Can Democratic Socialism Rise in Rural America?

Can Democratic Socialism Rise in Rural America?

From New Mexico to Tennessee, organizers are working to put DSA on the map. The work isn’t easy.

A sign for a Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Santa Fe (Sammy Feldblum)

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On the last day of March in Las Cruces, a handful of comrades gathered in the Casa De Los Amigos, the New Mexico border town’s Quaker meeting hall. Chapter co-chair John DesGeorges, at thirty-three one of the youngest people in attendance, opened the meeting. The national organization had recently endorsed Bernie Sanders. “He’s the only self-declared socialist with a serious chance to become president since Eugene Debs,” DesGeorges said. “We should consider if we want to endorse him.”

They weighed the idea. “People shouldn’t automatically assume that the DSA is going to endorse Bernie,” Cassie Calway said. “There’s a lot of progressive candidates, and everyone has kind of moved one direction because of his ideas. I’m mostly worried about the #MeToo movement, with him.” The group agreed to consider the question in coming months.

With the state legislature’s session having ended recently, national politics were on the group’s mind. “Our main goal for a while was working on the New Mexico Health Security Act,” DesGeorges recalled, “which is now just hanging in the air.” Doña Ana County DSA had made the bill their signature issue, hoping to establish single-payer healthcare throughout the state. The DSA chapter pressured state legislators to support it by tabling and canvassing through the region and by hosting educational forums. They were locally successful—Las Cruces, the seat of Doña Ana County, was among the thirty-five municipalities and counties that signed up. But the bill ultimately stalled in committee.

Doña Ana County DSA was wondering what to do next. The chapter was founded in March 2018 but was still awaiting official recognition from national leadership. As the group met, a crowd of migrants was being held beneath a bridge in neighboring El Paso, Texas. In Las Cruces, rumor had it that border agents were getting ready to bus 150 people to a homeless shelter. DesGeorges brought up the idea of a working group on immigration, but nothing came of it.

In the 2018 election, Doña Ana’s congressional district in southern New Mexico had flipped from solid red to pale blue. Xochitl Torres Small, a water rights lawyer in the area, ran as a conservative Democrat, supporting gun ownership and secure borders. Her politics are a balancing act: the district leans conservative, but Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city and the pot of votes that put her over the top, is more liberal. Its lefty community, however, is relatively small. Green Party meetings in the city attracted three members for years; those three members jumped ship when DSA picked up steam in 2016. But chapter meeting numbers hover around ten souls—hardly enough to push Torres Small on their own.

Doña Ana County DSA discussed plans to magnify its impact by partnering with other progressives in the area—Food Not Bombs, perhaps Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, or Las Cruces Coalition for Reproductive Justice—and through outreach—a forum on solar power, a May Day cookout. Then the meeting took a turn for the conversational. Fox News had run a chyron that morning on the Trump Administration’s aid cuts to “three Mexican countries,” which made for some easy laughs. Collusion came up, and Putin. Calway voiced a shared feeling in the room. “Every day I feel like I wake up and it’s a brand new nightmare.” Charles Clements pivoted in a more explicitly socialist direction, wondering how to redirect anger from petty arguments among the working class upward toward the “banksters” pulling the strings. DesGeorges agreed. “I wish it was a simple as class consciousness.”

The broad outlines of DSA’s resurgence since 2015 are by now well known. Bernie Sanders’s run as an unabashed socialist in 2016, the shock of Trump’s election, and disenchantment with the fecklessness of the Democratic Party helped multiply the group’s pre-2016 membership of around 5,000. Newer groups like Doña Ana County proliferated. Two years later, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerged as a major national political figure, boosting membership once again. In March, Chicago elected more DSA members than Republicans to its city council, and national membership has surpassed 56,000.

Much of that growth has occurred in major metropolitan areas with high concentrations of college-educated, and often white, millennials. To become a truly national force will require outreach into not only urban communities of color but small cities and rural areas as well. Rural areas are home to most agricultural and extractive industry in the United States, and they have suffered from decades of disinvestment. Not incidentally, they are also poorer, and whatever well-capitalized businesses exist in these areas wield immense political influence. Recently, they have been bastions of support for the Republican Party.

“As good Marxists, let’s state up front that the primary function of rural areas within the larger national economy is as a supply source of raw materials: food, oil, natural gas, coal, timber, and other resources,” writes Tarence Ray, from nearby Hobbs, New Mexico. “To keep these goods flowing out of rural areas—and profit flowing into capitalists’ pockets—freethinking dissent within the extractive regions must be squashed at all costs.” Building working-class power is comparatively difficult in places shaped by these structural factors.

In order to win meaningful change nationally, it is also essential. “Rural people have an outsize influence on whoever the country goes for,” says Travis Donoho of Knoxville DSA. “Often even more so in individual states, where districts are gerrymandered to give rural areas outsized influence in state government.”

The more familiar aspects of the socialist history of the United States are tied to European immigrants in the early twentieth century who worked on factory floors in the industrialized Northeast and Midwest. In the South and Southwest, a less industrialized economy has historically meant weaker unions, and non-metropolitan areas that in some cases lack explicitly socialist local histories to draw from. Donoho suggests that just as often the socialist histories are in fact present, but buried: his East Tennessee home was at the center of a war between striking coal miners and the coal companies that brought in convict labor as scabs. In 1917, poor farmers in Oklahoma rallied under the banner of socialism and staged the last domestic armed uprising against the United States. And in the decades before, a populist politics with small farmers at its base had provided a credible threat to a big business–dominated duopoly. “It bothers me when you get a call from somebody in Gastonia, North Carolina, and they don’t have any idea about the strike there,” Donoho says. “We need to make sure that people understand that socialist ideas just didn’t land here from Mars, that there’s some socialist precedent in remote rural areas, especially in the South.”

Cathy Garcia, co-chair of Santa Fe DSA, notes the relative absence of local socialist history as an added challenge in organizing. “I think about ‘how do I bring socialism to all the abuelitas who live in New Mexico?’” Garcia says. “Probably how I brought socialism to my grandmother. It wasn’t by saying ‘Karl Marx.’ We had our own folk heroes. My grandmother is from Mexico. So it was: ‘we’re here to talk about Emiliano Zapata.’ Who are the New Mexican analogs?”

Rural organizers also confront material obstacles. Garcia briefly considered a run at New Mexico’s soon-to-be vacated 3rd Congressional District. “We’d have to canvass fucking half a state if a DSA person was going to have a chance in hell of winning,” she said. But their two-year-old group has no electoral machinery to draw upon in such a huge territory. And unlike in metropolitan areas, there is no meaningful form of public transit across the region. Garcia also notices deficits in specific skillsets. In metropolitan hubs, skilled workers in creative fields facilitate DSA chapters’ graphic designs, their communications, and their tech. Because New Mexico is resource-poor, “Anybody who has that kind of training or expertise, chances are they went to go get a job in Denver. They went to go get a job in Austin, Houston, L.A., San Francisco. This is a cultural problem that’s here in New Mexico. One we didn’t create, but one that exists.”

On the other hand, New Mexico has fewer people than Queens County, New York. “We have to be mindful about who we’re building coalitions with and why,” says Garcia. “Because it has to be more personalized. It’s a community: our reputations precede us.” The personal networks that exist in less dense areas can be leveraged to apply pressure on elected officials, who can themselves vet organizers through inevitable common points of contact. Indeed, multiple members of the fledgling chapter in Doña Ana County had recently run into their new congresswoman, Torres Small, around town when I visited their chapter meeting in March. That proximity makes pressuring elected officials a delicate process, but potentially fruitful for the dedicated and shrewd. “I guarantee you that if I set up an appointment with Xochitl, she’s going to be able to call someone and say ‘who’s this Cathy Garcia person?’” says Garcia. “Does that work in my favor or does that work against me? It depends.”

The best tool that these smaller DSA chapters have is common to chapters nationwide: collaboration with the mostly likeminded groups that already exist in their spheres of influence. “We want to make sure that when we organize with these other groups that we’re centering them, and we say, ‘we’re not here as DSA. We’re here as you,’” Garcia says. One of the first actions that her chapter took was to support the Communications Workers of America, donning CWA shirts and showing up to lend bodies to an action in the city. The same pattern holds for supporting indigenous activists and environmental groups: find out what needs doing, show up in support, and meet potential allies. Where the DSA fits, Garcia says, is to tie together progressive concerns—environmental degradation, voter suppression, wage stagnation—to a critique of capitalism.

Blanca E. Estevez, chair of DSA of Northwest Arkansas and newly elected member of the organization’s National Political Committee (NPC), sees opportunities across her turf. Despite including no major metropolitan areas, her chapter’s territory includes the University of Arkansas and the headquarters of Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods. “We’re going to be the heart of the revolution,” she says.

Estevez puts the struggles of rural DSA chapters bluntly: “Rural U.S. America is poor.” She recalls frustrations from rural chapters at DSA’s August national convention, who often feel overlooked both materially and in their relative importance to various organizing efforts. Nonmetropolitan democratic socialists at least have national representation: besides Estevez, the new NPC includes members from Lincoln, Nebraska; Lawrence, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. Chapters like these, based in smaller cities and college towns, reach into the rural zip codes surrounding: Donoho’s Knoxville chapter, for example, counts members in smaller Oak Ridge, Maryville, and Morristown nearby. But smaller chapters have fewer resources to bring to bear. Currently, 20 percent of dues collected are redistributed by the national organization back to locals. At the August convention, overhauled dues-sharing plans were proposed to deal with the discrepancies. One proposed disbursing $100 a month to every chapter with a bank account; proponents argued that “Socialists should redistribute wealth! This proposal effectively does that by providing funds to chapters, the vast majority of which are small and lack resources.” Another proposal sought to split the dues between national and local chapters 50/50. David Duhalde, a longtime DSA member who served as the organization’s deputy director until December 2017, argued against both programs in the lead-up to the convention: the former due to procedural headaches and its failure to help the many unbanked chapters, and the latter because it would enervate national efforts. Both efforts were voted down at the convention in favor of tweaking the prior system. Pending budgetary approval, the NPC is planning to implement a tiered structure in which local chapters receive 30 percent of the dues from their first fifty members, 25 percent from their next 150 members, and 20 percent after that, offering a boost to smaller chapters.

Working in resource-poor conditions means that more rural chapters mirror their environments. “People in rural areas feel isolated, betrayed, and they’re a good group to talk about socialism to, even if it’s much harder in the beginning,” says Donoho. “The fact that they’re outside the mainstream, pretty much ignored by most of society, is important for crafting a way of reaching out to them.” It’s one thing to have a rally in Nashville about Medicaid expansion, Donaho suggests. It’s quite another to have that rally in East Tennessee, where rural hospitals are closing at an alarmingly quick clip. “The difference between driving five miles to a rural hospital and having to drive close to an hour to a rural hospital, is literally a matter of life and death.”

“It’s good to be altruistic,” he says, “but organizers know that people tend to be most sincere and work hardest when you get them where they’re affected.”

Estevez founded her Northwest Arkansas chapter with some friends in February 2017, the day Tom Perez was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. That makes it a relative greybeard in the post-Bernie, post-Trump landscape of the DSA. When we spoke, Estevez emphasized that much of what newer and smaller chapters were experiencing was the result of the growing pains of an organization that had swollen tenfold—an organization that, like the newer chapters themselves, is scrambling to figure out what is to be done. Since her election, Estevez says, “I’ve started reaching out to some of these rural chapters and having one on ones with their leadership, and reminding them that we’re going to win, and we’re going to get there together.”

Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and writes about the southern half of the United States.