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What Democrats Should Learn From the Spate of Socialist Wins on Election Day

It’s not enough to be anti-Trump. Socialists are showing you can win elections by standing for something.

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). (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

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). (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

While many had hoped that Elec­tion Day would result in a sweep­ing rebuke of Trump and Trump­ism, nei­ther a pan­dem­ic nor an eco­nom­ic reces­sion were enough to deliv­er an over­whelm­ing rejec­tion. And although it’s look­ing like­ly that Biden will eke out a vic­to­ry, the 2020 elec­tion was in many ways a bust for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which lost seats in the House and most like­ly did not win a major­i­ty in the Senate. 

But demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism, pop­u­lar­ized by near-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), had a much bet­ter night. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), an orga­ni­za­tion that boasts near­ly 80,000 mem­bers nation­wide, endorsed 29 can­di­dates and 11 bal­lot ini­tia­tives, win­ning 20 and 8 respec­tive­ly. There are now demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist cau­cus­es in 15 state­hous­es, includ­ing Mon­tana. (Dis­clo­sure: I am a nation­al­ly elect­ed leader of the orga­ni­za­tion; I sit on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist Labor Commission.)

DSA’s vic­to­ries, both in the pri­maries and the gen­er­al elec­tion, have rolled in as pun­dits and poll­sters decry social­ism as polar­iz­ing and raise fears that social­ist can­di­dates will end up back­fir­ing and get­ting Repub­li­cans elect­ed. Sanders’ sup­posed lack of elec­tabil­i­ty was one of the most com­mon­ly used argu­ments against him in the pri­ma­ry. His pri­ma­ry oppo­nents and promi­nent writ­ers like Jonathan Chait claimed that the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans wouldn’t vote for a social­ist, and that there was no way he could defeat Trump. 

While there’s no real way to know for cer­tain if that’s true, it is clear that cen­trist Democ­rats aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly shoo-ins them­selves. Demo­c­rat Jon Ossoff, who lost a con­gres­sion­al spe­cial elec­tion in 2017, looks like he will also lose this cycle’s Sen­ate race in Geor­gia. Demo­c­rat Sara Gideon, who raised $70 mil­lion to run against Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Susan Collins in Maine, has con­ced­ed, and it looks like Demo­c­rat Cal Cun­ning­ham will also lose his run for Sen­ate in North Car­oli­na. Amy McGrath, who ran as a pro-Trump Demo­c­rat, raised near­ly $90 mil­lion and still lost to Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Mitch McConnell. The list goes on and on. Even Joe Biden, who seems set to be our next pres­i­dent, often spoke more about beat­ing Trump than any poli­cies he would enact once in office.

Plen­ty of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates also lost, but most can­di­dates nation­al­ly endorsed by DSA sailed through. And while it’s true that many of them had tough pri­ma­ry bat­tles and less dif­fi­cult elec­tions on Tues­day, they still won as DSA mem­bers. All four mem­bers of ​“The Squad” — a pro­gres­sive bloc in Con­gress that includes Demo­c­ra­t­ic Reps. Rashi­da Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayan­na Press­ley (Mass.) — were reelect­ed to the House. (Tlaib and Oca­sio-Cortez are DSA mem­bers and endorsed by the orga­ni­za­tion.) Pro­gres­sives also added two more DSA-endorsed mem­bers to their squad: Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Jamaal Bow­man in New York, and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep.-elect Cori Bush, the first ever Black Con­gress­woman in Missouri.

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Although the cur­rent iter­a­tion of DSA has been around since the ear­ly 1980s, the orga­ni­za­tion only became polit­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant dur­ing Sanders’ first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2015, and explod­ed when Trump was elect­ed. Five years is a very short peri­od of time to have helped elect City Coun­cil mem­bers, state sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and mem­bers of Con­gress all across the coun­try. Accord­ing to a 2018 Reuters sur­vey, 70% of Amer­i­cans sup­port a nation­al health care plan — due to Sanders’ pop­u­lar­iza­tion of the uni­ver­sal health­care pro­gram and to the orga­niz­ing and can­vass­ing DSA chap­ters, along with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions like Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed, have done around the legislation. 

DSA-backed can­di­dates suc­ceed for a few main rea­sons: They cam­paign on actu­al poli­cies, have a vision of how to gov­ern, and don’t just depend on the fact that they’re not Repub­li­cans. These poli­cies include Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a Jobs Guar­an­tee — pro­grams that would improve the qual­i­ty of life for work­ing peo­ple all over this coun­try. And because poli­cies they sup­port are so pop­u­lar and inspir­ing, DSA-backed can­di­dates attract ded­i­cat­ed can­vassers and orga­niz­ers, will­ing to spend nights and week­ends knock­ing doors and mak­ing calls to get them elected.

Now, thanks to DSA mem­bers across the coun­try, there is a social­ist in Austin City Coun­cil and in both the Rhode Island and Mon­tana State Hous­es. In Penn­syl­va­nia, there are three social­ists who are almost cer­tain­ly head­ed to the leg­is­la­ture in Har­ris­burg. Social­ists in Boul­der, Col­orado worked along­side the ACLU to win a bal­lot mea­sure that guar­an­tees no evic­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and DSA mem­bers part­nered with the labor unions AFSCME and SEIU to pass Preschool for All in Mult­nom­ah Coun­ty, Ore­gon. And in both Flori­da and Port­land, Maine, bal­lot ini­tia­tives for a $15 min­i­mum wage passed. 

While it’s clear that most DSA vic­to­ries have been in big cities or more lib­er­al states thus far, it’s impor­tant that we don’t dis­count the incred­i­ble orga­niz­ing hap­pen­ing in the South and in rur­al areas. (Mar­qui­ta Brad­shaw ran a DSA-backed cam­paign for Sen­ate in Ten­nessee but lost; Kim Roney, endorsed by her DSA chap­ter, won a seat on the Asheville City Council.)

And while the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty is loath to give DSA any encour­age­ment, DSA mem­ber Tlaib may have helped to secure Biden’s vic­to­ry in Michi­gan by help­ing to mas­sive­ly increase vot­er turnout from 2016. DSA’s ide­ol­o­gy, focused on a soci­ety that works for all of us instead of the wealthy few, is far more inspir­ing to young and work­ing peo­ple than some­one who is run­ning for office just because they’re not Trump. It might take the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty time to real­ize that (or per­haps it nev­er will), but to the aver­age per­son, polit­i­cal con­di­tions are chang­ing fast — and DSA is play­ing a crit­i­cal role in that transformation.

Mindy Isser

Mindy Isser

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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