When Lee Carter realized that he had defeated an entrenched Republican incumbent and been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates on November 7, the 30-year-old Marine veteran claimed his upset victory. Then he did something that’s uncommon in contemporary American politics.
“There’s a song that comes to mind,” announced the man who had just grabbed a suburban Virginia legislative district away from the Republican Party’s very conservative House majority whip. “Those of you that know, join in!”
Full-throated and enthusiastic as he had been throughout an uphill campaign, the newly elected legislator began:
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the union makes us strong
Solidarity forever, solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong
The crowd did join in, raising their voices in a celebratory rendering of the workers’ anthem that signaled the arrival of a new politics in Manassas, Virginia.
But “Solidarity Forever” is an old song, with roots that go back more than a century, to the days when the radical songwriter Ralph Chaplin penned it in response to the labor and political struggles of an era when Eugene Victor Debs and the Socialist Party he led were at the peak of their popularity.
That historical connection is an important one, since Lee Carter is a democratic socialist who ran with strong support from the growing Democratic Socialists of America movement.
The Virginian was one of many candidates who were inspired by the 2016 presidential campaign of another democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders. The senator recognized the Virginia result by declaring that
Lee Carter’s victory in the Virginia House of Delegates—where he unseated the incumbent Republican Majority Whip—shows beyond doubt that the American people are ready for change. Carter ran on the issues that our political revolution cares the most about—Medicare for All, eliminating the influence of corporate money in politics, building a grassroots progressive movement, and fighting back against the reactionary GOP agenda. This is our path forward. Real change will come from the bottom up.
Lee Carter’s unapologetically socialist and passionately populist candidacy unsettled establishment Democrats in Virginia, to such an extent that Richmond Times-Dispatch political writer Patrick Wilson reported in late October that the challenger had been “abandoned” by the party brass.
“Carter, 30, a former Marine who grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., is the kind of rogue candidate that gives an apparatus like the Democratic Party of Virginia a fit as the party makes an offensive against Republican House of Delegates incumbents across Northern Virginia and in a few other parts of the state,” Wilson explained in a late-October review of the race.
That had a lot to do with corporate power, and its influence on both major parties.
“The [Virginia] Democratic Party establishment is aligned with Dominion Energy, a regulated monopoly, and supportive of Dominion’s desire to build the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline across Virginia,” the Times-Dispatch reported.
Like their GOP counterparts, the Democrats are recipients of the cash Virginia’s top corporate political contributor pumps into the system, and the Democratic Party of Virginia received $125,000 in 2016, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Carter opposes its plan for a natural gas pipeline and opposed its plan for a high-voltage transmission line that was to go through residential neighborhoods in Prince William County; the plan has stalled under local resistance. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline plan, with some questioning whether Atlantic Coast is necessary for Virginia’s power needs.
Carter said of the party establishment: “I’m to the left of them on economic policy. I am unabashedly pro-union, pro-worker. I’m openly fighting against the large corporate interests. That’s something that you don’t see a lot of politicians in either party do very much of…”
It’s a good thing Carter kept the faith. His victory was critical for Virginia Democrats, who picked up enough seats to position themselves on the verge of taking charge of the House of Delegates for the first time in almost two decades.
Carter recognized something that elite Democrats did not. Voters are far readier for a politics that pushes to the left on economic and social policy. And they are not particularly bothered by the word “socialist.” Carter’s Republican opponent sent voters a pre-election mailer that juxtaposed the Marine veteran’s image with those of Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin and China’s Mao Zedong. The word “Socialism” was splashed across the front of the red leaflet.
The attack fell flat. Carter won with ease, securing almost 55 percent of the vote. And he was not alone. After the November 7 election, Democratic Socialists of America announced that its membership “now includes 15 new elected officials. This is in addition to 20 elected already in offices around the United States.”
From Peekskill, New York, to Moorhead, Minnesota, from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Billings, Montana, DSA-backed candidates won town-council and city-council seats, school-board seats, and even a judgeship. DSA-backed candidates ran so well in the Pittsburgh area that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: “Tuesday night was an unambiguous win for at least one local political movement: Democratic Socialism.”
The list of democratic-socialist victories was striking—the longest in decades. But it was not unprecedented.
Even though critics of democratic socialism still attack candidates like Lee Carter by comparing them to foreign dictators, democratic socialism has deep roots in the United States. A century ago, candidates of the Socialist Party of Debs and Norman Thomas regularly swept local elections in cities such as Milwaukee—which elected the first big-city Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, in 1910, and later elected Socialist mayors Dan Hoan and Frank Zeidler. In cities such as Milwaukee and Reading, Pennylvania, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, Socialists served through much of the early 20th century as mayors, city attorneys, city-council members, county supervisors, sheriffs, and judges.
Wisconsin sent the first Socialist Party member to the US Congress, Victor Berger, and from the 1910s through the 1930s, Socialists were frequently better represented in the Wisconsin legislature than Democrats. They were substantial Socialist Party caucuses in legislatures from New York to Oklahoma in the 1910s and 1920s.
Now, a democratic socialist will serve in the Virginia legislature.
If this year’s surge in the numbers of elected socialists serves as a signal, the elections of 2018 could fill a good many more legislative seats in states across the country with champions of a democratic-socialist tradition that is distinctly American.