The good news is that the number of socialists elected to public office has quintupled since 2012.
The bad news is that this quintupling is a jump from one to five:
- Bernie Sanders, independent U.S. Senator from Vermont.
- Pat Noble, Socialist Party USA Red Bank Regional High School board of education member.
- Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative Seattle city councilmember.
- Mike Sylvester, Democratic Socialists of America Maine state legislator.
- Julie Ann Nitsch, Democratic Socialists of America Austin, Texas community college trustee.
This is a far cry from the Socialist Party’s (SP) 1911 peak of over 1,000 local and state elected officials and yet it is a step forward from previous decades when Sanders was the country’s lone socialist in office. Until Sanders’ 1981 election in Burlington, America’s last socialist mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler who declined to seek re-election when his term ended in 1960. Zeidler was one of Milwaukee’s three socialist mayors; combined, they held office for 38 out of 50 years between 1910 and 1960, a testament to the enduring power of the political machine built by the SP’s “sewer socialists” led by Congressman Victor Berger. Whether by coincidence or destiny, the first socialist organization Zeidler and Sanders joined was the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), youth group of the SP founded by the legendary Eugene Debs. Unlike Zeidler, Sanders’ 1981 victory was not the result of methodical socialist mobilization. Socialist organizations able to muster enough popular support to win local elections no longer existed by the time Sanders joined YPSL in 1961 and the party of Debs dropped the fiction that it was a party in 1972.
What finally changed this dreadful state of affairs and pushed socialists out of their self-defeating abstention from the most popular political events in the country – elections – was Occupy Wall Street in late 2011. Since then, socialist individuals and organizations have finally started taking the task of winning local and state elections seriously. Unfortunately – as the divided organizational allegiances of America’s five elected socialists indicates – the modern socialist movement is split between competing grouplets and therefore no comprehensive appraisal or even list of socialist local and state electoral efforts from 2012 onward exists.
Noble won his second and Sawant lost her first election in 2012. However, her bold challenge to Washington House speaker and Democratic Party incumbent Frank Chopp drew a massive amount of media attention, generated impressive fund-raising, and spawned a serious ground game powered by an army of unaffiliated volunteers and led by paid Socialist Alternative cadre. Under these circumstances, her loss was a victory over the socialist left’s stubborn defeatism.
In 2013, Socialist Alternative tripled down on electoral struggle and ran three candidates for city councils – Sawant in Seattle, Ty Moore in Minneapolis, and Seamus Whelan in Boston. Sawant pulled an upset and unseated incumbent Richard Conlin but her success was not replicated across the board. Moore lost by just 230 votes while Whelan’s campaign never gained traction and he came in 15th in a 19-candidate race for the top two positions. Councilwoman Sawant immediately and aggressively used her new office to mobilize mass protests in the streets demanding city government raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The result? Seattle became the first city to do so, marking the first legislative win for the fight for $15 movement of low-wage fast-food workers.
Sawant’s victory inspired a wave of socialist efforts to fight for local and state offices in 2014.
- Solidarity member Angela Walker won 20.1% of the vote running for Milwaukee county sheriff against Democrat David Clarke. (Clarke later became infamous for attacking Black Lives Matter and speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention.)
- Party of Socialism and Liberation’s Eugene Puryear came in sixth place with 3.5% of the vote in a 14-way race for a city council seat in Washington, D.C.
- International Socialist Organization member Owen Hill won 27.0% of the vote running for State Senate in Maine’s 28th district against the Democrat Anne Haskel.
- Socialist Alternative’s Jess Spear was crushed by Chopp in Washington’s 43rd Legislative District with 17.7% of the vote, a massive drop compared to her predecessor Sawant’s showing of 29.4% against him in 2012.
- Socialist Party USA’s Howie Hawkins got 4.8% of the vote running for governor in New York, a jump from four years prior when he got 1.3%.
- Socialist Party USA’s Adam Adrianson won 0.6% of the vote in a 9-candidate race for two slots on the Michigan Board of Trustees.
The socialist political horizon in 2015 was understandably dominated by Sanders’ historic presidential campaign, but that did not stop Sawant for running for re-election nor did it stop Jorge Mújica from running for alderman in Chicago’s 25th ward. Mújica came in third with 12.2% of the vote in a 5-way race with the left vote split between himself and Ed Hershey. Sawant beat multiple establishment candidates in the non-partisan primary and Seattle Urban League President and CEO Pamela Banks in the general election by building up an impressive record of achievements in office, running a vigorous grassroots campaign, and mobilizing small donor support:
“Sawant actually got more done in her two year tenure than most Council members accomplish in two terms, if at all. Preventing the Seattle Housing Authority from an outrageous 400% rent hike; opposing a slumlord that not only brought him over 200 housing code violation notices, but stopped him from raising the rents on his tenants; replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day; championing the public safety and housing needs of Seattle’s transsexual community; stopping in its tracks a $100,000 pay raise for the then-current head of Seattle Public Utilities; and getting arrested on behalf of airport workers demonstrating on behalf of the Sea-Tac $15/hr. raise, just to name some of them. She was everywhere, and her campaign showed an acute understanding of how to use the media to maximum effect.
“A local longstanding columnist, tallied the ground game that Sawant’s organization put together: ‘Over 600 active volunteers; over 178,000 phone calls; knocked on 90,000+ doors throughout the campaign, resulting in over 16,000 Voter IDs; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend, and 7,500 the previous weekend; well over $400,000 in donations – while not accepting any corporate cash – from 3,445 different donors . That last number is about triple that of any other council candidate. The donations themselves were on average much smaller – averaging about $50 a donor, half or less than that of any other campaign.’”
Emboldened by Sanders’ historic success, six members of Democratic Socialists of America ran for local and state office in 2016.
Debbie Medina: Medina sought to become the first socialist in the New York state legislature since 5 SP members were expelled by that body during the height of the Red Scare in 1920. Although she is a long-time tenant organizer, it was only after Sanders’ presidential campaign that she publicly identified herself as a socialist. In 2014, she ran against incumbent Martin Dilan first in the Democratic Party primary and then again in the general election as a candidate of the Working Families Party (WFP). In 2016, WFP withheld its endorsement after discovering that she beat her teenage son in the 2000s (he was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old child in 2008). Medina lost with 40.6% of the vote, earning almost the same number of votes (4,000) in the 2016 Democratic primary as she did in the 2014 primary and general election of 2014.
Rob Frisina: Frisna directed the Sanders campaign’s Portland office before deciding to run for a seat in the Oregon legislature. Facing stiff competition from other progressive candidates backed by unions and the Sierra Club, he came in fifth out of 6 candidates running in a top-two primary with 7.5% of the vote.
Tom Wakely: Wakely won 36.4% of the general election vote in a historically Republican Texas congressional district, a far better result than most post-2012 socialist efforts conducted in less politically difficult environments. In the Democratic Party primary, he triumphed with 59.0% of the vote.
Mike Sylvester: With 20 years as a union organizer under his belt, Sylvester decided to run for a seat in the Maine legislature that opened up due to term limits. He won the Democratic primary with 73.8% of the vote before going on to crush the Republican candidate overwhelmingly with 82.3% of the vote.
Julie Ann Nitsch: Running in a non-partisan election for a local community college’s board and with the assistance of Our Revolution, Nitsch came in second among four candidates on election day. Because the candidate with the most votes did not reach a threshold of 50% plus 1, a runoff was triggered between the top two vote-getters which Nitsch won with 61.0% of the vote, although it is important to note that the number of voters dropped drastically from roughly 209,000 in the general election to 25,000 in the runoff. Given these turnout figures, Our Revolution’s 51,000 text messages and 13,000 calls to Sanders supporters made a big difference.
Ian Schlakman: Running in a three-way race against Democrat Robert Stokes and independent Don Sparaco for an open city council seat in Baltimore, Schlakman was beaten badly with only 13% of the vote compared to Stokes’ 70% despite being almost even with Stokes in terms of fund-raising.
1. The best chance for socialists to win in the U.S. first-past-the-post voting system is a two-way race; the fewer candidates, the better. Puryear’s and Whelan’s candidacies were strategically ill-conceived efforts. Neither of them had high profiles in their respective local political scenes and they were up against more than a dozen competitors. Situations where socialists have little or no chance of becoming popular (and therefore function strategically as spoilers) should be avoided.
2. Keep trying! Three out of the five elected socialists in the U.S. lost their first elections. Sanders lost his first four elections and Sawant and Noble won only on their second attempts. Serious socialist electoral efforts should be made with an eye to the future – not the communist horizon future, but the next 1–3 election cycles. Running one-off campaigns is not a serious strategy for rebuilding America’s socialist movement and doing so will waste resources and exhaust activists.
3. Be flexible. One reason why Sanders and Sawant ultimately triumphed is because they combined dogged persistence with tactical flexibility. Running for the same office over and over again and losing every time by ‘yooj’ margins eventually creates the stigma of being a loser, a joke, and a crank (see Liberty Union Party leader Peter Diamondstone for a perfect example of this). Sanders ran for governor and the U.S. Senate several times before it became clear through voter data that his strongest base of support was in his hometown of Burlington. When he adjusted his tactics accordingly and ran a local race for mayor, he won by 10 votes. Sawant ran for a seat in the Washington legislature in 2012 but switched gears to a city council race in 2013.
4. Democratic Socialists of America achieved a higher success rate electorally in 2016 than the Green Party. 30% of Democratic Socialists of America candidates (2 out of 6) won their elections compared to 4% of Green Party candidates (10 out of 275). Losing 96% of the time combined with Jill Stein’s failure to get anywhere near 5% of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election (despite the two major parties choosing the most hated nominees in American history) were big blows to morale. As a result, the Green Party is divided and demoralized while Democratic Socialists of America’s morale is sky high and the organization’s size has doubled in just 9 months.
5. Socialists win as independent, socialist, and Democratic Party candidates; socialists lose as Green Party candidates. The Green Party’s 96% failure rate in the 2016 election cycle was not a sharp break from past performance or a fluke but the logical and predictable result of continually running fringe campaigns whose only practical effect is to spoil the outcome of the main contest between the two most popular contenders. That socialists who hitch their wagons to the Green Party end up going nowhere fast should come as no surprise. The Green Party’s failure rate of almost 100% in every election cycle is why the party remains what it was at its foundation in 1996 – a fringe party of middle-class white folks with no serious appeal to working or oppressed people. The socialist movement is much better off running socialist candidates as independents, Democrats, or on the ballot line of the particular organization they belong to and not as Greens.
6. Socialist Alternative and Democratic Socialists of America have the most and best electoral experience among U.S. socialist organizations. However, Socialist Alternative’s expertise is confined almost exclusively to Seattle and this geographic one-sidedness was exacerbated in 2016 by mass resignations of Socialist Alternative’s branches across the U.S. south.
7. Sectarianism continues to be a problem. Socialist groups uniting to elect socialist candidates should be the rule rather than the exception and the exception as a rule is usually Democratic Socialists of America.
- In 2012, the International Socialist Organization refused to endorse Kshama Sawant despite an explicit appeal for support from Socialist Alternative.
- In 2013, Democratic Socialists of America endorsed and worked for Ty Moore’s city council run.
- In 2015, independent socialist Jorge Mújica hoped to sought support from a plethora of local socialist and left-wing organizations to help elect him to Chicago’s board of alderman. Despite a joint meeting by such groups, only Democratic Socialists of America endorsed him and followed through to become a factor in the campaign; Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, the Green Party, Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the International Socialist Organization were nowhere to be found despite having a presence in Chicago.
- In 2016, Debbie Medina’s run was neither endorsed nor actively supported by a single socialist organization aside from Democratic Socialists of America even though there are many socialist groups in New York City.
Almost a century has passed since socialists undertook serious efforts to win local and state elections and it is no coincidence that socialism since then has been irrelevant to American politics.
Those days are over.
A new generation has learned from Sawant and Sanders that the road to power is the road to relevance. However, the conditions, challenges, and opportunities that confront socialists today are vastly different from those that confronted our political ancestors: an Alt-Right presidency; Brexit; the rise of Islamic State (ISIS); a Democratic Party susceptible to a hostile takeover by progressive forces. But making American socialism great again is certainly within the “left-wing of the possible” – if we stand together.
Socialist Electoral Results from 2012 Onward
|Pat Noble||Socialist Party USA||Socialist Party USA||54.8||1,187|
|Kshama Sawant||Socialist Alternative||Socialist Alternative||29.4||20,425|
|Ty Moore||Socialist Alternative||Socialist Alternative||42.1||1,987|
|Kshama Sawant||Socialist Alternative||Nonpartisan||50.9||93,682|
|Seamus Whelan||Socialist Alternative||Nonpartisan||1.2||3,118|
|Adam Adrianson||Socialist Party USA||Green||0.6||33,914|
|Howie Hawkins||Socialist Party USA||Green||4.7||176,269|
|Owen Hill||International Socialist Organization||Green||27.0||3,725|
|Eugene Puryear||Party of Socialism and Liberation||Green||3.5||11,504|
|Jessica Spear||Socialist Alternative||Socialist Alternative||17.7||8,606|
|Kshama Sawant||Socialist Alternative||Nonpartisan||56.0||17,170|
|Mike Sylvester||Democratic Socialists of America||Democratic||82.1||4,313|
|Tom Wakely||Democratic Socialists of America||Democratic||36.4||129,253|
|Debbie Medina||Democratic Socialists of America||Democratic Primary||40.6||3,988|
|Rob Frisina||Democratic Socialists of America||Democratic; Nonpartisan Primary||7.2||1,716|
|Ian Schlakman||Democratic Socialists of America||Green||13.0||1,827|
|Julie Ann Nitsch||Democratic Socialists of America||Nonpartisan||61.0||15,593|