Democratic Socialists – right here in KY

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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Fifteen members of the Democratic Socialists of America won election to office in 11 states last year.

Jake Bush hopes Louisville voters will add two more next November: Richard Becker, a candidate for the state House of Representatives; and Ryan Fenwick, who wants to be mayor.

“It’s an awesome move,” said Bush, the chair of the Falls City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Becker is a union organizer; Fenwick is an attorney and community activist. The two DSA members are running in the May 22 Democratic primary.

Becker has a good chance to win the primary and succeed veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne in the 35th District. Rambling across the Highlands and south Louisville, the territory tilts Democratic and includes many union households.

Fenwick’s race is tougher. He’s taking on two-term incumbent Greg Fischer, a wealthy entrepreneur. “The mayor is pretty well entrenched with the business class, and they have all the money,” Bush said.

Of course, socialists are about as common as May blizzards in Kentucky, even in “liberal Louisville,” the Bluegrass State’s largest city. A 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Louisville, Bush concedes that the Falls City DSA branch is small and largely unknown locally.

“But we’re growing,” he said, estimating local membership is clicking close to 100.

The logo of the Democratic Socialists of America

Founded in 1982, DSA is expanding nationally, too. Before Donald Trump was elected president, the organization numbered about 6,000 members. Since the election, about 26,000 more people have signed up, according to Maxine Phillips, editor of Democratic Left, the New York City-based DSA newspaper.

Many, if not most, of the new signees are young people.

Democratic Socialists of America is the largest socialist organization in the U.S., according to its website. “DSA’s members are building progressive movements for social change while establishing an openly democratic socialist presence in American communities and politics.”

Democratic Socialism is a tough sell in mostly rural, conservative, and Bible Belt Kentucky. President Donald Trump won 62.5 percent of the vote statewide. He carried all but two of 120 counties, one of them Jefferson, of which Louisville is the seat.

Despite the increase in DSA membership, the U.S. is still the only industrial democracy that doesn’t have a significant democratic socialist party. Also known as social democratic or labor parties, they’re common in Europe.

Such parties are deeply rooted in trade unionism. “We’re for unions 100 thousand percent,” Bush said.

The Kentuckian is a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party. “Go to any DSA meeting and talk to anybody under 25, and you’ll hear them say we love Corbyn.”

“Labour’s manifesto caught the attention of young leftwing activists in the US because, in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign platform, it laid out a clear set of ideas they could identify with,” wrote Chris McGreal in the online edition of The Guardian, a British newspaper. “Some in the DSA are also finding common cause with Momentum, the leftwing British grassroots organisation formed in 2015 to back Corbyn which in turn has drawn inspiration from [the leftist coalition] Syriza in Greece and [the left-wing party] Podemos in Spain.”

Labour is considerably to the left of the Democratic party, as are all European democratic socialist, social democratic, and labor parties. Almost all Democrats hotly deny Republican claims that they’re socialists. Beyond Louisville and Lexington, most Kentucky Democrats even shun the “liberal” label.

Because the Democrats are not a socialist party, DSA members have long debated the organization’s proper relationship with the Democrats. (In Europe, the Democrats would be centrist, or center right, and the GOP would be a far-right, even fringe party.)

The late author and political scientist Michael Harrington, who helped start DSA, argued that DSA should work within the Democratic party to nudge it leftward. He pointed out that America has always had a two-party political system and that third parties have always failed.

“One challenge for the new breed of [American] social democrats and socialists is to find the vehicle to electoral success,” McGreal also wrote. “In the UK, the Labour party is the official opposition, with socialist antecedents Corbyn is attempting to revive. Today’s American socialists are split on whether to revive a New Deal-style Democratic party or forge a new organisation. The DSA has for now decided against becoming a political party.”

He cited DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Democratic member of the Chicago city council. Ramirez-Rosa maintains that the Democrats offer a route to single-payer healthcare and a $15-an-hour minimum wage because so many leftists vote Democratic by default.

Nonetheless Nick Caleb is skeptical of the DSA cozying with the Democrats. A 35-year-old activist, he joined the fast-growing Portland, Ore., DSA chapter soon after the presidential election, according to McGreal.

“He thought for a short while that the Democrats might learn the lessons of Sanders’ campaign and Clinton’s defeat to back away from neoliberalism,” the author added, quoting Caleb: “I was somewhat hopeful after the election that the Democrats would get the memo but it’s obvious the party’s not going to change. They’ll make minor concessions but they’re tied to Silicon Valley. They had a chance to make an abrupt change and they haven’t done it. They can’t think of anything but a market solution with tax credits and things like that. The Democratic party couldn’t even reconstitute a platform like the New Deal.”

Decades before the New Deal, a significant Socialist Party emerged in the U.S. under the leadership of labor leader Eugene V. Debs and others. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several Socialists were elected mayors, city officials and state legislators. A few even won U.S. House seats.

Because the party opposed World War I as a bloody struggle between two capitalist power blocs to dominate Europe, the federal government suppressed the Socialists after the U.S. entered the conflict. Debs was convicted of sedition in 1919 and spent almost two years in prison. (He ran for president five times—the last time, in 1920, from behind bars.)

Uncle Sam also went after the Socialists during the Great Red Scare of 1919-1920. Attorney Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer branded the the Socialists as violent radicals out to overthrow the government at the behest of Nikolai Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks.

The party never recovered from the government crackdown.

In the 1930s and 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reformist New Deal won several Socialists to the Democratic party. The Socialist Party ultimately splintered and collapsed.

“Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—and its two predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM)—had their origins in the early 1970s, at the beginning of a long-term rightward shift of U.S. and global politics,” explains the DSA website. “This shift to the right—symbolized by the triumph in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan and [Conservative British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher—somewhat overshadowed the central role these organizations played in the movements of resistance to corporate domination, as well as in today’s ongoing project: organizing an ideological and organizational socialist presence among trade union, community, feminist and people of color and other activists.”

DSOC and NAM merged into the DSA in 1982.

Most of the 15 DSA members elected last year—and 20 others before them—ran as Democrats. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and a democratic socialist though not a DSA member, sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

“Americans who came of age during the cold war saw socialism being characterized as the close cousin of Soviet communism, and state-run healthcare as a first step to the gulags,” McGreal also wrote. “There are still those attempting to keep the old scare stories alive.

“It was the old cold war warriors who helped detoxify socialism for younger Americans when the Tea Party and Fox News painted Obama – a president who recapitalised the banks without saving the homes of families in foreclosure – as a socialist for his relatively modest changes to the healthcare system.

“Then came Sanders.”

Caleb also told McGreal, “With the Bernie phenomenon, suddenly you’re able to utter the S-word in public.”

Likewise, Bush found the Sanders campaign appealing. “I remember hearing him speak and thinking maybe there is another way than what’s just being offered to us. Sanders is not that far left. But he is farther left than what else we had available.”

Sanders might be mulling another presidential bid as a Democrat in 2020. Nonetheless, Bush is wary of a DSA-Democratic party convergence.

Bush is a registered Democrat. But he didn’t vote for anybody in the 2016 presidential election.

“No disrespect to other generations, but my generation are the ones pumping a lot of energy into this thing right now. Many of us are disenchanted with the prescriptions of the past, including relying on the Democratic party.

“Harrington was a great guy. He had some great ideas for his time. But maybe it’s time to try something new.”

Harrington died in 1989, five years before Bush was born in Hardin County. “I grew up in a super red county and a red family—not the good red, the bad red,” he said with a chuckle.

Trump equaled his state vote percentage in Bush’s home county.

Despite his upbringing, Bush said his politics always leaned leftward. “I was a social work student, for God’s sake,” he said, grinning.

Bush graduated last May and headed straight for a master’s degree in public administration at U of L. To help make ends meet, he works as a waiter at a city restaurant.

“We talked a lot about societal ills in my social work classes,” he said. “But at the end of the conversation, there would be a ‘Well, there is nothing you can really do about it, but you can make it slightly less terrible.’ That really never sat with me very well.”

The Louisville DSA chapter marching in the Pride Parade

He said Louisville DSA is battling social ills locally by making common cause with liberal and leftist groups.

“During the first few months when we were getting off the ground, we went to demonstrations and workshops just to say, ‘Hey, we’re DSA and…[even] if your organization isn’t explicitly socialist, we’re here to support you and maybe we can meet on common grounds.’”

He said grassroots activism is more than demonstrations, protests, and marches, important as they are. “Some people don’t want to get involved in DSA because they think they don’t have time to do all that we do. But there are many little things you can do in your life that help create a democratic socialist society.

“You can bring up a conversation about wages at your job. You can look at the division of labor in your household—think about what each of you do and what you should do to achieve parity of labor.

“I’m a white guy. If you’re a white guy you can think about the way you speak and act around people of less social privilege than you. These are not revolutionary tactics. But by doing them, you are going a long way toward changing the world.”

Louisville DSA meets in the Centennial Room at the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St. More information is available from Bush via email at jake.bush@outlook.com. His cell phone number is (270) 300-4778.

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