U.S. Elected Socialists Just Held Their Largest Gathering in Nearly 40 Years
A recent conference brought together democratic socialist elected officials from across the United States—including Bernie Sanders—to collaborate and strategize on advancing progressive public policy.
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Over the weekend of June 16, 80 democratic socialist elected officials and their aides from across the country came together for the first U.S. socialist policy conference since the 1980s. The event, titled “How We Win: The Democratic Socialist Policy Agenda in Office,” was held at the Gallaudet University in Washington, DC and was hosted by Jacobin, The Nation and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Fund, an educational sister nonprofit of national DSA that is focused on pushing progressive policy, preserving socialist history and supporting left-wing activism.
The gathering was an in-person continuation of DSA Fund-led “How We Win” series which explores how democratic socialist lawmakers, DSA chapters and their allies enact public policy to advance the lives of working people. Previous topics have included victories (and some failures) that have come through legislation and referendums such as right-to-counsel in housing, minimum wage increases, paid sick leave and much more. The audience for that educational series was largely made up of progressive activists, whereas this conference was hosted solely for the socialist lawmakers and their staff.
As chair of the DSA Fund, I was involved in organizing this in-person socialist policy gathering that was partly inspired by the Democratic Agenda conferences hosted by one of DSA predecessors — the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee — in the early 1980s to build resistance to then-President Ronald Reagan’s agenda.
Democratic socialists came from nearly 20 states plus the District of Columbia. They were state legislators from New England and the Midwest, county and school board officeholders in the mid-Atlantic, and mayors and city councilors from California to Massachusetts. While DSA hosted a meet-up for elected officials before the organization’s national convention in 2019, this was a standalone gathering for elected officials and their staff to focus on public policy around topics such as labor, housing and the environment.
The conference also included panels on Socialist in Office formations (formal groupings that coordinate between the DSA chapters and elected officials) and messaging to working-class constituents. The event, which myself and others had first proposed for 2021, was delayed for two years by the Covid-19 pandemic. The inability to meet in-person meant most attendees had only known each other through online interactions. Yet the bond of shared governing experiences fostered a reunion-like atmosphere, even if many of the elected officials started out strangers.
In addition to Jacobin, The Nation and the DSA Fund, the event was also supported by Local Progress — a progressive network of municipal lawmakers including socialists — and the Center for Working Class Politics, a left-wing think tank whose members gave a presentation on their new report “Trump’s Kryptonite.” That report documented the appeal of working-class elected representatives and found that prioritizing messaging on economic justice, as well as differences with the political establishment, is highly popular with constituents.
New York Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest reflected on the practical communication advocated by the study, saying “don’t sleep on turkeys,” a reference to the tradition of elected officials handing out free food to residents around Thanksgiving. She added: “It is critical we provide good constituent services as well as push big change.”
On opening night, Friday June 16, guests heard remarks from Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and a dialogue with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hosted by The Nation contributor John Nichols. Bush thanked the organizers for creating a “progressive, democratic socialist and anti-racist community.” She also provided guidance for her fellow socialist officeholders about their approach to service: “Voters have told me they do not care if you love me or not, just serve me. And I’ll say, ‘Actually, that’s what you’re used to.’ You’re used to someone doing something for you then moving you out of the way. Next. But that’s not who you get when you have folks that actually love humanity. We do not care if you voted for us or not as a condition to whether we help you.”
The Missouri congresswoman went on to discuss unacceptable aspects of the political status quo such as police killing civilians with impunity while working-class communities receive insufficient funding, the United States supporting the oppression of Palestinians, low worker wages in the face of ‘greedflation,’ anti-transgender legislation, and the fact that unhoused people are treated as a stain when the current system does not allow them access to housing. Reflecting on the Juneteenth weekend, Bush said “I refuse to accept the status quo where Juneteenth is a federally celebrated holiday but reparations are a non-starter for the elected officials who will gladly go and attend those Juneteenth parades.”
Sanders followed and gave some good news, saying that the current U.S. Congress includes “far more strong progressives than have existed in the modern history of this country,” adding that there was “nothing like it” when he started his congressional career in 1991. He also discussed the current landscape of the U.S. labor movement, saying “we are seeing a significant growth in the trade union movement… It is Starbucks, people at Amazon, [adjuncts] on college campuses, and just today, 97% of UPS [Teamsters], gave the to signal to leadership that they are prepared to strike if they do not get a decent contract.” (Many DSA elected officials already have signed onto a Strike Ready pledge initiated by the organization in support of UPS Teamsters.) Sanders then noted the new United Auto Workers rank-and-file leadership was “prepared to take on corporate greed in the auto industry.”
The Vermont senator assured attendees “you’re not the radical,” jokingly adding, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” He continued: “The views that you are expressing about economic justice, social justice, and racial justice, those are the views shared by the majority of the American people. The real radicals out there are the ones who say we need more tax breaks for billionaires, more military spending and that we should ignore climate change.”
Sanders contended that while labels do not matter as much as doing the work of politics and organizing, democratic socialists are special in understanding the long sweep of social change. He told the audience: “When we talk about being democratic socialists, we have a vision. It’s a vision that says that every man, woman, and child can have a decent standard of living. That instead of pushing wars, we can use that money to improve life for our people and people all over the world. That human solidarity, bringing people together for common goals to improve life for all, is what we are about.”
The all-day Saturday programming was led by the municipal and state-level legislators. When John Nichols asked during an ice breaker how many panel attendees had joined DSA and the socialist movement since 2016, nearly everyone raised their hands. Two of those in attendance had been delegates at the 2017 DSA convention in Chicago, including Dylan Parker, an elected official in the small Illinois city of Rock Island who joined DSA in 2015. He said: “Like many others, I was broken hearted after Bernie’s loss in 2016. However, I listened to him and ran for local office in 2017, where I’ve served as an Alderperson in Rock Island since.” Parker added, reflecting on Sanders’ legacy: “This weekend was a pleasant reminder that people just like me, from all across the country, similarly listened to Bernie and are running for local office and winning. Watching the number of socialist elected officials growing in this country is enormously rewarding and empowering.” Parker, a member of DSA’s National Labor Commission, is one of the socialist officeholders heavily focused on worker power.
One of the panels focussed on the U.S. labor movement and brought together three city councilors — Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of Chicago, Robin Wonsley of Minneapolis and Ross Grooters of Pleasant Hills, Iowa — along with Chris Townsend, a retired union staffer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Ramirez-Rosa explained how his deep relationships with progressive labor unions in the city, especially the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), helped create the political conditions for a wave of left-wing alderpeople to win office earlier this year, and for CTU alum Brandon Johnson to win the mayor’s race. After starting out as a lonely left-wing voice on the Chicago City Council in 2015, Ramirez-Rosa is now considered one of its most powerful members. Wonsley said that her movement experience included organizing workers through the Fight for 15, and she highlighted the importance of socialists being a bridge between organized labor and non-union workers. Along with serving as an Iowa councilor, Grooters is also an active rank-and-file union railroad worker, which he said allows him to provide real world labor perspective and knowledge while governing — and highlights the importance of having actual workers, not just allies, in elected office. Townsend brought decades of experience dealing with recalcitrant union leaders. He advised the officeholders to hold labor leadership’s feet to the fire and to meet with rank-and-file workers directly by visiting work sites to learn about their issues and advocate for them through their positions of power. The panel concluded with a group discussion including practical ideas such as sharing template resolutions in solidarity with unionized Starbucks workers.
While conference attendees discussed the challenges of legislating and how to build better governing practices — as the labor panel illustrated — the event also served as a space to collaborate and build relationships with fellow elected socialists. Many did not have Socialist in Office formations in their home districts, much less other socialist colleagues. Justin Farmer, a member of Town Council in Hamden, CT, reflected: “This conference was restorative, I’ve been elected for 6 years and this was the first time I felt like I am really part of a bigger movement.”
Since 2020, the U.S. Left has faced a paradox. As its success at the ballot box and in other areas grows, the victories are becoming less surprising. Whereas the election of local socialists made national news in the late 2010s, those wins have now become more of the norm. And as socialist power incrementally increases, the backlash has strengthened. In June, Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott issued a travel warning for socialists to avoid the Sunshine State. Former President Donald Trump, for his part, recently proposed to keep Marxists out of the United States. These types of edicts, while currently not enforceable, are the kind of precursors to red scares that the broad Left is increasingly taking seriously. This tense political landscape formed the backdrop of the conference, but attendees appeared undeterred.
The closing plenary, entitled “How We Win Tomorrow: Next Steps for Building Together,” was moderated by Nichols and featured DSA Fund Executive Director Maria Svart, Maryland Delegate Gabirel Acevero, New York State Senator Julia Salazar and Wisconsin Representative to the Assembly Ryan Clancy. The panelists stressed that while this was a domestic gathering, attendees could take inspiration from the successes of socialists abroad, with an understanding that they are part of an international movement. Salazar explained that last year she and her fellow New York socialist legislators toured social housing complexes in Vienna, Austria that were built by Social Democrats in the 1920s and 30s—examples of “municipal socialism” that remain in operation today. “The varieties of social housing we see in Vienna demonstrate what is possible when a government and society have the political will to create high-quality housing for people instead of for profit,” she said. Acevero noted, “we are building a foundation for a democratic socialist future. We cannot have democratic socialism, however, without political power.” Clancy found the weekend’s “conversations moved quickly into policy, and into sharing our own struggles and victories to make those premises like ‘housing should be a human right’ and ‘people should have food’ a reality.”
This long-term vision echoed Sanders’ remark that “when you have the courage to say you’re a democratic socialist what you’re saying is incremental change is not enough… and that we need transformational change.” The conference served as evidence that such transformational change can only happen democratically if socialist officeholders work closely with the membership of their socialist organization and other mass organizations. Sanders advised the elected officials that the “banner of democratic socialism should be taken on proudly” and when they do their work well “we will have tens of millions of people marching with us.”
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David Duhalde is the chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, DSA’s sister educational nonprofit. He is the former political director of Our Revolution and former deputy director of DSA.