United States: The rise of democratic socialism

DSA candidate for Chicago Alderman, Rossana Rodriguez. Photo credit - Isaac Silver.

Green Left Weekly’s Susan Price spoke to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activist Isaac Silver following the announcement by United States Senator, Bernie Sanders that he will contest the 2020 US Presidential race.

1. How has Sanders’ announcement been received among radicals and left activists you work with?

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign has generated huge excitement in the United States. In the first week following the announcement of his presidential campaign, over one million supporters signed up as volunteers in every part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people contributed small donations —averaging US$27, as occurred in his 2016 campaign — for a total of $10 million in grassroots funding.

He has now begun a speaking tour of the country, with back-to-back mass rallies in New York and Chicago attended by more than 10,000 people.

His campaign has mass support and resonance among working people. Sanders confidently frames his agenda of reforms as majoritarian, common-sense proposals, in the interests of the vast majority, against the predominant politics of both the Republican and Democratic parties — which he describes as being captured by a tiny, wealthy elite.

Sanders emphasises the necessity of grassroots activity and the involvement of ordinary working people in what he calls a “political revolution.” He has spoken in support of striking teachers and manufacturing workers and references the historic social movements of the past as the engine of progressive change.

At Sanders’ Chicago rally, which I attended, the speakers who preceded Sanders were not elected officials or celebrities, extolling the virtues of Sanders as an individual. Instead, speeches highlighted serious social issues in Chicago and the grassroots organising taking place.

Destiny Harris, an 18-year old queer Black woman, spoke about the fight against a proposed US$95 million police academy in her neighbourhood, and Ashley Galvan Ramos, a 20-year old Latina woman, described her family's displacement by gentrification and her own community organising.

These elements indicate that Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign was not a fluke. He is still the most effective figure for advancing a progressive program of economic and social justice, taking on racism, sexism, militarism and environmental destruction — and mobilizing the kind of mass forces necessary to win these reforms.

For the left, whose vision and program goes beyond Sanders’, there is widespread recognition that Sanders and his vast audience represents an unprecedented opportunity to challenge the ideological domination of capitalism, for different reform struggles to connect to each other under the broad umbrella, and to grow our own independent forces.

Relative to 2016 when his campaign was initially ignored, underestimated, or misunderstood by many on the far left, the debate now is about how best to relate to Sanders rather than whether to do so at all.

2. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist. Although Sanders is not a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is the DSA intending to endorse his campaign? How is that decision going to be made?

Sanders’ self-identification as a democratic socialist was undoubtedly one of the most important factors that led to the initial growth spurt of the DSA following Donald Trump’s election. Ironically, his explanations of democratic socialism are somewhat fuzzy or at odds with a fully anti-capitalist and internationalist politics and he is not a member of DSA and is unlikely to seek any close relationship to it.

There is currently an organisation-wide discussion about endorsement within DSA, which includes local branch discussions, a membership referendum, and finally a decision by the national leadership. The results of our membership referendum will be known in late March. Our next national convention will take place in August, and a significant number of DSA members wish to endorse and get involved in the campaign earlier than that.

In anticipation of Sanders’ announcement, a DSA working group was tasked with developing a timeline and process to discuss his campaign and how we should relate to it.

There are various points of view: endorsing Sanders as early as possible through [a decision by] the national leadership; waiting until the membership convention; or declining to endorse a presidential candidate altogether and focusing on other priorities. There is also a debate about whether to create an independent campaign along the lines of “DSA for Bernie” and what exactly that might look like.

I anticipate an endorsement. Several major branches have held early votes and all have encouraged an endorsement. In the Chicago branch, where I am based, we voted to endorse but to table the question of an independent campaign. This is an interesting experience for DSA, which is still getting its “sea legs” as a national organisation of our size and figuring out best practices for decision-making.

3. DSA has experienced significant growth since Trump's election in 2016, especially amongst young people. What have been the key issues driving young activists to join?

The major factors laying the groundwork for DSA’s growth were the 2008 economic crisis and resultant “lost generation” of young people, the waves of protest such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Dreamer movement during the Barack Obama administration, and the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

While the majority of DSA members may not have been directly involved, they marked a major shift in consciousness. The response to Trump’s election, for tens of thousands of young people, was not despair but to get organised.

The average age of our nearly 60,000 members is probably under 30.

DSA’s growth as a “big tent” organisation has been driven by enthusiasm for “getting one’s hands dirty” and engaging in practical organising at all levels of society.

There is ideological diversity and a range of activity. In the Chicago branch (the third largest in the country) we have over a dozen working groups active in the feminist movement, in organised labour, immigrant rights, environmental justice, political education and standing in elections.

Some branches seem to be focused on one or two big campaigns such as fighting for a public healthcare program or around housing.

Our 2017 national convention voted to endorse three major priorities: Medicare for All [a public health care program]; strengthening the labour movement; and running socialists for office.

4. You've been active in the campaign to elect DSA candidates running for aldermen [city councillors] in Chicago, particularly for Rossana Rodriguez. Rodriguez has recently been labelled the "next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez". What is your response to that?

DSA currently has one sitting alderman in Chicago — Carlos Rosa, and endorsed him for re-election along with a slate of other candidates: Byron Sigcho, Jeanette Taylor, Ugo Okere, and Rossana Rodriguez. All of them, apart from Jeanette, are DSA members.

Rossana’s campaign was launched shortly after AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] won her first-round election and was on the national stage, so it was a ready comparison: both are young, charismatic, Puerto Rican socialist women.

Their districts are both extremely diverse urban areas where immigrants and workers struggle with poverty, lack of affordable housing, the police and immigration systems. Rossana and AOC were both running against entrenched political figures — the current alderman Rossana is running against, Deb Mell, is heir to a political dynasty that has been in office since 1975.

Their campaigns are rooted in a base of long-term organising around these issues. Rossana is a respected activist with decades of organising experience. Her campaign has drawn together a coalition of DSA members, union militants, youth, immigrant rights activists, and tenant organisations.

City-wide, DSA candidates won important union endorsements and were part of a growing alliance of left-leaning unions and community organisations.

DSA’s candidates and others on the left had astoundingly successful results in the first round of elections [held on February 26]. Carlos was reelected in a blowout and four DSA candidates, including Rossana, are advancing into runoffs [on April 2] with the most votes.

There is a good chance we could have five DSA members elected, or 10% of the council, and a socialist and left majority on the council Latino caucus. These results have not been seen in a century.