Lee Carter ran for a House of Delegates last year as a Democratic Socialist. He is the only delegate who identifies as such. Photo courtesy of Tom McIntire, Lee Carter's campaign manager.

From a shouting match on “The View” to surveys that show the word has lost its Cold War stigma for millennials, socialism has been having a moment since New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a socialist, took down a longtime Democrat last month in the party’s primary election.

Some Democratic leaders have rejected the label and have been slow to offer public support for self-identified socialists. And Republicans have been using Ocasio-Cortez’s newfound celebrity (and a few missteps on her part) to slam liberal politicians for being too extreme.

In Virginia, where one Democratic Socialist holds a House of Delegates seat and another narrowly lost an election, the debate seems unlikely to cause deep divisions within the party, according to party officials, academics and lawmakers.

But it could force Democrats to reconsider their platform.

“There’s always room for improvement, there’s always room for new ideas,” said Susan Swecker, chair of the state’s Democratic Party. “We’re a party with a lot of range. We’re open and inclusive.”

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Socialism implemented under autocratic leadership, in places like the former Soviet Union, has given it a bad reputation says Andrea Chandler, a co-chair of the Fredericksburg-area Democratic Socialists of America organization. According to Chandler, the group is small, with only about 10 people attending meetings regularly.

“You don’t have to overturn democracy to have a system that works for everyone,” she said.

There are six other chapters in Virginia, per the national Democratic Socialists of America website. The Charlottesville chapter spent the weekend fixing brake lights for free to “reduce any unnecessary interactions with law enforcement,” an idea they borrowed from Richmond’s chapter.

The national organization supports the nationalization of some industries, more strict environmental protections and better conditions for workers. It also calls for the same policies that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, advocates, such as government-paid college and health care for all.

The national organization doesn’t offer suggestions for funding those programs, though they would almost certainly require big tax increases.

Virginia’s brand of democratic socialism is focused on efforts like fine-tuning Medicaid expansion, creating more affordable housing and protecting workers’ rights, said Lee Carter, the former U.S. Marine and democratic socialist who was elected to the House last year.

Carter says he supports health care and higher education for all, but it’s not the defining characteristic of every democratic socialist.

Carter said he was well-received in Virginia’s legislature, despite a few jokes from other delegates. Almost all of his proposed bills, some of which focused on workers’ compensation and studying the cost of universal health care in Virginia, were left in committees, though that’s not uncommon for freshman lawmakers in the minority party.

At its core, the various forms of socialism are about keeping politics focused on all people, not just those with money or powerful corporations, said Rich Meagher, a professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College.

“There’s a growing sense among all Americans that our national politics are broken and that government doesn’t work for them anymore,” he said.

However, Meagher doesn’t know if democratic socialism will become a fixture in mainstream American politics. He does think that with enough candidates, the Democratic Party will be forced to adopt some of the socialists’ more leftist ideas.

“A clear progressive vision would resonate with a lot of people in Virginia and the country,” he said.

Stafford County candidate Josh Cole also considers himself a democratic socialist, though he didn’t align himself with the official organization during his campaign.

Cole lost his bid for the House in 2017 by 73 votes and amid a controversy over 143 misassigned voters.

He plans to run again in 2019 and wants to focus on increasing the state’s minimum wage, getting rid of the work requirement that was added to Medicaid expansion and increasing workforce housing in his Stafford County district.

“Everybody should have a basic opportunity to live comfortably,” Cole said. “There’s a growing number of people who want to see this type of Virginia.”

Carter thinks having new ideas — whether it comes from democratic socialists or not — would go a long way to broadening the Democratic Party’s appeal in the state and nationally.

“We’re having a surge right now because people are horrified by what they see coming from the White House,” he said. “But Donald Trump ain’t going to last forever.”

Not everyone thinks embracing more socialism is a great idea for Democrats.

“Democrats, please, please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left,” said James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump and new William & Mary professor, in a tweet.  “This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that. America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.”

 

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.