Socialists in the House: A 100-Year History from Victor Berger to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

American socialists have a long and proud tradition in elected office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are the latest to carry the torch.

Maurice Isserman

Victor Berger, seen here with Eugene V. Debs and Berth Hale White, was an American socialist elected to the House in 1910. (New York Times Co./Getty Images)

On Tues­day, Novem­ber 6, Rashi­da Tlaib, born and raised in Detroit, the daugh­ter of Pales­tin­ian immi­grants, won elec­tion in Michigan’s 13th dis­trict, mak­ing her one of the first Mus­lim women, as well as the first Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can woman, elect­ed to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, whose father was born in the Bronx and whose moth­er was born in Puer­to-Rico, won elec­tion in New York’s 14th dis­trict and will be the youngest woman ever to serve in the House.

Socialists in Congress are a rare but not unknown phenomenon in American political history.

There’s some­thing else that sets them apart from their new col­leagues in Wash­ing­ton, DC: Both are mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). As a result, he 116th Con­gress will con­sist of two social­ists and four hun­dred and thir­ty-three rep­re­sen­ta­tives of oth­er per­sua­sions. It’s a start.

Social­ists in Con­gress are a rare but not unknown phe­nom­e­non in Amer­i­can polit­i­cal his­to­ry (although nev­er until now Con­gress­women). Two served in the years lead­ing up to the First World War, an era which saw over a thou­sand mem­bers of the Social­ist Par­ty elect­ed to local and state offices. In 1910, two years before social­ist pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Eugene Debs attract­ed over a mil­lion votes (6 per­cent of the total cast) in the pres­i­den­tial race, Vic­tor Berg­er, an immi­grant from Aus­tria-Hun­gary and found­ing mem­ber of the Social­ist Par­ty, was elect­ed to Con­gress from Mil­wau­kee, Wisconsin.

Defeat­ed for re-elec­tion in 1912, six years lat­er the sew­er social­ist” was again vot­ed in, even after being indict­ed for vio­la­tion of the Espi­onage Act, a fed­er­al law tar­get­ing anti-war dis­senters. Demo­c­ra­t­ic norms count­ed for lit­tle in the hys­te­ria of wartime and the post-war Red Scare, and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives twice refused to seat him, even when he won a spe­cial elec­tion in 1919 for the same seat. Final­ly, in 1922, after his Espi­onage Act con­vic­tion was over­turned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Berg­er was once again elect­ed to Con­gress and allowed to take his seat. He was re-elect­ed twice more before retiring.

The oth­er social­ist Con­gress­man in the Debs era, Mey­er Lon­don, an immi­grant from Lithua­nia and anoth­er found­ing mem­ber of the Social­ist Par­ty, was elect­ed to Con­gress from a dis­trict on the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan in 1914, re-elect­ed in 1916, but defeat­ed in 1918. He ran a suc­cess­ful re-elec­tion cam­paign in 1920, serv­ing a final term.

It would be anoth­er half cen­tu­ry before avowed social­ists were again ele­vat­ed to the halls of Con­gress. Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist Ron Del­lums rep­re­sent­ed the Bay Area from 1971 through 1998, and Major Owens rep­re­sent­ed Brook­lyn vot­ers from 1983 through 2007. Both joined DSA after its found­ing in 1982, and both ran for office on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic tick­et (much like Oca­sio-Cortez and Tlaib).

Bernie Sanders was elect­ed to rep­re­sent Ver­mont as an Inde­pen­dent in the House in 1990, where he served for 16 years. In 2006, he was elect­ed to the U.S. Sen­ate where he con­tin­ues to serve today. Sanders is like­ly the most high-pro­file open­ly social­ist elect­ed offi­cial in the Unit­ed States, and great­ly helped raise the pro­file of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism through his Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial run in 2015 and 2016. Sanders is not a mem­ber of DSA, though he has spo­ken at events for the orga­ni­za­tion dur­ing his polit­i­cal career.

Vot­ers who cast their bal­lots for Berg­er and Lon­don in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry knew exact­ly who and what they were vot­ing for — the Social­ist Par­ty, the caus­es it embraced, and the ulti­mate goal of cre­at­ing a social­ist soci­ety. For Del­lums and Owens, both of whom had held polit­i­cal office long before join­ing DSA, their demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist alle­giance was more of an inci­den­tal aspect of their appeal to the aver­age vot­er. Each pub­licly acknowl­edged their mem­ber­ship in DSA, and the orga­ni­za­tion proud­ly adver­tised their mem­ber­ship. But nei­ther Del­lums nor Owens were depen­dent on DSA polit­i­cal­ly. They cer­tain­ly didn’t feel oblig­ed to con­sult with the orga­ni­za­tion to decide how to vote, although both proved reli­ably progressive. 

A half-cen­tu­ry ear­li­er, Berg­er and Lon­don had much stronger orga­ni­za­tion­al ties to the social­ist move­ment. But even then, they chart­ed their own course, based on polit­i­cal con­vic­tion — or polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy. Berg­er spoke out against WWI and wound up fac­ing heavy jail time as a result, as well as the denial of his right­ful seat in Con­gress. Lon­don opposed Amer­i­can entry into the war, but once war was declared he reluc­tant­ly decid­ed to sup­port it. There was grum­bling from the social­ist ranks about his apos­ta­sy, but no offi­cial con­dem­na­tion or sanc­tions. (While Berg­er was fur­ther left than Lon­don on the ques­tion of oppos­ing the war, he was to London’s right on oth­er issues, such as the restric­tion of immi­gra­tion. Social­ist Par­ty pol­i­tics in the Debs era were com­pli­cat­ed. For a good guide on these mat­ters, see In These Times founder James Weinstein’s clas­sic study, The Decline of Social­ism in Amer­i­ca, 1912 – 1925.)

What then can we expect of the like­ly post-elec­tion rela­tion­ship between the two new social­ist Con­gress­women and DSA? Tlaib already had made her mark in Michi­gan state pol­i­tics before join­ing DSA. Oca­sio-Cortez, on the oth­er hand, made her first run for polit­i­cal office with­in a year of join­ing DSA; vol­un­teers and staff from New York City DSA were vital to her suc­cess. Nonethe­less, as in the ear­li­er case of Del­lums and Owens, the demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist label was like­ly of lit­tle impor­tance to most of those who vot­ed for either can­di­date in the gen­er­al elec­tion, since they both ran as Democ­rats in heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic districts. 

And now that they are in Con­gress, both Tlaib and Oca­sio-Cortez will almost cer­tain­ly devel­op broad­ened polit­i­cal bases large­ly inde­pen­dent of DSA. Orga­nized labor and lib­er­al advo­ca­cy groups will be in their camp now. The Con­gress­women may, out of con­vic­tion or good will, con­tin­ue to pay DSA dues, and show up for ral­lies, fundrais­ers or oth­er social­ist gath­er­ings, as Del­lums and Owens did. But it’s unlike­ly they’ll have the time or incli­na­tion to devote much more in terms of direct involve­ment. If they are going to do their jobs right, serve their con­stituents — and get re-elect­ed — they are going to be very busy and in a much big­ger arena.

Vol­un­teer pow­er from DSA, how­ev­er, did help both Tlaib and, per­haps more so, Oca­sio-Cortez, win their con­test­ed pri­maries. That involve­ment shows what kind of an impact the orga­ni­za­tion can have on elec­toral races, and will like­ly inspire oth­er insur­gent can­di­dates to seek DSA’s endorse­ment in future races. And as more politi­cians begin to adopt the label of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist” — while advanc­ing the val­ues and pol­i­cy pri­or­i­ties of the group, DSA will con­tin­ue to grow in pow­er as a play­er in Amer­i­can politics.

It is this growth that is more impor­tant for the organization’s con­tin­ued suc­cess than dis­cus­sions of strict account­abil­i­ty to DSA. After all, as elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Tlaib and Oca­sio-Cortez are account­able to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent groups that helped elect them, and first and fore­most — and right­ly so in a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem — to the vot­ers of the dis­tricts they rep­re­sent. And as a mat­ter of prac­ti­cal­i­ty, DSA cur­rent­ly needs Tlaib and Oca­sio-Cortez more than either of them need DSA. 

This real­i­ty is worth remem­ber­ing if the new­ly reen­er­gized DSA is to help expand the social­ist cau­cus in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives beyond the two it cur­rent­ly counts.

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