The long history of American socialism has been built in left-wing strongholds. A century ago, Oklahoma and Wisconsin were Socialist Party bastions, while North Dakota and Montana were hotbeds of radical politics. And there was always Pennsylvania. From the 1910s through the 1940s, Socialist Party members served as state legislators, mayors, city councilors, and school-board members. The Pennsylvania party, with its deep roots in Reading, produced national Socialist leaders, including candidates for president and vice president. And after the party’s fortunes faded following World War II, a former Socialist from Reading, George Milton Rhodes, was elected to Congress as a Democrat and went on to serve for two decades as one of the US House’s steadiest supporters of organized labor and civil rights.
Rhodes finished his last term 50 years ago. So it has been a good long while since even the memory of socialism has been a factor in Pennsylvania politics.
But the dry spell is over. Socialists have been on an electoral winning streak in some parts of the country for a number of years—Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant made her electoral breakthrough in 2013, winning a major race for the Seattle City Council—but the results from western Pennsylvania in the past two years have been particularly striking. And, now, national observers are starting to take note. “Democratic Socialists scores big wins in Pennsylvania,” declared CNN this week, while The New Yorker announced: “A Democratic-Socialist Landslide in Pennsylvania.”
Tuesday’s primary election in Pennsylvania saw young progressive women who were backed by Democratic Socialists of America winning Democratic primaries all over the place—in cities and suburbs, to the west and to the east. “We’re turning the state the right shade of red tonight,” declared Arielle Cohen, the co-chair of the Pittsburgh chapter of DSA
A pair of DSA-endorsed candidates for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives seats in the Pittsburgh area, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato defeated veteran legislators in Democratic primaries. In the Philadelphia area, Philly DSA-backed candidates Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale also won hard-fought primaries for state House seats.
The wins by Lee and Innamorato were especially sweet, as the DSA-backed candidates upset members of a Pittsburgh-area political dynasty, cousins Paul and Dom Costa, whose stances on social and economic issues had frustrated progressives. “Last night’s victories were a monumental shift in the political landscape of Pennsylvania,” explained Cohen. “Our candidates won on popular demands that were deemed impossible. We won on health care for all, we won on free education.” WESA, the local NPR affiliate, reported that this spring’s southwestern Pennsylvania primaries saw “a wave of progressive Democrats challenging what they call the moderate establishment this election season. It echoes those throughout the country that have seen left-of-center political newcomers secure seats in state and federal government.”