The Resurgent Left

Red baiting. Virginia elections, November 2017.

Red baiting. Virginia elections, November 2017.

One year after liberals and leftists sunk into despair at the presidential election of Donald Trump, and on the centennial of the Russian Revolution, American socialists won not just a significant electoral trophy, but mapped out a strategy for the future.

Odd numbered election years are almost always devoid of federal meaning, but at the state and local levels they are important to watch. In Virginia, Lee Carter, of the Democratic Socialists of America, ousted a veteran Republican state legislature while also facing resistance from the local Democratic Party.

In the Minneapolis City Council race, and Socialist Alternative member Ginger Jentzen narrowly lost her bid, hoping to follow in the footsteps Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant, who comes from the same Trotskyist faction.

Nathan J. Robinson writes a Current Affairs, “Jabari Brisport, another Democratic Socialist who is totally open about the need to wage war on the super-wealthy (“If the rich can’t play nice, we take away their toys”), got nearly 30% of the vote in a New York City Council race even while running on a third-party ticket. Our Revolution candidates Will Mbah, Ben Ewen-Campen and J.T. Scott are now on the Board of Aldermen in Somerville, Massachusetts. DSA-backed Nikuyah Walker is now on the Charlottesville City Council, and Seema Singh Perez is on the Knoxville City Council. All in all, at least a dozen DSA-backed candidates won races across the country.”

Mainstream media for the most part is hailing a victory for the Democrats; centrist Democrats won governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey. But the rise of these local socialist candidates – as well as the election of long shot left-wing candidate Larry Krasner in Philadelphia’s district attorney’s race – is the legacy, or even the “what’s next,” of the momentum socialist Senator Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign launched last year.

And local victories shouldn’t be written off. If anything, the far right’s strength in American politics has precisely been in funnelling campaign money to state races, and indeed, the Republicans control most state governments. Even in liberal New York, the upper legislative house remains in Republican control. It’s not that socialists are clawing local victories because there’s no space for them on the national level, but they are targeting the important grassroots-style local politics that the Democrats have abandoned and ceded to the right.

But with any opportunity comes challenges. Socialists are a notoriously splintered people. Socialist Alternative, immersed in labor and tenant struggles, has been accused of being too workerist. DSA, whose numbers have grown exponentially since Trump’s election, is multi-tendency, opening it up to calls that is unprincipled or unified (disclosure: I’m a DSA member). DSA also differs from Socialist Alternative’s electoral practice by running candidates as Democrats when it’s strategic to do so, something that earns the group scorn from the left.

The Trump era and the rise of white supremacist organizing combined with the fact that younger people, who aren’t as familiar with the narcissism of small differences that historical infects sectarian divides, are joining these groups are all helping to overcome this problem. More and more, DSA, Socialist Alternative and International Socialist Organization members are coming together, shaking hands, recognizing their different ideologies and debating them, but also knowing that they have more in common than they have differences.

In May of 2014, Sawant told me for an article for this publication that she envisioned a movement where these different groups could come together: “The best way to do that is neither to constantly be at odds with each other, and ignore that we have those differences…We should be a pole of attraction to everyone who is looking for a left alternative, and we should recognize our differences.”

Hopefully, we’re seeing a bit of that happening in these recent victories.

A year after Trump’s election, this certainly isn’t enough to stop deportations, increased military spending or tax cuts for the wealthy. It does, however, prove that there can be more progressive movement in the coming years that the Democrats will have to listen to, having banked on a failing agenda of centrism. It also builds strength for tangible victories in the future; Senator Sanders has already introduced a universal health care coverage bill with the backing of other party members.

And other socialists might decry electoral action as a distraction from direct action and labor organizing, but one thing most of these groups understand is: you must do both.

Photograph courtesy of Democracy Chronicles. Published under a Creative Commons license.