*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #34, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
Socialism is no longer a dirty word in American politics. American democratic socialism has experienced a resurgence following Bernie Sanders’ narrow primary defeat in the 2016 presidential primary, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning 2018 primary victory in New York’s 14th Congressional district.
The renewed popularity of the ideology is reflected in the whirlwind growth of the nation’s largest socialist organization, Democratic Socialists of America. The organization’s dues-paying membership has grown from 6,000 in 2016 to more than 45,000 today.
In Virginia, Democratic Socialist and Marine veteran Lee Carter made waves within the state’s political establishment when he upset Republican incumbent and House Majority Whip Jackson Miller in Virginia’s 50th district during the 2017 off-year elections.
Carter’s campaign was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Sanders’ political action committee, but not the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. Carter won by an astounding 10 points against a better-funded, better-supported incumbent in a formerly conservative district.
The DSA has 13 Virginia branches, in localities including Charlottesville, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Roanoke, and Norfolk. Of these, only the Richmond chapter, designated a 501(c)(4) in April 2017, is fully-accredited.
Since forming, Richmond’s membership has grown from 20 to 165 members. Co-chair Austin Gonzalez attributed the steady growth to enthusiasm generated by Carter’s electoral upset, along with Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley.
“Our membership on a local level, and on the national level, typically sees a bump when the DSA is in the news,” he said. “With Lee Carter, it was really a legitimizing effect … legitimizing us as an actual entity that matters within the state of Virginia.”
Richmond’s rapid growth has also sprung from grassroots coalition-building. Like DSA National, Richmond DSA is a multi-tendency organization that works with groups along the leftist political spectrum, ranging from far-left libertarian socialist and anti-fascist groups to center-left organizations like the Democratic Party.
“DSA is more well suited than most organizations to coalition-building because we welcome any beliefs within the left, any tendency,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people are at a point where they want to contribute, they want to help, they want to get involved, and a lot of people are just looking for a place to start. For a lot of people I think DSA helps them find that place to start.”
The growing membership of Richmond DSA has put it in a position to support local and regional organizations. Some of those groups include The Virginia Defenders, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and New Virginia Majority.
The group has also supported anti-fascist and anti-racist actions in Charlottesville and Richmond, where white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups have coalesced around Confederate monuments. Instead of leading, Richmond DSA typically acts in a support role.
Richmond DSA Co-chair Laura M., who didn’t feel comfortable sharing her last name, described their approach.
“We’re not going to go in and say, ‘We’re going to do that work also.’ We’re going to say, ‘We want to work with you. How can we provide support to you?’” she said.
Richmond DSA has also implemented their own mutual-aid programs in Richmond and prioritized action on specific local issues. On a national level, the DSA’s most well-known action is the free brake light clinic, which offers to exchange brake lights for anyone in the community free of charge. The program was started by New Orleans DSA to help minimize interactions between the average person and police, and to avoid costly fees associated with traffic violations. Richmond DSA held their second ever free brake light repair on September 3, and plan to make it a fixed monthly event.
“The biggest goal for DSA is improving the life of the average working individual, and it’s things like that that can make a big difference,” Gonzalez said.
In addition to the free brake light program, Richmond DSA has created working groups to address key issues affecting working-class communities in Richmond. In January 2018, the group voted to prioritize homelessness, immigrants’ rights, and the creation of a citywide People’s Survey for the year.
Gonzalez said he’s most excited about the People’s Survey, which is designed to gauge how they can better serve the general population of Richmond, because of “the potential that it has in connecting us with the community,” he said.
Notably, Richmond DSA has not endorsed any candidates for office in the upcoming election cycle. To date the chapter has only endorsed one candidate, Montigue Magruder, who ran and lost on the Green Party ticket for House of Delegates in Virginia’s 69th district.
Laura M. said the chapter is more focused on “trying to do what we can to better serve our communities. And that means going out into the community and helping wherever we can, and actually participating in public actions.”
DSA’s national surge in popularity is largely due to the narrative surrounding the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, in which Bernie Sanders narrowly lost to Democratic Party champion Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ populist message resonated across state and political boundaries as he campaigned successfully both in deep-red states and solid-blue urban areas. His run helped bring issues like income inequality, single-payer healthcare, and free college tuition into the national spotlight.
Since then, the DSA has vastly expanded its network of local chapters across the United States, and DSA-backed candidates have won elections at all levels of government in the past two elections.
The DSA’s most significant electoral victory occurred in June 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez won her primary. Her win has all but ensured her a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 in New York’s reliably blue 14th district.
This could be a banner year for the socialist organization as a record number of DSA-endorsed candidates vie for elected positions across the country, and although Richmond DSA has declined to endorse any candidates locally, their core mission of direct action for the working class stand to benefit from national wins.
According to Gonzalez, as long as there is a void of viable left-wing movements in the United States, the DSA’s message will continue to resonate with the average American.
“People see their wages stagnant, and they see organizations like the Democratic Party not fighting for them,” he said. “People want to be able to see an improvement in the life of the everyday worker. To me that is the absolute goal of DSA, improving the life of the average individual.”