In 2020, the United States has a historic opportunity: it can elect its first democratic-socialist president and put itself on the path toward becoming a humane, peaceable, and environmentally sustainable country. It’s obvious that a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign would be a huge boon to democratic socialism. His success would produce a tectonic shift in the country’s politics. The range of acceptable ideas would shift significantly to the left, and a Sanders presidency would make democratic socialism a commonplace idea overnight.
But presidents cannot get anything done on their own. This was one of Barack Obama’s most serious mistakes: when he got elected, he disbanded his organizing apparatus, and he never built the kind of lasting grassroots coalition necessary to see through even a tepidly liberal political program.
A democratic-socialist president needs a movement behind them. They also need a Congress that is as far to the left as possible. That’s why, if socialists are going to make a Sanders presidency succeed, we must stake out an ambitious goal for 2020: there should be no election, at any level, without a socialist candidate running.
Every one of the 435 house seats. Every one of the 33 open senate seats. However many of the 50 governors and 7,383 state legislators there are. The dog catcher in Duxbury. Wherever there is a position of power democratically contested, a socialist should be offered up as an option.
Why everywhere? Why not just in the places socialists can win? The first reason is simple: because if we really take democracy seriously, every person should always have the option to choose socialism. You can’t know people’s true preferences until, at a very minimum, you’ve given them the actual choice. Democrats have made a serious mistake by writing off certain districts as incorrigibly “red” — to the point where they have sometimes even failed to field candidates in winnable races.
And we often can’t predict ahead of time what kind of district is actually winnable. A democratic-socialist judge just got elected in Houston, part of a clean sweep of the local judiciary by Democrats. Houston, let’s remember, was not too long ago “the capital of capital punishment,” sending more people to Death Row than almost anywhere else. Even if you only won 10 percent of the races, or even if there were just a handful of flukes, you would have significantly improved left representation in government.
It’s critical to run everywhere because left ideas are popular everywhere — even most Republican voters support Medicare For All. But people can only choose from among the options they have available on the ballot.
Another reason democratic-socialist candidates need to run across the country: electoral campaigns are not just about winning. They are also educational tools. That’s why Eugene Debs ran for president. They give an opportunity to present democratic-socialist ideas to people who have never heard them. Every conversation the candidate has with a voter will leave them with an impression: the socialists care enough to talk to me.
Vaughn Stewart, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member newly elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, recently said that the most important factor for voters considering him was the fact that he showed up to talk to them. Stewart actually thinks the ideas matter less to voters than the personal connection: if the DSA candidate is the one who came to your house and talked to you about your needs, the DSA candidate will often get your vote. On the other hand, if nobody from the DSA ever shows up, the DSA candidate most likely will not.
Elections don’t just offer an opportunity to inform about democratic-socialist politics but to organize around them. People meet each other who would never otherwise have met. People who never thought of becoming involved in politics suddenly find their inner organizer. And that initial politicization can lead them to organizing beyond elections. Indeed, this is exactly what happened with Sanders’s run in 2016: after getting excited and activated by Bernie’s campaign, large numbers of people around the country joined DSA and other grassroots groups, and now organize around a wide variety of issues beyond elections like union organizing, affordable housing, and immigrant rights campaigns.
Building a grassroots infrastructure that isn’t solely tied to elections will be critically important if the Sanders presidential agenda is to have any chance of succeeding against the inevitable propaganda blitz by corporate interests. Sanders himself hasn’t shown much interest in this, but he should.
These candidacies will help the Sanders presidential campaign itself: even if a democratic socialist ran in the primary and lost, they will have brought people together who can work for Sanders in the general election.
This is also why socialists should run in “red” districts. When a red district is in a state that will be up for grabs in the general election, even if voters in a red district cannot tip that district, they can help swing the state itself.
Socialists have succeeded electorally before. There were once a thousand socialist elected officials in the United States. Socialists in state legislatures introduced bills that got passed. The Socialist mayor of Milwaukee served twenty-four years. The Wall Street Journal has just published a fascinating discussion of the history of socialist congressional representatives in the United States, from Vito Marcantonio to Ron Dellums. It’s remarkable to see the nation’s business paper admit that “socialists are no strangers to Congress.” But note what it concludes:
Our two-party system has usually proven responsive and malleable enough to embrace popular new proposals from the left, blunting the demand for a wholly new movement or party. Ideas such as old-age pensions and a minimum wage, though backed by socialists, soon came to be viewed as mainstream liberal positions.
There you have it: if socialists “fail,” it is because they succeed in making their ideas mainstream.
It’s important to be pragmatic, of course. Which the DSA has been, opting for “primarying” Democrats rather than running third-party candidates in general elections who risk becoming “spoilers.” But we should not buy into centrist arguments that any contention within the Democratic Party automatically hurts progressive causes. This is a trick used by those committed to the status quo in order to discourage anyone from challenging them.
We have seen democratic socialists running and winning. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proved that the Democratic establishment was more vulnerable than anyone assumed — a top party leader in Congress, well-funded and long-serving, was toppled by a twenty-eight-year-old bartender who compensated for the resource difference by centering a bold left-wing policy agenda and then working like hell to get elected. Now we need AOCs everywhere.
We’ve seen examples, from Lee Carter in Virginia to the city council officials causing Somerville, Massachusetts, to be “dominated by a left-wing wave.” State and municipal elections are critical. The list of successful DSA-backed candidates and ballot initiatives from this year alone is stunning — and will hopefully be ten times as long in 2020. We shouldn’t forget positions that might seem odd for socialists to seek: Kristy Cooper is now a library trustee in Ypsilanti. In the fight against neoliberalism, every office is important, even a library board — in Britain, library closures have been a sad feature of the age of austerity. We need to learn lessons from the Right, who try to push their ideas wherever possible.
The clock is ticking: 2020 will be here sooner than we think, and many states have absurdly early voter registration deadlines. 2019 needs to be a giant voter registration campaign, with democratic socialists developing a plan to ensure socialist representation in as many 2020 elections as possible. We have the numbers: the public is sympathetic to our ideas, and most young people lean towards socialism. We can have a democratic-socialist presidency and more left-leaning government at every level across the country — in fact, given the imperative of major and immediate climate action, we need it.
If socialists run, socialists can win. But they must run.