early and often

The Future of American Socialism Is Local

Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

These are uneasy times for all movements and politicians on the American left. The midterm elections almost inevitably will punish the Democratic Party, as the party in power almost always suffers in the first midterm. High inflation and various upticks in crime are now being hung around the necks of Democrats. Neither moderates nor progressives are safe, and there may be no magic messaging bullet to overcome Joe Biden’s unpopularity.

Although they would prefer to separate themselves from these trends, the Democratic Socialists of America must reckon with the unfriendliest political environment since a membership surge rocketed the group to national prominence in 2016. Bernie Sanders, despite the pleas of some, will probably not run for president again. DSA membership remains quite large — 91,000, according to the organization — though it is no longer growing at a notable clip. A long-running push to 100,000 overall members has yet to be realized.

There are now more than 120 DSA members in elected office across the country, a number that would have been unimaginable a decade ago when the democratic-socialist organization had devolved into an obscure debate club for baby boomers. If democratic socialism can no longer be said to be booming in the United States, it’s not shrinking by much, either, even as factionalism on the left poses a threat to electoral success. Socialists are encountering fresh challenges — incumbents are geared up to fight back aggressively against their primary campaigns — and attempting to energize a left-wing base that no longer swells with each passing month. Efforts for socialized housing and ambitious climate policy are finding tangible success even as institutional forces try to beat them back. DSA’s next phase is something resembling stasis: It is nowhere near seizing control of the Democratic Party or unleashing a socialist revolution, but it is undoubtedly part of the American political firmament.

One question looms over what will happen with Jamaal Bowman, a prominent member of “the Squad” in Congress. It remains unclear, after an earlier rift between a number of socialists and his office, whether Bowman will run with DSA’s endorsement this year. He may come to realize he doesn’t need a socialist organizing base at all, and DSA, for the time being at least, could lose one direct line to Congress.

The Bowman controversy is emblematic of a large organization that is both influential and working through how to relate to allies in power. Last year, select chapters of DSA and a number of members called for Bowman, a leftist who defeated Eliot Engel in 2020, to be expelled from the organization for traveling to Israel to meet with the new right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett; voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system; and refusing to back the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against the country.

Before his district was redrawn, Bowman represented a large Jewish population in the Bronx. Although his views on foreign policy were much to the left of his predecessor, a noted Israel hawk, he nevertheless had to walk a line in Congress between placating the progressives and leftists who had helped make his victory possible and his constituents in the suburban district who are much more supportive of Israel. Leading members of DSA didn’t want him expelled, and ultimately he wasn’t. His staffers repeatedly attempted to assuage the more restive socialists while DSA members hoping to preserve their relationship with Bowman strained to make peace. A BDS working group, the source of the friction, lost its charter. Still, the Bowman-DSA relationship may not be fully repaired. The congressman has not attended forums seeking DSA’s support, and redistricting has likely changed his calculus with his new seat pushed out of New York City. A second DSA-endorsed Bowman campaign appears increasingly unlikely.

Without Bowman, the D.C. socialist influence will decrease, but it’s not as if mainstream progressives have a much better hand to play if Republicans control the Senate and the House, as they may after the midterms. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib remain DSA members. In the minority, they won’t be any less powerful than the aggressively centrist Sean Patrick Maloney or Josh Gottheimer.

This is why a growing number of socialists want to focus on state legislatures and city councils, forcing Democrats to the left on the local level. While the most radical wing of DSA still resents this kind of electoral work — in the 20th century, third-party socialist campaigns shunned the Democratic line — the majority of the decentralized organization is enthusiastic about running socialists in Democratic primaries and dragging the party to the left. This was the vision of DSA founder Michael Harrington. It has won the future of American socialism for now.

A bulk of DSA’s success still rests in safe Democratic districts across the country. Just as conventional Democrats have increasingly struggled in rural areas and even swing districts where Donald Trump performed well, DSA cannot claim to have won over many voters in hostile territory who are dismissive of the socialist label. Political polarization along educational lines has driven working-class voters of all races further from left-leaning Democrats, and DSA faces a similar version of that struggle in building a multiracial, class-conscious movement among voters who are, in this environment, drifting toward culturally conservative Republican candidates. Socialism, on the balance, is still succeeding more in cities — and among the more affluent than the working poor — but DSA is too large now to be simply dismissed as a party of young, privileged hipsters.

And democratic socialism is no longer a New York phenomenon. In St. Paul, the Twin Cities DSA chapter was instrumental in organizing for a successful ballot initiative to bring a system of rent control to the city for the first time. Starting in May, rent increases for apartments in St. Paul will be capped at 3 percent, and there is no exemption currently for newly constructed units. The mayor of the city, who is not aligned with DSA, is attempting to change the law to create an exemption for new units. Maine’s DSA chapter recently filed paperwork to put four referendum questions on the ballot in the city of Portland. If passed, the “Livable Portland Referenda” would, among other things, create an $18 minimum wage, require landlords to provide 90-day notices of rent increases or evictions, and restrict short-term rentals. Residents will vote on these proposals in November. The Charlottesville DSA chapter, meanwhile, played a strong role in pushing the city council to fund an eviction-prevention pilot program, which would provide counsel for anyone in danger of losing their home.

All of these campaigns have one common theme: housing. While DSA, as a millennial-driven leftist organization, can be guilty of succumbing to the sort of confusing, alienating rhetoric favored by the professional leftist class, socialist organizers have been deceptively disciplined at focusing most of their work around bread-and-butter issues. In the ongoing debate over whether the Democratic Party needs to be more “popularist” or campaign on far-reaching aims, DSA has managed, in some ways, to be both. Talk of defunding the police at DSA meetings hasn’t vanished, but few socialist candidates for political office are centering the unpopular demand of slashing police budgets in their campaign literature. Rather, housing and environmental issues are at the forefront.

New York is still where DSA has had its greatest political success. Beyond AOC, there are two socialist state senators and four Assembly members, with more coming if the Democratic primaries break DSA’s way this summer. It has been only two years since DSA was able to build a significant socialist caucus in Albany that votes together; moderate Democrats have frustrated some of its goals, such as statewide single-payer health care and good-cause eviction, but socialists and progressive Democrats appear to be moving closer to passing legislation that would allow the public building of renewable power in New York. A hearing in the State Assembly is set for July.

Occasionally, DSA can be a victim of its own success: Candidates with no direct ties to their organization sometimes try to court voters with similar policy platforms, running up in direct competition with a DSA-backed contender. In Queens and Manhattan, DSA and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are supporting local activist Kristen Gonzalez for State Senate. Following New York’s redistricting chaos, another candidate emerged: Nomiki Konst, a peripatetic activist with ties to national progressives like Ro Khanna but little in the way of Gonzalez’s local experience. Socialists are worried Konst could siphon votes from Gonzalez’s bid, which has been active for months, and hand a victory to the first cousin of Joe Crowley, the Democratic former congressman whom AOC famously defeated in 2018.

Part of DSA’s challenge is retaining and energizing a membership that sprung out of the excitement of the Sanders presidential campaigns and the wave of left activism that crackled through the Trump years. These days, there is no exhilarating presidential campaign to rope in the casual young leftist. Veteran DSA members are spending more of their time ensuring the wider membership is in good standing — i.e., paying annual dues — and available for various campaigns. Establishment Democrats are no longer caught off guard when DSA contenders show up to wage primaries. There are fewer Crowleys and Engels waiting to get picked off. The political fights will inevitably get fiercer.

The Future of American Socialism Is Local