Nebraska is a long-time conservative state. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the day, the Great Plains region was the most progressive in the US.
Democratic Socialists of America members Erika Paschold and Jude Kerouc chat with Mark Honey about how to bring that energy back.
Mark Honey: What should Nebraskan socialists be focusing on at this time? For the next year or two, what are achievable goals, the best use of our time that will build power for the socialist movement?
Erika Paschold: We need to build a base along class lines, develop class consciousness, and politicize people who have been disenfranchised from partisan politics and electoral politics. I also think it’s essential that we talk about how to reach out to rural communities. It’s unclear to me how that will look, but it’s always on my mind.
Jude Kerouac: Yeah, we should be organizing people into socialist projects. Whether that be in the workplace or anywhere else people come into conflict with capitalism. There are a lot of projects developing right now where that’s happening. One thing socialists in Nebraska have been doing a great job of is staying away from engagement with “capital L” Liberals or Democrats, as well as like well-off boujee activists. Their interests are not the interests of socialism, and trying to win them over or coalition with them is wasteful.
EP: Most of the time they don’t have power anyway! [laughter] Especially when you talk about strategic coalition building. There could be times when that makes sense, if the goals align and that group has some power, but there’s no reason to be working with most liberal groups around here. They’re not winning anyway.
MH: That’s a hard lesson to learn for a lot of people.
JK: Sophia Burns talks about activist networking. She showed up to all these meetings after the election and people say to respect the work of those [liberal activists] who’ve been doing it before us. But, these people are losers! [laughter] I don’t mean it in an inflammatory way, but we gotta do something that works. We don’t have the luxury otherwise.
MH: Erika, you talk about building a base and building class consciousness. What can we do to accomplish those goals?
EP: In Lincoln, we’re forming a tenant solidarity network. Specifically according to the dual power/base building model put forward by people like Sophia Burns. Omaha Tenant’s United is doing that kind of work, a tenant’s union in Ames, Iowa is doing that work. I don’t think it’s that different from anywhere else in the country. We’re talking about people with problems with their landlords and helping them organize themselves to fight back against that exploitation.
It’s been interesting to me, just talking with tenants, how quickly they start talking about things within this class framework. “The landlord only cares about money, he doesn’t care about people.” That’s a clear indication to me that this works, you don’t have to be preaching to people about becoming socialists right off the bat.
JK: Another place is the workplace. I think the challenges in Nebraska are probably much higher than other places in the country because the legal framework is less supportive. And because there’s a lot more outside help needed and a lot less outside help to be found. We’re not gonna see big organizing drives being launched in NE anytime soon by any AFLCIO unions or anything like that. I think, our place is building up that infrastructure to prove there are fights that are winnable.
In Omaha we’re trying to get a kind of worker’s solidarity network going in the vein of Fuerza del Valle, a Texan group that takes shop floor fights and making them bigger and to tackle bigger issues. Raising questions of dignity in the workplace, as well as bread and butter issues.
MH: In a general sense, what do you feel are the Nebraskan socialist movement’s strengths and weaknesses?
JK: Let’s talk about the liberals again for a second. Socialists in some places have had trouble in the electoral routes running against the liberals. Here, we have a clear, marked difference in our vision and outlook compared to those in power in the state. Whereas the liberals tend to hem and haw about important issues. Luckily, we don’t really have liberals who are out to “beat socialism” here.
MH: That’s interesting. I would say we do have those who are out against socialism, but they aren’t necessarily organized. I also think that’s just a reflection of politics in Nebraska. For whatever reason people just are not organized in political groups of any kind. Very few clubs or anything. I think this means the responses to an organized group are going to be unorganized.
EP: It will be interesting to see what happens if and when we start to build power. I don’t think many see us as a threat to the status quo at the moment. It’s not like the Democrats have us on their radar for messing with their candidates or anything.
MH: What about points of improvement?
EP: Like you said, there’s not really a sort of living movement that we can just hop into. When I was first starting and looking for advice, a lot of DSA chapters were saying “Plug into your local unions, and they can help you get started.” That doesn’t make sense here. They’re either dying off, apolitical, or just reactionary. And there isn’t much other infrastructure. It’s hard to build from the ground up, but it does give us a chance to do things right.
JK: Yeah, and the Comintern isn’t sending us checks anytime soon.
MH: What about within organized socialists? One I can see is inexperience. That could be because of our lack of living history. We do have some older socialists, but they don’t necessarily seem to know what they’re doing either.
EP: For sure, there’s very little real world organizing experience among really anyone, but especially among those on the left. I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know anything when I was elected to leadership. It’s been a learning experience and that’s true for pretty much everyone.
I think another challenge is that we don’t have relationships with a lot of oppressed communities; people of color, LGBTQ, immigrant communities – people we want to be building relationships and solidarity with. That means we lack credibility. That just makes us weaker as an organization.
MH: I agree, that’s probably one of the biggest ones. You can have no experience but still have credibility if you’re tied in and moving somewhere, even if it’s slowly. I don’t want to dive too deep into this, but there is some worry about coming across as white-savioury and seeming like we have all the answers, but at the same time if you don’t go out into other communities you’ll never be able to build those relationships.
JK: I’ll avoid going too far into this, but oftentimes I think people just use that as an excuse.
MH: I’ve heard whispers that y’all aren’t exactly best friends with DSA national. How do the priorities of Nebraska DSA chapters differ from say the coasts or national’s priorities?
JK: Well, we’re really only doing half of one of the national priorities.
EP: And [Lincoln’s] not doing any.
JK: But it’s not like we’re disregarding the will of national. The national priorities are what the national org will be spending its resources on. So our choosing not to focus on those is a strategic question. So we are starting up a bit of labor work, which is one of the priorities. The other two are Medicare for All and electing socialists. Or, rather, electing people. [laughter]
EP: We did briefly have a Medicare For All working group in Lincoln, but as far as where our energy’s going, it’s not going into any of those three campaigns, That’s just not what we’ve chosen as the chapter. And to clarify, we’re not really being defiant here.
But the downside is we aren’t able to tap into those national resources because we’ve chosen not to work on those campaigns. For examples guides on how to run a town hall, literature and whatever. Whereas with tenant work there are plenty of other chapters doing that work which we can share resources with. So I see our relationship with national to be much more about being part of a network where we can learn from each other. That’s the biggest benefit for me.
We don’t really know what’s gonna work. I think 2018 is just a weird time to be alive, so we’re making it up as we go.
MH: I think it’s interesting what the locals chapters are doing is essential completely separate from what the national section has chosen as it’s priorities. How does that work? Why DSA if what people are doing on the ground doesn’t reflect the national priorities?
JK: Well, we joined DSA before those decisions were made about national priorities with our strategic decisions we look at our material conditions. So like with M4A work, the current M4A campaign – which isn’t really a campaign, it’s more of a tactic – is to push elected officials to push medicare for all. And that hasn’t really changed. We don’t have any reps in Nebraska who are going to support Medicare For All.
We chose not to endorse [former Senate candidate] Kara Eastman. She didn’t want the endorsement of socialists, and we didn’t think it would help us build what we’re trying to do, having a congressman who’s just one of 435. As for why I stay in the DSA. There is no other socialist organization that has the potential of the DSA national.
MH: I’m glad you touched on that pressuring strategy. That tactic doesn’t necessarily increase organizing capacity or build power. How you guys feel about that?
JK: I don’t think those are at odds. I do think there are ways you can organize around Medicare for All and electoral strategies that do build power. I don’t think any of those that we’ve seen or talked about would be successful here. There are more members in areas where those tactics do seem to be working, and they do focus on those priorities.
EP: I think when you’re talking about electoral work, which is always the biggest point of contention from the left against the DSA, I don’t write it off completely. Lots of examples at the local level of not just harm reduction, but actually doing good things for working class people. School board races are very winnable. We have a DSA school board member in Minnesota, and those boards have power over how trans[gender] kids will be treated. City Councils have some degree of control over housing issues. You can’t completely ignore policy, but you have to be strategic about what that actually looks like. If you have one socialist CC member or one school board member, is that really going to change anything? In some cases I think it can. But that’s not the reality here, at this point.
MH: Quick thoughts on the midterms?
JK: Nothing’s really changed. They’ll probably cut something to pay for Medicaid.
EP: My point of positivity is that a lot of these issues can win if it’s like a direct issue. A lot of the ballot initiatives across the country that won are pretty good. One in Florida restored voting rights to felons. But even though progressive initiatives won, Gov. Pete Ricketts still won handily. There’s an argument to be made about people caring about their material interests.
MH: How much faith do you have in electoral work? Not just in Nebraska but in general.
EP: It really depends on the day you ask me. Ultimately we’re gonna run up against some huge obstacles if we don’t have anyone in positions of power. At best electoral wins can take down some barriers to organizing. I don’t think we’re there yet, and the ruling class won’t let us vote away their power. But electoral work can be organizing, there is potential to make other work easier. Some structural things can be changed.
MH: Does it concern you that because so much of the larger strategy is based around electoral politics that you’re putting a lot of socialist energy into a system that isn’t designed for socialist uses?
EP: I don’t think it is centered on electoral work. The reason why that’s the perception is because that’s what in the media. It’s also something leftists love to argue about, and it’s an easy way to dunk on us. I mean we haven’t spent any of our resources on electoral work. Other than the arguments I get into online. [laughter]
JK: Ninety percent of electoral politics is just like, sports. And ninety percent of journalism is sports journalism, so it makes sense that’s what people want to talk about. A lot of the good organizing is harder to write about. It lacks the drama that campaigns have.
EP: It’d be interesting to see the breakdown of chapters that engage in electoral politics versus those that don’t. My guess is the majority don’t.
MH: Any last thoughts?
EP: If you’re in Lincoln, join the tenant solidarity network!
JK: If you’re in Omaha, join Omaha Tenants United. If you’re interested in socialist politics, join an org! Or literally join anything you see as good work. That’s better than not doing anything.
Yeah. Don’t do bad things. And if you’re not sure what’s good and bad, just let me know.