After what might be considered a 35-year slow burn for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the past year—and especially the last month—has seen the DSA’s flame burn fast and bright. The group gained almost 17,000 dues-paying members in the first 10 months of the Trump presidency. In New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken DSA member, won a surprise primary victory against incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat; soon after, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon announced her alignment with democratic socialist values.
The combination of the two has made the organization a near-household name, and has motivated electoral candidates to tap into its fresh appeal. Governor Gina Raimondo, despite not nearly identifying as a democratic socialist, compared herself to Ocasio-Cortez late last month, eliciting rampant ire on Twitter. Democratic challenger Matt Brown, while also not publicly identifying as socialist, has also stated that he has “taken a lot of inspiration” from the Ocasio-Cortez campaign.
With the DSA’s real momentum, and a reaction that might be too quick on the draw, the organization’s path forward remains an open question. Should the DSA settle for nothing less than running socialists on the ballot—or is it enough to push Democratic candidates leftwards? Is any press good press, or do these appropriations of the DSA’s line threaten to change it entirely?
Thea Riofrancos is a co-chair in the executive committee of Providence’s DSA chapter, which claims around 200 dues-paying members locally. She also works as a professor of political science at Providence College. In an interview on Tuesday, she expressed excitement at the urgency of recent growth within the organization, and argued that democratic socialists should not be “self-righteous” in their defense of what democratic socialism has and can mean.
“Without new people who did not previously identify as socialist or even left-wing joining our ranks and committing to longer-term struggle,” she argued, “we have no possibility of winning struggles, either in the smaller arenas of electoral politics or the broader arenas of capitalist life.” For her, the recent influx of people changing their political identities in real-time is “the life-blood of our organization ever attaining something like national power.”
Yet though election cycles are a key part of building the DSA’s membership and organizing power, Riofrancos thinks its process should be approached with caution, internal democracy, and debate when it comes to candidates seeking the group’s backing. The chapter’s endorsement process will begin at the start of next week; candidates seeking endorsements will have to carefully respond to an extensive questionnaire on their stances in regards to capitalism, environmental issues, sex work, and police brutality, among other concerns. The questionnaire also probes into how candidates plan to be continually accountable to the needs and pressures of their constituents—an important consideration, considering the DSA’s sharp focus on collective leadership.
For the Providence chapter, endorsed candidates must also be dues-paying members in the organization and publically identify as democratic socialist. At the time of publication, Sam Bell, a candidate for Senate District 5 (Providence), was endorsed by the DSA this April, and Rachel Miller, a city council candidate for Ward 13 (Federal Hill), has reached out to the DSA expressing interest in an endorsement. Riofrancos told RI Future that campaign staffers for Matt Brown have reached out to open “lines of communication” between the DSA and the campaign, particularly in regards to their #NationalizeGrid public utilities campaign, but that Brown has not explicitly sought an endorsement as a democratic socialist candidate.
Speaking for herself, and not the DSA more broadly, Riofrancos said that she comes from a place of deep skepticism of the Democratic Party, but that Bernie Sanders was the first Democrat she voted for “without wanting to vomit.” While she’s open to running candidates on the Democratic ballot line, she would rather run democratic socialists as independent or third party candidates. While electoral politics can be a good arena in the short term, “you can’t use electoral tactics alone,” and the organization needs to maintain a view of a much longer path to democratic socialism as a lived reality.
Riofrancos has written extensively on how the establishment’s defense of the two-party system supports centrist politics by invoking the threat of “populism.” Alongside a wider endorsement process marked by an identity crisis within the Rhode Island Democratic party, in which progressives have rushed to declare themselves “real Democrats” following the endorsement of Trump supporter Michael Earnheart, the DSA stands as a stark alternative to those doubling-down on the Democratic platform.
For Riofrancos, the RI Democratic Party’s choice to draw a line in the sand between “real Democrats” and candidates like Earnheart makes sense strategically, but that it might ultimately act as a symbolic gesture. This vein of rhetoric “occlude[s] some deeper questions about the types of policies the Democratic Party has implemented on a state level and a national level, which in some cases might be unfortunately indistinguishable from the GOP, and in other cases, when they are distinguishable, have moved along with the Overton window which the GOP has moved to the right over the last 30 years.” What is amazing about the current moment, she says, is that the recourse to bipartisan establishment is becoming less tenable as the stances of both parties are being “exploded” from the left.
Here in Rhode Island, the DSA is pushing ecological discourse, traditionally centered around sustainability and conservation, to the left with its eco-socialist campaign against National Grid; Riofrancos co-authored a detailed editorial on the #NationalizeGrid effort published by Jacobin this April.
In the short term, the campaign is pushing against measures like National Grid’s exorbitant rate increase approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) last year and supported groups like #NoLNGinPVD in fighting the proposed LNG facility in South Providence. Riofrancos argued that the PUC both lacks transparency and is “captured by corporate fossil fuel and energy interests.” The DSA has paired with the George Wiley Center to advocate for a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP), which would index utility payments to customer’s incomes instead of a market rate. To emphasize the policy’s importance in fighting the “shutoff crisis,” Riofrancos cited an incident last week in New York where a woman behind on her utility payments had her electricity shut off, and died when her oxygen machine lost power.
The DSA’s ultimate vision, a publicly-owned utilities structure modeled after Nebraska’s utilities structure (the only existing model of its kind in the US), is much more ambitious. Riofrancos emphasized that the DSA proposes a decentralized model with municipal governance, both to adapt to the availability of renewable energy across the state and to give both urban and rural communities influence over resources in their region.
Riofrancos said that steps towards a more collective energy grid will come further down the line, and that she’s more optimistic about the direction of the movement now than she has been in years. She’s been increasingly comfortable with her identification as a democratic socialist in her department at Providence College. “It’s no longer totally weird to call yourself a socialist publically,” she said. “It’s become politically and publicly acceptable in ways that it wasn’t five years ago, two years ago, one year ago. It’s been very rapid.”