Democratic Socialists expanding in Kentucky

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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Nationally, 57 percent of Democrats view socialism positively, while just 47 percent feel the same way about capitalism, according to a new Gallup Poll.

The survey might raise eyebrows among Bluegrass State Democrats, more than a few of whom lean conservative. But the numbers don’t surprise Nick Conder of Louisville, co-chair of the Falls City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

Nick Conder, co-chair of the Falls City chapter of DSA (photo by Berry Craig)
Nick Conder, co-chair of the Falls City chapter of DSA (photo by Berry Craig)

“The economic conditions that have existed since the great recession of 2008 have caused a lot of working people to view the economy as rigged against them,” Conder said. “That’s left a pretty sour taste in people’s mouths about capitalism.”

Even so, Kentucky is still one of the reddest states—red as in Republican, not socialist. President Donald Trump won 62.5 percent of the vote in 2016. He pocketed all but Jefferson (“liberal Louisville”) and Fayette (Lexington) counties.

Conder is undaunted. “One day, working people will understand who their real enemies and real friends are,” he predicted.

New DSA chapters opening

Meanwhile, DSA is adding members and opening new chapters, if largely unnoticed by most Kentuckians.

The DSA logo.

“We’re not just a Louisville phenomenon,” said Conder, a 27-year-old Grayson County native who’s working on a Ph.D. at the University of Louisville. “There are now chapters in Lexington, Bowling Green, and northern Kentucky. We have individual members across the state, even in rural areas.”

Louisville DSA is the state’s largest chapter with about 180 dues-paying members, according to Conder.

Though mostly Trump territory, rural Kentucky might not be a lost cause for the DSA. Socialism took root in some farming areas more than a century ago, an all but forgotten chapter in Bluegrass State history.

In 1911, as many as 800 Christian Socialists gathered for a week in north Graves County, about as far west as Kentucky goes. “Christian Socialist” is inscribed on a pair of old tombstones in a cemetery not far from where the group met. (There had been a similar local convention in 1910, but accounts of it evidently are lost.)

Part of a significant U.S. Socialist movement, Christian Socialists believed that the teachings of Jesus Christ, notably the Golden Rule, were fundamentally socialist. “The Golden Rule against the Rule of Gold” was the motto of a Chicago Christian Socialist newspaper, whose editor spoke at the Graves County meeting.

“I identify as a Christian,” said Conder. “I think there is a definite overlap between what Jesus taught and socialist values. Jesus talked about helping the poor and supporting the downtrodden. That sounds very socialist.”

Christian conservatives, common in Bible Belt Kentucky, would prayerfully, if not hotly, disagree that Jesus preached anything like socialism. They equate “free enterprise” with “Christian values.”

Running for office as a DSA member

DSA members are adamant that socialism must come to America only via ballots, not bullets. “At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end,” says the national DSA website.

But DSA members disagree on the best means to that end. Political scientist and author Michael Harrington, who helped found DSA in 1982, wanted to work within the Democratic Party to coax it toward democratic socialism. Other DSAers dismiss the Democrats as irredeemably capitalist.

Though Republican hecklers yelled “socialist!” at Democratic speakers at the Fancy Farm political picnic, the Democrats are not a socialist party. Compared to parties in other industrial democracies, the Democrats are centrist or center-right; the Republicans are a far-right party.

Even most liberal Democrats—they seem to prefer the “progressive” handle these days—spurn socialism. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a stalwart of the party’s “progressive” wing, vows she’s “capitalist to my bones.”

In the spirit of Harrington, a pair of Louisville DSA members ran in the May Democratic primary.

Union organizer Richard Becker sought to succeed state Rep. Jim Wayne in the 35th House District. Attorney Ryan Fenwick challenged Mayor Greg Fischer. (Coincidentally, Fenwick grew up in south Graves County.)

Becker and Fenwick lost, the latter in a predictable landslide. But Becker finished second to Lisa Willner in a three-way race.

Willner and Fischer are favored to beat their Republican opponents in November.

“I don’t think working within or outside the Democratic Party is an either-or proposition,” said Becker.

Conder agreed. He pointed to independent democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran for president as a Democrat in 2016, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member who won her New York city Democratic congressional primary in June. (Sanders is an independent again.)

Conder also cited Kshama Sawant who was elected to the Seattle city council on the Socialist Alternative ticket in 2013 and reelected last year.

Conder and Becker are fine with DSA members running as Democrats, independents, or socialists.

“One of the nice things about DSA is that they leave a lot of autonomy to their chapters,” Becker said. “If candidates think the third-party option is more viable, they have the freedom to do that.”

Becker tossed his hat in the ring as a Democrat “for many reasons, one of which was that I am a lifelong Democrat. Also, we’re in a state that has closed primaries and a pretty powerful party structure.

“Other states have open primaries and ways where third-party or independent candidates can get more of a foothold. We just don’t have that here.”

Who is DSA reaching?

DSA is not a political party. The U.S. is the only industrial democracy that lacks a significant democratic socialist, or related social democratic or labor party. Such parties are common in Europe, even among our NATO allies.

The U.S. is the most conservative and capitalist industrial democracy, too. Hence, the DSA website concedes that capitalism’s demise is not imminent. So, the organization “fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.”

DSA envisions “a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives. We call this vision democratic socialism — a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.”

That vision seems most appealing to millennials, according to the poll.

“The Gallup survey found that 18-29-year-olds across both parties are more pessimistic about capitalism than any age group, with just 45 percent having a positive view,” Vice News’s Alex Thompson wrote in an analysis of the poll. “That’s a 12 percent drop since Gallup last asked the question in 2016 and a 23 percent drop since 2010, when 68 percent of 18-29-year-olds expressed a positive view of capitalism.”

Conder said DSA demographics reflect the survey. “I think the average age of a member is about 33. That’s about right for our chapter.”

Why people join DSA

Richard Becker, union organizer, member of DSA, and Democratic candidate (photo by Berry Craig)
Richard Becker, union organizer, member of DSA, and Democratic candidate (photo by Berry Craig)

Becker, 31, works out of Service Employees International Union/National Conference of Firemen and Oilers Louisville Local 32BJ. He joined DSA six years ago.

Becker had worked for the Democratic Party but left in 2010 to become an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union before switching to SEIU/NCFO.

“I have trended leftward ever since I took that first job with AFSCME in early 2011,” he said. “Eventually, I stumbled upon Michael Harrington’s classic text on socialism, looked him up, saw he founded DSA and joined.

“It was an intellectual journey born out of doing the work of union organizing and seeing the hypocrisies and the contradictions in our economic and political systems.”

Conder took a different path to DSA, which he joined in 2015. “I was raised by my grandparents on a farm near Leitchfield. They were progressives and belonged to what’s now the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ union. Their politics shaped me.”

So does his sexuality. “I also identify as queer and that very definitely poses obstacles, especially in rural Kentucky. I could see the marginalization of queer people and working people.”

Like Becker, Conder was a Democratic Party activist. He worked in Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ unsuccessful 2014 senate campaign.

But he finds most Kentucky Democrats too conservative on social issues like LGBTQ rights.

Likewise, he says some LGBTQ activists are too conservative on economic issues. He calls them “rainbow capitalists. A lot of them are very affluent and privileged and don’t really care much for class politics. I was looking for something that combined the two.” Conder said he found it in DSA.

“Socialism stresses solidarity among many groups that are marginalized,” he said.

The fall and rise of democratic socialists in America

Socialists were marginalized for years in America, though in the early 20th century, more than 1,000 Socialist Party candidates were elected to public office, including a pair of congressman, more than 130 mayors, and scores of state legislators.

All told, at least 353 cities and towns elected Socialists, but apparently none were in Kentucky.

Though most Socialist Party members turned against the Communists, who seized power in Russia in 1917, America’s social and political powers-that-be branded them “Reds.”

Many Socialists, too, opposed America’s entry into World War I, also in 1917. They characterized the conflict as created by competing European power blocs and mainly fought by poor workers and farmers who had no stake in the outcome.

Politicians and the press branded anti-war Socialists as traitors and pro-German; Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned in 1918 for urging resistance to the draft.

The postwar “Great Red Scare,” which peaked in 1919-1920, all but finished the party, which gradually collapsed. Anti-communist hysteria swept the country anew after World War II, which ended in 1945. From the red-baiting of right-wing Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s onward through the Cold War, conservatives falsely equated democratic socialism and communism.

“Obviously, the Cold War gave people a certain amount of ideological baggage when it comes to those terms,” Becker said. “But I don’t think young people have that baggage. I also think some older folks are abandoning that baggage.”

He added that after the fall of the Soviet Union and most other communist dictatorships in the early 90’s, Americans are better “able to look at things through clear eyes and realize that someone talking about federal jobs guarantees, Medicare-for-all, and union rights is not the same as” a Joseph Stalin and his gulags or a Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution.

(In Socialism, published in 1972, Harrington denounced Soviet-bloc and Chinese communism as totalitarian collectivism and the antithesis of democratic socialism.)

Conder is not discouraged that Becker and Fenwick came up short in the primary. “I think that as people learn more about us, I can see us winning elections some day,” Conder said.

In the meantime, some national Democratic bigwigs are balking at a drift toward the left represented by Ocasio-Cortez and others. Probably few in the Kentucky Democratic Party welcome the shift, too.

“We have sort of a mainstream thread in the Democratic party that doesn’t seem to want to rock the boat,” Becker said.

Conder said that as far as he’s concerned, relations between the DSA and the Democrats “depend on how serious they are about resisting the leftward movement. I suspect that before we are able to move them left, they will try to co-opt us or kick us out.

“That might require a new party 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Nonetheless, there’s no doubt socialism is reemerging from its near century-long dormancy in America. DSAers are optimistic, though it’s difficult to say how big the socialist rebound will be. But with the “evil empire” long gone, it will be hard for conservatives to red-bait socialism to death this time.

Elizabeth Bruenig cited the Gallup Poll in a recent Washington Post column headlined “It’s time to reclaim ‘socialism’ from the dirty-word category.” She concluded, “At the heart of the democratic socialist vision flowering on the American left is the recognition that more than policy tweaks will be needed to empower everyday people to participate meaningfully in society and democracy. Working Americans deserve a say in how the country’s vast wealth will be used, and that will be possible only when inequality is reduced, corporate and big-money donors are banished from politics, and lawmakers are truly accountable to the people. It’s not so much to ask. But democratic socialists are the only ones asking.”

In the meantime, more information about Democratic Socialists of America is available on the DSA-Louisville Facebook page. Conder can be reached via email at dsalouisville@gmail.com.

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