Democratic socialists have advised presidents and cabinet members; they have been elected as members of the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives, and as as state legislators, judges, sheriffs and school board members. But their primary service has been at the municipal level, as mayors and city council members—leading not just big cities such as Milwaukee but mid-sized cities like Reading, Pennsylvania, and small towns like Girard, Kansas.
So it is worth noting that, at a moment when democratic socialism is experiencing a surge of interest and enthusiasm nationwide, some of the first electoral victories are coming in small and medium-sized cities. The 2016 presidential campaign mounted by Bernie Sanders—who first came to prominence in the early 1980s as the democratic socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont—opened up the constrained American discourse and got millions of Americans thinking anew about an ideology that was deeply rooted in American history. Sanders struck a chord, especially with young working class activists, when he declared: “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy. Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”
Since the 2016 race finished, Democratic Socialists of America—the group forged over many decades by Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, Dolores Huerta, Frances Fox Piven, Gloria Steinem, Cornel West and others to give voice to American democratic socialist vision—has experienced rapid growth in states across the country. And now DSA members are campaigning for and winning local races in states like Georgia and Illinois.
More than a dozen DSA members now serve in local posts across the country, and their numbers are growing.
Early this month, Quad Cities Democratic Socialists of America member Dylan Parker was elected to the city council in Rock Island, Illinois. A 28-year-old diesel mechanic who was a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Parker came home and mounted a city council campaign in the city of 39,000. He focused on open government, citizen engagement and economic justice issues and he got specific. Steering attention to the role that an equitable approach to economic development could play in strengthening the whole community, he talked about providing universal high speed broadband internet access for residences and businesses and about expanding Rock Island’s publicly-owned hydroelectric power plant. The campaign resonated with voters. Parker won 68 percent of the vote on April 4.
Two weeks later, in South Fulton, Georgia, another DSA member, khalid kamau, won an equally striking victory. A #BlackLivesMatter and #FightFor15 organizer who was also one of the many young Sanders delegates to last year’s Democratic National Convention, kamau (who lower cases his name in the Yoruba African tradition that emphasizes the community over the individual), outlined an economic and social justice vision that proposed to make the newly incorporated community of South Fulton “the largest Progressive city in the South.” On April 18, we won 67 percent on the vote.
Declaring that “another world is possible,” DSA celebrated kamau’s victory, with DSA national director Maria Svart describing kamau’s win as “a tremendous victory for his community and a shot across the bow for politics as usual nationwide.”
America elected thousands of local officials, and it is easy to neglect election results from small towns and small cities. But American democratic socialists have always recognized that big things can begin far from the economic and political power centers of New York and Washington. When a democratic socialist named Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, 36 years ago last month, that victory was viewed as an anomaly. In fact, the ripples from that 1981 municipal election in Burlington is still shaking up American politics.