Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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)

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.

Mindy Isser

 by In These Times

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.

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.

© 2021 In These Times
Mindy Isser

Mindy Isser

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

'Bolsonaro Out!': Massive Protests as Brazil's Covid-19 Death Toll Tops 500,000

"We are on the street to defend our country, our people, our lives, our culture, our education, our economy. We can no longer die of Covid."

Brett Wilkins, staff writer ·

Summit Participants Embrace 'Vaccine Internationalism' to End Pandemic

"Our goal is simple: to end the pandemic as quickly as possible by securing Covid-19 vaccines for all," says the coordinator of Progressive International's four-day virtual summit.

Brett Wilkins, staff writer ·

As Iran Elects New President, Experts Urge Biden to Rejoin Nuclear Deal, Lift Sanctions

"The Biden administration must remain resolute and seek a break from the disastrous conditions that helped contribute to this result."

Brett Wilkins, staff writer ·

UN General Assembly Condemns Myanmar Junta Violence, Urges Arms Embargo

Member nations voted 119-1 in favor of the resolution, which also calls for a return to the country's fragile democracy.

Brett Wilkins, staff writer ·

Dems Introduce Abolition Amendment to Scrap Constitution's 'Slavery Clause'

"The loophole in our Constitution's ban on slavery not only allowed slavery to continue, but launched an era of discrimination and mass incarceration that continues to this day," said Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Julia Conley, staff writer ·