– Janet Malaime
Last week DSA’s National Political Committee announced their endorsement of four candidates in the upcoming elections. Among the endorsees was Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who ran for district attorney of San Diego county. The email DSA sent on its listserv announcing the endorsements likens Jones-Wright to Larry Krasner, a progressive DA in Philadelphia who’s received praise for refusing to seek cash bail. The email states that Jones-Wright plans to end cash bail. However, on her website Jones-Wright merely claims the bail system needs to be reformed and doesn’t specify what that entails. Despite her loss in the June 5th elections, Jones-Wright declared her intentions to continue her work in the progressive criminal justice movement.
Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s endorsement has sparked debate among DSA members over the question of whether or not it’s appropriate for our organization to endorse DA’s at all. People in support of the endorsement believe Jones-Wright had the potential to be a progressive force in San Diego’s criminal justice system. People opposed to endorsement believe progressive DAs won’t further our goals of building a socialist movement or advancing prison abolition. There are two general kinds of arguments deployed in this debate, goal-oriented arguments and action-oriented arguments. Goal-oriented arguments compare the potential goods a progressive DA could achieve to potential goods of other candidates, then they evaluate which future appears preferable. Action-oriented arguments treat endorsement as a commitment of the endorsing organization to take on an electoral project and evaluates whether other projects are a better use of their organizational capacity.
In this essay, I argue that goal-oriented arguments are insufficient to answer the endorsement question, but action-oriented arguments are. I also lay out the tools needed to make an action-oriented argument. Then, I present an alternative approach to prison abolition work DSA chapters can take up. These alternatives are based on the work of our comrades in Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group. I interviewed several members of Boston DSA (BDSA) and use their experiences to reflect on possible courses of action for DSA chapters.
Goal-oriented Arguments, or vacuous arguments from material conditions
Goal-oriented arguments have the following general form: a DA candidate pledges to be a progressive force in the criminal justice system, which could lead to decreased repression of oppressed and exploited people. If this candidate is elected, it would be better than if another candidate is elected. Therefore, we should endorse this candidate. There’s also a version of this argument that concludes the candidate shouldn’t be endorsed because it would be worse if they’re elected instead of another candidate.
For goal-oriented arguments, the inference relates material conditions expected on a candidate’s election to whether or not that candidate should be endorsed. These arguments only consider expectations of what the candidate will do in office. Because these expectations can only be fulfilled by the candidate actually getting into office, people who make this kind of argument have to assume the candidate’s campaign will be successful. After all, the whole point of the endorsement is to help the candidate win. They also have to assume on these arguments that the candidate will actually keep their campaign promises and that they’ll be accountable either to their constituents or to DSA in general. Because of their assumptions, when we debate using goal-oriented arguments we leave out some important practical questions such as is it feasible for the candidate to win? How can we ensure the candidate will keep their promises and remain accountable? How should we prioritize our organizational capacity?
Endorsement is always a practical question. Particular DSA chapters or national DSA have to ask themselves this question for particular candidates in particular elections. Since goal-oriented arguments fail to consider the above questions, the debates that employ them are one-sided. What they determine, at best, is whether or not a candidate is better to vote for than their opponents. Goal-oriented arguments fail to determine whether or not a chapter should endorse a DA candidate. They don’t tell us what actions we should take. They only compare forecasted effects of one person’s role in the criminal justice system as opposed to another.
Our analyses must start with the totality of material conditions. As Marx said in The German Ideology,
“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.”
When we only consider the expected outcomes of elections, we’re talking about those conditions in a vacuum. We start with abstractions rather than the reality of a social whole, complete with relationships, constant change, and competing class interests. Instead, we need an argument that starts with politics as it is. Action-oriented arguments do just that.
Action-oriented Arguments, or dialectical arguments from material conditions
The question of the DA debate is whether or not endorsement as a particular tactic is worthwhile for DSA national or a chapter to use. Action-oriented arguments, in contrast with goal-oriented arguments, are actually substantial to this debate. An action-oriented argument considers what actions are best for an organization, instead of just evaluating the goals of proposed campaigns. Here, DSA chapters and national are conceptualized as having a capacity in terms of hours available for members to do political work, kinds of political work members have the skills to do, and available resources in terms of money, space, and communication networks. All organizations are situated in relation to communities, political bodies, and other existing organizations, all of which have particular class interests. They exist and act in a particular political time and place. The sum of capacity, relationships, and political conditions, comprise an organization’s place in the totality of material conditions. Bringing in material conditions as an ever-changing whole allows us to consider the wide-ranging effects and expected reaction to proposed projects. Action-oriented arguments relate the totality of material conditions to potential strategies, and then evaluate courses of action. Because action-oriented arguments consider everything involved in an organizational decision concerning strategy, they’re sufficient to answer the endorsement question. Now, let’s analyze endorsement through an action-oriented lens.
When we endorse a DA what exactly are we doing? It usually refers to any of three actions: issuing a public statement in support of the endorsed candidate, volunteering to canvass or phonebanking for them. The goal of electoral action is to get the endorsed candidate into office. Statements of support are short, easy to disseminate propaganda pieces. A small group within the endorsing organization writes them, maybe a draft is presented to the general membership for comment, then an outreach committee sends out the statement on social media or prints physical copies to hand to people. Statements of support usually don’t require much time, have a lenient deadline, and can be done by most chapter members. Sometimes a candidate’s campaign team will reach out to an organization for support. Otherwise, members decide to endorse by popular vote or a committee’s direct action. It’s hard to assess how impactful an endorsement is. While it’s generally safe to assume any chapter member who votes will vote for the endorsed candidate, we don’t have the data on whether or not the chapter’s endorsement influenced other voters. If an endorsement is just a statement of support, then the idea is to assemble a voting block of mostly DSA members, plus whoever we can reach by flyering and social media. Most DSA chapters don’t have a large enough membership or reach to form an election-swaying voting block, so the statement on its own will probably be ineffective. DSA voters are already likely to vote for the most progressive candidates, so it’s hard to identify any impact a statement of support will have on the election at all. We’re not influencing politics. We’re easy votes for progressives.
Canvassing and phonebanking are similar kinds of electoral action. Canvassing is when a group of people break into pairs, go door to door in the neighborhood, and ask potential voters how they plan to vote, soft-selling their candidate if needed. Phonebanking uses the same idea, but interactions occur over the phone instead of face to face. When endorsement entails this kind of work, chapter members commit their availability for specific times and days to go out and canvass or phonebank. Often this is done through already existing democratic party organizations, but a chapter can organize their own canvases and phonebanks. Because these electoral tactics directly reach out to voters, they’re more effective in influencing the election than statements of support. Their influence correlates with time spent and area covered. If we’re serious about getting a DA candidate elected, then canvassing and phonebanking will be our go-to tactics. Canvassing in particular gives members experience in going into a community and talking directly to people about politics, a widely useful skill.
However, the issue of accountability still remains. Even if our electoral work is successful, how do we ensure the DA will keep their promises? What happens if the candidate we worked so hard to get into office asks oppressed and exploited people for cash bail? It’s possible that we can threaten to withhold our electoral labor. However, as long as progressive DAs run as democrats, they’ll have access to an organization with a greater capacity than any DSA chapter or national. Democrats, liberal capitalists, and non-profits can always outspend and overpower us. In the last instance, we probably can’t guarantee endorsed DAs will deliver without popular pressure against them. Unless our work in an election builds popular participation, we’re not laying the foundation to actually deliver after a successful election. Canvassing without accountability is free labor for democrats.
Even if the DA can be held accountable, their progressive potential is fairly limited. Tim Horras illustrates this point in the related and much cited case of Larry Krasner.
“Even if a prosecutor doesn’t ask for bail for a particular defendant, magistrate judges could still make the decision to order it.” Effectively, the ball remains in the judge’s court.
This points to a larger problem in the Krasner “model”: while District Attorneys can exercise prosecutorial discretion — which is to say, while they can determine whether or not to press charges, what sort of charges to bring up, recommend sentences and offer plea bargains — they are neither legislators nor judges. They don’t write laws, issue rulings, or set legal precedents. So while DAs have significant leeway in setting priorities, any policies they enact are less durable than reforms won through legislation or judicial decisions; it only takes a new person occupying the office of executive to roll back such reforms-by-fiat.”
It would be a shame if our comrades worked hard to get a progressive DA in office only to be outmaneuvered in the next election. What kind of power do we win if it can be taken back on a whim? We need to fight for more than transient reforms. Thankfully, we can learn from our comrades in Boston about how we might start to do that.
Lessons from Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group
Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group (PrAb WG) formed about a year and a half ago when a local activist already working on prison abolition talked to BDSA about the relationship between abolitionism and socialist organizing. They’ve engaged in a variety of campaigns, including writing to incarcerated sex workers and educating themselves with abolitionist theory. Jesse W. describes the group as “a fairly politically coherent working group, with many members who consistently come every month to our meetings, all of whom are deeply committed to naming the goal of abolishing police and prisons, educating ourselves about the historical and social context of the prison and policing system and about what prison abolition might mean in both a theoretical and practical manner, and building coalitions in order to discern how BDSA can build trust and solidarity with long standing activists and most effectively organize around prison abolition.”
The coalitions PrAb WG has built extend to existing activist organizations, but also within Boston DSA itself. Alongside BDSA’s Internationalism Working Group, PrAb WG proposed their chapter endorse a campaign for the city of Cambridge to divest from Hewlett-Packard in an effort to support the BDS movement against Israel. The chapter passed a two-tiered endorsement. They signed as paper endorsers for the campaign and committed to send members to work on it. Their work included phonebanking and attending campaign meetings. Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t succeed in getting Cambridge to divest from HP. Zoey MM. reflects on the loss with hope for future struggles:
“The resolution for Cambridge to divest from HP was supposed to go to a hearing on 4/23. However, in the lead-up to the hearing, right-wing pro-Israel groups conducted a long, malicious campaign against the resolution, sending propaganda materials to local residents, and also pressuring city council members against both hearing the resolution and voting for it. Three of the city councilors who were originally supportive of the resolution (including one who had been DSA endorsed) became opposed to it, effectively guaranteeing that the resolution would not pass the council. The hearing was postponed, and the original proposal was watered down to encompass divesting from all companies committing human rights violations, with no mention of Israel, Palestine or HP. These developments represented a loss for the campaign, and also exposed some of the weaknesses in our local’s electoral work: namely rushing to endorse candidates when we have no established accountability mechanisms in place that would ensure they adhere to organizational demands and positions.
On the more positive side, Boston DSA was able to build connections, solidarity and trust with the Massachusetts Against Hewlett-Packard campaign, thanks in no part to our endorsed politicians and in all part to our dedicated members who put in hours of work and commitment to the campaign. We have hopefully built a foundation from which we can work together on other BDS projects, as well as continue to promote education about the interconnections between American and Israeli imperialism and carceral control.”
Currently PrAb WG is working on two campaigns, Massachusetts Ballots Over Bars and Court Watch. Ballots Over Bars is a program run by the Emancipation Initiative where people outside of prison donate their votes to incarcerated people. Since BDSA on paper has about 1000 members, this campaign offers an easy way to participate in chapter activities to members who aren’t as directly or consistently involved as the members of PrAb WG, utilizing BDSA’s latent capacity.
Court Watch is a program led by a variety of organizations including ACLU Massachusetts and Massachusetts Bail Fund. The program sends volunteers to take notes on the actions of judges and prosecutors in court. The goal is to identify the realities of courtroom procedures, its racial disparities and over-prosecution, so judges and DA’s can be held accountable. Eliza, who’s on BDSA’s steering committee and a member of DSA’s Refoundation Caucus, shares her experience as a court watcher:
“Court Watch is honestly extremely draining. Watching the prosecutors, public defenders, and judges joke to each other while defendants are left completely confused about the process is horrible. Judges in MA are banned from requiring cash bail amounts that defendants cannot afford, yet I’ve seen judges repeatedly require houseless people to pay $5000 just to return to their lives while they await trial for doing things like stealing a snack from a convenience store.”
I asked the BDSA members I interviewed what wins or failures they think came from the prison abolition campaigns. Jess L. responded,
“For me, this comes back to political education and coalition building. To effectively do abolitionist organizing you have to have a firm grasp of both theory and the local material conditions. A project that works in one location will not necessarily work in another. While there are fantastic abolitionist projects going on all over the place and it’s important to learn from the work that comrades do around the globe, it’s essential that we stop to analyze the material conditions under which we’re trying to organize. In that sense, coalition building has been an essential part of the work that PrAb has done over the past year. Our coalition partners have been doing radical abolitionist work for much longer than our working group has existed, and have been thinking about these problems for much longer than we have.
As socialists and prison abolitionists, our job is to combine this knowledge and use it to drive discussions and plans for what DSA’s contribution to prison abolition can be. We can’t effectively organize without an understanding of local material conditions and a dialectical process that engages how our actions will be shaped by the conditions and how the conditions should shape our actions. Without taking the time to do this analysis, we will inevitably replicate the neoliberal and capitalist conditions under which we currently live.”
What can we take away from the work and reflection of our comrades in BDSA? Coalition building can connect a DSA chapter to existing campaigns. These campaigns can serve as entry points for a chapter to engage in a protracted struggle for prison abolition. We organize where we live, so we need to learn the particular needs and opportunities our local material conditions present. Any endorsed representative is susceptible to right-wing lobbying, but even in defeat we should remain tenacious in the fight for socialism and prison abolition. There are options outside of electoral politics that can bring your chapter closer to the oppressed and exploited people we’re fighting to liberate. This last lesson is especially important, because without organizing with oppressed and exploited people our movements won’t be liberatory.
My goal with this essay is not to categorically answer the endorsement question. Instead, my aim is to provide the theoretical tools needed for any organization to begin to answer it for themselves. Hopefully, we’ll rethink how best to utilize endorsement as a tactic. In cases like that of Geneviéve Jones-Wright, endorsement appears as DSA asking mostly its own members to support mildly progressive candidates. Socialists should engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists. We shouldn’t be afraid to not endorse the most progressive candidate in the race, and instead should point out exactly where these candidates’ platforms fail. At the same time, if your chapter thinks entering an election as socialists will allow you to raise consciousness, increase capacity, and start other fights, then you should think about electoral work with the goal of advancing class struggle in mind. Revolutionaries can’t merely beg for reforms which, without a mass socialist movement, are essentially temporary. Endorsement is one tactic among many we need to consider in the fight for socialism, but to have tunnel-vision about progressive candidates will lead us to a losing strategy. We have a world to win, not an election.