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Anti-Trump Elections Signal Opening for Socialist Politics

Progressive candidates and even socialist candidates did well in Tuesday’s election. How can we use this to build a mass anti-capitalist movement?

Tatiana Cozzarelli

November 10, 2017
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Image of NYC District 35 City Council candidate Jabari Brisport.

Republican Bob Marshall has held elected office since 1992 and calls himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” While in the Virginia state legislature, he sponsored a bill that defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman as well as a “bathroom bill” that would force transgender people to use the restroom of the gender on their birth certificate. In his most recent race to maintain his seat in the state legislature, he refused to debate his transgender opponent Danica Roem and, in attack ads, referred to her in the wrong pronoun.

Roem went on to defeat Marshall, becoming the first openly trans woman to be elected and seated in a state legislature. “If they beat me, this will put conservative] Representatives in the closet for years,” said Bob Marshall in a [Breitbart interview.

Danica Roem was not the only “first” in this Tuesday’s elections — there was the election of the first Sikh Mayor in U.S. history, the first two Latinas in the Virginia State House, the first Asian American in the Virginia General Assembly, the first trans person of color on a major city council (in Minneapolis), Seattle’s first openly lesbian mayor, and the first African American woman mayor of Charlotte.

It is unlikely that this election will put Republicans in the closet, as Bob Marshall states. But, they will have to reflect on the direction of their party, and how Trump’s hateful rhetoric, echoed by Republican candidates, hurts the GOP. These elections were distinctive because of the diverse group of winning candidates as well as the advance of candidates who support progressive and leftist causes.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” model comes with a mixture of job-creation promises, racism, sexism and xenophobia. His rhetoric strengthens white supremacists and fringe neo-fascists who he claims are “fine people”. Tuesday’s election results were a rejection of Trump’s vision of America and an embrace of a diverse country, including people of color, women and LGBT people.

Although the Democratic Party cannot be trusted to defend the rights of oppressed and working class people, the winning vote totals for those who championed progressive causes demonstrates an openness of a sector of the American electorate to left ideas. The advance of socialists, and particularly of DSA members and endorsed candidates, demonstrates that left ideas are far from marginal and that there are concrete possibilities for the further growth of working class and socialist organizations.

The Democrats on the Anti-Trump Train

The Washington Post says that “Anti-Trump backlash fueled a Democratic sweep in Virginia and elections across the country.” This sentiment is echoed in all of the major newspapers — they insist that the Democrats’ big win does not reflect a positive view of the Democratic Party but rather a rejection of Trump. Surveys of voters in Virginia and New Jersey demonstrate that Trump was the decisive factor in their choice of candidates.

Regardless of the reasons, it is undeniable that this was a big win for the Democrats; they flipped seats in fourteen Virginia districts, took full control of the state governments of New Jersey and Washington State and swept local elections in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle, and North Carolina. The Republicans only won a major victory in Utah.

For a party still reeling from the very unexpected loss of Hillary Clinton and surrounded by controversy regarding the rigged DNC against Bernie Sanders, these electoral wins are a breath of fresh air and a possibility at regaining their footing. However, Tuesday’s wins for the Democrats should be kept in perspective. These races occurred in blue states. Furthermore, some of the winners of local elections were far from establishment Democrats and seem to have won in spite of the Democratic Party, not because of it.

Progressive Causes

Beyond the diversity of the candidates, many of those who won endorsed progressive causes. This was especially the case in elections of lesser importance for the Democratic Party, such as city council races.

The $15 minimum wage was an issue put forth by various candidates including Charlotte’s first African American mayor.

Other candidates addressed the issue of police brutality and police violence. Melvin Carter, St. Paul’s first Black mayor, sought “police reform,” as did Vi Lyles in Charlotte. While the police cannot be reformed, and neither an increase in the number of Black police officers or body cameras will change the insidious role the police play in society, it is a progressive development that so many candidates are discussing police brutality. Philadelphia’s new District Attorney is civil rights lawyer known for his defense of Black Lives Matter and prosecution of police. Yet, as DA, his job will be to perpetuate and enforce the racist penal system and prison industrial complex — far from a progressive position.

The environment was another hot button issue. For example, Justin Fairfax, who ran for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, spoke out against the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, putting him at odds with the Democratic Party.

Without a doubt, the issue of healthcare is on the mind of many Americans, and in Maine, 60 percent of voters approved Medicaid expansion, extending coverage to more than 70 thousand people.

Our Revolution, the group developed by Sanders’s presidential bid, was a major player and a big winner on Tuesday. Their candidates won 21 seats in 59 races. This is a dramatic success since the Democratic Party clearly marginalized the Sanders wing of the party’s base. Many of these candidates were the black sheep in the elections, receiving less funding and support from establishment Democrats

DSA and the Elections

These elections also demonstrated that increasingly, Americans will vote for socialists in elections. Yet, most of the DSA members with successful electoral bids ran on the Democratic Party ticket, subsuming their victories to the Democratic Party machine which, overwhelmingly, did not do much to support their candidates.

Some of the victories to highlight here are:

— Joel Sipress who won a whopping 67 percent of the vote in Duluth’s 2nd District.

— Seema Singh Perez became Knoxville’s first Indian-American City Council member.

— Lee Carter of the DSA defeated Republican House majority whip Jackson Miller. Carter was largely abandoned by the Democratic party due to his support for single-payer health care and for campaign finance reform. He also spoke out against the Democrat-supported Dominion Energy plan for a natural gas pipeline and high-voltage transmission line through residential neighborhoods.

Despite mostly running on the Democratic Party ticket, the anti-socialist rhetoric against the DSA has already begun. There have been several very marginal “March Against Marxism” events. Lee Carter of the DSA was also red baited in the elections; his opponent compared him to Stalin. Articles entitled “Radical Marxist Group Won 12+ Seats Last Night” and “Democrats are not American — they are Bolsheviks” have emerged and are sure to spread.

The Trouble With the Democrats

These elections are, without a doubt, an expression of an anti-Trump sentiment. The Democratic Party is in shambles, wracked by infighting and markedly set against the Sanders left wing winning over the leadership, even though that is what most voters want. The fact that the Democrats’ big win was a rejection of Trump, not a flood into the Democratic party or a healing of Democrats’ old wounds leaves an opening for the left to run as socialists and build an independent party. Socialist ideas are not marginal; they can become mainstream.

Given this incredibly favorable environment for socialists, it is hard to understand why socialist candidates would want to contribute to the revival of the Democratic Party. It is the party of the new governor of Virginia, Ralph S. Northam, who is against sanctuary cities, and of Phil Murphy, the newly elected governor of New Jersey with a 23-year career at Goldman Sachs. It’s the party of Obama’s drones and deportations, and that of Elizabeth Warren’s vote for Trump’s massive defense budget. It’s the party of mass incarceration and police brutality. It’s a party that is directly antagonistic to left politics. While the Democrats seek photo-ops of diverse candidates, their politics are markedly against oppressed and working people and on the side of big corporations. Socialists don’t belong on their ballot line.

You may be interested in The DSA in the Democratic Party Labyrinth

Yesterday, in winning a dozen elections for the Democratic Party, the DSA contributed, in their own small way, to the revival of this capitalist party. These elections begin to demonstrate that socialist politics and socialist candidates are strong enough to stand on their own without the decaying Democratic Party to hold them up.

Running Outside the Democrats

There are two notable examples of candidates who ran successful campaigns outside the Democratic Party, although neither won. The first is Jabari Brisport, a 29-year-old DSA member running on the Green Party ticket for New York City Council. He won 29% of the vote on a platform of affordable housing and against real estate developers. Unlike most other DSA candidates, Jabari ran as a Green Party candidate, saying, “I think that if you run within the two party system you are supporting it. I believe that trying to bring up far-left issues within the Democratic Party can only get us so far.”

We must ask ourselves, however, if a candidate is willing to run as third party, why not run as the DSA? Although it would be arduous work, the process of collecting signatures to get on the ballot is a way to discuss socialism and socialist politics with everyday people; it is a way of garnering support and highlighting the undemocratic nature of the electoral process. It could be a way to help build a broader socialist anti-Trump movement. Why subsume socialist politics to Green Party, who is only vaguely anti-capitalist and far from socialist? (For more on the weaknesses of the Green Party, read The Green Party: A Washed-Out Strategy of the Left.)

Perhaps the most important electoral example for socialists is the stellar electoral race of Socialist Alternative’s Ginger Jentzen who ran for Minneapolis City Council. She won 34 percent of the first-choice vote, the most of any of the candidates. However, due to the run-off election format, she lost the City Council seat to a Democrat. She is an example to socialists around the country, demonstrating that it is possible to run as an independent and that it is possible to do well.

Jentzen campaigned for a $15 minimum wage, plans to tax the rich, and affordable housing. She ran against Steve Fletcher who was endorsed by Keith Ellison and State Representative Ilhan Omar (D), among others. Yet Jentzen raised more money than both the Democrat and Republican candidates without taking corporate money, instead relying only on small donations — most of them $25 or less. She raised $140 thousand, more money than any candidate in Minneapolis history.

Jentzen’s campaign was soft on criticisms of the Democratic Party — they are hardly mentioned in her platform. She aligns herself with Bernie Sanders and calls for a break with corporate Democrats rather than all capitalist parties. Republicans ran an attack campaign to “expose” the fact that Jentzen was not a Democrat, evidence that the campaign itself did not make this crystal clear. Yet, despite these differences, Jentzen and her fellow party member Kshama Sawant of the Seattle City Council unequivocally demonstrate that it is possible to win elections while remaining independent of both the Green Party and the Democratic Party. If a substantially smaller organization like Socialist Alternative can run independent candidates and win, why can’t the DSA?

The Problem with an Electoral Anti-Trump Movement

It has been a year since Trump’s election, and much has changed. Both political parties are scrambling for order within their ranks while Steve Bannon heads up an anti-establishment wing of the GOP and Bernie Sanders acts as a symbol of progressive ideas within the Democratic Party. Over 30 thousand people are part of the DSA, demonstrating that socialism is no longer a dirty word in the polarized world of Donald Trump.

It’s been a year of mobilizations demonstrating the country’s rejection of Trump, from the Women’s Marches to climate demonstrations to the rallies against the Muslim Ban. Recently, however, the resistance to Trump has waned, and there are fewer and smaller marches than when Trump first took office. It is dangerous to believe that we can elect our resistance to Trump. It is also dangerous to assume that the Democrats can — or even want to — lead a resistance against “the orange man in the White House.”

We have a world to win, comrades. All of the successfully-elected DSA candidates — and the nearly-elected Jentzen — should put their political positions at the service of furthering a struggle against Trump, against deportation, for Medicare for All, for a living wage, and for other working-class demands. We can use the attention we get during elections to revive an expansive movement for our rights. The success of socialist candidacies should not only be measured by poll numbers, but also by what kind of movement the candidates build outside the elections. Socialist candidacies must serve to advance a combative movement in the streets, in our workplaces, and in our places of study. That means fueling the fire that will burn down both the Democratic and Republican Parties and building a real alternative — one that is working class and socialist.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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