It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in late October, and I was standing outside a Crown Heights apartment building with a fellow member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We were there to canvass for Jabari Brisport, “Socialist for City Council,” as our campaign literature boldly proclaimed.
Three hours later, after knocking on several dozen doors, I found that the “s-word” didn’t faze these Central Brooklyn residents much. A young African-American man who recognized Brisport asked us if the candidate was a Democrat. When we told him Brisport was a socialist, he joked, “Hey, sometimes we all gotta cross party lines.” An older woman at first insisted, “A Democrat is not a socialist.” But when we started discussing the issue of housing in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, we quickly found common ground.
With the help of hundreds of volunteers, Brisport won 29 percent of the vote—a strong showing for a third-party challenger, but not enough to unseat the district’s centrist Democratic incumbent. DSA members running in other Democratic strongholds like Seattle and Minneapolis also came up short. But, across the country, avowed socialist candidates did better in state and local contests than they have in a century—winning fifteen seats in places like Knoxville, Tennessee; Pleasant Hill, Iowa; Billings, Montana; and suburban Virginia.
Since Trump took office, a growing number of Americans have been willing to “try socialism,” as a DSA hashtag puts it. The 2017 results show that a new generation of socialists is serious about translating this still amorphous interest into lasting power, and that they stand as much of a chance in “heartland” and small-town America as in the liberal cities. If socialists can help define and build a broader liberal-left front in 2018, Red America could begin to turn an entirely different shade of red.
Colin Kinniburgh is a senior editor at Dissent.