Congress Now Has More Socialists Than Ever Before in U.S. History

The high-water mark for socialists elected to national office is in step with a proud tradition in American politics.

Maurice Isserman

(GETTY IMAGES)

In the 2018 midterm elections, two members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were elected to the House of Representatives: Rashi­da Tlaib in Michigan’s 13th dis­trict, and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, in New York’s 14th dis­trict. To mark the occasion of the most socialists entering the House for the first time in a single year, I wrote in these pages, the 116th Con­gress will con­sist of two social­ists and four hun­dred and thir­ty-three rep­re­sen­ta­tives of oth­er per­sua­sions. It’s a start.” 

And indeed it was. In November 2020, both Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez handily won re-election, and have been joined in the 117th Congress by two more DSA members: Cori Bush from Missouri’s 1st district and Jamaal Bowman from New York’s 16th district. That raises the democratic socialist numbers from two to four out of four hundred and thirty-five. (At this rate, doubling the socialist delegation every two years, it’d only take six more elections before socialists in 2032 would become a majority in the House — exponential growth is a wonderful thing.) 

Given the contingencies of non-fantasy politics, such an outcome remains unlikely. Still, this is a significant political landmark in the history of the American Left — the first time in U.S. history that this many self-described socialists have held Congressional seats concurrently. Two members of the Socialist Party in the era of Eugene V. Debs — Victor Berger from Milwaukee, and Meyer London from the Lower East Side of Manhattan — served in Congress just before and immediately after the First World War, although they didn’t overlap in office (Berger’s tenure was complicated by his conviction under the Espionage Act for opposing the war; the House of Representatives twice refused to seat him after he was elected and re-elected by Milwaukee voters in 1918 and 1919). More recently, two DSA members served in Congress and overlapped for a number of years, Ron Dellums representing Oakland, California from 1971 through 1998, and Major Owens representing Brooklyn from 1983 through 2007

While Dellums and Owens were supportive of DSA, knowledge of their membership in an organization that at the time counted only a few thousand members was mostly left-wing insider baseball. Relatively few of their constituents had likely ever heard of DSA. Not so for the socialists in Congress today, in part because the organization itself has grown a dozen-fold in recent years, recently surpassing 80,000 members. The new socialists’ organizational credentials are regularly cited by friends and foes alike (“Democratic socialists salivate over current, future New York state gains,” Fox News reported with its usual taste and balance after last November’s election.) 

I asked Maria Svart, DSA’s longtime national director, what she thought would be the consequence of the doubling of the socialist contingent in Congress. She believes it will help legitimize democratic socialist policy proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The four socialists were elected because these ideas speak to deep human needs,” she said. And, she continued, the socialists in the House will also prove fighters for democracy: We have already seen how they are changing the conversation in this country — Congresswoman Cori Bush introduced a resolution to investigate and expel the Republicans who supported the armed insurrection on January 6, and we know she will fight in the future to defund militarized police forces like those who stood by as those rioters walked into the Capitol.”

Dellums and Owens’ long tenures in office suggest that the current democratic socialist contingent won’t be going away anytime soon, whether or not they’re joined by other DSAers in years to come. They are all young, or relatively so. Millennial Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989, famously elected to the House of Representatives before she turned thirty, and Tlaib, Bush and Bowman were all born in 1976 and have yet to turn forty-five. Barring the unforeseen, they will likely prove a stable core of socialist strength in Congress for decades to come (unless elected to higher office, a real possibility). 

It’s also worth noting that, thanks to the November election results, three of the four most prominent elected DSA members are women and all four are people of color (Bernie Sanders, while an outspoken democratic socialist, is not a current member). This development may hopefully deal a blow to the Bernie Bro” stereotype many hold of the average DSAer (aka, male, white and hipster). It’s certainly a step in the right demographic direction.

Our times are filled with danger and promise. As part of a broader progressive coalition, a revitalized socialist movement, committed to defending and expanding the democratic promise to all Americans, can play a vital role in the years to come.

Maurice Isserman, a charter member of Democratic Socialists of America, teaches at Hamilton College and is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000)

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