Socialists Just Showed the Democratic Party How to Win Across the U.S.

Tuesday night’s progressive electoral wave is proof that embracing a bold left agenda is the key to victory.

Miles Kampf-Lassin November 8, 2017

Democratic socialist Seema Singh Perez will be the first Indian-American member of the Knoxville city council. (Facebook/Elect Seema Singh Perez City Council 3rd District)

One year ago, a wave of dis­be­lief, gloom and rage washed across the coun­try. A vile orange man­i­fes­ta­tion of America’s dark­est id had won the pres­i­den­cy, Repub­li­cans held con­trol of all three branch­es of gov­ern­ment, and new night­mares awaited.

These victories are not anomalies or flukes. Rather, they prove that embracing an explicitly socialist politics does not prevent candidates from winning in 2017.

Trump is still pres­i­dent, the GOP still has the House and Sen­ate, and every day we wit­ness new threats to the envi­ron­ment, the social safe­ty net and — with an inco­her­ent man-child’s hands on the nuclear foot­ball — the very future of humanity.

But last night we saw a very dif­fer­ent kind of wave, one that moves us towards a pol­i­tics that rejects the hor­rors of Trump­ism — and instead embraces a bold pro­gres­sive vision for the future. Across the coun­try, can­di­dates run­ning from the Left won — and many of them won big.

Lar­ry Kras­ner, a civ­il-rights attor­ney who has rep­re­sent­ed activists from Black Lives Mat­ter and Occu­py Wall Street, was elect­ed as Philadelphia’s new Dis­trict Attor­ney in a 40-point blowout. Kras­ner ran on a plat­form of stop­ping mass incar­cer­a­tion, end­ing bail and civ­il asset for­fei­ture and explic­it­ly renounc­ing Trump. Fol­low­ing his vic­to­ry, he told Busi­ness Insid­er, I think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty should be mad­ly wrap­ping its lov­ing arms around progressives.”

Maine vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly chose to expand Med­ic­aid in a his­toric ref­er­en­dum that will pro­vide health cov­er­age to tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents who don’t cur­rent­ly have it — a clear repu­di­a­tion of Repub­li­cans’ attempts to gut the pro­gram through their effort to repeal Oba­macare. The ref­er­en­dum was sup­port­ed by Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and saw at least 21 of its endorsed can­di­dates win this elec­tion cycle.

Mean­while, left can­di­date Seema Singh Perez won a seat on the Knoxville, Tenn. city coun­cil, defeat­ing her oppo­nent 6,105 to 4,470 to become the city’s first Indi­an-Amer­i­can coun­cil member.

Perez is a prime exam­ple of the new type of can­di­date blaz­ing an elec­toral path for the Left in the era of Trump. After protest­ing the DNC for its bias against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, she chose to run for office for the first time this year, com­ing from a back­ground in social work and health­care — not pol­i­tics. She’s also an open social­ist who won the endorse­ment of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), a group that has seen mas­sive growth since Trump’s elec­tion, bal­loon­ing from 6,500 mem­bers in May 2016 to more than 30,000 today (the author is a member).

Perez joins 14 oth­er DSA-endorsed can­di­dates who won their elec­tions yes­ter­day. One of them, Lee Carter, defeat­ed Vir­ginia GOP House of Del­e­gates Major­i­ty Whip Jack­son Miller, one of the most pow­er­ful Repub­li­cans in the state, by run­ning on a pledge to win sin­gle-pay­er health­care and take big mon­ey out of the polit­i­cal sys­tem. After fac­ing a cam­paign of red bait­ing, includ­ing a fli­er com­par­ing him to Joseph Stal­in and Mao Zedong, Carter scored an upset vic­to­ry — even with lit­tle back­ing from the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party. 

Social­ists saw oth­er big gains in Somerville, Mass., where two DSA mem­bers — Ben Ewen-Camp­en and J.T. Scott — won seats on the Board of Alder­men after beat­ing incum­bents. Over­all, all sev­en can­di­dates endorsed by Our Rev­o­lu­tion, includ­ing Ewen-Camp­en and Scott, won in that city’s elections.

In Cuya­hoga Coun­ty, Oh., DSA mem­ber Tris­tan Rad­er won his elec­tion to the Lake­wood City Coun­cil. In Moor­head, Minn., Red Riv­er Val­ley DSA cofounder Kara Gloe won a School Board seat. And in Pitts­burgh, Pa., dis­trict judge can­di­date Mik Pap­pas and coun­ty coun­cil can­di­date Ani­ta Prizio — both endorsed by the local DSA chap­ter — beat out long­time incumbents.

Oth­er places DSA-endorsed can­di­dates won include Cheek­towa­ga, Peek­skill and New York, N.Y., New Haven, Conn., Pleas­ant Hill, Ia., Billings, Mont. and Upper Dar­by, Penn.

These vic­to­ries are not anom­alies or flukes. Rather, they prove that embrac­ing an explic­it­ly social­ist pol­i­tics does not pre­vent can­di­dates from win­ning in 2017. If any­thing, the social­ist tag can show vot­ers where can­di­dates stand and what their val­ues are. As Lee Carter explained to The New Repub­lic, If you’re to the left of Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter, Repub­li­cans are going to call you a social­ist any­way, so you may as well just own the label.”

As the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC) purges a num­ber of Bernie Sanders-aligned mem­bers from lead­er­ship, and long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic oper­a­tives scold the par­ty for stray­ing too far from the ever right­ward-mov­ing cen­ter,” Tuesday’s elec­tion results show that the Democ­rats’ prob­lem isn’t a shift to the Left: It’s the party’s refusal to change.

A new­ly released poll shows that, nation­al­ly, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has hit its low­est point in favor­able views in 25 years. Democ­rats have rea­son to be relieved after avoid­ing a poten­tial­ly dispir­it­ing loss in the Vir­ginia governor’s race, while also com­ing out on top in New Jer­sey with Phil Murphy’s guber­na­to­r­i­al vic­to­ry and Bill de Blasio’s re-elec­tion as may­or of New York City. How­ev­er, this poll is a reminder that the par­ty has a long way to go to work back from its low­est lev­el of pow­er since the 1920s. 

Democ­rats must read the red tea leaves and real­ize that poli­cies that improve people’s lives — such as uni­ver­sal health­care, tuition-free col­lege, afford­able hous­ing, high­er wages and real crim­i­nal jus­tice reform — are not just pop­u­lar: They’re win­ning issues.

And despite many estab­lish­ment pun­dits’ obses­sion with spot­light­ing a sup­posed class ver­sus iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics divide in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, the elec­tion results also showed that pro­gres­sives from all back­grounds can win. 

In Hobo­ken, N.J., Ravi Bhal­la became the nation’s first Sikh may­or after fac­ing a racist oppo­si­tion cam­paign that fea­tured fliers fear mon­ger­ing over ter­ror­ism.” Min­neapo­lis elect­ed Andrea Jenk­ins, the first trans­gen­der woman of col­or to the city council.

Black Demo­c­rat Justin Fair­fax won his race for Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor in Vir­ginia in a show­down with a Trump-like Repub­li­can oppo­nent who exclaimed at a ral­ly, We are going to take back Vir­ginia the way this pres­i­dent is going to take back this coun­try!” Vir­ginia also elect­ed the first open­ly trans­gen­der woman to its state leg­is­la­ture, Dan­i­ca Roem. And in Char­lotte, N.C., Demo­c­rat Vi Lyles over­came a smear cam­paign to become the city’s first woman of col­or mayor.

Since last year’s elec­tion, some things have remained unchanged in the polit­i­cal land­scape. The Repub­li­can Par­ty has still thrown their lot in with an imbe­cile pres­i­dent pos­ing as a pop­ulist. And the Democ­rats, in many ways, are still com­ing to terms with the mean­ing of the party’s loss and try­ing to chart a new way forward. 

Tues­day was the clear­est sig­nal yet of what the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must do if it hopes to build from the ener­gy and activism that has blos­somed in response to Trump’s elec­tion: Run can­di­dates with bold left agen­das. Sup­port them. Don’t be afraid of the S‑word. And leave Third Way cen­trism in its tomb.

The path to vic­to­ry is being chart­ed. The choice of whether to fol­low it is up to the Democ­rats now.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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