The year the Democrats met the democratic socialists
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, with my colleague Sean.
“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. Activists’ 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 converted my work clothes—a dark blue button-up and dark-wash jeans—into something better suited to late summer. I unbuttoned my button-up and wore it open, with a white T-shirt underneath; I cuffed my jeans; and I tied a very edgy bandanna around my head, to sop up the sweat. Then Sean and I took the train downtown, where hundreds of people had convened in the Battery for the “Rise” rally.
Having learned about the event by perusing the N.Y.C.-D.S.A.’s online calendar, we 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 Thomas Niles, a member of the N.Y.C.-D.S.A. Ecosocialist Working Group, 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. Mr. 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.”
“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.”
“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 hard 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.