Franklin Bynum, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who won the Democratic nomination to become a criminal court judge, at the Harris County Family Law Center in Houston, March 6, 2018. The DSA has experienced a surge of interest since the election of President Donald Trump, and Bynum, a socialist, along with at least 16 others, appeared on the ballot in primary races across Texas.
Photo: TODD SPOTH/NYT
Photo: TODD SPOTH/NYT

“Yes, I’m running as a socialist.” Why candidates are embracing the label in 2018

But for his supporters who packed into a Mexican restaurant that evening, there was still something impressive to celebrate. Many in the crowd were members of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, which has experienced an enormous surge of interest since the election of President Donald Trump, even in conservative states. And Bynum was one of their own — a socialist who, along with at least 16 others, appeared on the ballot in primary races across Texas. 

“Yes, I’m running as a socialist,” Bynum said. “I’m a far-left candidate. What I’m trying to do is be a Democrat who actually stands for something, and tells people, ‘Here’s how we are going to materially improve conditions in your life.'” 

Rather than shy away from being called a socialist, a word conservatives have long wielded as a slur, candidates like Bynum are embracing the label. He is among dozens of DSA members running in this fall’s midterms for offices at nearly every level nationwide. In Hawaii, Kaniela Ing, a state representative, is running for Congress. Gayle McLaughlin, a former mayor of Richmond, California, is running to be the state’s lieutenant governor. In Tennessee, Dennis Prater, an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University, is running to be a county commissioner. 

Supporters, many of them millennials, say they are drawn by DSA’s promise to combat income inequality, which they believe is tainting every facet of American life, including the criminal justice system, medical care and politics. They argue that capitalism has let them down, saddling them with student debt, high rent and uncertain job prospects. And they have been frustrated by the Democratic Party, which they say has lost touch with working people. 

Outrage over rising inequality has simmered for years, erupting into the Occupy Wall Street movement and the groundswell of support for Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. But it was the election of Trump that convinced tens of thousands that both parties were broken and that the country was in need of a radical fix. 

Since November 2016, DSA’s membership has increased to 35,000 nationwide, from about 5,000. The number of local groups has grown to 181 from 40, including 10 in Texas. Houston’s once-dormant chapter now has nearly 300 members. 

“We want to see money stop controlling everything. That includes politics,” said Amy Zachmeyer, 34, a union organizer who helped revive the moribund Houston chapter. “That just resonates with millennials who are making less money than their parents did, are less able to buy a home and drowning in student debt.” 

Zachmeyer, who pays about $1,000 a month in student loans, says that financial burden helped persuade her to become a socialist. 

Studies suggest that young people with few memories of the Cold War embrace socialism far more than older people do. A 2016 survey of 18- to 29-year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 16 percent identified as socialists, while 33 percent supported socialism. Only 42 percent supported capitalism, while a majority — 51 percent — said they did not. 

Those results surprised John Della Volpe, the institute’s director of polling, so much that he thought they might be a mistake. He conducted a new study, this time of the general population, and got the same result. 

“The only group that expressed net positive support for capitalism were people over 50 years old,” he said. “The largest generation of Americans in history — millennials — have lost confidence. They are interested in finding a better way.” 

Many socialist candidates sound less like revolutionaries and more like traditional Democrats who seek a return to policies in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They want single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage and greater protections for unions. But others advocate more extreme changes, like abolishing the prison system. In the case of Bynum, he wants an end to a cash bail system that requires people accused of crimes, even minor offenses, to pay money to be released from jail before trial. 

Some local Democratic Party leaders worry that talking openly about being a socialist is only going to make it harder to defeat Republican opponents. And it is unclear how many older voters, who are more likely to vote in midterm cycles, could be turned off by the idea of voting for a socialist. 

Franklin Bynum, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America running for criminal court judge, joins supporters to watch results at the Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe in Houston, on primary day March 6, 2018. The DSA has seen a surge of interest since the election of President Donald Trump, and Bynum, a socialist, along with at least 16 others, appeared on the ballot in primary races across Texas.
Photo: TODD SPOTH/NYT

DSA, despite its criticism of the Democratic Party, does not identify itself as a third party. Instead, many members work within the party’s progressive wing to support their goals. 

“Diversity helps the party,” said Christine Pelosi, a California member of the Democratic National Committee and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She has focused on making the party more connected to grass-roots activists. “I welcome their constructive criticism,” she said.  

Many Democrats have begun to ask socialists for their support and adopt some of the DSA’s platform on health care and pay. 

In Pittsburgh, eight Democrats in this year’s midterm cycle sought the endorsement of the local DSA chapter. 

“People are more willing to come out and say, ‘I’m a Democratic socialist running,'” said Jorge Roman-Romero, 24, who helps lead a new DSA chapter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where six Democratic candidates — four of whom were willing to run as Democratic socialists — sought the group’s endorsement. “It’s not a liability to say that anymore.”  

But others, especially among the influx of new members, want to keep their distance from the Democratic Party, which they see as hopelessly compromised by corporate donations. 

“The new, younger people are much more willing to say, ‘We’re not going to tie ourselves to the Democratic Party,'” said Frances Reade, 37, an education researcher who joined the East Bay DSA chapter in California on Trump’s Inauguration Day. “At the same time, we’re nowhere near being able to launch a third party.” 

Reade, who made campaign calls for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said she joined DSA after experiencing a “profound disillusionment with the Democratic Party” in the wake of Trump’s victory. The organization gave her an outlet to pour her energy into: door-knocking in a “Medicare for All” campaign and discussing political texts in free evening classes put on by members of the group. The classes, known as socialist school, included readings by Karl Marx and articles in Jacobin, a popular new socialist magazine. Reade has become a class instructor and vice chairwoman at the East Bay chapter, which has about 1,000 members. 

“If, after the election, I had tried to join the Democratic Party, what would I have done?” she asked. “There’s no night school to learn more about ideas. The Democratic Party is essentially a fundraising apparatus.” 

Acceptance of socialism today still falls far short of its heyday in the 1910s and 1920s, when the Socialist Party of America had over 113,000 members and more than 1,000 elected officials, including two members of Congress, according to Jack Ross, author of “The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History.” 

By the 1950s, socialism was widely seen as antithetical to the American way of life. In 1982, Michael Harrington, author of “The Other America,” a seminal book about poverty, helped found the Democratic Socialists of America, which aimed to realign the Democratic Party toward increased protections for unions and the poor. But the group never gained much traction, until now. 

Across the country, socialists are focusing on hyperlocal issues. In Cincinnati, activists helped save the wing of a public library from privatization. In Austin, Texas, they pushed to pass what has been called the first mandatory paid sick leave requirement in the South. 

“There’s a lot of power in getting people to come together and do things together,” said Bryan LaVergne, 22, a biomedical researcher in Houston who became a socialist after a drug therapy he was working on was bought by a private company that increased the price. 

“Houston is incredibly atomizing,” LaVergne said. “We sit in our cars, drive to our suburbs, don’t know our neighbors. We’re countering that.” 

Bynum, the candidate for judge in Houston, approaches politics in that same spirit. He collected nearly all of the signatures required for his campaign outside the county jail, from family members of defendants who could not afford to post bail. He has forsworn donations from lawyers practicing before the court that he is running for, and intends to staff a table outside the jail during the campaign, with the help of DSA volunteers. 

He wants his campaign to highlight injustices in Harris County, where historically roughly 40 percent of defendants in misdemeanor court were kept in jail because they could not pay bail.  

Bynum, an immigration expert in the county’s public defender’s office, is not the first to raise issues of how unfair Harris County’s bail system is to the poor. Other Democrats have fought for the same cause. The system of cash bail is now in dispute in a federal court. 

But the Harris County Democratic Party is struggling to figure out what to make of Bynum, who they say stands a good chance of being elected, along with other Democrats on the local ballot in November. Bynum’s Republican opponent, Dan Simons, a former prosecutor backed by religious conservatives, is already fundraising under the slogan “Reject Socialism.” 

“We cannot afford to have Democrats, let alone Democratic Socialists, take over our county and state,” he wrote on Facebook.  

Gerald Birnberg, a former chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, has discouraged Bynum from talking about socialism or bail reform on the campaign trail. Socialism is too taboo in Texas, he said. And although bail reform is important, he said, “it’s not an issue that inspires voters in Harris County.” 

The way to win in November, Birnberg advised, was simply to turn out Democrats. To do that, the county Democratic Party needed money to pay for mailings and voters lists. In a meeting, Birnberg, a 71-year-old lawyer, asked Bynum to contribute $20,000 to the effort. 

Bynum made no promises. 

“If I have the money, I will give them money, because I can’t organize a get-out-the-vote campaign by myself,” Bynum said. “But I am focused more on building a movement than I am on helping Democrats get elected. My priority is reaching people who aren’t being spoken to at all.”

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