“Being Just ‘Democrat’ or ‘Progressive’ Means Nothing. It Provides No Direction.”

Erika Uyterhoeven

Erika Uyterhoeven is a democratic socialist, a former Bernie Sanders staffer, and the Democratic nominee for a Massachusetts state representative seat. In an interview with Jacobin, Uyterhoeven talks about how the Sanders campaigns impacted her, the broad left coalition that won her the nomination, and why it’s important to openly embrace being a socialist.

Erika Uyterhoeven is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Democratic nominee for state representative for parts of Somerville in Massachusetts’s 27th district.

Interview by
Spencer Brown

On September 1, democratic socialist Erika Uyterhoeven won a contested state-representative primary in Massachusetts’ 27th Middlesex district. Running on a platform of a state-level Green New Deal, free public transportation, and affordable housing for all, and with no opponent in November’s general election, Uyterhoeven has a clear path to elected office. She is part of a growing wave of congressional, state, and municipal-level victories pointing toward a new democratic socialist electoral strategy after Bernie Sanders.

Uyterhoeven is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), endorsed by its Boston chapter. But her campaign was also backed by a coalition of labor unions, environmental justice organizations, and community groups. She was able to create a massive volunteer operation and mobilize her district’s voters to achieve a landslide victory.

In this interview, Uyterhoeven discusses the lessons she learned from the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns, the myth of Massachusetts’ liberal image, and how she’s going to push for the working class in the notoriously nontransparent Massachusetts State House. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Spencer Brown

Your previous political experience is long: antitrust economist, 2016 national Bernie Sanders campaign staffer, organizer with Momentum in the UK to help elect Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, cofounder of a key Massachusetts election transparency organization. How did you get into political organizing?

Erika Uyterhoeven

Bernie really strung all the strings together for me. The Bernie 2016 campaign was where I stopped being someone who, like many people, was apolitical or not engaged. I shifted that year, or through that experience, from being someone where things happened to me, the world happens to us, to becoming someone who was like, “Oh, we actually decide what happens to this world.”

Bernie’s campaign was about Medicare for All, and about the climate crisis being the central threat of our lifetime. But it also weaved in the class struggle element. That was also the kind of campaign he ran. He wasn’t just any candidate. The kind of campaign he ran was one that was really centered on the grassroots and centered on the movement. And a lot of our decisions internally were inspired and driven by that ethos.

Bernie’s campaign is the kind of campaign that turned someone like me, who was sort of passive and who accepts things happening to us, to, “Oh no, we actually decide things. We can shape history. How we want to proceed is really in our hands.” I remember the first rally I went to. I had never felt more alive.

Spencer Brown

How did you bring experiences from both the Bernie campaign and the UK’s Momentum into your own campaign’s election strategy?

Erika Uyterhoeven

I learned that, ultimately, campaigns are about people and that there is such a strange masquerade in our political system and world that prioritizes or centers the voices of an incredibly privileged class. The Republican and Democratic parties don’t represent people. They represent this privileged class, the uber-wealthy. So it really is about centering the lives and experiences of average people.

I think that, for me, what was so striking about working on both the Bernie campaign and Corbyn’s campaign was how similar they were. We were in a totally different country, and the narrative was really similar. I had to adjust a few things — it’s NHS, not Medicare for All — but, other than that, it was the same ethos. It was the same centering on policies that actually really shaped people’s lives, and also just this fundamental call for democratic socialism that was so abundantly clear in both of them.

Spencer Brown

Massachusetts is often portrayed as a liberal haven. Moreover, the 27th Middlesex is itself a pretty liberal district, even by Massachusetts standards. Why was it then important to draw a contrast with standard progressivism and run as an open democratic socialist?

Erika Uyterhoeven

Being just “Democrat” or just “progressive” means nothing. It doesn’t provide any direction. It does not provide any values. It doesn’t center on people’s self-determination and agency to shape our world. It says nothing about the demands we have that human rights and people’s lives are not up for debate.

I think that’s something that’s so core to being a democratic socialist — and why, for me, running very openly as a democratic socialist was so important. It was important to me because I think socialism is a clear distinguishing feature, and more people than you believe can see the difference.

There’s a difference between reforming the criminal justice system and an abolitionist call to defund the police and work toward police and prison abolition. Those are two very different things, and the democratic socialist lens and value system and policies and ways that we’re challenging power is a really clear-cut method of getting to those issues.

One really big difference between democratic socialists and liberals is that — and we have a huge problem with this in this state — liberalism misinterprets what are power problems as knowledge problems.

Take the example of police body cameras: to liberals, it’s as if we didn’t collect enough data. If only we just educated more people, somehow the system that has come out of slave patrols is going to be kinder to black and brown people and low-income people. That’s just a ridiculous mischaracterization and a dampening down of what is actually a really oppressive system.

In that world of just knowledge problems, rather than power problems, you can study your way out of and provide enough data out of solving them — rather than what is, in reality here, a power struggle with policing. And this is the same with economic justice, racial justice, housing justice. There is a clear power struggle between the very few who hold capital and pretty much everyone else, whether they want to accept or believe it, or they want to fight for it or not. Framing is so important, because we need to name what is going on.

Spencer Brown

You are a DSA member, and your campaign was endorsed by the Boston chapter. But beyond DSA, what groups came together in your successful electoral coalition?

Erika Uyterhoeven

The Sunrise Movement; a lot of people who came out of the Bernie 2020 campaign, because I had called through and talked to a lot of my voter volunteers to ask them how they learned about us. We had the Our Revolution groups, who are tied to the Bernie 2020 volunteers. I had done a lot of work in public education, so we had a lot of educators come out for us, as well as unions across the board, whether it was SEIU, the trades, the labor movement more broadly in Massachusetts.

Our campaign had over 350 volunteers who phone banked or did actual voter-contact work, which is the hardest work. That is huge for a state rep race. It was an absurd number of people; it was incredible. But it was really clear that, again, my bold stances on these issues, and taking the lens I was taking on democratic-socialist values, and actually fighting for those issues — that is what brought people to this cause. Because these are all critical issues that, year after year, get neglected in our State House — again, despite being the “liberal haven” that is Massachusetts.

Spencer Brown

How can left electoral candidates ensure that the mobilization capacities built during the primary don’t just go away after the election? Has your campaign already made plans to ensure that this doesn’t happen?

Erika Uyterhoeven

That’s actually what I’m working on right now. We absolutely need to do that. I center my policies and my decisions as an elected on two lenses, one as essentially a coconspirator, which is a framework by abolitionist educator Bettina Love. Which is: we don’t need allies. We don’t need people who go “rah, rah, rah” with us. We need people who are actually in there and are going to go into a system and fight. But we also need to build the agency of the people who we’re working with.

This isn’t about being a savior. Abolition isn’t about white people saving black people. And that’s never how victories against racism have come about, whether that was in the 1800s or later. But it is about actually working with active organizing outside in the world.

Just to give a concrete example of how that doesn’t happen, and how everything we’ve done in the State House doesn’t go through that lens, is the fact that we in the State House don’t vote publicly on anything. Committee votes are not public information, and it takes sixteen representatives, 10 percent of all members, to request a roll-call vote and make public how each representative voted.

Every time we don’t vote publicly in the State House over a critical issue, we are saying to the 7 million residents of Massachusetts, “You don’t need to know the difference” and “You don’t need to know where we stand on these really critical issues — you don’t need to be involved in that.” If you don’t even deserve to know about an issue, how can you fight one way or another for it? How are you supposed to have a voice around something that you don’t get to see?

So, year after year, we get politicians who run on these incredibly well-crafted, message-tested platforms. And I could speak for myself as a candidate: we answer a million questions around housing and education and all these issues, and then we are never held accountable to it. So, for me, the transparency around votes is really critical — and not just transparency, but actually bringing in organizing to fight for these issues.

For example, the Green New Deal isn’t just about the Green New Deal as an incredibly crafted platform. It is about bringing organized labor, environmental justice groups, environmental justice communities, and climate activists together to fight for it, too. They are shaping it, and they should also have the right to say and fight for it in the State House. But the State House has never even filed a bill for a Green New Deal in Massachusetts. How are we supposed to organize around that?

Spencer Brown

Recently, New York City DSA had success with a slate of candidates. Here in the greater Boston area, we’ve had some limited success in the past, but we’re really trying to build out our electoral capacity. What do you see as being possible over the next few years for insurgent left-wing candidates at the state and city council level?

Erika Uyterhoeven

The sky’s the limit. We’re living in this unprecedented Gilded Age. We are living in a time when we have racial justice uprisings around the world, not just in the United States. The conjoined twins of racism and capitalism are getting challenged in a way I don’t think has ever happened in our recent history. So I think anything is really possible. I don’t think we can limit ourselves to, “Oh, we’ll elect ten or twenty people.”

But I do think that there’s a lot of work ahead of us. I know my election was one of the few progressive victories in Massachusetts this year. Ed Markey was another one. But otherwise, it wasn’t the same as the NYC-DSA slate. Democratic Socialists of America did not get ten victories in Boston. And the question is, “Okay, so how do we get to that?”

Spencer Brown

I’d like to connect your previous answer to a debate that’s currently happening within DSA and left media outlets like Jacobin concerning democratic-socialist electoral strategy: coalition or confrontation? Is the goal to join an existing coalition, focused on building relationships with a broad range of Democrats to get key progressive reforms passed? Or is it to build new legislative blocks and electoral constituencies based on a message of confrontation with Democratic Party leadership and their donor class?

Erika Uyterhoeven

I think, in the context of Massachusetts in particular, we’ve had enough coalition building, and coalition building is the kindest way to describe that behavior. The Democratic establishment will market it to you like it’s coalition building, but really it’s just permission-asking. They’re not bringing more people to the table. If we were coalition building, you’d also bring in advocates and all that, but they don’t. It’s a very insular, “old boys club” way of functioning, which is very corporate.

My view is, we’ve had, I don’t know, more than a hundred reps every year who have really tried to do that coalition approach of, “Let me just build really good relationships with people,” and then work their way through that. My view is that they represent their voters first and foremost, and every elected knows that. But they’ve made the job so easy in Massachusetts that you can get away with being a state rep by going to a few barbecues and events where people are coming together, say the right things, and literally never have to think about what you vote on — because you just vote with the speaker; that’s what most reps do.

And that’s it. It’s a very cushy job. And that’s why they’re not even coalition building, they’re just upholding an autocracy, because that’s the easiest thing to do.

I don’t think it’s their intention; I think people have different reasons for doing that. Some people really do believe we just have to make it up the flagpole, and they’re really in earnest fighting for that. And as much as even the most pure-hearted, earnest Democrat who is fighting for issues that I agree with and that I believe in is doing that through the coalition-building method or really trying to work relationships — they haven’t succeeded in thirty years.

If anything, the State House has gotten more corporate in terms of the structure and culture and the fact that we never vote or debate anything. And very little is available to the public eye. So I think, in the context of particularly the Massachusetts state legislature, there is a need for a clear demand of “Which side do you stand on on these issues?”