The year the Democrats met the democratic socialists

D.S.A. members march toward New York City Hall in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 6, 2018. (Photo by author)

We lumbered through a jungle of signage and pageantry. People on stilts towered over us. Others controlled massive jellyfish puppets. One crew propped up a rusted (papier mâché? inflatable?) Statue of Liberty wearing a life vest.

It was Sept. 6, and with election mania ramping up, I was reporting on a rally, “Rise Up for Climate, Jobs and Justice,” in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park.

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“The Battery,” I overheard someone say, “is fully charged.”

I had moved to New York in August, as a broiling summer molted into an autumn of suspense and intrigue. Back West, forests had burned to ash and displaced thousands. Out East, it would not be long before storm winds pummeled the coast.

At the end of June, the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez catapulted from Flats Fix (the taqueria where she worked and where young America staffers have been known to behave responsibly and order just one round of frozen margaritas per visit) to a general election ballot, vanquishing Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley of New York’s 14th district in the biggest upset of primary season. Now, with the midterm elections a couple of months away, forecasting websites were zapping us with updates, reworking their blue-and-red pictorials whenever they got new data. Based on polling, it appeared likely that the Democratic Party would retake the House.   

Regardless of who wins in November, what happens next for the social-justice movement in America?

To many voters in the summer and early autumn of 2018, and even to a widening slice of baby boomers, platforms like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s sounded appealing. Big-name Democrats had already tacked left on certain issues, endorsing a federal jobs guarantee and Medicare for All. Grassroots organizers continue to push for redistributive measures. Voters’ expectations of Democratic leaders are changing. Regardless of who wins in November, what happens next for the social-justice movement in America?  

The Energizer Bunnies

At 6 p.m. on a soupy Thursday evening, I traded my work clothes for a T-shirt and jeans (and, as a final touch, a very edgy bandanna). Then my colleague Sean and I took the train downtown, where hundreds of people had convened in the Battery for the “Rise Up” rally.

Sean and I had one objective: to locate the D.S.A. and watch them in action. What we found was a grassroots movement so vast and full of verve that sometimes the roar of the whole—impassioned, single-minded, fuming—overpowered the hums of its constituent parts.  

We waddled into the park like a pair of groggy dodo birds and met a man with an impeccably groomed beard and an ombré-haired woman wearing Clout Goggle sunglasses. They were holding clipboards and looked official, so we asked if they were with the D.S.A. The woman lowered her glasses. “They have a contingent here,” she said. “So do a lot of other groups.”

The man said, “Would you like to sign up for our email list?” They were representing another climate-justice group. Sure, I said, why not. I learned from them that this was one of 250 nationwide “Rise” events being held by the People’s Climate Movement—a partnership of environmental organizations, including the N.Y.C.-D.S.A. Ecosocialist Working Group—in advance of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The D.S.A. had a member on the steering committee for “Rise” New York.       

Two college-age women wagged a sign bedazzled with seashells that said, “Don’t Be Shellfish,” urging viewers to save our oceans. “Do you guys have a flier?” I asked. No, they said, they weren’t with an organization, they were there just to support the cause.

Speaker after speaker riled up the crowd. One mentioned the Koch Brothers. “You know who they are?” The crowd went, “Boooo!” The speaker said, “I love crowds like this.” Recurrent topics included deregulation, de-unionization, and the fruits of climate change: wildfires; asthma and emphysema; lost jobs, homes and livelihoods; a disproportionate accruement of consequences to communities of color.   

With every sentence issued from the lectern, more figures drifted into the blob of audience members. A wispy-haired, Danny DeVito-ish man had a torso-sized poster fastened to his chest that said, “PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT IS A SHAM! SAVE THE PLANET, NATIONALIZE ENERGY!” He was lugging some socialist newspapers and asked if I wanted one.

I shrugged. “Sure, O.K.,” I said.   

“That’s one dollar,” he said.

I did want to take a look at the newspaper, but I’m also a cheapskate. I declined.

“You don’t have a dollar?” he said. I mumbled something and scooted awkwardly away. Sean took him up on the offer.

The Jewish Voice for Peace was there too, with a sign that said, “Water for olive trees  / Not for settlement lawns.” The Catholic Climate Movement delegation held a “Laudato Si’” banner.

Then the parade got going. Drumbeats and colorful signs evoked a peppy Disney phantasmagoria. The sky turned a shade of milky Earl Grey, and it started to drizzle.

The activists (young and old) bounced like Energizer Bunnies, chanting and marching toward City Hall. A sizable D.S.A. contingent held a banner decorated with drawings of roses. Their “secret sauce,” said one of the socialists, is a focus on both effecting change within the system and agitating.

The day after “Rise,” police arrested 10 protesters at Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Manhattan office for civil disobedience. Thomas Niles, who was among those arrested, told me that he, “along with other comrades in D.S.A. and other climate groups in the city, blocked traffic…to highlight [Mr. Cuomo’s] inaction on climate and call on him to take the climate crisis a lot more seriously than he is.”

The activists (young and old) bounced like Energizer Bunnies, chanting and marching toward City Hall.

“If we are truly gonna dismantle fossil-fuel capitalism,” he continued, “we are gonna need bigger actions that confront power more directly. So I’m excited to have the experience of my first civil disobedience behind me, and I look forward to more!”

They made a lot of noise

Maxine Phillips joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee about 40 years ago, before it became the D.S.A. in 1982. She agreed to talk with me about her time as a member.

She traces her membership to a discussion on corporate capitalism at her Baptist church in the 1970s. “At the end of the study group, one of the co-authors of the book came…and he said, ‘The only solution is socialism.’”

“Yeah, that may be the answer, but there’s no chance,” Ms. Phillips remembered saying to him. Then someone else in the group told her about an organization that “tries to be the left wing of the Democratic Party and move it leftward.”

“I looked them up in the phonebook,” said Ms. Phillips, “and they sent me a membership form, and I joined.”

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“I was so impressed with how [a Catholic socialist] ran the meeting,” she remarked. It was “focused, and we had time budgeting, and we had goals, and we had a three-month plan. That kind of went against the popular image of socialists as just spending a lot of time sitting around talking.”

She also admired Michael Harrington, who was influenced by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. “We used to joke with him that even though he had left the church behind, the church had not necessarily left him.”

All along, members have skippered the organization through intergenerational fender benders. “People who didn’t live through the same political periods that we lived through have different experiences,” said Ms. Phillips. Historical flashpoints have chiseled out the contours of members’ political consciousnesses, and how they relate to the organization.    

“For us it was the [Vietnam] War and the civil rights movement,” said Ms. Phillips. “Other people came in during the Reagan and Thatcher era [and] the war in Iraq.”

“The younger people…if I said the word ‘gulag,’ I don’t know if they’d know what it means. Do you?”

I said I did. “Gulag” refers to the network of forced-labor camps where Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, leaders of the Soviet Union, detained political prisoners. The system, which led to millions of deaths, provides a visceral image of 20th-century totalitarianism, buttressing arguments against socialism.  

With renewed enthusiasm has come a focus on canvassing, now the linchpin of the D.S.A.’s electoral operation—“listening to people and talking to them and finding out what their fears are.”

“There’s such a confusion in this country,” said Ms. Phillips. “In Europe, socialist parties were not supporting China or the Soviet Union, or any of the totalitarian regimes.”

David Reed, a millennial who serves as interim editor of the New York D.S.A.’s religious socialism website, joined the D.S.A. around 2012, after Googling “socialist groups in the United States.”

It had been a long time coming. Frustrated with the major parties, which he did not believe were serving the interests of regular people, Mr. Reed began to look elsewhere near the start of this decade. “I was trying to make sense of American politics and Catholic social teaching,” he told me. He found democratic socialism more compatible with church teaching than anything else he had read about. “As somebody who has taught Catholic social teaching at an academic level several times, I’ve become more convinced of that.”

Like Ms. Phillips, he believes that a lack of “baggage” distinguishes this spate of activism from the labor movement of the past 100 years. Young millennials and members of Generation Z have no memory of the Soviet Union.  

With renewed enthusiasm has come a focus on canvassing, now the linchpin of the D.S.A.’s electoral operation—“listening to people and talking to them and finding out what their fears are,” as Ms. Phillips put it.

“These are the same fights that people had 100 years ago,” Ms. Phillips said. But in the ’70s, when the socialist movement had considerably more momentum than it did in the decades that followed, candidates for public office “didn’t run as socialists. They were members very quietly. And then they usually dropped their membership after they got elected.… It wasn’t something they put at the top of their résumés.”

I asked Ms. Phillips if any tension exists between the D.S.A.’s anti-capitalism and the more subdued visions of social democracy advanced by candidates like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

“At this point, I’d be happy to have what they have in Sweden. But at a later point I’d be happy to have complete worker control.” The D.S.A. does not want Band-Aid solutions, she said, “but Band-Aids can help people. You can put something on a wound that can help it and then people can get stronger and they can fight for something better.”

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“There’s a careful balance to be made that can be tricky at times,” said Mr. Niles. “Completely swearing off electoral cuts us off from an important avenue of power, but depending too much on it damns us to be co-opted and absorbed by the Democratic Party while not empowering communities and building leadership within our own ranks.”

On Sept. 13, the self-identified democratic socialist Cynthia Nixon amassed 34 percent of the vote in the New York Democratic primary but lost to incumbent Governor Cuomo. Going into November, nearly 50 socialist candidates have secured spots on general-election ballots. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed all Democratic nominees, including Governor Cuomo.   

It is too soon to tell how the relationship between the democratic socialists and the Democratic Party will look a year from now, or two years from now, or even on Nov. 7. But in 2018, the grass roots moved and shook, and they made a lot of noise.

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

Evil meets evil. Any form of socialism requires oppression because it is against the natural law. Socialism restricts freedom some more than others but all do. When the dysfunctional policies of any form of socialism kick in, the people rebel and then they must be controlled by a police state.

Mr. Sanchez and all editors and authors should watch the video below, published by NPR just yesterday. You are misinformed. Sweden is more of a free market capitalist country than the United States.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

The Scandinavian countries are free market democracies, They just have high taxes but depend on a free market economy to provide the money for their social programs. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq3vVbdgMuQ

This can be done because they are small and homogeneous. Or were. They are now having problems with non Scandinavians.

Christopher Lochner
1 month 2 weeks ago

Dorothy Day!! Really?? Didn't Scripture warn us about a thief in the night, someone who'll take your hard earned rewards and make them their own? This is all about having power over others without even working for it! This is NOT about anything Christian. Watch YouTube videos of Dorothy and you'll be astounded by her foolishness

Héctor Portillo
1 month 2 weeks ago

Great article and very interesting. Thank you!

Joseph J Dunn
1 month ago

The website of the Democratic Socialists of America https://www.dsausa.org/about-us/what-is-democratic-socialism/#govt declares, “We are proud of the traditions upon which we are based, of the heritage of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas…” In a speech accepting nomination as the as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912 http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5725/ Eugene Debs declared, “The working class will never be emancipated by the grace of the capitalist class, but only by overthrowing that class…The Socialist party’s mission is not only to destroy capitalist despotism but to establish industrial and social democracy. To this end the workers are steadily organizing and fitting themselves for the day when they shall take control of the people’s industries…” That is the socialism that today’s Democratic Socialists of America claim as their pedigree.
This socialism is not to be confused with the economic systems of Scandinavian countries, which are capitalist, with higher taxes and more extensive social services than we currently have in America. Sweden is home to multinational for-profit corporations including AstraZeneca, Electrolux, Ericsson, IKEA and Skype. In Norway, according to a government-produced “Grette: Guide to Doing Business in Norway,” https://grette.no/content/uploads/2018/02/Doing-business-in-Norway-2018…
intellectual property rights are very well protected. Productivity is higher than the average for the E. U. partly because the higher labor costs encourage use of advanced technology and focus on productivity. Norway is the 11th most competitive country in the world, according to the World Competitiveness Scoreboard from IMD for 2017. Equinor (formerly Statoil) is a global energy company. Two-thirds of its shares are owned by the Norwegian government and one-third by, well, a lot of people. The shares trade on the New York and Oslo exchanges. Perhaps we should call the Scandinavian economies “capitalist light” or “high-tax capitalist” or fix some other moniker, but “socialist” they are not.
The blurring of the definitions, and the misidentification of Scandinavian systems, may be a way of dangerously anesthetizing many people so that they accept in the near term what some call democratic socialism, and then begin to move toward real socialism--the kind promoted by D. S. A..

Long before the Russian Revolution, and before any significant experience with socialism, Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum:
“Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” #15.

In Quadragesimo Anno, in 1931, Pius XI wrote: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true Socialist.” #120.
Popes have criticized the abuses that can arise in capitalism, but they have consistently objected to socialism, not just on private property grounds, but, as they discuss at length, also with an eye to charity, solidarity, subsidiarity and the preservation of the civil society entities that are the creative engines of so much innovation in social justice work.

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