In June, amid ongoing unrest following George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, members of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America took to the streets to pressure Gotham officials to slash the New York Police Department budget. Protesters rallied at the homes of several powerful council members, banging on doors and demanding to speak to the officials. One Queens councilman, Daniel Dromm, described by a neighborhood paper as “clearly resentful that his progressive credentials were being challenged,” dismissed the protesters as “Brooklyn trust fund babies”—a reference to the reputation of the DSA as a party of young, well-to-do neighborhood newcomers, sometimes dubbed gentrifiers. Laurie Cumbo, the city council’s majority leader, was even more incensed, threatening the protesters, who included Cumbo’s opponent in a previous election, in a tweet: “you come to my home again or anyplace where I am with my son with a bullhorn & you too will be met with a group of protesters & they won’t be gentrifiers.”
Yet the socialists’ aggressiveness had a clear purpose. The city’s main socialist party is looking to use the momentum generated by the stunning success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 election in New York’s 14th Congressional District to build a larger movement, and it has targeted New York’s 2021 municipal elections as potentially winnable for its candidates. Party members have already begun directing withering criticism at local Democrats and progressives, painting them as insufficiently leftist.
New York socialists aren’t alone. Around the country, septuagenarian Bernie Sanders sparked a new interest in socialism with his 2016 and 2020 runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though Sanders himself was unlikely ever to win a national election running on a platform of vastly expanding social welfare and redistributing income, his campaigns are credited with producing a surge in youthful membership in far-left parties like the Democratic Socialists of America. Now those gains are translating into grassroots electoral victories in municipal governments, where socialists haven’t had such successes in a century. Just in the last four years, several dozen socialist candidates have won office in major cities like Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. With Republicans a nonfactor in many of these places, the rise of a new breed of socialist candidate is forcing the traditional Democratic Party further left, threatening the grip that established political machines have on some cities and even shaking up Democrats’ union allies.
Though some of these candidates disavow the Marxist label, they openly espouse worker control of the means of production, government management of industries like electrical supply, and a regulatory state that narrows the ability of property owners to control the destiny of their holdings. The disruptive methods of some of these new American socialists, meantime, are often ripped from the handbook of radical activists like Saul Alinsky. They advocate protest and disruption of their own local governments, ruling more as outsiders even after winning office.
Though the last socialist surge in U.S. city government petered out long ago, this new movement is composed more broadly of educated, urbanized college graduates. Their heavily redistributionist policies and promises of free stuff—college, health care, even income—have proved appealing, at least for now, in some already-progressive municipalities. Are American socialists poised for even bigger gains?
The socialist movement of the early twentieth century took root in agrarian and mining states like Oklahoma, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, and then spread gradually to the blue-collar manufacturing districts of some urban centers like Schenectady, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Back then, socialists were more likely to find success in municipalities throughout Ohio and West Virginia than in some of America’s biggest cities. Victorious socialist candidates campaigned on worker control over farms, mines, and manufacturers, as well as progressive reforms of government, including initiative and referendum and greater regulation of corporations. They utilized massive general strikes and other social disruptions to promote their radical agenda—a strategy that may have helped bring about their downfall.
That downfall began with the Red Scare, a widespread reaction against American socialism spurred by the rise of Communism in World War I Europe and increasing violence in the U.S., especially in the summer of 1919, which saw major strikes and anarchist bombings, as well as race riots that critics blamed on socialist agitators. The backlash produced federal investigations of unions and socialist parties and the deportation of immigrants belonging to the movement. In early 1920, the New York State Assembly effectively destroyed the socialist caucus in Albany when it expelled the party’s five members from the legislature, declaring that the socialists belonged to a seditious organization, not a legitimate political group. The turmoil reverberated throughout the early 1920s, leading Congress to enact a series of immigration restrictions.
Today’s socialist movement is cut from another cloth, with a different geographic and demographic makeup: educated young urbanities moving to some of America’s most progressive cities. There, they’ve often found high housing costs, poor schools, and declining economic opportunity and mobility. But rather than see these problems as the result of misguided big government—restrictions on building, say, or monopoly control of education by teachers’ unions, or excessive taxes and regulations on business—they have determined that what ails such places is too much free market and not enough government.
That’s why Sanders’s message of Medicare for All, free college, and universal basic income resonated. Sanders’s influence is also reflected in the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America. Founded by Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, in 1982, the organization’s membership stood at 5,000 during most of the 1980s; by 2002, it had climbed to just 8,000. But shortly after Sanders’s 2016 run, membership exploded to 50,000, and it’s now estimated at 70,000. In DSA’s early days, its typical member was in his sixties; now, it’s someone in his mid-thirties.
Chicago, where membership in the local chapter of Democratic Socialists has grown from about 200 before the 2016 election to some 1,300 today, has turned out to be fertile ground for the movement. The Democratic political machine has governed the city for decades, with elected positions often passing generationally within families, even as crime remains stubbornly high and public schools dysfunctional. Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor from 2011 through 2019, increasingly came to be identified with that style of patronage politics. Though a national figure—he had served as Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff—Emanuel barely survived a runoff to be reelected in 2015, as anger erupted over his closures of failing public schools and a perceived cover-up in the police shooting of a young African-American, Laquan McDonald—captured on video that wasn’t released until 15 months after the incident. Emanuel’s rocky tenure prompted a significant reform push in the 2019 elections. With support from, among others, the city’s radicalized teachers’ union, five members of the Democratic Socialists of America won positions on the city council, joining another socialist elected four years earlier.
Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez was one of the successful socialist candidates. Originally hailing from Puerto Rico, with a master’s degree in theater from the University of Manchester in England, she defeated Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward. Appointed by Emanuel, Mell had essentially inherited the office from her father, who had held it since 1975—a fact that Rodriguez-Sanchez used against her in the race. Another socialist winner: Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Illinois and onetime head of the Pilsen Alliance, a neighborhood activist group on Chicago’s Lower West Side. Community organizing is a common thread among many of the new socialists, including Daniel La Spata, a neighborhood activist with a master’s degree in urban planning who defeated a scandal-plagued Chicago Democrat to win a seat on the board of aldermen in 2019. “The Chicago machine,” he declared upon winning, is “crumbling against a progressive wave.”
The socialists want to push Chicago politics—where one-third of aldermen label themselves as progressives—hard to the left. Among their policy goals is seeking to overturn an Illinois law that prohibits municipalities from enacting rent controls, so that Chicago can then impose them. Progressives want to raise the city’s hourly minimum wage to $15, but the socialists aim higher—to a $22 minimum. They want to take control of the city’s power grid away from ComEd, the private power company. And they have urged Mayor Lori Lightfoot to slash the city’s police department budget. The “massive resources we pour into policing make us less safe, not more,” the six socialist aldermen wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. They opposed plans to build a new police academy and criticized the city for spending $33 million yearly to place officers in schools, arguing that the presence of cops traumatized students and that the money could be better spent on “restorative justice” programs. Though Lightfoot was elected as part of the so-called reform movement, the socialist caucus viewed her budget as fundamentally misguided. “We need to fully fund public programs that are proven to reduce inequality and improve public safety in ways that policing fundamentally does not. Chicago is not broke, but the mayor’s priorities are,” they declared.
In some places, socialists have gained a reputation as audacious outsiders crashing the Democratic Party. San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, a former New Yorker and lawyer, had never held political office when he decided to challenge the powerful then-president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, London Breed, for her seat in San Francisco’s fifth district. An advocate for tenants’ rights, Preston criticized Breed for “not standing up to the real estate industry” and for pushing rezoning plans that would allow denser neighborhoods. Breed fired back that Preston was an interloper, a common complaint against the new socialists. “Unfortunately, I have experienced far too many Deans in my lifetime,” she said. “People who come into our community and claim that they are going to be the savior of the community without understanding or ever having lived the struggle of what the community has experienced.” She narrowly defeated Preston, but three years later, when Breed became acting mayor after the death of Mayor Ed Lee, Preston beat a Breed-backed candidate to win the seat.
Now the two are often at loggerheads as Preston tries to drive the already-progressive city toward greater regulation and higher taxes. He has authored a referendum that requires San Francisco to pay for legal counsel for anyone facing eviction, and he cosponsored a local law in April mandating the city to acquire 8,000 hotel rooms for the homeless during the city’s pandemic lockdown. Breed dragged her feet in carrying out that directive, which she estimated would cost the city some $60 million a month, provoking an unprecedented face-off with the Board of Supervisors. “Our urgent actions must be paired with reality,” she said. She later noted that the policy prompted homeless people from around California and other states to show up in San Francisco, looking for a room.
Preston has also promoted the defund-the-police narrative. He even backed the city transit agency’s refusal to transport police to protest sites, on the premise that doing so would make it appear as if the agency supported the cops. To address shortfalls in the city’s budget in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, he has cosponsored legislation to hike taxes on businesses by up to $150 million a year.
Municipal voters typically prioritize local issues and demand effective government that focuses on the basics of social order—picking up the trash, clearing roads after snowfalls, fixing potholes. But some socialist officials, activists to the core, put greater priority on overturning the current system, come what may. In Seattle, for instance, former economics instructor Kshama Sawant, who worked as an organizer for the Occupy movement that sprang up after the 2008 recession, won a city council seat in 2013, marking the first victory by a socialist candidate in the city in 97 years. Three years later, Sawant clashed with the city’s political establishment when she called for May Day strikes to protest Donald Trump’s presidency, including “workplace actions as well a mass peaceful civil disobedience that shuts down highways, airports, and other key infrastructure.” Seattle’s then-mayor, Ed Murray, scolded Sawant for advocating political actions that would close much of the area and bring protesters into confrontations with the police. “I think it would be unfortunate and perhaps even tragic for an elected official to encourage people to confront and engage in confrontations with the police department,” Murray said.
Since then, Sawant, reelected last November despite an expensive campaign waged against her by the city’s business interests, has only grown more provocative. She supported the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, earlier this year after police abandoned the city’s East Precinct building. She denied stories of violence and intimidation in CHAZ, describing it more as a “street festival,” the goal of which was to help accelerate the “dismantling of capitalism.” She proposed legislation to convert the police precinct permanently to a community center for “restorative justice.” It’s all consistent with a far-left agenda that includes nationalizing major corporations like Boeing, which she criticized for “economic terrorism” for suggesting that it might move jobs out of Washington State. Whether she will win continued support from voters after this year’s civil disturbances remains to be seen. One day after Seattle police dismantled CHAZ, Sawant led a march to the home of Mayor Jenny Durkan, demanding that the police be defunded. The mayor then called for Sawant to be investigated for “reckless disregard of the safety of my family and children.” Meantime, a group of businesses located in CHAZ sued city government over the damages they sustained from the takeover of their neighborhood.
Another target of the new socialists is a key ally of most Democrats: the union movement, including public-sector organizations. Last year, Politico uncovered a memo composed by leaders of DSA’s New York chapter outlining a strategy to infiltrate some of the state’s most powerful unions and radicalize them. “We will focus our branch resources on recruiting NYC-DSA members to take jobs” in sectors that key unions have organized as part of a “strategy for militant, democratic, classwide struggles,” the group said.
Among the unions singled out was New York’s United Federation of Teachers. “Simply put, it is tremendously influential politically, but fails to exercise the full potential of its power,” the socialists complained. “Its strategy rests on electing fairly centrist/conservative Democrats, and holding them to commitments on maintaining basic standards in treatment of educators.” The New York Hotel Trades Council, with more than 35,000 members, was also insufficiently militant, according to the socialists. “In a departure from its militant history, HTC seems to have shifted towards accommodation in its relations with the Hotel Association of New York City,” the memo noted. A recent contract deal, the socialist group said, “attempts to impose a suffocating and prolonged period of employer-friendly labor peace.” Instead, DSA’s New York chapter proposed “to assist its members and allies in obtaining quality union jobs as part of a larger project to radicalize” the group. One powerful New York labor leader, Vincent Alvarez, president of the Central Labor Council, blasted the DSA for its effort “to sow the seeds of disunity by targeting some of the most progressive unions in our city with plans for infiltration and disruption.”
In New York, the new socialists’ strategy—to focus on municipal elections and build from there—was overshadowed by political neophyte Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District Democratic primary. She defeated ten-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, chair of the Democratic House Caucus and of the Queens Democratic Party. Outspent by roughly 15 to 1 by a local party boss, Ocasio-Cortez relied on the support of a long list of radically left organizations, including MoveOn and Black Lives Matter, and on her connections as an organizer for Bernie Sanders. Ironically, AOC won heaviest in largely white areas of her district—a reflection of the demographic composition of the new socialist movement.
The growing appeal of the socialist label in gentrifying Queens became apparent the next year, when public defender Tiffany Cabán nearly pulled off a stunning upset in the Democratic primary for district attorney against Melinda Katz. A longtime Democratic insider, Katz began her public-service career when she was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1994. She then held a series of other offices in New York City, including on the city council and as Queens borough president. Endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán hammered Katz for accepting donations from real-estate developers. Cabán, by contrast, raked in money from young technology entrepreneurs attracted to the party by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. A virtual unknown, Cabán raised nearly $1 million, including $50,000 from Patricia Ann Quillin, wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. She also garnered contributions from Laurene Powell, widow of Steve Jobs, and Eric Silverberg, founder of a company that produced the gay dating app Scruff, according to an election analysis by Crain’s New York Business. On election night, she held a lead of 1,100 votes over Katz, but two recounts proved Katz the winner, by just 60 votes. Cabán’s near-miss showed that the socialists’ mojo in New York is rising.
New York is now clearly in the party’s sights. With term limits putting some 70 percent of the seats in the city council up for grabs in the 2021 municipal elections, the Democratic Socialists voted at a Manhattan convention last year to make council races a priority. Party leaders are aiming in particular to grab seats in places where local membership is strongest, including areas of the city’s outer boroughs where rapid growth has produced gentrification fears— even though, ironically, many members of the party are themselves newly arrived in these districts. Among the targeted neighborhoods: North Brooklyn, where Julia Salazar won a state senate seat under the DSA banner; and Astoria in Queens, where Ocasio-Cortez triumphed and DSA candidate Zohran Mamdani defeated an incumbent Democrat in the 2020 assembly primary race. In the now-familiar pattern, Democratic Socialists are staking out their claim partly by calling into question local Democrats’ progressive credentials. In addition to protesting at the home of Majority Leader Cumbo, they made war on Deputy Leader of the City Council Jimmy Van Bramer, when he began positioning himself to run for Queens borough president. In a scathing letter, Jonathan Bailey, cochair of the Queens DSA, denounced Van Bramer as a fake progressive. “I know you have been trying to cozy up with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tiffany Cabán, but that doesn’t make you our comrade,” he wrote. “You sold out Queens when you welcomed Amazon’s gentrification as a kickback for your real estate donors.” Earlier this year, Van Bramer pulled out of the race, ostensibly to spend more time with his family.
Just what the socialists have in store for New York City is clear from a questionnaire that the party is sending out to candidates seeking their endorsement next year. The document requires candidates to sign on to the DSA’s agenda for reviving New York, which includes canceling all rent and mortgage payments—including commercial rents—during the pandemic, waiving all individual debts, placing an immediate moratorium on all arrests by the NYPD, seizing any unoccupied properties in the city through eminent domain to house the homeless, and taking government control of all utilities and broadband providers. The questionnaire also asks candidates if they would endorse government use of condemnation powers to take control of any private properties deemed “distressed,” if candidates would unconditionally support any striking workers in the city—“even if their actions violate legal restrictions”—and if they would support limits on charter schools and “proper access to secular education for Yeshiva students.” The DSA also wants to know if candidates would sign on to its proposed ban on suspensions and expulsions in public schools. The document even has two questions on “foreign policy,” a subject rarely within the purview of city officials. It asks candidates if they would pledge not to travel to Israel “in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation” and whether they support the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement” against Israel.
Whether such in-your-face radical socialism can succeed broadly around the United States is questionable. Socialists in other parts of the country have been more circumspect, trying to navigate a course similar to the one described by Sanders, when he described his philosophy as closer to European social democracy than to outright Marxism—even though places that Sanders points to as models of his philosophy, like Sweden, have long since moved toward a more robust free-market system. And when pressed, socialist candidates have trouble squaring their tear-the-system-down philosophy with effective local government. When Denver City Council member and Democratic Socialist Candi CdeBaca said that she favored “community ownership of land, labor, resources and distribution of those resources,” critics branded her a Communist. She demurred, saying that while she did not support capitalism, she preferred the label “anarchist.” It’s a strange statement from someone in a job that’s normally about delivering local services.
Fiorello La Guardia once crystallized the responsibilities of municipal officials when he said that there was no Democrat or Republican way to pick up the garbage. It’s not clear whether there’s a socialist (or anarchist) way of picking up the trash, either, or how much this new breed of local politician even cares about such things. One suspects that their constituents still do—how much will become more apparent over the next few election cycles.
Top Photo: Members of the Democratic Socialists of America, shown here demonstrating in Manhattan, are making a big push to capture seats on the New York City Council next year. (SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)