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Stefan Liebich reports on the remarkable rise of democratic socialism in California



Stefan Liebich,

[Translate to en:] Wohnungslose campieren auf dem Rathausplatz von San Francisco.
Homeless people camp out in San Francisco's City Hall Plaza. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr | Christopher Michel

In the centre of San Francisco, just opposite its grandiose City Hall, there’s a square surrounded by fencing and blocked off from view. At first glance, it looks like a construction site, but on closer inspection it turns out there are people living in tents.

You see homeless men and women like this all over the city. One minute you’re surrounded by tourists in sunny Union Square or riding the famous cable car, and the next you’re a block over amid abject poverty. Clearly these are people with no permanent home, begging and suffering from addiction or mental health problems. All packed in together.

Stefan Liebich was a member of the Bundestag for Die Linke from 2009 to 2021 and is currently traveling North America as an RLS fellow. He publishes reports and essays on his blog, Progressive America

Translated by Michael Dorrity and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

My journey through the “other” United States of America — the more progressive America — led me to the Pacific coast, to the fourth-largest city in California. Since the 1960s, San Francisco has been firmly in the hands of the Democrats. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last Republican to win here during his presidential election in 1956. Cannabis is legal and can easily be bought in licenced stores. Smoking even conventional cigarettes, on the other hand, is banned almost everywhere.

I met a lot of fascinating people from left-wing organizations and parties, people from the renowned university in Berkeley, and people working on behalf of migrants, tenants, or the LGBT+ community. One evening at a local bar, I met a retired electrician from New Jersey named John. He told me how hard it was to accept that his son was gay, but now he was here to visit him: “It is what it is and he’s my son.”

This essay looks at the conversations I had with people on the US Left as well as its most important organization at present, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). With the local chapter here as an example, I wanted to know where they come from, what drives them, what their conflicts are, and what others make of them.

Is the US Left on the Wrong Track?

To answer this question, I met one sunny morning with Lee Fang. Exiting the metro, I crossed a market where people to whom neither life nor capitalism have been particularly generous were selling clearly stolen goods. From there, I walked through the seemingly alternative Mission District, but which is in fact in the middle of a San Francisco neighbourhood undergoing gentrification.

Fang and I meet in front of a small bar on Valencia Street. He works as a journalist for The Intercept, a website founded in 2014 to process Edward Snowden’s revelations that today is dedicated to many different topics. Fang tells me he does not call himself left-wing, but is in favour of affordable healthcare, decent jobs, dignified retirement, good housing, functional infrastructure, and a government that actually works to toward these ends.

He doesn’t like to see people categorized according to their background, ethnicity, religion, or political opinion and played off against one another. The culture wars of the Right and Left are misconceived because they’re superficial, he says, adding that we have much more in common than either side would suggest. At the end of the day, we breathe the same air and have the same basic needs. We all rely on the same public safety system and the same infrastructure.

I feel somewhat provoked and ask what he means by “the culture wars of the Right and Left”. How can you mention Bernie Sanders, the left-wing senator from Vermont, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist from New York, in the same breath as Republicans who no longer respect election results or the rules of democracy, and who have long since joined the Trump cult?

As Fang sees it, certain left-wing politicians no longer want to appeal to the majority of voters. Instead, they concentrate on a small minority, like when they challenge police funding, for example, or seek to get rid of the police altogether, i.e. “defund the police” or “abolish the police”. The problem, as he sees it, is “big business”. They want low corporate tax rates and know it’s an unpopular demand, so they stoke a culture war. The more people argue about guns, abortion, and identity politics, the more other topics disappear from view, such as union organizing in businesses or more rights for workers. Fang’s theory is that — as a consequence — these issues are discussed too little, including by progressives.

In answer to my question about where the DSA stands, he says they talk a lot about Marxism and socialism but have mostly just concentrated on getting rid of police tasers. As for housing, an extremely important issue in San Francisco, he claims the organization is more concerned with preventing new construction (“not in my backyard”) than raising taxes for property owners.

First, the people who had worked in car factories lost their jobs, their pensions, and their dignity because of Bill Clinton’s free trade agreement, and then on top of that the Left tells them they’re racist and backward, and their ancestors were murderers. Progressives, he argues, are more concerned today with having a Black person on the executive board than as a worker’s representative: “and they call that justice”.

But Fang directs his critique of California’s political Left at the Democratic establishment as well. They had a clear majority here, he says, but instead of making progressive policy, they banned smoking in public parks and legalized marijuana. Here too, he claims, the ominous role of money in US politics is at work. He believes that a lot of funding goes toward trans rights, for example, or toward fighting anti-Asian hate just so that people can claim that ”we’ve achieved so much”. The funders’ main concern is to prevent wage raises and better union organizing.

When the conversation turns to Biden, Fang sounds resigned. It was tragic, he said: Biden had the most progressive agenda he’d ever seen in the US. Unlike Obama, the new president actually ended the war in Afghanistan, not just promised to. But then he imposed sanctions that would cost the lives of many people in Afghanistan.

In Congress, he wanted tax relief for families with children, more environmentally friendly transport, and better public healthcare, but he couldn’t deliver any of it. Americans wanted somebody in the White House who talks big and acts big. They don’t understand that there’s a system in place that makes everything more complicated, namely the US Congress. If we’d won a greater majority in the last election, he says, we wouldn’t have to rely on the right-wing Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are able to block everything in the Senate.

Fang thinks that majority could have been bigger. According to the polls, he claims, the Democrats were ahead in several constituencies at the end of Trump’s term, but then lost, despite having invested more money in their campaigns than the Republicans. For Fang, the problem was that by referencing slogans like “defund the police” or “abolish the police”, the Republicans only had to say that Democrats wanted to eliminate the police and that crime rates would soar.

People at all income levels took that message to heart, he says, because it was more tangible than any issue of wealth distribution — and to think that the Child Tax Credit (a form of tax relief for families with children) would have raised half of all affected families out of poverty. Thus, the Left is also responsible for the present situation because they’d addressed the wrong issues.

Our conversation left me quite pensive. A lot of what Fang had said did not fit with my own political agenda in the slightest. Then again, I had not come here as a politician, I’d come to listen and understand what makes the Left here work. Were they completely on the wrong track?

The Democratic Socialists of America

The following evening, I met with Jennifer Snyder, one of the founders of the DSA’s San Francisco chapter.

If you walk from the city centre toward the famous row of houses known as the “Painted Ladies”, there’s a little wine bar on Grove Street where you can enjoy delicious tapas outside, if the weather’s not too cool. There, Jennifer tells me that she came from a very political family. Her parents were active in a trade union and there was a lot of political discussion at home. When President Bush started the war in Iraq in 2003, Jennifer, who was just 18 at the time, became politically active and was immediately arrested at a protest. She’d never been involved with the police before in her life.

As her parents had struggled a lot to make ends meet, she later sought out a well-paid job in advertising. She could write well, she says, but it was ultimately not what she wanted to do with her life. Although it was advertising for the solar industry, she was still working for the same capitalism that she opposed. So she started actively supporting Bernie Sanders, calling people on the phone or knocking on their doors. She would start by saying, “hey, I’m your neighbour” and go on to talk about the Sanders campaign.

Then we started a DSA chapter in San Francisco. I fought my way in because I knew how to run a campaign. The DSA’s generally pretty male-dominated, guys with beards, glasses, and piercings, which is why we started a women-only group and started supporting one another. We also made certain rules so that less privileged people who suffer greater discrimination also have an equal chance. This applies to lists of speakers for example.

As to whether the DSA needs to be a separate party or work within the Democratic Party, Jen responds, “You can always argue back and forth on that one. There are good reasons for both. On the one hand, you can’t do politics well in the Democratic Party. They’re not socialists, they’re liberals like Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, it’s a two-party system. With fucking Trump, we were just short of fascism, and now with Joe Biden we have a President that can’t do anything because of Sinema and Manchin. It’s so infuriating.”

But Jennifer Snyder does not want to run for office herself. She doesn’t want to be a public figure. She once was for a short time, she says, “because I screamed at the Democrats in front of the cameras. I’m a bit of a hothead sometimes.” She prefers to support campaigns and does so very successfully: with Dean Preston, a democratic socialist was elected for the first time to San Francisco's eleven-member Board of Supervisors, which governs the city together with the mayor. “That took 50,000 votes. It was a big deal.”

First Jen went to work for Preston, but now she has her own company for political campaigns, Red Bridge Strategies, which she uses to support referendums in California. At the moment, it's all about affordable housing: “We want a vacancy tax. Instead of a few people in San Francisco getting rich off of property, we want them to pay for shelters for the many homeless people here.” “Tax the rich” — that is, tax the rich like everyone else — is something that she says gets a lot of support here. “They don’t want to see billionaires like Jeff Bezos flying to the moon anymore, they’ve had enough.”

It all sounded very different from Lee Fang’s description of the DSA on the previous day, so I asked what she made of his criticism that the organization doesn’t do enough work on issues of wealth distribution. Yes, she says, identity are issues are important, but we’re a young organization. I think everybody should be addressed with the pronouns they prefer, but when somebody from outside the organization doesn’t understand that, I have no problem with it. Sure, we can have book clubs where we read amazing stuff, but we have to think of the average American that we want to reach at the ballot box. They need to be able to understand us. Our communication needs to be aimed at them.

Bread-and-Butter Issues

The next evening, I’d arranged to meet with Shanti Singh, the head of Tenants Together, an organization that works for tenants’ rights. I only found out the night before that she is also a member of the DSA and friends with Snyder. We met in a bar run by Danes in the city centre. The bar prides itself on its 40 draft beers, a few of which Shanti and I tried over the course of the evening.

“I’m a Marxist. A lot of people say they are, but I actually am. I always have been,” Shanti began.

My parents are from India, so they’re anti-imperialists, but they’re not particularly political. They were born in the 1960s and grew up with Nixon and Kissinger, who played a terrible role in the war between Pakistan and India, so their take on the Soviet Union was somewhat different. They thought the Soviets would help them. India was not on the US’s side, it was non-aligned.

I grew up in Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt, which is a deindustrialized area. My father was a teacher and I went to both a good primary school and a good university. My parents generally voted for liberal Democrats, but then they voted for Bernie, probably because I worked for him. And they were against the war in Iraq.

In the beginning, I was all for Obama and actively supported his campaign, but I was soon disappointed: the drone war, attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, bailing out Wall Street — that was enough for me. I’ve worked in finance myself and I learned all about capitalism from the inside. I saw that all the regulations that had been passed didn't work in the slightest. When the Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protests (an environmental movement against the construction of an oil pipeline through Native American territory) began, I realized I had to do something else. The idea of “defund the police” had me convinced. This system just can’t be reformed, I thought.

I was also active in the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club (an organization that fights discrimination against queer people). We formed our DSA chapter in late 2016/early 2017 and we currently have around 1,300 members in San Francisco. Of course, not everyone is active all the time, but sometimes as many as 300 people show up at our monthly meetings. For Bernie’s campaign, I took care of data administration. I had the expertise from a previous job and it’s important for us to know who we’re talking to before we start making phone calls or knocking on people’s doors.

After the campaign, I started working for Tenants Together. We supported tenants in disputes with their landlords. We work for rent regulation and rent controls. A lot of referendums are held in California and not all of them good. Big business also uses them to assert its interests. But we try to do that as well and sometimes we’re successful. We recently lost a referendum to establish a tenants’ association for all of California by only one vote. The Democrats have a clear majority here, but they often act in the interest of the real estate industry.

Shanti also seems to be more interested in bread-and-butter issues. Like Jennifer the evening before, she also talked about the campaign for a vacancy tax. Both recommended that I participate in an event their DSA group was organizing in support of the tax the following Sunday. Shanti additionally put me in touch with Jennifer Bolen. “JenBo”, as she’s called to distinguish her from Jennifer Snyder, is a member of the DSA’s 16-member National Political Committee (NPC), the national executive board of the largest left-wing organization in the US, with about 100,000 members.

Concrete Battles for Social Progress

For my third meeting with a DSA member, I was very pleased to have chosen an afternoon at a café. Two evenings with comrades in bars was quite enough for now. JenBo, however, insisted that the next time I visited, it would have to be the other way around: I’d meet her in the evening and her two comrades in the afternoon. The café in the Lower Haight neighbourhood offered live jazz music, and Zarah, the owner from Eritrea, had studied in Italy and immediately greeted me in German.

Jennifer tells me that her parents had met in Japan. Her father was stationed there when he was in the US Army and her mother was Japanese: “they were both rockers”, but they weren’t particularly political.

I was 18 when the terrorist attacks took place on September 11, 2001. Then the wars started and a lot of people I knew took part in them. One died in Iraq. I’d had enough of politics and preferred listening to punk music, but then along came Bernie and the DSA started up again. A friend and I went to the newly founded East Bay DSA’s Valentine’s Day party. I met some people there, then I read some books, went to a few more meetings, and found hope again.

What radicalized me was the idea that if the government does nothing, then we’ll change it. We can democratize power, we can pull people out of the darkness of capitalism. We want a minimum wage of 15 dollars per hour, sick pay, and rent control. These are reasons to be hopeful!

But I’m frustrated too: whatever happened to “defund the police”? I’ve started to hear people saying it’s good for the Black community if there are Black police officers. And so much gets blocked in Congress, even internally. Sometimes you go to DSA meetings and they talk more about the rules of procedure than anything else. Although some of these debates are important, of course, like the quota-based list of speakers, for example. So I helped form the DSA feminist working group here and became its spokesperson, then a spokesperson for DSA San Francisco.

In 2019, DSA had its first national party conference. The organization was growing quickly, from 5,000 to 40,000 in just one year. Today there are about 100,000.

In the beginning, we had one full-time employee. Today there are 30. And the members were much younger than in the old DSA. The fresh blood from the Bernie campaign changed the organization, of course. All sorts of people came. Anarchists for example, and there were the old socialists. I was sitting at a bar with Jen [Snyder] and some other friends, we were thinking about how we could bring the whole thing together. We wanted autonomous state and local associations, but also a national structure. So I ran and was elected to the party executive.

The DSA has a 16-member National Political Committee, which meets quarterly, and a steering committee with five members, which makes decisions between NPC sessions and meets every two weeks.

I feel like we need more political discussion in the committees. A lot of what we do is administrative, sometimes tactical, but we don’t talk enough about the big issues. On top of that, we don’t have strong enough ties to our members in Congress. They act very independently, although they’re DSA members. I’ve met AOC once, for example, before she was elected, and then never again. And that’s generally how it works. I’ve been at the highest level of the DSA for three years and we have five members in Congress. I haven’t met any of them and haven’t spoken to them, not even to their staff. We just haven’t found a structure for that. A lot of people in the DSA think that simply because we have members and socialists in Congress, we’ll automatically always do the right thing. That’s just not possible. But what concessions can we make? And conversely, what’s the point of having socialists in the parliament if they don’t follow anti-capitalist principles?

Yes, we can change things for the better if we work within the Democratic Party, but that’s not enough. It’s not just about voting on Election Day. This system of the Democratic and Republican parties is really disillusioning, but I don’t see any way to get past it. That’s why I support electoral campaign work for our candidates, but it can’t stop there. If all we do is focus on small-scale reform, we’re no better than the Democratic Party.

Our membership numbers aren’t rising anymore. They’re stagnating and slowly sinking. I don’t want to blame anybody for that and I can’t say yet if we’ve lost the momentum of the early days. We lack that unifying momentum that came with the Bernie Sanders campaign. For a lot of members, it’s hard to see what we’re fighting for now. Of course, there are ups and downs, I know, but two years of lockdown have also taken their toll. A lot of people have lost friends and family to COVID or become unemployed. On top of that, there’s a war going on now.

Don’t get me wrong, the organization is great and we’ve got good people. I have friends here. But we’re not perfect either. You can’t expect to just join up and everything will be great. There’ve been some great moments though, like the union organizing for Starbucks at the moment.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to beautiful Duboce Park between the Duboce Triangle and Lower Haight neighbourhoods. DSA San Francisco had invited people to a demonstration in support of the vacancy tax. I was greeted by an idyllic image: families were celebrating kids’ birthdays with balloons and cake, hipsters were enjoying the California sun, and in one corner young lefties were setting up what I’d call an information booth: a long table full of pamphlets and literature.

Somebody picked up a megaphone and explained the group’s goals: too many people in San Francisco are homeless while apartments sit empty. That has to change, which is why people who aren’t using their apartments should pay a tax for the vacancy: a vacancy tax or — more popular still — an empty home tax. I thought to myself: that sounds a lot more catchy than the German term, Zweckentfremdungsverbotsverordnung (Change-of-Use Prohibition Ordinance). That’s the word we use in Berlin to address the same issue. I talk to an activist named Tyler — in his early 20s with a red beard — who tells me that people are generally very receptive to the idea and sign in favour of the referendum: “They can see what’s happening in the city and agree that something has to change.”

On my trip back from the West to the East Coast of the US, I thought about why Lee Fang’s critical view of the left was so different from what I’d experienced there. At its core, the DSA’s activity is exactly the thing Fang complained there wasn’t enough of.

On one point, however, he was right: holding on too tightly to the idea of defunding or completely abolishing the police meant that the organization could not fulfil its potential. It’s hard for the DSA to admit that certain positions do more harm than good. They make things too easy for their (many) opponents. Too much energy is wasted on social media arguing about how to deal with Israel or internal organizational affairs and people end up with the (false) impression that these issues are more important than the fight for social justice in the US.

At the same time, it’s refreshing to see that for many in North America — young people in particular — democratic socialism is no longer a dirty word, but rather a term that inspires hope.