Democratic Socialist membership in Pioneer Valley skyrockets

  • Amy Borezo and Tim Enman, members of the Democratic Socialists Of America, offer free brake light repair in Holyoke Saturday afternoon. For the Recorder/Carol Lollis

For the Recorder
Published: 6/7/2018 10:04:13 PM

At 72, Ed Collins of Springfield has been involved in socialist political organizing in the Pioneer Valley for at least four decades, and has seen several efforts to form lasting chapters of a particular socialist organization fail.

However, Collins says that the formation in early 2017 of the Pioneer Valley Democratic Socialists of America — which covers Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties — is different from previous attempts, and has a strong likelihood of being the most enduring effort to date.

“It surprises even me, I never would have dreamed that would have happened,” he said of an increasing embrace of socialism both locally and nationally. “You have a legitimate democratic, left-wing presence in the country that isn’t going anywhere.”

The local chapter’s sudden and continued presence mirrors a nationwide trend. Since the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, has seen an explosion in membership as the political left continues to grapple over which direction the Democratic Party should move in the era of Donald Trump. For DSA and others in the progressive wing of the party, the answer is clear: away from the “center,” which actually becomes more conservative every year, and further to the left.

DSA was founded in 1982, but it wasn’t until recently that membership numbers have exploded, largely in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ run for president as an explicit democratic socialist. Since November 2016, the organization’s ranks nationwide have swelled from 5,000 to 35,000.

“There of course was the Bernie bump, as it’s known in DSA,” Willie Thompson, the Pioneer Valley chapter’s treasurer who joined DSA in 2014, said in an interview in October. Thompson, who lives in Northampton, said he still remembers his excitement when Sanders announced his campaign. “Just seeing the words ‘democratic socialist’ on CNN, I felt like I had stepped through the looking glass.”

Now, however, candidates across the country are increasingly embracing the socialist label, in contests ranging from the race for a congressional seat in Hawaii to a county commissionership in Tennessee. And despite deep criticism of the Democratic Party and its ties to the country’s moneyed elite, DSA continues to support progressive Democrats as a means of building left-wing power within the party, just as the organization has always done.

“I think the reality is that we have a two-party system; we don’t have the parliamentary, multifaceted representational system that most of us would like,” said Pioneer Valley DSA co-chairman Ted McCoy, of Leeds. “If we want socialist candidates in office, it’s the structure we’re unfortunately stuck with.”

Local-level victories

DSA-backed candidates and members have recently seen some local-level electoral victories on the Democratic ticket.

Just earlier this month, two Pittsburgh DSA members won primary elections for seats with no Republican challengers in Pennsylvania’s state House of Representatives, and two other DSA-endorsed candidates won state House primaries in Philadelphia, leading The New Yorker to run the headline “A Democratic-Socialist Landslide in Pennsylvania” on its website. And last year in Virginia, a DSA member unseated an incumbent Republican who was majority whip of the state’s House of Delegates.

“You move the agenda within the established framework of a political party that can actually go out and win an election,” Collins said.

That work includes pushing progressive issues — free public college, universal health care, criminal justice reform — at the level of the state Democratic Party, where Collins is a member of the executive committee due to his chairing of the state party’s labor outreach subcommittee.

Collins said that DSA and other progressive organizations — such as Our Revolution, which spun out of the Sanders campaign — had a large presence at the state Democratic Party’s platform convention last year, playing a significant role in shaping policy stances.

Focus on issues

But DSA’s work isn’t just concentrated on elections, and the local chapter has yet to support or endorse any candidates in local races. DSA chapters also work on issue-focused campaigns for causes.

One initiative that the national organization has helped local chapters organize is canvassing for legislation to promote universal health care. The Pioneer Valley DSA has collected signatures to put a non-binding resolution on the ballot in Holyoke to support a statewide “Medicare for All” bill.

The chapter also has raised money for a regional fund to help women access abortions, and on a recent Saturday, local DSA members were out in Holyoke putting on a free “brake light clinic” — hoping to change drivers’ broken brake lights so that they won’t get stopped by the police.

“I think unfortunately the national political landscape is so bleak that it really drives a lot of people to try to find answers, and something they can do on a concrete level,” DSA member Borezo said. “It does result in people still being excited to hear about DSA and how they can get involved.”

A ‘big tent’

Borezo said the local chapter has around 160 dues-paying members, with a solid core of about 50 active members. The group routinely organizes activities like an upcoming “Socialism 101” event to teach people what exactly socialists believe in, and also includes those educational efforts in their monthly meetings in Holyoke.

So what does socialism mean for DSA members? A purpose statement on the national organization’s website is a helpful starting point:

“We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability status, age, religion, and national origin, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo. We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships.”

Borezo says DSA and its local chapter are welcoming of members spanning the political left.

“I think what DSA is really wonderful about is that it’s a big-tent organization, and so it incorporates social democrats, democratic socialists, farther-left socialists, anarchists,” she said. “It’s a very big tent.”


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