Nikil Saval, a Democratic Socialist in Harrisburg

Nikil Saval

Nikil Saval went from being an editor at the leftist literary magazine n+1, to a volunteer for Bernie Sanders, to a successful democratic-socialist primary candidate in for Pennsylvania State Senate. In an interview with Jacobin, he talks about the race and his plans for governing as a leftist in the state capitol.

Nikil Saval announcing his campaign for the State Senate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia.

Interview by
Micah Uetricht
Meagan Day

Between the highs of Bernie Sanders’s victories in the early primary states, the lows of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown, and the whirlwind of the George Floyd uprising, 2020 has been a roller coaster for the Left. In the midst of it all, democratic socialist Nikil Saval emerged victorious in his race for the Pennsylvania State Senate.

Saval is a cofounder of the progressive organization Reclaim Philadelphia, which emerged from the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. He’s also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which endorsed him for state senate. A former editor of n+1 magazine, Saval is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

Jacobin‘s Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day spoke to Saval for the Jacobin Radio Podcast The Vast Majority. You can subscribe to Jacobin‘s podcasts here and listen to the interview with Saval here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Micah Uetricht

Those of us who have not recently won elections are feeling like we’re in the midst of a political whirlwind. I imagine that’s orders of magnitude more true for you. Can you talk about the general political moment, and how your campaign relates to it?

Nikil Saval

Coming up on this election, I had a lot of doubts about our relationship to this moment. Early on, we were campaigning with a surging Sanders campaign. Then we entered this pandemic phase, which is horrifying in so many different ways, one of which was that I was worried that there was going to be a feeling that now we need a steady hand, we need experience, we need someone who won’t shift direction dramatically.

Actually, a lot of people may have been going through a radicalization during the pandemic. As we can see from these protests and the uprising in the streets, fundamental aspects of American society are being challenged, just as they were challenged in the presidential campaign. As an elected official, I just hope to be equal to it.

Micah Uetricht

Do you have any ideas about how to be a conduit for that action that’s coming from the street level as an elected official?

Nikil Saval

I have some sense of it. We’ve seen a few cycles of it in Philadelphia in particular, which I’ve been fortunate to be a part of, for example the election of Larry Krasner to district attorney and Kendra Brooks to city council. We’ve seen candidates who’ve come out of movements and then established a kind of co-governing relationship with organizations, with unions, with social movements in general.

I think the easier part is having an opening to the Left or to movements. As a community organizer and as a labor organizer, I understand that part. The part that’s going to be interesting is actually organizing the rest of a not-necessarily-hospitable Democratic caucus around these demands. I think I understand ways to amplify demands and make the office an extension of the movements. But there are not that many of us in the state legislature. A single injection of this kind of energy can go a long way, but we need more.

Meagan Day

After your victory, several democratic socialist candidates had success in the New York election. The cataclysmic end of the Bernie Sanders campaign was dispiriting, but in down-ballot elections we’ve managed to perform pretty well this year. Why do you think things are going our way in this turbulent time?

Nikil Saval

It did seem like we had multiple comparative advantages taken away from us. One was the opportunity to ride on the coattails of a national candidacy. The other was not being able to knock on doors because of the pandemic. That was part of the ethos of our campaign. It wasn’t just strategically valuable, even though it definitely works. It’s also part of building a socialist majority. Volunteers come out of it, someone’s door is knocked and they become an active person in the movement.

We just had to get more creative. A lot of our campaigns saw the need to do direct service work, which is now called mutual aid work. We talked to people on the phone, made sure that they had groceries delivered to them, and, as necessary, connected them to tenants rights representation. That was just instinctive. And we all did it. And we just continued to work the dialer, and it did kind of recreate the feeling of knocking on doors.

And we talked to a lot of people. I talked to a lot of people who were like, “I’ve never been contacted by a politician or political figure in my life.” Our opponents didn’t do that, I think for the most part because all they knew how to do was to go up on TV. Most of them raised more money, but that just turned out not to be enough. Incumbents assumed that just by being in office they would be presumed to be displaying leadership of some kind. And that’s just not true.

Meagan Day

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted Joe Crowley in 2018, the Democratic Party establishment and their partisans in the press did damage control by saying this was a complete anomaly. They had been caught off guard, one of their guys was asleep at the wheel, but it wasn’t going to happen again.

Now it’s unclear to what extent that is true. On the one hand they were able to mobilize to stop Bernie Sanders, but on the other, our people continue to squeak through in down-ballot races. So is the Democratic Party establishment smarter than they seem, or are they less smart than they seem?

Nikil Saval

I think they’re definitely less smart. The evidence is not totally clear though. When Jessica Cisneros lost, that actually gave me pause at a certain point in the campaign. I was like, “Oh, that’s not a good sign.” But I think it is true that the things that they consider advantages are not really advantages. The fact that Eliot Engel or Joe Crowley can mobilize tons of people to endorse them is not really an advantage. They can certainly raise more money, which is an advantage, but the Left has actually gotten quite good at fundraising. Jamaal Bowman did a good job fundraising, AOC did a good job. This is not insignificant.

I think our model of fundraising in these district-level races is working to expand the pool of people we can raise money from. And we don’t rely on the same kinds of people. They’re actually voters in the district. It’s an entirely different model. I think we have figured something out, and it won’t work every time and it depends on unique conditions, who the candidate is, the credibility of the challenge, how good your field operation is. But we can definitely do it. They’re just not a creative. They’re not as hardworking. They don’t believe in what we believe in, and that translates across the board.

As far as Bernie Sanders goes, it’s a different order of magnitude to run in multiple Democratic primaries across the country. You’re talking about race after race where every voter identifies strongly as a Democrat. It’s a very difficult thing. But I think that even though he lost, we shouldn’t exaggerate his failure. I mean, Sanders won California. California is a complex, diverse state that has a lot of reactionary rich people. His victory there is an incredible achievement that has been extremely understated.

Micah Uetricht

You were involved in both Bernie campaigns, and you were endorsed by Bernie this time around. What impact did the Bernie campaigns have on you?

Nikil Saval

I can’t overstate it. I probably will understate it. Particularly the campaign in 2016, that was what changed my attitude towards electoral politics. My previous organizing experience had been with the labor movement, with Unite Here! I wasn’t that interested in elections to be honest.

My first canvassing experience had been for Barack Obama in 2008 in Nevada. It was something I enjoyed, but it was not something that changed my life. In 2016, I came into the South Philly Bernie office, took a packet of turf, and thought I was maybe going to do that one or two times. But I was so enthralled by actually being able to speak about a candidate whose beliefs were my own. I could articulate my own beliefs, and they essentially came out sounding like the candidate’s beliefs. That was a completely novel experience for me.

It was also amazing to watch a campaign where you had a candidate who clearly responded to a social movement, who responded to pressure, who could be held accountable, who was licensed by movement work. There was a fluid dynamic where you felt like this was enhancing all of the work we were going to do in the future. I knew immediately at the time that whatever happened in the campaign, it was going to make everything we were doing elsewhere better.

It was a transforming experience for me. Canvassing, in particular, because I was not on social media at the time. I was actually totally confused by the notion of the “Bernie Bro.” When people brought that up, I actually had no idea what they were talking about because I had no relationship to the media world. It was completely novel to me. But I just was like, “Oh, well, we have this like young, diverse, incredible group of people. We should keep the gang together and expand this.” And so that’s how we founded Reclaim Philadelphia.

We just took very seriously and quite literally Sanders’s rhetoric around a political revolution and electing people to every level of office. And we knew that we had people who were with us on the values, and we just needed to organize. We formed an organization directly inspired by the experience in the campaign.

The endorsement of Senator Sanders came through in a completely surprising way. I got a text message from their political director and they said, “Bernie is sending out an email with ten candidates that he’s endorsed, including yours. Let us know if you have any questions.” And then the email went out that afternoon. We were completely caught off guard. We had worked on it for some time, but we had no anticipation that it was actually going to happen.

Micah Uetricht

You have written before about the dynamic between writing and politics, between having a robust intellectual life and being an organizer. Your trajectory is strikingly similar to mine. You were an organizer with Unite Here! and also an editor for a small leftist magazine — the first thing I did out of college in 2009 was become a full time volunteer for Unite Here! before becoming an editor for a small leftist magazine.

For me, those were two poles. There was an intellectual radicalism, a tradition of socialism that seemed back then only be kept alive through books and a handful of what I consider to be sectarian organizations. For a long time I felt like I had to choose between those two poles. And then the Sanders campaign happened, and it felt like a melding of the two.

The campaign was clearly trying to revive this tradition of American socialism for the twenty-first century. And it felt like it could actually win and actually change the world. I wonder if you felt that way, and how that shift might have culminated in you getting elected to office.

Nikil Saval

It has never been posed to me that way before, but I think that’s a good point. Campaigning, I have found, is very intellectually rewarding. It’s similar, I would say, not to writing but to editing. As an editor you get people to write about things that you can’t write about yourself. That’s a lot like policy work. You find the right person, and then you learn how to translate and communicate those ideas. You don’t have to know everything. You can just say what you basically believe, and that’s it. That’s what you have to do.

I campaigned openly as a socialist. I joined the DSA in 2014. It was never an issue in this campaign, which is kind of extraordinary. There was a bit of red-baiting early on. There was a push poll that my opponent put out, which was pretty hilarious. He asked people what they would think of me if they knew that I edited a magazine for hipster Marxists or something like that. Everyone thought it was great. They were like, “Actually it makes me want to vote for him more.”

But ultimately the incumbent felt that he had to campaign as if he was already ahead of me on all the issues, and like I didn’t add anything to the conversation. I think that’s probably true in a number of these challenges. Incumbents will say, “Why are you challenging me? I’m fine. Actually, I’m just like you.” And once you say that, you can’t then be like, “But you’re a socialist and I’m not,” because if the issues are the same, then actually the socialist thing is not important.

Meagan Day

Being an elected official, obviously you are going to experience a lot of pressures, and essentially all of them are going to be conservatizing in nature. There are basically two ways that this kind of pressure can be applied, I think.

The first one is just classic, old fashioned arm-twisting. The other one is a little subtler. It’s something that I heard Leo Panitch say in an interview on this podcast, which is that you get into office and you realize that whatever your political differences with a lot of these Democrats may be you also realize that some of them are fine enough as people. “They don’t eat babies,” as Leo Panitch put it. And that can actually pose its own sort of problems, because it can make a person disinclined to antagonize their colleagues.

If we had an independent party that represented our political beliefs and that separated us from Democrats with a different agenda to ours, then that would stiffen our elected officials’ spines. But we don’t have that. That’s why I think right now we really need true believers in there. And our electeds need to have a really solid kitchen cabinet, people that they’re having conversations with on a regular basis who they trust and who they would frankly be like ashamed to let down.

I don’t mean to scare you with all of this, and besides you know it all anyway. But I am curious how you’re preparing to stay the course.

Nikil Saval

It’s a great question, and I think we’re figuring it out now. Fundamentally what you’re speaking to is the nature of fear in politics. We should acknowledge that there are going to be moments when people are trying to instill deep fear in you as an elected official. They can even be people who are your allies in some way, maybe who helped you come into office. In a campaign, you become dependent on so many different people.

The most fundamental way you become dependent on people is money. This is why you have to broaden your base of support and try to rely on multiple small dollar contributions. But you also get larger contributions. And if you win, maybe you have big unions for example that supported you who may be against you on a particular issue, and they may say, “If you don’t vote our way, we’re not going to support you next time. We’re going to run a challenger against you.” Those are the sources of fear.

I think the honest thing is just to know that there are gonna be moments when you’re just afraid. And like you said, you have to have people that you trust, who you can open up about your fears to, who can talk us through the pressures, and who are ready to back us up when we take risks. It’s important to make sure you have people who have a background in organizing in your corner. Pre-made coalitions often don’t exist. You often have to assemble them, and so you want people in your office who can help do that.

I think the point you make about the awfulness of collegiality is a good one. I think it’s a genuine problem. And I think it’s when you start to become more invested in jockeying for political positions in a chamber, that stuff can be very like exciting and edifying and gossipy, and ultimately totally pointless and not what you got in there to do. You do have to do some of it, but it can be all-consuming and that’s when you lose it. When people start to describe themselves by what chairmanships they have, that’s when you realize they’re ripe for a challenge.