The Number Of Democratic Socialists In The House Will Soon Double. But The Movement Scored Its Biggest Victories Down Ballot
The resurgence of democratic socialism has occurred during a period of growing activism against widening inequality, persistent racism and looming environmental disaster.
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 11: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a town hall hosted by the NAACP on September 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. Also pictured is Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
By Peter Dreier
December 11, 2020
While Democrats debate whether the party has moved too far to the left or not far enough, Democratic Socialists of America — the nation’s largest socialist organization — scored its biggest victories in this year’s election cycle. There are currently 71 DSA members holding public office. This year, one was defeated for reelection and two did not run for reelection.
Another 33 DSAers were elected this year for the first time, bringing the total to 101 when the new winners take office in January. This is greater than at any time since about 1912, when the Socialist Party had a strong foothold in both urban and rural America. Most of the socialists who have recently been elected to office represent safe blue areas, but they have also made inroads in purple areas, including Montana, Indiana, North Dakota, Texas and Tennessee. DSA also spearheaded several impressive ballot measure victories around progressive causes like the minimum wage, rent control and universal pre-school.
The number of democratic socialists in the U.S. House of Representatives will soon double — from two to four. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezs (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), both elected as part of the 2018 blue wave, will be joined in January by Cori Bush (D-MO) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who were elected in November.
Bush, a registered nurse, pastor and formerly homeless single mom, became politically active as part of the Ferguson protests in 2014. In 2018 she garnered only 37 percent of the vote in her Democratic primary fight against long-term incumbent William Clay, but this year she defeated him by almost 5,000 votes and went on to win in November on a platform that included Medicare for All, public housing, nationwide rent control, tuition-free public college and a Green New Deal. Bowman, a founder and principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a public middle school in the Bronx, upset 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary and easily won the seat on November 3.
And, of course, over in the Senate, there’s Bernie Sanders, the Vermont democratic socialist, whose vote-getting and fundraising success for his two presidential campaigns caught America by surprise. These five politicians mark an all-time high for the socialist presence in Congress.
DSA had only 6,000 members a few years ago but now it has over 87,000 dues-paying members with several hundred chapters in all 50 states. A much larger number of Americans embrace its ideas and its activities, too. Many of DSA’s rank-and-file activists have become skilled political operatives, helping elect progressive candidates, at all levels of government. In addition to helping its own members win election campaigns, DSA has endorsed at least 45 other progressive candidates who will be serving in office in January, including 31 elected for the first time this year. Among them community organizer Carroll Fife, who was elected to the Oakland (CA) City Council, Torrey Harris, the first LGBTQ candidate elected to the Tennessee legislature, Kim Roney, a piano teacher and founder of a local alternative radio station, who won a seat on the Asheville (NC) City Council, teacher Jessica Vaughn, who was elected to the Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) school board and attorney Shadia Tadros, who won her campaign for judge on the Syracuse (NY) municipal court.
Recent polls show that Americans — especially young people — are warming up to the idea of socialism. A Gallup Poll last year discovered that 43 percent of Americans say socialism would be a good thing for the country. Among 18-34-year-olds, 58 percent embraced the idea, compared with 40 percent of those between 35 to 54, and 36 percent among those 55 and older. Among Democrats, 70 percent said they think socialism would be a good thing for America, in contrast to 45 percent of independents and 13 percent of Republicans.
Many people who express positive views of socialism have only vague ideas on what that would mean in practice, but the poll reflects widespread frustration with American-style hyper-capitalism. The resurgence of democratic socialism has occurred during a period of growing activism against widening inequality, persistent racism and looming environmental disaster. The COVID pandemic has exposed the fragility of our economic, health care and housing system. A growing number of Americans seem to be saying: if this is capitalism, what’s the alternative? Let’s give socialism a try and see if it works.
“I’m so scared of this anti — Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” Frank Luntz, an influential GOP pollster and strategist, warned the Republican Governors Association at its Florida meeting in December 2011, a few months after the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
The Republicans took Luntz’s warning seriously, ratcheting up their red-baiting campaign. Donald Trump embraced it with fervor.
“We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” President Donald Trump said in his State of the Union speech in January. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
There are parts of the country where the label “socialist” would annihilate anyone running for office. But Sanders’ two presidential campaigns demonstrated that many voters will support a “democratic socialist” if they think his or her ideas will improve their lives. In 2014, voters in Seattle elected socialist Kshama Sawant, a community college professor and Occupy activist, to city council. The next year, she helped spearhead that city’s path breaking $15 minimum wage law.
Neither Sanders nor Sawant are DSA members, but their examples inspired many DSAers to run for office, typically with the backing of local DSA chapters as well as local unions, the Sunrise movement, Black Lives Matter and other progressive activists.
In the last few years, New York City DSA has become a powerful electoral machine. In 2018, it helped elect Ocasio-Cortez to Congress and Julia Salazar to the state Senate. This year, they catapulted Bowman to Congress and DSA member Jabari Brisport to another state Senate seat. Brisport will be the first openly gay person of color in the state legislature. Five DSA activists — tenant organizer Marcela Mitaynes, union nurse Phara Souffrant Forrest, housing advocate Zohran Mamdani, community organizer Emily Gallagher and immigrant rights and health care activist Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas — won seats in the state assembly. With many progressive allies in both houses, the DSA caucus will have a voice in legislative maneuverings.
Two community organizers with Reclaim Philadelphia, DSA members Nikil Saval and Rick Krajewski, were elected on their first try to the Pennsylvania state Senate and State House, respectively. In the Democratic primary, Saval beat a 10-year incumbent while Krajewski dethroned a 35-year party stalwart. When they arrive at the state Capital in Harrisburg in January, they will join three other democratic socialist who were all reelected to second terms.
Minnesotans sent two DSA members — community activist Omar Fateh (the son of Somali immigrants) in Minneapolis and labor lawyer Jen McEwen in Duluth — to the state Senate. In January, state legislatures in that state as well as Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Hampshire will have two DSA members. DSAers will also add their left-leaning voices to the debates in the legislatures in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, Michigan, Vermont, Virginia and North Dakota, joined by other progressives who DSA endorsed and worked for.
Voters in a traditionally Republican Fargo district reelected DSA member Ruth Buffalo, a native American, to represent them in North Dakota’s state House of Representatives. In 2018 she defeated incumbent Republican Randy Boehning, the primary sponsor of a voter ID law designed to disenfranchise Native Americans.
Twenty-five old Alex Lee, who had previously worked as an aide to two state legislators, beat out a crowded field in the Democratic primary to become California’s first Gen Z state legislator as well as its only bisexual member. He won 73 percent of the vote to win a vacant Assembly seat in the San Jose area. Lee, the offspring of Chinese immigrants, told the New York Times that even though the Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the legislature and control all statewide offices, “we can’t seem to do the things that are big and progressive. We haven’t gotten universal health care, or even close to it. We haven’t guaranteed housing for everyone. Wealth inequality is out of control. There’s something deeply wrong about that. And I think that frustration in the system drove me to run.”
In 2017, Lee Carter, a 30-year old Marine veteran and DSA member, ran for the Virginia state legislature after he was injured at work and discovered the inequities of the state’s workman’s compensation system. A Democrat, he beat a six-term Republican incumbent, but quickly learned that he would have little influence in the Republican-controlled legislature. While many of his legislative colleagues had cushy jobs with corporations that influenced their votes, Carter worked as a low-wage Lyft driver in order to give him the flexibility to attend legislative sessions and meet with constituents. Last year, however, the Democrats won a majority of seats in the legislature and Carter was reelected, buoyed by support from DSA, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, Indivisible, NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Earlier this year, the legislature finally passed one of his bills — to extend the state’s minimum wage to workers at Dulles and Reagan airports.
Besides Sanders, DSA’s only statewide elected official — Michelle Fecteau, who was elected in 2012 to an eight-year term on the Michigan state Board of Education — did not run for reelection this year. She remains the executive director of the faculty union at Wayne State University.
Sixty-one DSA members will be serving in local and county government offices come January, as well. They range from planning commissions and town councils in small towns to city council members and law enforcement officials in some large counties and municipalities, including New York City, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Knoxville, Austin, Houston, New Haven, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
The upsurge of protests around the nation’s criminal justice system led voters to elect a wave of progressive District Attorneys and county sheriffs to challenge police misconduct, racial profiling, cash bail, prosecutions for low-level drug crimes and mass incarceration. One of them is Austin, Texas DSA member José Garza — a public defender and labor and immigrants’ rights attorney — who defeated Travis County’s incumbent DA and then trounced his Republican opponent on November 3 with 70 percent of the vote. He joins reformer Franklin Bynum, a DSA member from Houston who has been a public defender and defense attorney, who two years ago was elected a judge on the Harris County Criminal Court in order to challenge the criminal justice system’s “oppressive punishment bureaucracies” because, he said at the time, “people need care, not cages.”
Six DSAers currently serve on the 50-member Chicago City Council, although none of them were up for reelection this year. In San Francisco, DSAer Dean Preston, a leader of the statewide renters’ rights group Tenants Together, won reelection to the Board of Supervisors, while first timer Nithya Raman, an urban planner, won a huge upset, beating pro-business incumbent David Ryu for a seat in one of Los Angeles’ most conservative city council districts.
DSA member Bertha Perez has a new position on the city council in Merced, a city in central California where almost one-third of its 84,000 residents live in poverty. Shortly after starting her $31,000-a-year job cleaning buildings at the University of California’s Merced campus, mostly working the graveyard shift, she got involved with her union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — and was soon elected to its negotiating team by her fellow workers. She helped lead a three-day strike and was part of the team that won a new contract worth over a $1 billion for 27,000 service workers in the UC system. ” Emboldened by her union experience, Perez decided to run for the city council, explaining, “working class people like myself need to take action and get involved if we want a city council that reflects the needs and desires of every resident.“
DSA member Konstantine Anthony, a formerly homeless Uber driver, SAG-AFTRA union member, and rent control activist, won a seat on the Burbank (CA) city council. Tenant activist and DSA member Katie Valenzuela defeated an incumbent for a seat on the Sacramento City Council, while DSAer Janeese Lewis George, a prosecutor in the Washington, D.C. District Attorney’s office, upended an incumbent on the City Council in the nation’s capital. DSA member Jovanka Beckles, a Black lesbian and former Richmond, CA city council member, won a seat on the board of BART, the Bay Area’s regional transportation agency. This month, DSAer Gregorio Casar, a long-time labor organizer who was elected to the Austin (TX) city council in 2014 and reelected in 2016 and again this year, was elected co-chair of Local Progress, a national network of lefty local government officials.
DSA was the driving force behind the People First Portland (PFP) coalition that last month won four out of five game-changing ballot initiatives in Maine’s largest city. These include creating a $15 minimum wage (with time-and-a-half hazard pay during emergencies), local rent control and other tenant protections, a ban on the use of facial surveillance technology by local police and support for a local Green New Deal for sustainable construction. Voters defeated one PFP measure, which sought to restrict short-term rentals like Airbnb, with 52.1 percent voting “no.” The PFP campaign was embraced by Progressive Portland, the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, Black Lives Matters, the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, the Southern Maine Labor Council and several building trade unions. The DSA-led coalition prevailed despite being massively outspent by business groups like Airbnb, the National Association of Realtors, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Maine Landlord Association.
In Multnomah County, Oregon — which includes the other Portland — DSA spearheaded a successful campaign called “Preschool for All.” Sixty four percent of voters approved the ballot measure to provide tuition-free preschool to all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want it, while also raising the pay of preschool teachers to parity with pay for kindergarten teachers. The county will pay for the program with an additional 1.5 percent income tax on individuals earning more than $125,000 and couples making over $200,000.
In Boulder, Colorado, DSA was the catalyst for the successful No Eviction Without Representation campaign. Fifty-nine percent of voters approved the measure to tax landlords and use the money to provide legal representation for tenants facing eviction, provide rental assistance and help educate renters of their housing rights. Boulder is now the seventh city in the country with a right to counsel program. Florida’s DSA chapters invested significant resources in the ballot measure campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage from its current rate of $8.56 to $15 in September 2026. Sixty-one percent of the voters approved this landmark victory for fast-food cooks and cashiers and other essential workers from nursing home attendants, to janitors, to airport employees and more, which will raise wages for 2.5 million working people in the state over the next six years, and will continue to rise with inflation. Florida is now the eighth state to pass a $15 minimum wage.
While it’s currently regaining popularity as a new mainstream concept, democratic socialism history has deep roots in American politics "
The resurgence of democratic socialism may be a surprise, but the idea and the movement have deep American roots. In the early 1900s, socialists led the movements for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws, the progressive income tax and workplace safety. Their constituents included activists from old American families, among them some wealthy “traitors to their class,” as well as many recent immigrants, including Jewish and Italian garment workers, Scandinavian farmers, Polish and Czech steelworkers, and Milwaukee’s German brewery workers.
Labor leader Eugene Debs, who founded the Socialist Party in 1901 and ran for president five times under its banner, never received more than six percent of the national vote (garnering more than 900,000 votes in 1912), but he was a popular public figure. At its peak in 1912, about 1,200 Socialist Party members held public office in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in cities such as Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading and Schenectady. Many cities had socialist newspapers. The Appeal to Reason, based in Kansas, had national circulation of over 500,000. Local socialist leaders, whose ranks included working-class labor union members and middle-class professionals such as teachers, clergy and lawyers, worked alongside progressive reformers to improve living and working conditions in the nation’s burgeoning cities. They pushed for public ownership of utilities and transportation facilities; the expansion of parks, libraries, playgrounds and other services; and a friendlier attitude toward unions, especially during strikes. Candidates running as Republicans, Democrats and Progressives stole many of the Socialist Party’s ideas, watered them down and got elected.
Voters in Milwaukee elected Victor Berger, a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary, editor of several labor-oriented newspapers and a founding member of the Socialist Party, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1910. In 1914, voters in Manhattan’s Lower East Side sent another Socialist Party founder, Meyer London, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who became a lawyer for the city’s burgeoning clothing workers labor movement, to Congress.
Berger and London pushed such then-radical, now commonplace, issues as unemployment insurance, abolition of child labor, women’s suffrage, a system of public works jobs for the unemployed, self-government for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and anti-lynching legislation, as well as federal ownership of the railroads and the withdrawal of federal troops from the Mexican border. London consistently fought against the federal government’s racist immigration quotas on Asian migrants as well as Jews. Such restrictions, he argued, “violate the fundamental principle of Socialism, which prohibits you from discrimination.” Berger sponsored the first bill in support of old age pensions. It got few votes but FDR resurrected the idea two decades later and called it Social Security — an idea that even today’s conservatives embrace.
Elected president in 1932, when one-quarter of Americans were out of work, Roosevelt tapped into Americans’ frustrations — and reacted to mounting protests among workers, consumers, farmers, renters, and others — by promoting ideas that a few years earlier would have been unthinkable. He met with Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and other leftists and invited a number of pragmatic radicals like Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins and Sidney Hillman into his inner circle. They crafted the New Deal program — public jobs, Social Security, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, the right of workers to unionize, tough regulations on banks — ideas that were first espoused by socialists.
Right-wing groups, business leaders, Republicans and much of the press branded Roosevelt as a socialist. In a 1934 speech defending his New Deal goals, Roosevelt said: “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism’, sometimes ‘Communism’, sometimes ‘Regimentation’, sometimes ‘Socialism,’ But, in so doing, they are trying to make (a) very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.”
The New Deal was a mosaic of left-wing and liberal ideas. After World War 2, big business feared that FDR had whetted Americans’ appetite for an even bolder role for government to tax the rich, expand the safety net, and strengthen unions. They instigated another wave of hysteria designed to discredit liberalism by calling it communism. Anyone who questioned the nuclear-arms race, supported racial integration, believed in government-subsidized health insurance, or called for higher taxes on the rich could be branded an anti-American Communist. Not even Martin Luther King Jr. was exempt. In the 1960s, segregationists and right-wing groups erected billboards around the country vilifying him as a communist. The Cold War red-baiters didn’t make distinctions between socialism and communism, even though American socialists opposed the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China, and their satellites.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, socialism had almost disappeared from the American political landscape. But some activists kept the ideas alive. One was Michael Harrington, a charismatic orator, writer, organizer, and close confidant of King. His best-selling 1962 book, “The Other America,” helped inspire the war on poverty. In 1973, Harrington pulled together his friends among labor activists, writers, student radicals and civil rights crusaders to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which changed its name to DSA a decade later. Harrington’s goals were modest. He had abandoned the idea that a separate Socialist Party should run candidates for public office. Instead, he hoped to keep alive the moral values of democratic socialism as well as encourage activists in the labor, women’s, civil rights, and environmental movements that, working together as a coalition, they could transform the Democratic Party into a more progressive force, more closely aligned with Europe’s social democratic parties.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a few DSA members ran for public office and some of them won, including New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Cambridge City Council member David Sullivan, San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, and Sanders, who was elected Burlington’s mayor in 1981 and re-elected twice. Voters in the Bay area elected DSA member Ron Dellums to Congress from 1971 through 1998, while Brooklyn voters sent DSA member Major Owens to Congress from 1983 through 2007. Rep. John Conyers, who represented Detroit in Congress from 1965 to 2017, was a frequent speaker at DSA-sponsored events. They were joined by Sanders, whom Vermont voters sent to the House in 1991 and to the Senate in 2007.
Since the end of World War 2, Republicans have consistently used red-baiting against Democratic candidates. That tactic never went on hiatus, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the GOP, Tea Party, Chamber of Commerce and conservative media gurus like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh labeled anything he proposed, including his modest health-care reforms and his efforts to restore regulations on Wall Street, as “socialism.”
The Republicans ratcheted up their crusade against socialism after the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in September 2011, attacking corporate greed and the “1 percent.” During the 2012 election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney attacked Obama for trying to make America “far more like Europe, with a larger, more dominant, more intrusive government”— all code words for socialism.
Over the centuries, many horrors have been done in the name of patriotism, Christianity and socialism. In this year’s elections, we saw no ads attacking candidates for their commitment to patriotism or Christianity. But Republicans spent (and continue spending) a fortune trying to persuade voters that every Democrat running for office — President, Senate and House as well as local races for mayor, city council, and state legislator — is an unrepentant socialist.
In one speech in September, Trump said: “The Democrat Party is pushing a socialist nightmare. Their plans will result in rationing care, denying choice, putting Americans on wait lists, driving the best doctors out of medicine and delaying lifesaving cures.”
Trump’s red-baiting rants were part of the GOP’s overall strategy to stoke up fears of a new Red Menace. Across the country, but especially in key swing states and congressional districts, Republicans sought to discredit even moderate Democrats by falsely branding them as socialists.
In an unsuccessful effort to unseat freshman Democrat Abigail Spanberger from her swing district seat in Virginia, the conservative Club for Growth PAC claimed in a TV ad that she “votes nearly as much with socialist AOC.” A Republican attack ad accused another freshman Democrat, Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, of supporting a “socialist takeover of your prescription drug benefits.” Spanberger narrowly won her reelection bid, but Finkenauer lost hers.
In the Georgia Senate races, a precursor to the upcoming run-off in January, GOP Senator David Perdue referred to his Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff as a “socialist,” while fellow Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler falsely accused Rev. Raphael Warnock, her Democratic opponent, of hosting Cuba’s then-leader Fidel Castro at his Atlanta church when Warnock was a youth pastor decades ago. In their most recent debate, Loeffler called Warnock a “radical” 23 times and claimed that “he wants to fundamentally change America into a socialist country.”
For Trump and other Republican candidates, branding Democrats as socialists is red-meat to increase turnout among their base. The Gallup Poll last year found that among Republicans, only 13 percent viewed socialism favorably, while 84 percent had an unfavorable view.
Of course, most Americans don’t consider themselves socialists, but an increasing number of voters are now willing to support candidates who call for bold reforms of our political and economic system, depending on how these ideas are presented and whether voters think they are viable and effective.
The policy ideas espoused by American socialists today are considered mainstream in most European countries, and even in Canada and Australia. If today’s American socialists have any model at all, it is not Russia, Cuba, or Venezuela, but the social democracies of Scandinavia, like Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway — countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider social safety net. Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Sweden as the number 2 country for business. The United States ranked number 17.
What most DSA members want — indeed, what the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which will have over 100 members when the new Congress is seated in January, also wants — is an updated version of the New Deal. Their vision is bold but pragmatic. They don’t want the federal government to take over Walmart, Microsoft or Wells Fargo. They do want to reduce the political influence of the super-rich and big corporations, increase taxes on the wealthy to help pay for expanded public services like childcare, public transit, higher education and decent housing. They want to make it easier for workers to unionize. Many agree with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sanders’ idea to require corporations to allow workers to elect representatives to the boards of directors.
Along with most Americans, they want to reduce barriers to voting and enact background checks on gun purchases and limit the sale of military-style assault weapons. They support strengthening regulations of business to require them to be more socially responsible in terms of their employees, consumers and the environment.
They believe that banks shouldn’t engage in reckless predatory lending. Energy corporations shouldn’t endanger the planet and public health by emitting too much pollution. Companies should be required to guarantee that consumer products (like cars and toys) are safe and that companies pay decent wages and provide safe workplaces. They want to allow undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to stay in the country. Like three-fourths of Americans, they support federal legislation to require pharmaceutical companies to reduce prices for prescription drugs.
Even progressive Democrats’ most left-wing idea — Medicare for All — doesn’t call for government ownership of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and health-care clinics. It views the government as a provider of insurance, and setter of standards, while doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and other practitioners working for private and nonprofit organizations provide the services. (The one exception is the Veterans Administration, a government owned and run health-care system.)
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans (and even some Republicans) agree with these ideas. "
What most Americans emphatically do not want to “defund” the police. Not a single Democrat running for Congress this year embraced that idea, but the Republicans nevertheless used it as a weapon against them. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 15 percent of Americans, and 22 percent of Black Americans, support abolishing local police departments. But most Americans now believe that the police and criminal justice system do not treat people of color and whites equally and are concerned over racial profiling and other forms of police misconduct, mass incarceration of people of color and the racial disparities of the war on drugs.
While Trump sought to tamp down these attitudes with racist appeals to “law and order,” including the use of federal troops to quell protests in Portland, Oregon, and other cities, the idea that “Black Lives Matter” echoed from the streets into the voting booth. This year, voters in many cities, suburbs, and states embraced candidates and ballot measures to reign in the police, restore voting rights to people on parole, relax drug laws and challenge long-standing racist practices.
Young people, many of whom got their first taste of political activism in one of Sanders’ campaigns, account for most of the dramatic increase in DSA membership. They have translated their youthful idealism and energy into practical politics, learning the organizing skills needed to win issue campaigns and electoral races. Many DSAers have become staffers and activists with unions, environmental groups, community organizing and tenants rights groups, and other parts of the broader progressive movement. They have learned to forge coalitions that make DSA’s influence greater than its numbers would suggest.
Unlike some of the more zealous leftists during the 1960s, most DSAers don’t expect to see a revolution any day soon. But within DSA, a small but vocal number of members pursue ideological purity over political pragmatism. Several years ago, for example, some DSAers sought to expel an elected member of its national board — an effective activist for immigration, worker and LBGT rights who had helped build DSA in Texas — because he had once worked for a union that represented police officers.
Most members DSAers initially embraced Sanders and (to a lesser extent) Warren, but voted for Biden last month, some more enthusiastically than others. Even so, outbursts of rhetorical posturing occasionally lead to awkward moments, such as a statement issued by DSA’s National Political Committee on November 19.
“While we’re glad Trump lost and we celebrate our wins, we are also not welcoming Biden,” it proclaimed. “We’re warning his administration: a better world is coming, and it’s time we put those who stand in our way on notice.”
Such hubris does not reflect the thinking of most rank-and-file DSAers, who recognize that while the left, liberals and centrist wings within the Democratic Party don’t agree on many policy matters, the success of the left depends on its ability to work in coalition with the party’s more moderate officials and voters.
Biden has moved significantly leftward over the past year, in part due to the reality that nation’s deepening problems require bold approaches, but also because he understands that public opinion has shifted in that direction. Even if the Democrats gain control of the Senate with two victories in the Senate run-offs in Georgia in January — a big if — Biden’s administration will, out of necessity, be a center-left coalition, reflected in both his key appointments and his policy initiatives. For example, his key economic team includes at least two well-known progressives — Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein — who will serve as the left flank within the administration. But they won’t be the only voices in Biden’s inner circle.
“Biden is right that we’re in a battle for the soul of our country, but that battle will be won not by giving platitudes,” said Maria Svart, DSA’s long-time national director. “It will be won by fighting for material improvements in the lives of the multi-racial working class.”
Left-wing radicals often fear that their ideas will be “co-opted” by the establishment, but that’s a misreading of history. The success of radical movements occurs when it is co-opted by the forces of reform. Read the 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, or the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party, or Upton Sinclair’s 1934 “End Poverty in California” platform for his campaign for governor of California, or the 1948 platform of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for President.
Many of the ideas proposed in these documents were considered radical in their day. Eventually, aspects of these platforms were adopted by one of the two major parties. That’s success, not failure.
When there’s enough political pressure, the reactionary and conservative wing of the establishment tries to beat the movement back using repression. But the moderates and liberals within the establishment use the fear of disorder and radicalism to push through reforms that are modest versions of what radicals have been demanding. Those changes often become stepping-stones for further reform.
The challenge for today’s democratic socialists, including DSA, is to find ways to turn their ideas into practical reforms that politicians and voters can embrace, and that move the country in a more progressive direction. DSA’s founder Michael Harrington argued that the role of American socialists should be to push for the “left wing of the possible.” From New York to New Mexico, North Dakota to North Carolina, DSA is putting that strategy to the test.
Talking Points Memo
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.