Why Do Philly Socialists See an Opportunity in the Age of Trump?

Inspired by Bernie and galvanized by the president-elect, leftist groups are eyeing local offices. The first target: City Council.
Bernie Sanders supporters protest at City Hall during the DNC on July 28, 2016. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Bernie Sanders supporters protest at City Hall during the DNC on July 28, 2016. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I left work on a recent Thursday and walked a few blocks to the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, where a handful of socialist groups had convened a last-minute panel discussion on the topic of “Socialism Under Trump.

I guess I’d expected the signup sheets and the free literature on the folding tables near the doors. And I wasn’t too surprised by the sober discussions of strategy and organizing and coalition-building that unfolded over the next two hours as panelists diagnosed the collapse of Democratic centrism and discussed how to respond to the growth of right-wing xenophobia. I hadn’t thought so many people would be there, though. The room wasn’t overflowing, by any stretch, but it didn’t look empty either. Crowd estimation is a fraught affair, but suffice it to say that it was a solid enough gathering to complicate a deportation raid or shut down traffic on 676.

Socialists and other leftist groups in Philly and around the country have been enjoying a modest spike in interest since the Bernie Sanders campaign embraced democratic socialism last spring, and particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. The two groups that organized the panel — Democratic Socialists of America and the lefty magazine Jacobin — have reported signing up 3,000 new members and 4,200 new subscribers nationwide, respectively, since early November. Locally, a host of groups have organized protests and demonstrations since the election, and panels like the one I attended are meant to lay the groundwork for more direct resistance to the Trump administration.

Why would socialists — pushed so far to the fringes of American politics for so long — be invigorated by the success of one of the most illiberal presidential campaigns in history? For one, as a friend of mine noted, reinvigoration is the left’s only choice. If you find yourself to the left of the Democratic Party, then Trumpism presents an existential threat to pretty much all of your political values.

And in a more perverse way, Trump’s election is evidence that American politics is more elastic than we give it credit for. If we can elect an unapologetic bigot with an interest in fascism — a man who publicly recommends specific legal punishments for activities that aren’t against the law — maybe we can elect a couple of socialists too.

“After Trump’s election, there’s a whole new group of people who are waking up to the fact that the Democratic Party has failed, that it cannot be won over by the working class, and they’re looking for answers,” said David Thompson, an organizer with Philly Socialists, one of a handful of local socialist groups. “They’re looking for a real alternative to what we have, and the Democrats aren’t offering that.”

Democratic Socialist Caucus at William Way LGBT Community Center | Photo by Jared Brey

Democratic Socialist Caucus at William Way LGBT Community Center | Photo by Jared Brey

ELECTORAL POLITICS has never been the chief concern of American socialists. That’s partly because the very word socialism has been such a powerful epithet in the U.S., and partly because many socialists are at least as interested in revolution as they are in reform.

But socialist groups have begun to consider their local electoral opportunities, particularly since Kshama Sawant, of the Socialist Alternative party, won a city council seat in Seattle in 2013. In Philadelphia, they’re eyeing two City Council seats that are reserved for a non-majority party, and which have traditionally been held by Republicans. In a Democratic city like Philadelphia with a lot of progressive voters, the thinking goes, why have Republicans had a lock on the minority seats in the local legislature since the 1950s? Aren’t they ripe for a leftist takeover?

“We’re really thinking about it,” said Natalie Midiri, a co-chair of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, when I asked her about running a candidate for one of the minority Council seats. “Thinking about it means that we’ve made an assessment that those are two really strategic seats for the left. Strategic in the sense that they’re both really winnable — and it’s really important for us to be thinking about things we can actually win and we can actually prove to people that this is a viable politics — and also strategic in the sense that it would give us a point of leverage and a mouthpiece for left-wing politics.”

Members of the local Socialist Alternative chapter and the Philly Socialists say they’re considering the possibilities of Council runs as well. All seem aware that to have a fighting chance, they’ll need to put all their efforts and then some behind the same candidate or candidates. (That may not be as easy as it sounds in the realm of leftist politics; that local socialists are divided into at least three separate organizations should give you an idea of why.)

One thing that should give socialists hope is that more Philadelphians voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary (129,353) than voted for Trump in the general election (108,748). And that’s with twice as many total votes cast in the general than in the Democratic primary.  So there’s evidence that Philadelphians aren’t afraid to vote for socialists, and even that a socialist can perform better than a Republican locally.

But the at-large City Council seats are tougher to win than they may seem. Republicans have a structural advantage on the one hand because they have an existing party apparatus that supports candidates and brings voters to the polls. And the Council elections are scheduled in between the mid-terms and the presidential election — the next election is in 2019 — which helps incumbents and party favorites by keeping turnout low.

In the 2015 general election, both winners of the minority at-large City Council seats were Republicans, and both earned around 34,000 votes. Their closest challenger was Andrew Stober, who worked in the Michael Nutter administration and ran for Council as an independent, earning 16,000 votes. (The socialist candidate in 2015, a Wal-Mart clerk named John Staggs, got just over 3,000 votes.)

Stober didn’t come too close to winning, but his campaign should be encouraging to third-party challengers. Third-party campaigns in the 2007 and 2011 elections didn’t get more than a few thousand votes apiece, for one. And Stober raised quite a bit of money and got an impressive vote turnout with what was a pretty narrow appeal — he was a transportation guy whose most visible achievement was helping to bring bike share to the city. He performed particularly well in Center City and the Northwest. What could a candidate with a broader pitch and a more citywide strategy accomplish?

Helen Gym was a prominent leftist activist for years before she decided to run for an at-large City Council seat in 2015. She ran as a Democrat, and won without the party’s official endorsement. But her campaign holds no real lessons for leftists considering challenging the minority seats, she told me, because political opportunities are always specific to the timing of the race and the candidate.

“You need a strategy for running a citywide race, and you need a strategy for doing it in the November general …” Gym said. “There’s always a path, and it’s the ability to kind of match the candidate, the moment, the strategy, and the resources that come together to make that possible.”

BECAUSE THEY’VE NEVER BEEN very close to the political mainstream, socialists are in an odd bind: they need a political platform to demonstrate their legitimacy, but they need to demonstrate their legitimacy to win a platform. And since the two minority Council seats are reserved specifically for outsiders, they’re natural targets. But of course, putting a few leftists on City Council isn’t their ultimate goal. Their wider aim is to build a movement that’s strong enough and diverse enough to force real changes to the political system.

Could a socialist pitch catch on in Philly? In one sense, a vision of an economy that isn’t controlled by private profit-seeking is tailor-made for big cities, where the built environment itself is an illustration of class inequality. But cities also feed the idea — faulty though it may be — that the upper classes are permeable, that a lower-class person can join them if he is clever enough or hard-working enough, which works against the kind of class solidarity that socialists rely on. (And what about the suburbs? Joseph Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple and vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, noted that some of the more affluent suburbs are run like European social democracies, with world-class schools and public parks paid for with high local taxes.)

If socialists are going to build a local movement, let alone win a seat or two on City Council, they’ll need a big tent. The audience in the meeting last week was made up mostly of white people, and the Bernie Sanders campaign failed to make serious inroads in black communities. Asa Khalif, founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter for Pennsylvania, told me that he’d helped organize a rally with some Sanders supporters during the Democratic National Convention. Some of their goals overlap — inequality disproportionately hurts people of color, for example — but Khalif said they’re focused on different issues.

“We are first and foremost about the liberation of black and brown people, period,” he said.

So far, socialist groups are focused on issues like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, abolishing the School Reform Commission and getting local control of the schools, protecting immigrants’ rights, reforming the police department, and creating affordable housing. David Thompson, of the Philly Socialists, told me that group is hoping to build support for a “just cause” tenancy law, which would bar landlords from evicting month-to-month renters without a good reason, like chronically missing rent payments.

And the local socialist groups have different strategies. The Democratic Socialists of America is trying to build momentum by keeping pressure on the left wing of the Democratic Party with candidates like Bernie Sanders. Socialist Alternative doesn’t believe the Democratic Party is a realistic vehicle for leftist politics, and wants to build a viable third party. (There’s also been quiet rumblings in that group about challenging a district Council seat, perhaps in North Philly, where the possibility of a Temple football stadium has sparked neighborhood opposition — though, as former Philadelphia journalist Dan Denvir wrote in Salon, Council President Darrell Clarke hasn’t really played the part of the bad guy in that fight.) And the Philly Socialists are trying to build support by offering free English classes and organizing a tenants-rights groups.

All of the socialists’ goals could be more difficult to achieve with Republicans controlling the White House, the U.S. Congress, and the Pennsylvania legislature. But if the Trump administration is as abusive as they fear it will be — if it steps up immigration raids and eats away at workers’ rights, environmental protections, and public education funding — the socialist pitch might start making more sense to more people.

“I think especially for the political left, we were built for this moment,” said Helen Gym. “We were built for this time, probably much more so than establishment politics.”

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Councilwoman Helen Gym won her election without the Democratic Party’s support. More accurately, Gym won without the Party’s official endorsement, but with support from a variety of Democratic wards and leaders.

Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.