Socialism, Coming to a State Fair Near You

Give us funnel cake, but give us roses too.

Rebecca Burns September 15, 2017

Members of four new chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America—Iowa City, Central Iowa, Dubuque and Heart of Iowa—take socialism on parade on the opening day of the Iowa State Fair, August 9. (Rose Fiala/DSA)

DES MOINES, IOWA — What do fried enchi­la­da fun­nel cakes and demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism have in com­mon? Both made their debut this year at the Iowa State Fair, an annu­al tra­di­tion deeply embed­ded in Amer­i­can cul­ture and pol­i­tics. In the August 9 open­ing parade, amid floats adver­tis­ing Iowa Catholic Radio and corn mazes, 30 Iowa social­ists chant­ed, How does sin­gle-pay­er pass? Uni­fy the work­ing class!”

“I think people around me distrust centralized power and the elites. They might not call that the ‘ruling class,’ but that’s what it is.”

Every four years, pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls flock to the Iowa fair­grounds to test their mes­sag­ing and prove their com­mon touch. Things are qui­eter in off-years, so local Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) mem­bers decid­ed to try an exper­i­ment. Why not use the event to test Iowans’ appetite for socialism?

We had no idea how peo­ple would react,” says Chris­tine Darr, sec­re­tary of Iowa’s new­ly formed Dubuque DSA chap­ter. In fact, the social­ists got a warm wel­come, with many in the crowd cheer­ing their calls for uni­ver­sal healthcare.

Since its launch in Jan­u­ary, the Dubuque chap­ter has grown to about 40 mem­bers. It’s one of four Iowa chap­ters that have sprung up since Don­ald Trump’s vic­to­ry. DSA even has a mem­ber run­ning for a seat on Des Moines’ non-par­ti­san city coun­cil: Abshir Omar, 26, a Soma­li refugee.

He wouldn’t be the state’s first social­ist to hold office. Pri­or to 1960, the Iowa branch of Eugene V. Debs’ Social­ist Par­ty suc­cess­ful­ly elect­ed can­di­dates in at least eight cities. That includ­ed the city of Dav­en­port, where vot­ers pulled off an aston­ish­ing polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in the midst of the first Red Scare: In 1920, the may­or and five of eight city coun­cil mem­bers were open social­ists. A social­ist can­di­date for gov­er­nor, George Peck, ran that year call­ing for pub­licly owned util­i­ties and state insur­ance for indus­tri­al acci­dents, but the influ­ence of Iowa social­ists soon fiz­zled amidst infight­ing and a fresh wave of red-baiting.

It’s these oft-for­got­ten his­to­ries that many are hop­ing to chan­nel as they rebuild social­ist orga­ni­za­tions in the Mid­west. Lots of peo­ple don’t know that Iowa has a pop­ulist his­to­ry, even a social­ist his­to­ry,” says Alex Kruse, 20, a new DSA mem­ber who hails from a union house­hold in Dubuque and says he was first drawn to Marx­ism in mid­dle school.”

DSA’s mem­ber­ship num­bers in the Mid­west still lag behind the coasts, but the region has seen nine new DSA chap­ters form this year and 2,800 new mem­bers sign up online since the 2016 election.

That should debunk the notion that social­ism can’t play in Peo­ria, says Eri­ka Paschold, 31, a mem­ber of a DSA chap­ter in Lin­coln, Neb., estab­lished in April. I’m real­ly pas­sion­ate about try­ing to con­nect Nebras­ka val­ues to social­ist val­ues,” says Paschold, who grew up on a farm out­side Lin­coln. I think peo­ple around me dis­trust cen­tral­ized pow­er and the elites. They might not call that the rul­ing class,’ but that’s what it is.” The Lin­coln chap­ter plans to orga­nize around afford­able hous­ing issues.

In April, DSA mem­ber Dylan Park­er won his bid for city coun­cil in Rock Island, Ill., just across the riv­er from Dav­en­port. Park­er, a 28-year-old diesel mechan­ic who was born in Dav­en­port and is well aware of its social­ist his­to­ry, says he nev­er shoved the s‑word down peo­ples’ throats” while knock­ing on doors. But he didn’t hide his pol­i­tics, either, and cam­paigned on a pro­pos­al for pub­licly owned broad­band inter­net — a plan rem­i­nis­cent of the sew­er social­ism” made famous in Mil­wau­kee in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Munic­i­pal­ly mind­ed social­ists sought to clean up the pol­lu­tion caused by the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion and estab­lish city con­trol over water and pow­er systems.

Park­er says he doesn’t mind this call­back to the pol­i­tics of waste dis­pos­al: It’s not the most glam­orous name, but it’s the sub­stance that mat­ters,” he says. The goal is to replace pri­vate own­er­ship of ser­vices with demo­c­ra­t­ic ownership.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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