Tom MacWright

I read Bigger than Bernie by Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day on


Readers of this blog might remember that I supported Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 US election, and was once a member of the DSA in San Francisco, and hold generally left-YIMBY views.

Something that I’m still in the process of understanding is what the DSA, and the socialist movement, is. Sure, it’s about class struggle, wealth redistribution, and an expanded role of government in the aid of nationalizing or ‘de-commodifying’ services.

My initial understanding was that the DSA was a big-tent organization that tied different policy goals together and rallied for those changes to society. As I’ve read more, that has been shown to be false.

What I see now is a few things:

The “big-tent” nature of the DSA is meant to be a contrast with historical forms of socialist parties in the United States, which enforced agressively strict and top-down policies, and a nod to the organization’s inclusion of anarchists, communists, and to a much lesser extent, progressives. There is wiggle room for a few opinions in the organization, but a lot of things are articles of faith, including, unfortunately, some things I disagree with. I won’t explain those in detail, but they are: the obsessive focus on income over equity and ownership, especially real estate, as wealth-markers, the uninformed and counterproductive approach to housing policy, and their insistence on paying for expenditures with taxes (ie, not absorbing some principles from MMT).

But more than that, this book really elaborates on the relationship with power and leadership that is core to the thinking. The idea is a greatly-expanded version of power corrupts. With the exception of individuals like Bernie, AOC, the Jacobin staff, and a few others, leadership-in-general is something to be avoided. Becoming a union staffer corrupts workers, becoming politicians corrupts candidates, so on and so forth.

I can’t really argue with that, but it’s an unanswered question even in this book: right after talking about how workers are corrupted by becoming leadership, they go on to say that rank-and-workers need to play a bigger role in union leadership. Wouldn’t they… become leadership? I think the mechanism hinted at is discipline. They refer to that a few times. Here’s one, contrasting the Democratic party to a more ideal form:

This has a lot to do with the fact that it is a fundamentally capitalist party-and one that’s not even a real party, in the sense that having a meaningful definition of membership, robust internal mechanisms that allow members to determine the party’sagenda, or an ability to discipline its candidates who don’t carry out that democratically agreed-on agenda.”

I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with this. From this perspective, it does sound like running society by running polls for everything - a situation that California’s ballot system has a ominous precedent for. I’m just not sure how this works. And when I, like probably a lot of people, come into the DSA with this sense of it as a policy-focused organization, it’s hard to reorient around this change to, or replacement of, electoral politics.

Back to the book. It’s a very fast read and mostly delivers on its title: it really does pivot away from Bernie and just try to sell you on the ideas and organizations of socialism.

It falls into the trope of hating on Elizabeth Warren, who inspired Bernie’s wealth tax, and not even mentioning the many other candidates who were dramatically further from Sanders’s positions. Re-experiencing that trauama. It falls into other tropes too. But it’s not a bad book. I’m not sure how many more books I’ll need to read to actually wrap my head around modern socialism.