Cover of Free Press, artist rendering of Bernie Sanders, people marching in the background

It’s Monday night at Dempsey’s, a perennial Democratic Party meet-up spot in downtown Columbus. The Ohio presidential primary is five weeks away. Powerful members of the Franklin County Democratic Central Committee are meeting to plot strategy against an unprecedented grassroots attack upon the Party’s ward leaders. The ward leaders are the ones responsible for the official Party candidate endorsements.

Even more unfathomable than a populist revolt among local Dems is what’s going on in the back room at Dempsey’s. The room is packed with political supporters of a 74-year-old self-proclaimed “democratic Socialist” – an independent Senator from Vermont running for president. Many are doing electoral major party politics for the first time and were unaware of the local powerbrokers they just squeezed past. The folks in the back room all have one thing in common – they’re feeling the Bern.

Bernie had just done the impossible the week before in Iowa, fighting Hillary and her battle-hardened legions of Clintonistas to a standstill. This type of inconceivable upset has happened few times in history. Spartacus’s early victories over the legendary Roman legions come to mind.

Bernie Sanders’ followers are exchanging stories about their phone banking efforts. There was agreement they’d pretty much called everyone possible in Iowa and consensus that South Carolina Dems are desperate for an alternative candidate. One South Carolinian is quoted as saying, “Thanks! We don’t get much Bernie information down here.”

The back room holds a combination of young neophytes, some in their late teens, and well-known social justice activists from the fight for $15, Justice for Janitors, single-payer health insurance, union organizers, and environmentalists. They recite the mantra of their movements: “No negative attacks, no negative posts on Facebook. Stay positive!”

Tara, Bernie’s Deputy Field Director in Iowa, is introduced. She tells stories from Bernie’s early forays among Iowans. Bernie was speaking before 175 people in a United Auto Workers Hall and they began chanting, “Bernie! Bernie!”

Tara told us Bernie gave her a directive: “Go out and make them stop! Tell them it’s not about me – it’s about we.” Bernie’s message about “we” or “us” has been the same since the 1960s: the corporate elite has not been sharing the wealth, they’ve been exploiting people. And he has been relentless in attacking “the billionaire class” that has been hoarding the wealth.

Tara also mentioned with a laugh that when her candidate first heard the slogan “Feel the Bern,” he didn’t get it. But now lots of central Ohioans get it – the belief in “American Exceptionalism” has been shattered. The long-deferred socialist dream of sharing the wealth we all cooperatively produce can now be talked of openly, and the kleptocratic corporations and their political cohorts can now be called out.

Ohio’s Socialist history

The last time there was a visible socialist movement in Ohio was during the Progressive Era (1901-1914). Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs received nearly one million votes nationally, 6% of the electorate in 1912. Even before that, Ohio was a virtual hotbed of municipal socialism in 1911. Nationally, 56 Socialist mayors were elected that year – ten of them in Ohio. In that election, Columbus elected fourSocialists to the city council and three to the Columbus School Board.

So, how does a long dormant political movement, that by its very absence has defined the United States as different than other western democracies, burst forth after a centuries absence in the Buckeye State?

The socialism of Debs was messianic and driven by a moral crusade against the obscene wealth of Gilded Age robber barons. Unfortunately for Debs’ electoral campaign, it was rooted in third party politics.

Norman Thomas, a christian socialist from Marion, Ohio, briefly resurrected third party socialism in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt was able to usurp much of the Socialist activism by 1936 when, in his re-election campaign, a large faction of “Social Democrats” split from Thomas to join Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In 1960, the Socialist Party of America officially adopted the “realignment strategy,” becoming explicit Socialists within the Democratic Party. They spent the 60s and 70s doing “laywork for liberals” but never ran an actual Socialist in the Democratic primaries.

The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecessor to the Democratic Socialists of America, planned to run its leader, the architect of the “War on Poverty,” Michael Harrington for president in 1980. But then an 80 pound gorilla emerged, a Ted Kennedy for President campaign. Kennedy, who often called himself a “Social Democrat” almost defeated sitting president Jimmy Carter in the primary.

See how he runs, and runs, and runs

In the ensuing 35 years, no self-proclaimed Socialist would run within the Democratic primary. Sanders, who was never a member of the Democratic Socialists of America but frequently spoke at their events, took a different path to revitalizing the Socialist movement. Emerging from 60s student politics and civil rights activism, Sanders began his electoral career as a member of the Liberty Union Party in 1971. The Party was both anti-war and economically progressive.

Sanders ran for Vermont governor under the Liberty Union label in both ’72 and ’76. In between in 1974, he ran as the Party’s Senatorial candidate receiving 4.1 percent of the vote. Sanders left the Liberty Union Party in 1977 and worked as director of the People’s Historical Society. While there he made a 30-minute documentary on Eugene V. Debs.

Eschewing third party politics, Sanders made his next run as an Independent. He ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. With no Republican in the race, Sanders beat the five-term Democratic incumbent by ten votes. He won re-election in ’83, ’85, and ’87. Sanders also hosted a public access TV show, “Bernie Speaks with the Community.”

In the tradition of the “Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee” who ruled that city for 50 years, Sanders focused on downtown waterfront redevelopment that included parks and public spaces. When the only Congressional seat in Vermont came open in ’88, he ran as an Independent and finished second with 38 percent of the vote. In 1990, he won the seat as an Independent with 56 percent of the vote.

While in the House, he defined himself as a democratic socialist, argued continually for economic justice, and was one of the few to speak out against the Iraq War. Sanders stayed in the House until he was elected US Senator from Vermont in 2006 by a 2-1 margin. He agreed to caucus with the Democratic Party, though still an Independent. He was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote in 2012.

And then, the almost unthinkable happened. A 74-year-old Socialist announced, to the snickers and disbelief of the mainstream media, that he was challenging Hillary Clinton for president as a Democrat.

Central Ohioans Feeling the Bern

Following the meltdown of 2008 when an estimated $15 trillion was lost in the stock market, pensions, and home equities in a matter of months, and many US citizens were starting to feel the burn and outrage against the system. And one Senator, Bernie Sanders, on C-SPAN, kept denouncing the banks that were too big to fail and the billionaires who had ripped off the people. Gradually the grassroots began to feel the Bern.

Michael Grom designed a Bernie sweatshirt and was selling them at Dempsey’s. He said, “I didn’t know anything about Bernie. Then I saw him on TV attacking the banks and said to myself, ‘this guy needs to run for president.’” So last June, he made some shirts and took them to Comfest to peddle. There are now six designs, from the familiar “Feel the Bern” to the bolder Bernie T with Sanders hair on fire.  

Another Sanders supporter, Alex Davis, said that he wasn’t a Democrat but a “Berniecrat” and he was backing Sanders “because the system is corrupt.” Bianca, a Bernie delegate to the national convention, cited Bernie’s stand on climate change as the reason for her commitment. Another Bernie delegate named Michael said he like Bernie’s position on marijuana decriminalization.

Brian Meyers, a union man from Ashville, Ohio, said that “…about five years ago I saw Bernie on C-SPAN spelling out how working people were being screwed, and I thought ‘This guy’s got his shit together.’” He told the Free Press, “I’ve got to take my Bernie signs down at night or they disappear. I don’t understand why, since our town’s being devastated by Governor’s Kasich budget cutbacks.” 

Two weeks later on Thursday, February 25, the Sanders campaign officially opened their Columbus office in a former “Simply Fashion” store, next to Save-a-lot on East Main Street in the heart of Columbus’ inner city. Longtime civil rights activist, African Methodist Episcopal Minister Dale Snyder roused the standing room only crowd at the opening by insisting that Sanders had been anointed by the Holy Ghost and was the man to lead the crusade for social justice. Neither nonbelievers nor believers took issue with Snyder’s assessment.

An artist named Brian had come in from Oregon. He and his dog, had stopped in Iowa to take on Clinton and her minions for Bernie during the caucuses. Now he was busy painting Bernie-inspired murals on the walls of the new headquarters and talking about the solidarity he felt in the movement. “There’s really nobody who talks as honest and directly about what’s wrong with America as Bernie Sanders,” he said.

Two days later, 800 or so Bernie supporters filled the Wexner Center plaza at 15th and High on the OSU campus for a rally and march to Goodale Park. Some 50 police arrive on horseback, bicycle and in cruisers to keep in line the enthusiastic marchers, more cops assigned it appeared, than at the last Black Lives Matter rally.

Perhaps the police were caught off guard because most presidential rallies don’t culminate in loud, long marches. But the Sanders people knew why they were marching. Many supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. Current leaders of Black Lives Matter are present. There are students, climate action activists, Democratic Socialists, Democratic candidates running in this primary against the Franklin County Democratic Party machine. Newly active parents are pulling their children holding signs in wagons.

They are not investing in a candidate or seeking access or peddling influence. They are activists marching in a movement – a struggle – to reclaim the lost soul of America. One of their signs echoes Bernie’s call for a “political revolution.” Another sign said, “Democracy, not oligarchy.”

As they lined up to march, they know why they are there – because the abolitionists marched, the populists marched, the suffragettes marched, labor unionists marched, anti-war activists marched, the civil rights movement marched, the LGBT community marched. They all won.  

Bob Fitrakis is a co-founder of the Democratic Socialists of America and author of “The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party.”

The Ohio primary is Tuesday, March 15, 2016.

Democratic Socialists of America – history and current activities

By Simone Morgen, Chair, Democratic Socialists of central Ohio

People who know something of American left history are aware of the recurring “red scare” attacks – the first around 1917, against Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, due in part to his opposition against the First World War, as a war directed by the upper class and fought by workers. The second occurred around the 1950s during the McCarthy attacks on supposed socialist influence in the government.

Michael Harrington founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in an attempt to recreate the party and attract a broad variety of constituencies from the fragments of the old Socialist Party. This attempted to operate as an explicitly socialist force within the Democratic Party and the labor movement, to carry on aspects of the New Deal coalition. The other attempt along this line, the New American Movement (NAM) emerged at about the same time, more from the new left than from the old, and was more skeptical about the long-term future of the New Deal coalition, and accordingly devoted its energies more to the new movements of the 1960s, especially feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, and local community organizing.

These two groups came to see themselves as complementary, completing a formal merger in 1983. The merged organization, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), for the first time since the First World War brought together the various splinters of left opinion in America: former Socialists and Communists, former old leftists and new leftists, and many who had never been leftists at all. Although the members of the more numerous former DSOC had initially been focused on being the “left wing” of the Democratic Party, this tendency has diminished over time. While DSA members may cooperate with Democratic officials, this is more a matter of strategic decisions than fealty to the Party.

Since that time, the merged organization has continued to carry on its basic mission, as expressed in this statement from the official website: “Democratic Socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few. We are a political and activist organization, not a party; through campus and community-based chapters DSA members use a variety of tactics, from legislative to direct action, to fight for reforms that empower working people.”

In keeping with the ideals of broad tolerance for different ways to address pressing matters, DSA is what is described as a multi-tendency organization; that is, we do not have a specific line or approach that members must follow in working toward our ideals.

Currently, the national organization as well as individual locals, are working to support Bernie Sanders for President, not specifically as an end in itself, but to bring attention to socialist ideas and bring them back into the national discourse. Sanders’s outsider campaign, based as it is on commitment to such ideals as health care as a human right, based on a single payer system, tuition-free college education, $15/hourly wage, fair assessment of taxes, breaking up big banks, campaign finance reform, are in line with our views. We are working with the local support group for Bernie, but have our own literature which is based on his views that are consonant with Democratic Socialist ideas.

Additionally, the national organization, as well as local branches including the Democratic Socialists of Central Ohio, supports efforts to bring about racial justice and inclusiveness in the community, and working against attempts to marginalize immigrants and those of different religious backgrounds. Some of this work is through the Central Ohio Worker’s Center with which we are affiliated and helped to establish. We also support the effort to raise wages to at least $15/hour, and preferably higher than that, to a salary that can support a family. Much of our approach is premised on the concept of intersectionality, which stresses that race, gender, sexual orientation and economic circumstances interact with each other in different ways depending on the specific population involved.



Appears in Issue: