership isn’t bound by policy created by the steering committee or member body. For TCDSA, each member, including leadership, can choose how they engage with the chapter based on their personal interests and capacity. I’m frequently struck by the notion: nobody is in charge here

Put another way, there’s nothing that makes members take any given action. When I’m trying to elect or collaborate with an endorsee, this is a liberating feeling; I’m free to advance work on a priority in a comfortable way of my choosing. However, when there’s a crisis that affects an endorsee, this is a harrowing feeling; nobody is directly responsible for addressing a problem. An exacerbating element can be a “diffusion of responsibility” effect, where members hope others will take on the issue. While anyone, from our steering committee to individual members can choose to act, they do so still within our organization’s democratic structure, and with the limits of their own capacity to organize inside it. Even worse, democracy can have a stifling effect on membership or chapter action in a time of crisis. Nobody wants to exacerbate the problem or violate democratic principles, so frequently that leads to important conversations not occurring and critical actions being deferred.

The democratic structure of TCDSA is a trait I would defend with great vigor. I enjoy the ideas and energy it creates, even when we’re dubbed the Dramacratic Socialists of America for the discourse it generates. But the drama, along with failure to address problems, has major implications on relations between endorsees and the chapter, and creates unusual dynamics non-member endorsees frequently either fail to understand or reconcile with. 

Putting the Tent into Tension

Anyone can join the Twin Cities DSA. 

The chapter roster is primarily made-up of paper members who do not frequently attend meetings or actions. Related to this, we have a sizable contingent of members who are disengaged with the chapter except for participating in the endorsement process. This leads to situations where the members voting to endorse are not the same members as the highly active leaders and canvassers who carry out the endorsement through door-knocks and advance priorities through collaborative meetings.

Among the active members, there is diversity of viewpoints for how the chapter should relate to electoral work. It’s noteworthy that an electoral program is not mandated by the chapter bylaws; this has been intentionally omitted in the past because whether the chapter should even engage with electoralism has historically been questioned. There was, and continues to be, broad skepticism for engaging in a political process which is rigged by capitalism, on the basis that while this work may allow for mild reforms, it is not the path toward the replacement of capitalism itself. Many members resent the strategic use of the DFL ballot line or have an analysis that use of the DFL ballot line is not strategic for pursuit of our more radical goals. They form a spectrum with other members who may hold elected leadership positions within the DFL, may see real potential for reforms to empower the working class and improve their material conditions, or who see a need to not leave this arena uncontested in the broader movement for socialism. This wide divergence and the variations along that spectrum highlights the size of the tent and the tension that can be created within it. Finally, it’s important to note that among active members, regardless of their opinion on doing electoral work, a majority of members do not participate in electoral work. Instead of attending canvasses, they’re busy organizing their workplaces and fighting at the many intersections of anti-capitalist social justice.

Although TCDSA has a multiracial membership of varied faith and socioeconomic backgrounds, the majority of TCDSA membership is white and middle-class. Historically, the chapter has favored endorsements for BIPOC candidates, with members likely seeking to elevate historically marginalized voices. This was done with good intentions but communication challenges created by a radically democratic organization can be exacerbated by differences in race and background. 

A further challenge to elected officials is a constant turnover of active members. Many active members engage with the chapter for a year or two and either burn out, find other interests, or shift their efforts to serve other organizations. The fluctuations in engaged members make it challenging for endorsed electeds to maintain a foothold on chapter affairs unless they’re directly engaged with the chapter or work closely with core members. After a four-year term, the chapter membership that endorsed an elected official may be mostly gone, with new members in their place. Transfer of institutional knowledge for why some decisions were made in the past does not always occur, leaving new members with questions or frustrations that wouldn’t exist if the full history was known to them.

A Different Hot Take for Every Group Chat

There’s a wide spectrum of knowledge levels on electoral matters among members. There are members engaged with work outside the electoral sphere, and their only encounters with it are when policies or parties stymy their organizing efforts. In those instances, they may not understand every detail of a piece of legislation or a political position –  but they certainly understand how it will fuck everyone over. Contrast that with members on the other end of the spectrum who manage campaigns, work for elected officials, or are elected officials. This varied awareness of electoral politics and government makes messaging to membership challenging because of the varied audience.

Communication challenges are exacerbated by chapter silos made up of branches, committees, working groups, and informal structures. Elected officials may communicate with a steering committee member or an electoral committee member, and then be confused when others didn’t get the memo. It may lead to a feeling of hopelessness for engaging with the chapter without making it a significant commitment. 

It can be hard for electoral information to penetrate circles of members focused on different areas of work who are directly affected by the subject of the communication. Efforts have been made by the Socialist in Office committee to break down these silos but the reality that TCDSA is an all volunteer organization, with members who have limited capacity and aren’t directly focused on electoral work, continues to be a barrier for fostering chapter-wide understanding of all information on complex subjects. Exacerbating this is the varied perspectives and interpretations of information, which can be defined by political tendencies, trust in the political process, and differing appreciations for nuance.

There’s frequent tension among members between two opposing questions: “What’s a hard truth we need to accept?” and, “What’s political cowardice that needs to be overcome?” Elected officials are sometimes part of this tug of war, as they try to claim a hard truth, while members identify their “hard truths” as political cowardice.

In response to tense situations, it’s not uncommon for members to post concerns or opinions to social media. Because TCDSA is not a democratic centralist organization, there is no communications discipline. Members may post things with either reckless disregard or intentional calculation to pressure endorsees on issues they want to see elected officials address in a certain manner. These communications may be damaging to the reputation of an elected official but, so long as the member does not claim to be speaking for the organization, there is nothing preventing them from doing it.

Do you really want us on your resume?

Most TCDSA elected officials, in my estimate, do not need TCDSA to win their election, especially if they are an incumbent. Politicians shouldn’t seek the endorsement of TCDSA to advance their political career. There’s less complicated ways to get elected to office.

If an endorsed candidate is seeking higher office, or is trying to build a career within the context of the current political climate, in my view, a TCDSA endorsement is bad for an establishment career. That may change as the political climate changes in the future; but if that’s the calculation being made for seeking endorsement, the prospective endorsee may be seeking endorsement for the wrong reason.

The TCDSA endorsement is seen by many to signify the furthest left candidate. It’s a great way to distinguish a candidacy in a city where all progressive campaign web pages look alike. However, the complications that arise if a candidate isn’t fully authentic in their socialist tendencies can wind up damaging the reputation of both the endorsee and the chapter.

The TCDSA endorsement creates risk to a political career that is different from other endorsements. The media, political parties, and community often conflate TCDSA with endorsed elected officials in a way that doesn’t exist for other organizations. When a union passes a controversial resolution, the elected officials endorsed by the union typically don’t receive questions about it. But when TCDSA passes a controversial resolution, elected officials may receive major repercussions from dissatisfied constituents.

The media, centrists, and rightwing attack TCDSA and the endorsed candidates because we represent a threat to the business-above-all-else status quo. We have been successful in supporting endorsed candidates in the past, and we have a strong reputation – in large part because of their attacks. When anything remotely progressive happens in Minneapolis, or there’s a progressive liberal who draws attention, rightwing messaging frequently brand it as a DSA production. It usually isn’t, but red-baiting isn’t new. 

When an endorsee is a member of the Democratic party, the risk posed by the DSA brand goes beyond media, and also becomes a source of tension for how an endorsee relates to the party. Candidates are also held to account for actions by the national organization, other chapters, and their endorsees. For Democratic candidates, this can heighten tensions even further because DSA endorsed electeds orient themselves differently to the Democratic party based on each city or state’s political landscape. For example, in states where there is a Democratic supermajority, DSA endorsed electeds often have a more combative dynamic with party members who are halting progressive advances. And even in Minnesota, where conservatism is a primary threat, TCDSA endorsed elected officials are still expected to fight against the reactionary tendencies of centrist Democrats. Because the DSA often expects this type of insurgent behavior from endorsed candidates, TCDSA endorsement can blowback on candidates with higher political aspirations within the Democratic party.

A Better Future is Possible (but probably not through reforms)

Some of the challenges mentioned in the previous sections are intractable; they’re baked into the radically democratic structure of an all-volunteer organization with limited capacity. Other challenges are being addressed by well-meaning members who may succeed in improving conditions or may burn out and fail – there’s never certainty a problem will be meaningfully addressed. With all the challenges and risks of TCDSA endorsement, why would anyone want to be a TCDSA-endorsed candidate? 

From my start in the electoral committee, meeting in a vacant commercial space, to present day, TCDSA has been engaged with an incredible experiment. How do we engage with an electoral system, corrupted by capital, and still maintain our socialist principles? How do we avoid becoming another dead organization consumed and buried in the Democratic party graveyard? Now, in addition to these questions of maintaining socialist principles, we’re faced with a new set of questions. How can the chapter work with endorsed electeds to navigate a political reality that is so distant from our aspirations? How does the chapter collaborate with endorsed elected officials to confront the greed and hardship that oppresses us all? There’s no clear answer to these questions, only experimentation to see what works.

But a question that can be answered is: “Why would a candidate want to become a TCDSA-endorsed elected?” The reason to become a TCDSA-endorsed elected official is to be part of building a socialist mass movement. Building a socialist mass movement is the crux of the DSA theory of change. TCDSA separates itself from many other organizations because we are not building a political machine for the sake of generating reformist policy that fails to address the underlying harms of capitalism; we are participating in the electoral system to build a world where people take back power from the greedy corporations and wealthy psychopaths that hold the reins over our lives. Electoral success is the primary way most Americans view politics. By engaging with this system, we are able to reach people with the message: if we all work together, a better world is possible.