“Before you can be a pirate, you have to sail in the navy”: An interview with Gus Sanchez
Laurie Rojas and W. Xiao
On April 6, 2019, Platypus Affiliated Society members Laurie Rojas and W. Xiao interviewed Gus Sanchez, an organizer, technologist, and member of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA), at the 11th Annual Convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to discuss the Chicago mayoral election and the politics of the DSA. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion and the Q&A that followed.
Gus Sanchez, born in New York, studied public policy and political science at the University of Chicago. After graduating, he moved to Oakland, California to work for a center-Left polling firm. After the primary elections of 2016 came to a close in June of that year, Gus moved back to Chicago to work for Civis Analytics — one of the major vendors to the institutional committees of the Democratic Party, and led the Democratic Senatorial Coordinating Committee, as well as various campaigns and issue-advocacy organizations. Currently, Gus works with an organization called the Movement Cooperative, which plays a central role in the coordination of anti-establishment non-party groups and the maintenance of their data and technological infrastructure. A long admirer of the DSA organization, it was not until after the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) in New York that Gus became a dues-paying member of the DSA and began working with CDSA-endorsed candidates in Chicago to try to replicate the success of AOC in New York and develop the new playbook for defeating long-time Democratic incumbents.
Laurie Rojas: You joined the DSA as a result of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. What was that moment about for you?
Gus Sanchez: In my professional life, I do work related to electoral politics. There is a whole class of professionals who learn how to do this work. It involves a digital and technical strategy. I had not been a dues-paying member of the DSA until she won, but previously I had been going to meetings. It was the community through which we were able to debate Leftist ideas with representatives from all ideological schools. I found that to be a very productive space. But in my mind, I was waiting to see when the DSA would mature to the extent that it would try and take some form of state power through electoral politics. For me, AOC winning was the signal that it was “go time.” The electorate is somewhat ready to buy what we’re trying to sell them.
LR: Why should the Left care about the DSA? Why is the DSA important for the Left to pay attention to?
GS: I think the DSA is probably the premier platform for exchange of Leftist ideas. The vast majority of the members probably are not aligned with the people in this room. But they’re people you can actually have the conversation with and could potentially be persuaded. If I were Platypus and I wanted to increase my membership, the DSA is the first group of people I would talk to. They would be most receptive.
LR: The DSA is of course the Democratic Socialists of America and has a history of commitment to socialism. How does the DSA advance, in your sense, the objective of socialism?
GS: It’s multi-pronged: the electoral aspect is very new for the DSA. Up until that point, it was community organizing, having conversations, education, reading groups — very similar to what you all are doing. Small community organizations where people can actually discuss these ideas and keep them alive.
LR: What is socialism for you?
GS: I currently think about socialism as an exploration of essentially alternative means to figuring out how we can democratically control and produce the means to produce various goods in society. I’m a technologist; I pay very close attention to automation and how technology is evolving, and I see a tremendous potential there. In some potential future, robots are going to be doing most of the work. But the question is, who owns those robots, and how are the fruits of their labor distributed across society? Are they democratically controlled? Is the direction of those corporations democratically controlled? Do we even have corporations?
W. Xiao: The way that you define socialism is about the democratic control of production, and some sort of democratic distribution of the output of production. So in light of that, to push on Laurie’s question, how exactly is the DSA pushing us into that future of controlling the means of production? Aligned with that, where do you see the relationship between the DSA and the Democratic Party — how is it operating symbiotically or not to push forward that vision?
GS: I’m going to table that second question, and remind me if I forget. It’s a very important question. To the first question, how is the DSA or the CDSA pushing for socialism? Education is huge. I think you all understand the value of education and dialogue in terms of shaping minds — particularly young minds — in terms of support. The long shot is sweeping legislatures across the country and actually implementing various policies. We’ve used a lot of polling to identify potential policies that are popular that we can advocate for and push incumbents to support or to use as leverage to evict them from their current positions. I’ve actually brought a couple of questions from the DSA. The CDSA has a questionnaire that it uses to vet candidates before endorsing them. I think some of these — whether they’re pushing for socialism the way that you all conceive it or not — are representative of how the DSA thinks of its priorities. The first two questions are, “Are you a socialist?” and “Are you ready to win?” Obviously they want to win elections. One of the more interesting questions is, “Do you support the establishment of banks owned and democratically controlled by the state or municipal government?” That is, democratic control of financial institutions, then obviously minimum wage, legalizing pot, legalizing sex work — things that get people penalized for living a particular way or getting caught doing something but may not warrant destroying their life in our society. A lot of it is liberating people from current structures.
LR: Why work within the Democratic Party when there is a history during the 20th century, at least since the 60s, where Leftist movements and labor organizations have ended up being used by the Democratic Party? Has there been a liquidation of actual socialist politics as a result of working through the Democratic Party?
GS: For me, it’s more of a professional choice. I have a theory that before you can be a pirate, you have to sail in the navy. If you look at legendary pirates, they all learned to sail in the navy. They got navy wages that were shit, but they turned around and started stealing people’s shit. My working for the Democrats is my figuring out their strategies, how they use data to manipulate the masses to achieve their objectives and learning how that works, getting good at that, and then potentially neutralizing it, or using it to actually spread ideas and messaging that are more aligned with the future we want to see.
WX: To push on Laurie’s question a bit more: in the past, there have been repeated attempts by the radical Left to use and instrumentalize the infrastructure of the Democratic Party. But it seems that in a lot, or nearly all, of those cases, the Leftists have actually been the ones used or instrumentalized. Why is this time different?
GS: I want to emphasize the word you use, “infrastructure.” The Democratic Party has data on everyone who’s ever voted for them. It tracks you across time, where you live, that kind of thing. The Left — or, I’m not going to say, the Left; I’m going to say, the DSA and its coalitionary body — we’re building our own infrastructure. We are trying to be totally independent of the party. The DCCC (Democratic Congressional Coordinating Committee) has sent out a warning to all vendors on the Democratic Party side of politics: if you choose to work for somebody who’s trying to unseat an incumbent, you will no longer get business from the Democratic Party.
We’ve created a “blacklist” for anybody who wants to try to beat an incumbent: it’s a list of any socialist, anybody who is going to be disadvantaged in an electoral race. We have a list of vendors for those candidates who are often sympathetic, if not outright socialist. There’s a place for these candidates to go. We’re building an infrastructure that is democratically controlled by the people in these organizations. DSA has elections for its committees that steer it. If electees of these DSA national committees were to go in a direction that the DSA’s dues-paying members don’t support, then they would be voted out.
WX: Just to clarify, your answer as to why it’s different this time is that you think the DSA has a bargaining chip by which it can actually enforce its policy objectives in the Democratic Party, and that bargaining chip is the data that you own?
GS: I wouldn’t say it’s a bargaining chip. We are pretty explicitly at war with the Party at the moment. We don’t take money from many of their top donors. I think the Party is as scared of the DSA as the Republicans are. You see Ocasio-Cortez being smeared across conservative media, which signals fear. There’s something serious here that they’re afraid of. But I think the party in and of itself participates in the same smears, so it’s not as though we’re friends. If there are policies on which we align, we’ll most likely vote together as a bloc. But what you’ve seen is that the candidates that we do have in Congress now are very explicitly moving the Overton window. For those who aren’t familiar with that concept, it’s the idea that if we propose a radical policy very far to the Left, then when we compromise, we can get something closer to what we actually wanted, as opposed to putting the bargaining chip that we think they’ll accept initially.
LR: The alderman elections in Chicago were a big victory for the DSA here. Could you talk a little bit about that, and also how it might function as a stepping stone? How do you understand the elections in terms of the task of moving towards socialism?
GS: It shouldn’t be overlooked that the folks who win these elections — both AOC and the aldermen in Chicago — have a tremendous bully pulpit. They can get up and say whatever they want; it’s covered in the news, and everybody — everybody who reads the news, at least — is exposed to those ideas. So, at a bare minimum, creating a stage to have that discussion in public as opposed to discussing things behind closed doors is quite important. In terms of how it actually occurred, most of these candidates were not affiliated with the Democratic Party in any way. In general, Chicago is pretty much all Democrats or independents who lean liberal, so we don’t really worry about the Party as much; it doesn’t really matter. The real question is, are they neoliberal or not? That’s what separates the candidates. In terms of how they were drafted, many of these candidates decided to run seeking the DSA endorsement and then were endorsed.
I spent most of my time working at the 33rd ward for [now alderman] Rossana Rodriguez. Her family is from Puerto Rico, and she started an organization in Humboldt Park that is explicitly Leftist called the Chicago Boricua Resistance. When, as a founder of that organization, she went to the youths who run it now to get their endorsement, they held out their endorsement for a very long time because they were so skeptical of the merit of electoral politics that they didn’t know if they wanted to compromise themselves in that way.
Eventually, they did end up endorsing her, which is probably for the better. But the fact that they had that internal dialogue about whether it was worth it or not and about what can come from it — I think that’s quite interesting.
WX: Now that these individuals are in power or will be in power in Chicago, can you specify for us how the DSA intends to leverage or enforce your vision of socialism in Chicago? And if you could provide any examples in the past where the DSA has successfully done that, that would be helpful as well.
GS: One thing that the DSA has done without candidates is rent control. They’ve pushed rent-control ballot measures in various wards and have been pretty successful. That’s actually independent of the candidates, but in general the candidates are pretty explicit with their policy preferences and positions.
We definitely want to delineate what we think of as the future goal of socialism in terms of short-term policy gains. I think people in the DSA recognize that short-term policy gains are still worth pursuing, but that’s not ultimately where we want to go. However, as we pass those policies, as they become popular, it essentially puts people in a position where they’re more likely to consider the kind of socialism that we’re talking about, the socialism that we’re actually trying to bring about.
LR: What is your particular relationship with this campaign, this work in the DSA, and with other socialist organizations? In what way are they participating or engaged?
GS: When the campaigns were endorsed by the DSA and the CDSA, it was basically a signal to all socialists in the city that if you’re bored and have some time to volunteer, this is your candidate. So it’s not like these campaigns were all DSA folks. People who were volunteering were from all kinds of socialist organizations. There were members of the ISO (International Socialist Organization); there were unaffiliated people from the neighborhood — normal humans. For the latter, it’s maybe the first time they’re interacting with socialists in a collaborative way, so you have to think that some of those ideas rub off on them. It was very common in our victory speeches and also our common parlance that we talk to each other as comrades. It was probably the only time I’ve ever seen a campaign address its volunteers as comrades and to be received with applause.
LR: The big news on the Left in the last few weeks, and particularly a few days ago, is the vote to completely dissolve the ISO. What are your thoughts on the dissolution of the ISO, particularly as it seems to be parallel to the rise and growth of the DSA from something like 10,000 members to 50,000 members over the course of the last two years?
GS: I know many people who are in the ISO. They typically tend to be older — it seems like an older organization. I think the DSA is really turning out to be a coalition of people of all different ideologies that we consider Leftist. It’s becoming a larger umbrella of those groups and is potentially making those groups obsolete or unnecessary. They can still have whatever critique or particular vision they have, but unless we’re coming together and actually creating a critical mass, it doesn’t really matter that much.
LR: Is it a good thing that the ISO has dissolved itself?
GS: It’s neutral. It probably doesn’t matter that much because they’ll probably fold into the DSA. I think their holding out on some sort of ideological line is not that useful.
WX: Looking ahead, what is the role that the DSA will play in 2020? What is the significance of 2020 for you?
GS: This is huge. The national DSA has recently decided that it’s going to get really serious about electoral politics. One of the controversial things that their electoral committee did recently was to hands-down endorse Bernie Sanders, even though it’s 2019, and we’re still months away from the first primary.
WX: Can you clarify who decided to endorse Bernie Sanders?
GS: There are seven or nine members of the electoral committee out of 16, but I think they are elected from the national body at large.
WX: These 16 made this decision on behalf of the 50,000 or so people in the DSA?
GS: Yeah. There were a lot of complaints about the decision. New York, Chicago, and I think one other city outright endorsed Bernie Sanders as well, and those are typically what I think of as the real hot spots of DSA activism. But there are much smaller chapters throughout the country that were pretty upset that the DSA nationally just threw its weight behind him without extracting any concessions or forcing him to say certain things. Many of the working groups and subcommittees felt that, “Hey, our demand was not made; you’ve left us out!” There was an explicit call for forcing him to support reparations, which is something that Bernie Sanders has been reluctant to support publicly. Even if he actually supports it, it’s something that he’s not quite willing to say for strategic reasons.
WX: If I can characterize or summarize what I think your rough political thesis is at this point, it’s that you and many other members of the DSA believe that you can in fact build your own infrastructure in parallel with the Democratic Party and thereby coerce the Democratic Party, utilizing its infrastructure to achieve certain policy objectives. So, what would the failure of this thesis look like? What developments would make you conclude that you had either succeeded or that you had failed, that the thesis was right or wrong?
GS: We’re not entirely trying to coerce Democrats to support certain things. Rather, we’re really trying to take their jobs. We really want them to no longer be in positions of power at all and to systematically replace them across the board.
WX: Replacing the people in the Democratic Party?
GS: No, I mean, replacing their candidates. When we talk about the Democratic Party, it’s a really loose coalition of people who might not even like the Democrats that much, but as voters they choose to vote for them often. Really, when we think about the Democratic Party in terms of its base, turnout for primaries is particularly low. For mayoral elections — for example, for Chicago municipal elections — it’s a 30–35% turnout rate. Primaries typically have a much lower turnout than that. So the body that chooses which candidates represent the party and what the party becomes is a very small group of people, and if you’re able to stack those elections with a surge of youth turnout or a surge of socialist turnout, you can pick whomever you like. That’s what Ocasio-Cortez was able to do. The election she ran in had historically very low turnout, and she was able to increase turnout so much that they were unable to beat her even though they spent ten times the amount of money.
LR: Xiao also mentioned the optimism you have regarding the Millennial Left — the new generation of Millennials in the DSA — and its role in the 2020 election. Why do you think that the millennials who have now entered the DSA en masse will succeed where the older New Left generation of Harringtonites did not?
GS: I’m not going to say that I think they’re going to succeed. We’re fighting against impossible odds. What is it that Platypus says? Our efforts are “improbable — but not impossible.” There’s no guarantee of success. We’re going to struggle against the long odds and see what we can do. But I would argue that any sort of material gains in the short term that make people’s lives better off are worth spending energy on. If we sit back and just let whatever’s going to happen happen, things will continue to get worse materially, for workers, for the poor, for people who are discriminated against by the system structurally. Addressing their needs in the short term is helpful and also brings them into a long-term coalition that we can then leverage for actual change.
LR: But what is different about now as opposed to the past? I feel that what you’re describing is what I would have associated with the older New Left generation of the DSA. What about this moment seems to be an opportunity? Because it’s still the same Democratic Party.
GS: Think not about the DSA, and not about the Democratic party, but think about the generation that’s coming up independent of those two things. Statistically, we’re the first generation that is on track to be worse off than our parents. We’re questioning the American Dream in a way that hasn’t been done before, and that’s led us to rethink this initial resistance to socialism or socialist ideas which the older generation has typically maintained. What is most important is this resurgent effort to actually consider those ideas seriously. Whether they do the Democrats, or they do the DSA, or they start their own party — it’s not that important.
Anybody who’s ever started a third party in the U.S. loses after a while. There are very sneaky ways that you can destroy a fledgling party before it has any foundations. We saw this with the conservative Reform Party. They tried to take power from the Republicans back to the conservative side. What happened there is, Roger Stone said, let’s recruit Donald Trump to essentially destroy that primary process and destroy any possibility for them to take power from the Republicans.
So when we think about Democrats and electoral politics, I see a great thing. It’s as if we can steal a bunch of these seats, control the news media, and put our candidates out there. That gives our candidates the kind of leverage such that if they actually do want to start their own party, they have a foundation and a following to be able to do that. So we may see at some point an actual split between the Democrats and those creating a more socialist party. Now, will that party be truly socialist or not? It’s unclear. But that schism is already brewing, and we may see it occur in a very concrete way in the near future.
WX: Earlier you said that the objective of the DSA right now is to take the jobs of the Democrats. In the past, you’ve expressed optimism about 2020. You say it will be all Millennial Leftists sitting in the subcommittees of the Democratic Party figuring out how to allocate resources to different candidates and deciding which candidates to back. If this were truly the case, what should we expect to see of the Democrats in 2020 versus in 2016?
GS: A lot of infighting, very contentious public arguments, a changing between the old guard and the newer up-and-coming candidates. It’s really going to intensify. Right now, there are several organizations that are undergoing this analytic process of identifying all the seats throughout the country where we think the incumbents are vulnerable enough to actually defeat them. And once that list exists, it’s going to mobilize all of these organizations, which are mostly not Party affiliated, to back those candidates. Not in a coordinated sense because that’s illegal, but in a parallel shadow support sense.
As a CDSA member of the Labor Working Group, I’d like to get your thoughts on DSA member and alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s endorsement of Toni Preckwinkle, who lost 75% to 25%. He backed a machine candidate. What happens with CDSA as a result of Lori Lightfoot, a former President of the Chicago Police Board, being elected? What happens with us backing a machine candidate, Preckwinckle, for the Democrats? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this in light of Joe Biden’s 20-point lead over Bernie Sanders. What happens to the DSA nationally if Joe Biden becomes president?
GS: The Electoral Working Group explicitly said that we were not going to engage in mayoral politics at all. We would reserve our strength in these aldermanic seats with the explicit goal of creating a socialist caucus. So for that reason, we sat out for the most part. Now, why Carlos chose to endorse Toni Preckwinkle is, I think, a political choice. Preckwinkle is a very powerful politician in Chicago. She has been President of the Cook County Board for a very long time. I personally think that she was probably the only candidate who could’ve beaten Rahm Emanuel back in the day. Instead, we had the catastrophic loss of progressive candidate Chuy Garcia. Carlos may have endorsed Preckwinckle for resources. Theoretically, if we had the infrastructure, he wouldn’t need to lean on her. I know that Preckwinkle’s campaign was one of the few to actually build a turnout model for the election, and that kind of intelligence is highly critical to winning a campaign —
It didn’t help her at all; she got shellacked!
GS: Well, what would it have been like if she didn’t have that model? Also, there are many reasons why she lost. I don’t think she lost because she was a machine candidate. She had bad press because of the corruption scandal with [alderman Edward] Burke. After that point, she was not able to raise any money. We knew she was going to lose after the first round of the election. The betting markets anticipated a 70 percent chance that Lightfoot was going to win. The polling indicated that Lightfoot was going to win. And, honestly, if you look at who voted for Lightfoot in the largest numbers, it’s the North and West sides of Chicago right around the Loop. Those voters in my view, thought: Why do we want to vote for Preckwinkle, a Black woman, when we can vote for Lori Lightfoot, a Black woman who’s also gay, whom we can also use to oppress people in Chicago?
WX: If Biden wins the Democratic nomination, what does the DSA do then?
GS: No organization should elect a candidate and then stop working. It’s a full cycle, you never turn off, you never become complacent. When you elect a candidate, the thing that you do the next day is to begin the process of holding him accountable. So if he ends up not doing the things that you wanted him to do, you need to beat him, or you need to have your propaganda machine move against him. Whether Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden wins, DSA should do the same thing in either case. It should hold that candidate accountable and make sure that the outcomes are as close to its ideal policy positions as possible.
You said that you wanted to take the jobs of Democratic Party candidates. Platypus held a panel in Philadelphia recently on “Democracy and the Left,” and one of the panelists, Adolph Reed Jr., said that between 6.5 and 9 million people who voted for Obama at least once, and Sanders for the primary, then voted for Trump. Some of those people believe that the Democratic Party was responsible for sinking their candidate. The DSA seems to have drawn a different lesson, which is that the Democratic Party is still a viable vehicle through which to fight for socialism. Moreover, you also have 58% of the eligible voters who didn’t vote at all. So, I wonder, if your goal is socialism, what do you do with people who don’t believe in the Democratic Party? If the goal is to take the jobs of the Democratic candidates, how do you mobilize this great majority who do not support the Democrats, who would need to be mobilized for socialism?
GS: That’s a very hard question. How do we mobilize the masses to support socialism? It’s less about supporting Democratic candidates. Electoral politics is interesting inasmuch as you can have a small minority of people who have the power to influence voter turnout. If Biden comes out of the primary as the Democratic candidate, I would definitely expect there to be much lower voter turnout, at least among particular demographic groups, than if Bernie Sanders were to emerge as the candidate. Whoever emerges from these initial rounds of the Democratic Party, the choice of candidate will enormously influence who shows up to vote on Election Day. That’s how you can control it. If you purposefully do not run a neoliberal candidate, you can expect the electorate to be different. Maybe the Democrats who prefer Biden but not Sanders would stay home. I’m hoping we can trick them into voting for us anyway just because of the fear of Trump.
I wonder if focusing on the Democratic Party base and splitting the Democratic Party base is too myopic in terms of building socialism in America.
GS: Let’s be very clear about what we mean by the Democratic Party base. There are multiple bases. There’s the primary electorate, and then there’s the general electorate. The general electorate is very much in flux depending on who the candidates are. Party plays a large role in it, but not the only role. You raised the Obama-Trump voters, which is an obsession of political scientists trying to figure out what about Trump appealed to them and why didn’t they think that a “third term of Obama” under Hillary would be sufficient for it. These voters probably lost faith, not only in the candidates that we chose to push, but also in the Democratic Party itself.
You seem to suggest that there are two opposed objectives within the DSA at the moment. One is to take leadership of the existing Democratic Party with a slightly changed base, and the other is to start some kind of independent Socialist Party. I was wondering what your account of that rift looks like and how that has taken place? And also, what is the difference between these two objectives?
GS: Many members of the DSA are very young. Their experience of politics is new. So in terms of this rift that’s potentially brewing — whether we should take the party or start a new party — Right now the DSA is not a party at all. I think it’s incorporated as a nonprofit. I think we’ll spend a lot of effort trying to take these candidates’ seats. We’re never going to fully take the party. The majority of the party is never going to be socialist. It’s not going to occur. But what’s important is getting high-profile candidates known nationally through this process of beating Democratic incumbents. This gives us a platform to actually start a new party, if we end up going in that direction.
There’s a lot of conversation between individual members: should we do that, and when should we do that? It’s not going to be a group making a choice. It’s going to be organic. And, honestly, the people we’re electing are going to lead the way. So if one of them or a group of them decides collectively that we are going to do something totally new, they are going to do that, and I think the DSA is going to follow them. |P
Transcribed by Kevin GD, edited by Desmund Hui, David Faes, and Clay Mills.
 Michael Harrington was a founder of the DSA and a key leader from its inception.
 Platypus Affiliated Society, “Statement of Purpose” (2007), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/about/statement-of-purpose/>.