Last week, during a conference call with other Democrats, Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Va) described the 2020 election as “a failure” for her party, which lost several seats in the House, though it maintained its majority. She issued a warning.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger said. “Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that... We’re going to get fucking torn apart in 2022.”
She wasn’t alone in her assessment. Centrists and progressives have gone to battle over the results, with centrists blaming Democratic losses on the party’s left flank and Republican attacks on socialism and ‘Defund the Police’ while progressives insist their positions helped get Democratic candidates elected or reelected.
Jacobin, America's leading socialist publication, proclaimed in an article headlined, “There Was Actually a Lot of Good News for the Left on Election Day,” that "dozens of socialists were elected to legislatures, while minimum-wage hikes, rent controls, and taxes on the rich to fund schools all won voter backing, even in very red places.”
Florida, where President Donald Trump received 51% of the vote, passed $15 minimum wage legislation with 61% support. Many candidates whose campaigns included Medicare-for-All also succeeded, including Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, a wealthy former attorney who positions himself as a centrist Democrat.
Meanwhile, in New York’s 11th Congressional District, Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis used a fear of socialism to ride to what seems a likely victory against conservative Democratic incumbent Max Rose.
“Look, we don’t have any moderate Democrats in New York City anymore,” Malliotakis said in June on NY1. “What you have are socialist Democrats or cowardly Democrats that are moving more and more to the left, to appease a very radical base.”
That message appears to have resonated with voters on Staten Island.
“My whole family was Democrats,” said Chris, a 24-year-old voter who was reluctant to share his last name. “It’s not the Democratic party anymore. You have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad as they call them. Honestly, it’s just not my party.”
Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who won a second term in her district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, has argued that the post-election analysis from centrists like Spanberger was misleading.
“Before the election, I offered to help every single swing district Democrat with their operation,” she told The New York Times. “And every single one of them, but five, refused my help. And all five of the vulnerable or swing district people that I helped secured victory or are on a path to secure victory. And every single one that rejected my help is losing. And now they’re blaming us for their loss.”
Although ‘socialism’ is often deployed as a scare word in the U.S., that wasn’t always the case, according to historian Edward Ayers, a professor at the University of Richmond. In the 19th century, he said, socialism went through various phases of popularity, including right after the Civil War. At that time, American farmers embraced socialist ideas.
“It was strong in the Upper Midwest. It was strong in the cities of the East. It was strong in the Pacific Northwest,” Ayers told Gothamist. “Lots of people were proud to call themselves socialists.”
Labor activist Eugene Debs, a hero of self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, ran as the Socialist Party candidate in several presidential elections, securing 6% of the vote against Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
But the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution changed everything, Ayers said. It had an immediate impact in the U.S., not just on wealthy people and business interests, but even reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan. Socialism was branded an ideology that was un-American and prompted the first Red Scare.
In 1920, Republicans and Democrats in the New York State Assembly joined hands and expelled five Socialist legislators.
The Socialist Party, Assembly Speaker Thaddeus C. Sweet declared, was "not truly a political party" so much as "a membership organization admitting within its ranks aliens, enemy aliens, and minors."
Listen to reporter Arun Venugopal's story for WNYC:
This fall, a century later, five candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America were elected or re-elected to the same New York state legislature.
These include Zohran Kwame Mamdani, who will represent Astoria, Queens, in the Assembly and who is well-acquainted with the events of 1920.
In the current climate, he argued that while the word ‘socialism’ can unsettle voters, members of the professional political class tend to overestimate people’s opposition to actual socialist ideas.
Numerous policies and institutions that we now take for granted, he said—“so much of what keeps people's lives from breaking into a million little pieces”—were inspired by socialist organizing.
Like public libraries, Medicare and fire departments. Not to mention the Affordable Care Act, which even many Republicans have stopped attacking, and rent regulations, which the NY State Legislature was able to pass last year, thanks to DSA-backed lawmakers.
Mamdani, a housing counselor who made affordable housing a pillar of his platform, has closely watched the New York 11th Congressional Race and saw how the term ‘socialist’ was deployed against Max Rose, even though the congressman is far from a socialist. Mamdani argued that rather than run from the label, Democrats had to embrace ideas that will benefit working-class Americans.
“It doesn't matter how far away you position yourself from being a socialist or individuals who are socialists. This is the chosen attack ad and attack discourse of the Republicans,” Mamdani said.
“They even did it for Joe Biden,” he added.