- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
November’s presidential election in the United States saw Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump amidst unprecedented turnout on both sides. But that wasn’t the only story — beneath the surface were a string of progressive victories, from state-wide ballot initiatives on the $15 minimum wage to state officials and congress itself.
It will come as no surprise to left-wingers in Britain that this precipitated an attack from establishment Democrats, who sought to blame progressives for their failure to gain a more decisive victory. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was quick to fire back — pointing out that Biden’s victory was made possible by grassroots organising which produced enormous turnout in key swing state cities.
Where the emerging US left goes after this election remains open to question. After two extraordinary against-the-odds presidential campaigns, it seems unlikely that veteran socialist Bernie Sanders will run for that office again. But with policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal still among the most popular in American politics, the future looks bright.
To tease out the road ahead, we spoke with one of the Democratic Socialists of America’s most senior elected officials — Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of Chicago’s 35th ward.
This election was a lot closer than most people believed because of the scale of mobilisation on both sides. How did you interpret the results?
We saw a historic turnout for both Republicans and the Democrats. Even Trump’s defeated tally of votes was the second highest ever. At the last count, Joe Biden got 81 million votes to win. So there’s no doubt in my mind that his victory was powered by progressive voters who turned out in record numbers, tens of millions of them, to reject Trump and reject Trumpism.
For this victory, we need to recognise the hard work of grassroots organisers at the ground level, who worked diligently to turn out new voters. It was folks that were organising against racist sheriffs and anti-immigrant policies in Arizona. It was folks that were organising against voter disenfranchisement and with the Movement for Black Lives in Atlanta. The hard work of grassroots organisers delivered this result.
In the wake of victory, there has been an attack on the progressive movements in the United States by the moderate Democrats. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out in defence of that movement in a New York Times interview that got a lot of circulation. What do you make of the battle in the party?
There’s no doubt that the base of the Democratic Party is progressive. A majority of Americans and an overwhelming majority of Democrats support Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. But the leadership of the Democratic Party in Washington, DC are neoliberals through and through. They’re corporate Democrats. They’re aligned to big money and the donor class.
So what the neoliberal leadership of the party tells the Democratic base, which is overwhelmingly progressive, is, ‘the only way we can get our message out and win elections is if we have money coming in from Wall Street, coming in from Big Oil and Big Pharma, from corporate interests.’
It’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma, because obviously the only way Democrats can win is if they turn out the base of the party, as we saw most recently with Joe Biden’s victory. You need to have that record turnout of young people, of millennials, of black voters, of Latino voters who are supporting a progressive agenda, but there is a point that money is extremely important in politics, largely because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Democratic Party balances being in bed with corporate interests while, at the same time, recognising that there is no victory without the excitement and enthusiasm of the base, which turns out for transformative policies. I don’t think those two things are sustainable long-term, and I agree with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that we have to embrace the base.
This election also saw more progressives elected to Congress in Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, adding to Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What’s your view about how the Left should organise within the Democratic Party?
There’s no doubt that the Left needs to be organised. There are so many movements this past election cycle — which existed prior to President Trump taking office, that grew in strength during his term. They are going to continue to organise. The Movements for Black Lives, the movement to stop deportations, the movement to protect reproductive rights, the movement to ensure we have a $15 living wage and a strong workers’ rights. Before that we had a movement of teachers, the Red for Ed movement. So there’s a range of grassroots activity on the left that is not necessarily electoral.
The question about the Democratic Party poses an interesting one in the United States. I’m a democratic socialist. I would love nothing more than to have a workers’ party. But I understand that a workers’ party is not an end unto itself. It’s a means to an end. It’s a vehicle to get us to our goal, our goal being social and economic justice for all people, democracy in the workplace, democracy in our economy, and self-determination for communities, not just in the United States, but across the globe.
In the United States, our electoral system effectively limits competition to the one between the Democrats and the Republicans. And a lot of progressive voters have deep loyalties to the Democratic brand, often because they are so opposed to the Republicans. So I think it’s clear where we have to go: we have to primary corporate Democrats and run true progressive who more closely align with our base. There may be rare exceptions, like in Seattle, where electoral systems allow socialists to be elected outside of this — but it won’t be the norm.
We need to focus on mobilising and energising movements. And also on building our own organisations, like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Then we engage with the Democratic Party.
The DSA has grown by thousands of members over the past few weeks alone. It has managed to get quite a lot more of its endorsed candidates elected at city and state-wide level. How optimistic are you about the future?
The DSA has grown in leaps and bounds over the course of Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs in 2016 and 2020, and also in response to the election of Donald Trump. Progressive Americans are looking for an alternative to the corporate Democratic Party and a home to organise. I would not have been re-elected and there would not have been the election of five other democratic socialists to the Chicago City Council without the support of the DSA.
This past cycle, we saw 75 percent of DSA candidates endorsed at the national level win their election. The DSA, by endorsing at the local level, is able to marshal dozens if not hundreds of volunteers to support their electoral efforts, which is extremely important when you’re seeking to go door-to-door and get your message out. But at the national level, by endorsing certain candidates, they’re also able to marshal financial support because we’ve seen that so many socialists across the United States are looking to give small contributions that ultimately add up to big campaign hauls when they see that the DSA is endorsing a candidate.
So DSA support is going to be critical moving forward. Its organisational capacity is fundamental to building a robust left that has successes electorally. We have seen the phenomenal success of the DSA in New York, where they have primaried corporate Democrats and elected democratic socialists to take their place. I think we’re going to continue to see the New York chapter of DSA have big successes in the upcoming municipal elections. In places like Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, in those strongholds where DSA has a lot of members, they’re going to be able to run quite a number of democratic socialists too.
Is there a risk in the DSA being so concentrated in a few big cities?
Well, there are 10 DSA chapters in Texas. There are states that are deep, deep red — not DSA red, but Republican red! — across the United States where DSA has chapters. Take, for instance, Louisville, Kentucky, which is not generally thought out as a bastion of progressivism. One of the challenges is that DSA is truly a grassroots, bottom-up organisation. The members in a particular chapter may have a different approach to building and winning socialism, they may have differing levels of skills or interests or ability to contribute time and money to building the organisation. But in places like Chicago and New York, you can get hundreds if not thousands of people to come together to help build a project. It’s a little bit harder to do when you only have six members in a chapter.
Moving forward, we have to understand why poor, rural, white, Americans are voting overwhelmingly for the Republican Party and why they came out in record numbers to vote for Donald Trump. I think that the DSA has the ability to do so by building upon the strengths it already has. So, for example, we have Lee Carter, who spoke at the Labour conference in 2018. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, he defeated an incumbent Republican in a district that was thought to be solidly Republican. We have to look to folks like Dylan Parker, who was elected in Western Illinois in a community thought of as rural and not progressive. He was elected as a democratic socialist to their city council.
What’s your view on the Biden administration? Is it possible to push Biden to the left?
I don’t think that we should believe in unity for unity’s sake. If someone says the Left should unite with the Biden administration, I would ask, to what end? If the Biden administration is going to aggressively push forward things like a $15 minimum wage, policies to protect immigrants, to strengthen the rights of workers, to address climate change, then absolutely we should unite on those goals. But if the Left is being asked to be a junior partner in order to be silenced, to bite our tongues, to not push or protest against injustices, then I think we learned under President Obama that this is not a winning strategy.
I think there’s a broad understanding that there cannot be a honeymoon for Biden. Obviously, we congratulate the president-elect. We congratulate Vice-President-Elect Harris. They won a big, important victory. But we need to remind the administration that you would not have won but for the tens of millions of people that came out and voted because they believe that black lives matter and that Trump and his racist regime needed to go, because they believe that we need to abolish ICE and quickly act as a federal government to protect and integrate immigrants into our society. There are a lot of demands on the table.
We should start by looking at the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce recommendations. Of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sanders campaign played a major role helping to craft those. There’s a lot of good things in that 100-page document, which Trump called ‘the manifesto’ in his campaign. He kept saying it was the Biden-Sanders manifesto. Well, we should work to make that the case! There are bold commitments in there on climate change, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and the economy.
But then we’re not going to stop there. We’re going to push him to go further. At the end of the day I think if the Left is successful, we’re doing Biden a favour, because it’s pretty clear to me that the neoliberal policies are not a winning strategy moving forward. The Democratic Party and progressives have won ourselves a two-to-four year period to really right this ship. We need to build a multi-racial working-class movement that brings together rural and working-class white people, that brings together working-class black people and working-class immigrants in the Latino community, and makes a powerful coalition that can really change the direction of politics in the US.
A final question for you, Carlos. What do you see as the most important questions facing the US left? Is it the relationship with social movements? Is it building its own institutions and developing them to a point where they can exert influence either in the Democratic Party, or over society more broadly?
We have to understand that the social movements which have taken to the streets and grown in size and popularity over the last several years are going to be one of the most important, fundamental building blocks for the Left moving forward. I’ve seen that locally, in my own work as a local elected official. It’s the Movement for Black Lives, or the movement to stop deportations, that continuously brings people of all backgrounds out into the streets and gets them to reach out to their local elected officials to push for policy changes.
Union membership has been declining year after year after year, and we certainly have to turn that around. We have to make the case for worker’s rights and an aggressive labour movement. I would not have won election in my seat, again, without the support of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. That is a rank and file-led union willing to stand up for social and economic justice issues beyond the contract and has taken action against powerful interests to fight for their members.
Similarly, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has played a critical role in funding and supporting the Fight for $15. There would have been no victory in Florida for a $15 minimum wage in the most recent election without them. There would have been no inclusion in the Biden platform of a $15 minimum wage without them. So I think we, as the Left, have to find a way to continue to bring together all of those different movements in a coordinated fashion to work to primary corporate Democrats and elect genuine progressives.
Then I think we need to push beyond that for Medicare for All and for the Green New Deal. I think if we can coalesce together, as the Left, around this popular policy platform, then we have a shot.