It’s hard to keep track of all the times the US socialist movement has been declared vanquished.
There was Bernie Sanders’s loss in 2016, of course. There was the “near-shutout for the anti-establishment left” in 2018 (when the “Squad” was first elected). The “massive rebuke of socialism” of 2020 came next (when the Squad expanded and Medicare for All was supposedly rejected by voters despite many of its supporters winning in tough seats). Socialists suffered “setbacks at every turn” the following year, too (when 70 percent of Democratic Socialists of America [DSA] endorsees won their races). And they did so in 2022 after another “spate of losses” (in a year that saw the addition of several more socialist and left-wing officials to Congress).
Things sound pretty bad for the US left.
If so, no one told the dozens of socialists serving at the state, county, and local levels who were gathered this past weekend at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, for the largest gathering of socialist elected officials in the United States in decades. The event was a reminder of what might be the oddest secret in American politics: despite no shortage of high-profile, bitter losses since 2016, socialists — who just a few election cycles ago were virtually a nonentity in US politics, their politics invoked only as an epithet to be lobbed at Democrats — have quietly and determinedly been winning power at almost every level of US government, all around the country.
The event was headlined by appearances from Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Senator Sanders (I-VT) himself, who supported Bush’s congressional campaigns, as he inspired many of the other attendees’ own electoral runs. Bush, whose first defeat was once pointed to by the mainstream press as proof of the limited appeal of socialism in US electoral politics, talked about the need to couch socialist politics in love and the virtue of running and running and running again.
“Love must be at the center of our work as a movement interested in the public good,” Bush told the crowd. “We don’t care if you voted for us or not as a condition for whether we help you. We care if you eat, if you have clean clothes, and if you have clean air and clean water.”
Sanders later said that he had run his own share of unsuccessful failed campaigns — “I ran four times and lost, and by the way, to any of you who have run and lost, you didn’t do as badly as I did.” As he looked out at the crowd via video link, he could see proof of the rapid inroads socialists have made in US electoral politics over the past eight years.
“When I was in the Congress elected in ’91, there was nothing, nothing like it,” Sanders said.
Indeed, for nearly thirty years after Sanders won his first House race, he was the only self-identified democratic socialist in a Congress that now has at least six. Sanders also pointed to the growing political involvement of young people and the growth of the union movement, pointing to United Parcel Service (UPS) workers’ overwhelming vote in favor of striking, among other developments.
Over two days, socialist elected officials and their staffers — whether city council members, state legislators, school board members, or a variety of other public offices — gathered to share experiences, lessons, and strategies.
“Being in office fighting for transformative reforms can be profoundly isolating,” says DSA Fund executive director Maria Svart, one of the organizers of the event. “A grassroots base is important but so is a community of peers. There is power in solidarity, so this conference was the first step toward building a network for the long term where democratic socialist elected officials can share policy ideas and lessons to actually win them.”
Sponsored and organized jointly by the DSA Fund, Jacobin, and the Nation, it was the culmination of years of work that had originally been set for spring 2021, before being derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The socialist solidarity built during the conference means these elected comrades built relationships to last beyond the gathering,” says the DSA Fund’s David Duhalde. “But the spoken desire by attendees is to build national infrastructure around public policy and governance that will make democratic socialism possible.”
Micah Uetricht, editor of Jacobin, added, “We’ve gone from a tiny scattering of isolated socialist elected officials to dozens just at this conference alone. And all of them are extremely serious about wielding legislative power in the smartest, most effective ways possible to build power for the working class.”
The value of helping candid, face-to-face conversations take place became immediately clear as one walked around the conference. Over breakfast, a city councilperson outlined to a councilor on the East Coast the history of the progressive forces that had first brought him to power. A 1 a.m. after-party conversation opened the door to a future meeting about resisting sports stadium subsidies. Panels on a variety of topics let elected officials, organizers, and intellectuals elaborate in detail on how they’d won and operated in office, the challenges they faced, how they plugged local communities, unions, and activists into their fights — and to indulge in friendly competition over who had to deal with the worst mayor, governor, or media hit job.
Attendees reported a variety of responses to their victories. Some faced implacable hostility from both moneyed interests and their own colleagues, including Democratic officials, even as their constituents felt indifferent about their socialist label or even supported their work.
“For the most part, people don’t care as long as they have their emails answered and their potholes filled,” says Nashville city councilman Sean Parker.
Others were able to find progressive allies on city councils and state legislatures and even build bridges on certain issues with political opponents. Some even had the fortune of having one or more elected socialist colleagues, letting them form small socialist blocs. Wisconsin state assemblyman Ryan Clancy says that having been elected at the same time as fellow socialist assemblyman Darrin Madison “has been a huge blessing,” even as the pair are only two in a nearly hundred-seat legislature.
Such exchanges held particular interest for attendees who had only recently been elected, some of whom were still waiting to be inaugurated when the event was held, looking ahead to the daunting task of legislating in political isolation. A common refrain from those who had already been through the ringer was that, having come into office cynical about the political status quo, they were shocked at how much worse things were: how corrupt politics had become, how irrelevant doing the right thing was to political decision-makers, and how willing their colleagues were to violate their own consciences for the sake of staying in power.
“I’ve had no time to draft policy because I’ve been spending time trying to combat bad policy,” says Madison.
The gathering challenged some prevailing stereotypes of the socialist movement. Despite being pegged as overwhelmingly white and male by socialism’s enemies and a few of its progressive allies, women made up nearly half of the elected officials attending, and black, Latino, Asian, and other nonwhite officials and staffers had a strong presence.
Many spoke about their working-class backgrounds and the paths that brought them to not just socialism, but political involvement more generally, whether their families’ struggles with eviction or the incessant resistance from people in power to meeting the needs of ordinary workers. Somerville, Massachusetts, city council member Willie Burnley Jr said that stumbling upon a Jacobin article was what led him to identify as a socialist. The multiracial, radical, working-class movement serious about winning power that’s been promised so often in left-wing rhetoric and recent political campaigns seemed more like a realistic possibility over the weekend.
And while socialist politics have for years been dismissed as narrowly appealing to coastal pockets, the gathering’s attendees came from across the country: from East Coast strongholds like New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Maine; Midwestern outposts like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin; to mountain and Western states like Montana, Colorado, California, and Oregon. From the South, the contingent included two city council members from Nashville, Tennessee. This builds on the recent wins of socialist members of Congress in the 2022 midterms, which saw the Squad expand its presence into states like Texas and Illinois.
The challenges facing socialists inside and outside of electoral politics are very real and formidable. Republicans are making inroads on working-class voters, socialists are often forced to work within and be contained by a centrist Democratic Party, and they face a political and media establishment that’s overwhelmingly hostile to their project. What’s more, socialists have experienced very real and crushing defeats these past seven years, none more painful than the sudden reversal of fortune that ended Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.
But if there are plenty of reasons for socialists to mourn, the past weekend was, if nothing else, a needed reminder not to fall into despair. As sure as media dismissals of socialism’s appeal will continue, so, no doubt, will the quiet but regular victories that have accompanied every one of those dismissals, which have taken the number of elected socialists from zero to many dozens in less than a decade. The socialist movement may not be ready to win state power yet, but its presence is expanding in elected bodies across America. Don’t be surprised when you see such victories continuing in the months and years to come.