“We’re building the airplane as we’re flying it”: An interview with Nick
On October 1, 2023, Platypus Affiliated Society member Ceci Chang interviewed Nick, a member and former chair of the Charleston, South Carolina chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Nick’s interview does not attempt to express the opinion of the DSA as a whole, but only one member’s personal thoughts and responses to his time in the DSA. An edited transcript follows.
Ceci Chang: What drew you to the Left? What drew you to the DSA? And was there a difference?
Nick: There wasn’t one single thing. The Iraq War was a galvanizing experience. I was 19 when that war got started, and having strong anti-war sentiments, it left an impression when I saw the inability and complicity of the Democrats to halt, slow down, stop, or prevent the bloodshed. That’s where I got started — studying history as an undergrad, and being introduced to Leftist ideas by folks like Howard Zinn and Emma Goldman. What solidified my political affiliation with the Left was seeing who tended to be on the right side of past struggles. Regarding the DSA — I, like many people, didn’t join until Trump had won the presidency. I had floated around the Left for my entire adult life, not being involved in any one organization other than small, local efforts. After that election I started seeing people I know talk about DSA and decided that I would give it a shot. At first I was fairly skeptical of that organization; I’ve never been a part of a mass organization like that, so joining was a leap of faith, but it’s been one that I still feel good about. I’ve been involved ever since.
CC: Did the DSA change your idea of the goals of the Left? Or did the Left change during your stint in the DSA?
N: When I first got involved with DSA, I had some skepticism, especially considering the FEC-like electoral politics. But DSA isn’t just about electoral work; it’s involved in all kinds of projects and it’s a big multi-tendency organization. What I’ve seen in my time in the DSA has been affirming for the power that such organizations can have. Electoral politics includes a lot of compromises, and you’re inherently participating in a political system that caters to capitalist interests. But, some of the benefits beyond winning an election and getting someone in office are massive for the U.S. Left. Those electoral campaigns taught many in and around the DSA how to do effective work and organization, how to build coalitions, how to participate in politics in a meaningful way. It’s about building a large movement of organizers who can take on real campaigns and win. A lot of my skepticism has been assuaged; I feel better about those kinds of projects over the past 6 years.
CC: When Michael Harrington created the DSA, the original goal was to realign the Democratic Party. Now there are some branches of the DSA that want a hard split from the Democratic Party instead. That is the long-term goal of the DSA, so how does DSA’s organization and structure create or seize such possibilities, and how does the DSA avoid being manipulated or co-opted by the Democrats as previous collaborators of the Party have been?
N: DSA is a big-tent organization. There is a diversity of opinions on how to get from where we are to a real mass worker’s party in the U.S., whose political terrain is so diverse, not just from the local to federal level but state to state. One of the best attributes of DSA’s structure is that chapters and state organizations have the ability and freedom to figure out what works best; how they can best win the material benefits for the working class. The DSA has seen a lot of electoral gains in New York. We’re in South Carolina. These are completely different worlds as far as politics is concerned. What works in New York is not necessarily going to work here, but we can take a look at what they’ve done and see what works.
CC: In 2012, Platypus held a panel on the future of the status quo with Bashkar Sunkara and Chris Maisano from DSA. The idea in 2012 was that the Left should push for Democrats in office because that would prompt people to ask bigger questions instead of wishing the next Democrat into office. After 8 years of Obama and 3 years of Biden, and the slight decline in DSA membership last year, do you think that this thesis needs to be revised?
N: What those DSA members talked about in 2012 was a vastly different organization. We’ve had a massive jump in membership; we’ve taken on different projects and changed a lot of our priorities. The way that we’ve engaged in electoral politics and various campaigns has drastically changed. I don’t remember what the membership of DSA was in 2012 — something like a couple thousand across the country. It’s comparing apples to oranges. There is just too much of a difference between the organization in 2012 and in 2023.
CC: You think there was a great change in the DSA over the last decades, but do you think there were missed opportunities in the last decade? And given the gift of hindsight and the tradition of the Left to learn from the past, do you think that there are particular opportunities for the DSA to seize in the future, and are there lessons that the DSA has learned from the past decade?
N: DSA has learned a lot of lessons since becoming an actual national organization, becoming more than a couple of chapters in some cities. We have chapters in rural parts of the country now. Charleston isn’t a particularly large city, but there was no DSA here before 2017. The make-up of the organization has completely changed. There was a seismic shift in what DSA is and what it does. I’m sure there are plenty of things that we could have done differently and better, but one thing that we like to say is that we’re building the airplane as we’re flying it.
Hindsight being what it is, I could look back and say we could have done things differently. Beyond our local chapter, I would be presuming to have knowledge on a lot of different situations that I just don’t have. For Charleston, we could have engaged more in outward-facing campaigns from the get-go. That’s where a lot of our power comes from — when we get out to the community and talk to folks about our ideas and realize how extensive support for parts of it can be. Medicare for all is a great example; so is opposition to aspects of the carceral state, anti-imperialism, etc. These things have broad support among the public even if they don’t use the same language that we might use internally in socialist movements. But when we talk to folks and make those connections, that’s where we’re able to grow and build into the mass organization that I, like most people, want the DSA to become.
Going forward, DSA chapters should be getting out and talking to communities. The socialist movement in general in the U.S. has not done a great job of getting out of our bubble. It’s important to read theory, have an understanding of our history and different ideologies and aspects of this movement. But, without engaging with working-class people outside of our movement, we’re going to stay isolated and outside the mainstream. That’s where a lot of danger comes into being.
CC: Are there specific lessons you’ve learned over the last 6 years about organizing and the organization?
N: For organizing, it’s important to build up your skill sets, your resources, and be ready to take action rapidly when opportunity arises. As far as organization is concerned, it’s important to have flexibility and to have processes that are transparent to folks in the organization. DSA is a democratic, member-led, member-run, member-funded organization; that’s who we’re accountable to, and they need to know how those rules came into being. For our local chapter, we have tried to look to other chapters, and take best practices from them. We took our political endorsement process from our sibling chapter in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. We borrowed our press policy and expense policy from chapters in Maine. There are smart people in the organization, and we try to take best practices; it’s important that we make those practices available. When we have a vote, or someone asks a question, we try to provide a link to the documentation that says, “this is how it happens, and this is what you need to do.”
CC: You brought up endorsing candidates. I’m curious about the relationship between DSA’s short-term and long-term goals. When deciding which causes or candidates to support, does the DSA keep its long-term goals in mind? Historically, socialists have championed for the state to have a small role in society. Are the DSA’s short-term goals in favor of the welfare state a betrayal or an abandonment of that goal?
N: A loaded question there. I can only speak to our local chapter. Nationally, different chapters have different deliberation processes. DSA recently endorsed Mika Gadsden for mayor in Charleston. We haven’t waded into electoral politics much beyond working to support Bernie for president. That is because of several factors, but most importantly, we just didn’t have a candidate that aligned with our values, and we didn’t have anyone in our own organization run for office. We’ve had several people express interest, but a working-class person who has to work a 9–5 job is not in a great position to run for office. Mika’s candidacy offered us an opportunity to engage with a candidacy that strongly aligns with our values. Short term, obviously the goal is to get someone into the mayor’s office in Charleston, which has strong mayoral forms of government. Having an ally in that office would be massive. We would be able to do a lot if we work with someone like that. It’s a long shot, but we’re trying.
The long-term strategy is for us to start building our own internal capacity to run campaigns. During this effort, we have been training our members in canvasing, various types of software that are ubiquitous in campaigns, and the skill sets that are vital to do this long-term. Ultimately we want to start laying the foundations to run more campaigns like this and start winning. Mika stated this, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to endorse her. Even though the cards are stacked against us, with the pervasive gerrymandering, disorganization, and unwillingness of the local Democrats, it’s important to us in South Carolina to figure out how to push the needle in ways that we haven’t tried before. Running socialists for office in South Carolina doesn’t happen often, but we’re going to need to do it. It’s a field of struggle and engagement in the reality of where we are. This was a way for us to start building our capacity so that, in two or four years, we’ll be able to do it on a bigger scale.
If you look at the statistics of chapters that run candidates, we have a pretty good win-rate overall. We want to win, not just get passively involved. We try to go to bat for our candidates. Every time we do one of these campaigns, work with one of these candidates, we’re building and laying foundations for the next time we come back to this. Looking at a lot of the wins that chapters have had, they’re the continuation of a campaign that didn’t win. They won the second time because they learned some lessons.
On the welfare state — I go back to the DSA being a big tent where there are different ideas of what the socialist society that we’re building towards looks like. We’re not going to win socialism tomorrow in the U.S.; it’s a multi-generational, life-time project. Much of the minutiae of that is not important now. We just don’t have our hands on levers of power in any meaningful way. I don’t know how the state looks in a socialist society, but right now we can improve conditions for working-class people in this country. That’s not an abandonment of any socialist principles. It’s a win when we make it easier for workers to form unions and advocate for themselves, and when we stop the Right-wing march on the protections and rights that people have gained over the last century. I’m interested in making people’s lives better.
CC: The most famous example of a candidate that the DSA helped elect was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. With local chapter endorsements, how do you keep the elect responsible and accountable to the DSA?
N: This is a great and important question, which we’ve been debating for a while at the national level. Our convention this year took up a resolution about this question: how do we hold our elected officials accountable when they don’t meet our expectations? The particular resolution that was put forward did not pass. There was a vigorous debate about this resolution. It was not the idea but the language of the resolution that wasn’t supported. We all want to figure out a way to hold elects accountable, but we don’t know what it would look like.
The DSA is not formulated and organized as a party. That’s a common misconception. Broadly there is support for moving towards something like that, but the timeline is unclear. It’s not going to happen in the next two years. In the end, holding elected officials and members accountable depends on the local terrain. These are politicians engaging in a capitalist government — do you want them to be effective or do you want them to say all the right things? There is not really a solid answer. It depends on the situation. There are red lines that can be crossed, but ultimately candidates are endorsed at the local level first, then by the national organization. Those questions need to be decided at the local level. We’re always going to have a strong diversity of opinions in DSA, and we’ve been trying to come to a canonical consensus. Every couple of years we have our annual convention, and we move the bar a bit further down the road. It’s complicated. Politics is nuanced by definition.
CC: I met the Charleston DSA when I was tabling for the possible UPS strike. The DSA engages with a lot of union activity, like the WGA strike that just ended, and the ongoing UAW strike. Does engaging with these unions and having relationships with labor organizations help DSA’s goal, and does the engagement push the unions towards the Left?
N: I’ll take “how does it help our long-term goals”: we’re socialists. We fundamentally believe that the working class at large is the agent of change in society, and unions are a growth out of the ability of the working class to exert its will on the capitalist class. Not engaging with labor unions and the labor movement is absurd for Leftists, socialists, communists, anarchists. It is historically one of our great allies, one of the formations in society that socialists have been able to enact a lot of change through. A lot of DSA members are union members. As far as long-term goals for DSA, it means that we stay true to our socialist politics, which is centered on working-class interests. We need to stay close to that origin. We’re a working-class movement.
I don’t know about moving labor unions to the Left, and I’m not particularly interested in that. We want to support working-class power and workers advocating for themselves. Whether or not folks on a picket line join DSA is beyond the point. By showing up and participating we are advancing a socialist kind of politics. When workers win, we win. When they win rights for themselves, grievances at work, better conditions, better pay, everyone wins, whether they are winning under the banner of the DSA or another organization. That’s the kind of politics we’re interested in. That’s what I’m about, and that’s what most folks in the DSA are about — winning working-class power. |P
 Federal Electoral Commission.
 Ben Campbell, Annie Day, Chris Maisano, Bhaskar Sunkara, “The Future of the Status Quo: The Left after the Election” (December 6, 2012), available online at <https://youtu.be/h2HkLpQnpHg?si>. See also Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, Ben Blumberg, “Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?,” Platypus Review 57 (June 2013), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2013/06/01/conversations-on-the-left-what-is-to-be-done/>.
 Writers Guild of America.
 United Auto Workers.