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Why New York’s young socialists promote local control

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New York

Gustavo Gordillo is standing in a circle of democratic socialists at the Sixth Street Community Center in Manhattan’s East Village, preparing to take on ConEd. The electric utility giant has proposed a rate hike, and Mr. Gordillo is outlining a plan to canvas neighborhoods in Queens and urge residents to register their opposition.

ConEd’s CEO makes more than $8 million a year, he tells the group, and last year the company reported a net income of nearly $1.4 billion. A monopolistic corporation whose ostensible purpose is to provide power and heat to every home and business in New York City, it functions more like a tap on captive customers, he says, drawing out profits for shareholders.

He’s relatively new at this. A soft-spoken Yale grad, Mr. Gordillo always considered himself a socialist in a vague sort of way, but never thought it was a realistic path. But the shock of seeing Donald Trump elected president spurred him to become more politically active. He joined the Democratic Socialists of America about a year ago, and recently left his job at a downtown art gallery to pursue community organizing full time. More and more, he’s realizing this is what he wants to do.

“A lot of the Democratic candidates at the most recent presidential debates were talking about how we have capitalism gone wrong, or unfettered capitalism,” he says. “But actually, I believe the system is working just as it’s intended to. Capitalism is what we’re living in. It’s not a perversion of capitalism, it’s actually a perfection of capitalism – and that’s why I’m a socialist.” 

Gustavo Gordillo, an organizing member of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, addresses members at a meeting August 6, 2019, in New York, New York. President Donald Trump‘s win in 2016 spurred him to become more politically engaged.

Despite the muggy August weather, about 50 people – most in their 20s and early 30s – have joined Mr. Gordillo in the community center’s back room. Nine raise their hands to indicate they’ve come for the first time.

They’re part of the explosive growth of the nation’s longest-standing socialist organization, which saw its numbers swell from some 6,000 members at the start of 2016 to nearly 45,000 nationwide in 2018. After the surprise November victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA member and Queens Democrat who’s become both a lightning rod and face of the movement, many estimate its membership has jumped to nearly 55,000.

As the Monitor reported last month, socialism has become a hot topic in presidential politics. While more Americans have begun to warm to the idea in the past few years, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders have been actively seeking to exploit the nation’s longstanding antipathy towards socialism, tagging Democrats with the label at every opportunity. Many moderates and independents, especially in swing states, are starting to worry about the influence socialism-embracing young people are having on the Democratic Party.

But here at the Sixth Street Community Center, the vision expressed by many nascent socialists doesn’t fit easily into past definitions.

Instead of a centralized government authority controlling the nation’s means of production, Mr. Gordillo and others – some alums of the Occupy Wall Street movement – talk about local control and self-sustaining communities. Their ideal is an economy where citizens and workers, rather than global corporations and government bureaucrats, can shape their own destinies.

Socialism means expanding democratic control over the economy and radically redefining workplaces so that workers are in control, not bosses,” says Mr. Gordillo.

Indeed, many observers have pointed out similarities between supporters of President Trump and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent democratic socialist from Vermont, who’s running for president as a Democrat. Both often agree on the need to protect American workers from globalism and cheap labor, criticizing “soulless corporations” that hurt small businesses, and send jobs overseas.

“I think this is the legacy of the economic downturn of 2008 – and more importantly, the recovery from it, in which the vast majority of the American population has not shared to any meaningful extent,” says Toby Reiner, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

“Median incomes have not grown since the 1970s,” he continues. “The result has been widespread dissatisfaction with centrist liberalism, which has opened up space on the American left for some movement toward socialism – and on the right for Trump, and before him, the Tea Party.”

Consensus-based democracy

For many at the Sixth Street Community Center, President Trump’s election served as an unpleasant wake-up call. But it was Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory that made them believe they could bring about radical change.

“She just showed us what’s possible,” says Christopher Clark, a Los Angeles native and recent graduate of Vassar College, who currently works as a communications specialist for a business improvement alliance in Manhattan.

The same was true for Mr. Gordillo, who had volunteered for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. “I was there for her victory party in the Bronx, and after that, well, after seeing a win like that, it really solidified my commitment,” he says.

Yet they emphasize that their movement is decidedly not about personalities or charismatic leaders. Indeed, the group consciously rejects any top-down forms of decision-making or hierarchical leadership.

DSA members try to model the kind of consensus-based democracy they are advocating – some of which can seem tailor-made for presidential mockery.

They begin with a ritual acknowledging the indigenous Lenape people, who used to live on the island of Manhattan, and on whose “stolen land” they are standing. When introducing themselves, most include their preferred pronouns.

Before the meeting starts, one member reminds the group about their guidelines for “respectful discussion,” which include not interrupting, and prioritizing individuals from “disadvantaged or historically silenced groups” when determining speaking order.

“Always assume the best intentions when people speak,” one of the leaders tells the group.

Amber Rather, organizing committee member of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, writes down ideas for the coming year at a planning meeting August 6, 2019, in New York, New York.

To some conservative analysts, socialism’s rise can be traced directly to an increasingly liberal American education system, which they say has warped many young people’s understanding of free markets and competition – especially in the wake of the 2008 economic implosion.

“They’ve been told, because of the difficulty that we’ve faced over the last decade economically, that socialism is the answer,” says Charlie Copeland, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, which fosters free-market principles on college campuses. “They’re being told that democratic socialism is a good thing, and look at how wonderful it is in Sweden and Switzerland and in Norway.”

Many DSA members like Mr. Gordillo and Mr. Clark have elite educations from Ivy League and other top-ranked universities. And they recount how much their college educations shaped their views of economics and politics.

Mr. Clark says he actually became more moderate during his undergraduate years, especially after studying the foundational economist Friedrich Hayek, revered by many conservatives. He notes, however, that even Hayek, the guru of libertarian economics, promoted a “universal basic income” for all citizens.

And when he studied abroad in Germany, he noticed how the concepts of “rugged individualism” and the veneration of private property just didn’t hold much sway.

“It was looking at the global stage where I started to see capitalism as something that invariably triggers exploitation,” he says.

“I think there should be some control”

Yet in other parts of New York, the idea of socialism is still viewed with deep suspicion – including by many Latino residents, some of whom escaped socialist regimes in order to come to America.  

Sitting in the office of his self-owned insurance affiliate in Astoria, Miguel Rodriguez-Vargas, a MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter in the heart of Queens, is no fan of his congressional district’s new representative, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

And as a small business owner, he’s downright angry at the role she and her followers played in the recent collapse of a deal to bring Amazon’s headquarters to Long Island City, a neighborhood just a few blocks away. 

“There were some Democrats with very loud voices, like AOC, that took the deal off the table,” says Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic with his family in the early 1980s.  

“The [Amazon] deal was going to help everybody in the neighborhood,” he continues. “They would be helping the local grocery store, the local tailor, they would be helping the local dry cleaner shops.”

Eduardo Giraldo is also a small business owner in Queens, the president of Abetx International Brokers in Jackson Heights, and a Democrat active in local politics. A leader in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he says he was impressed with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez when she spoke at a local Democratic club during the primary last year. Still, he did not vote for her – instead casting his ballot for longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. He’s concerned about the enthusiasm many young Democrats seem to have for socialist ideas. 

“A lot of the beliefs of socialism, people don’t really understand what it’s all about,” says Mr. Giraldo, an immigrant from Colombia who first came to the country as a high school exchange student in the early 1980s, when he lived with a family in Wisconsin. “Socialism gives too much power to the government,” he says. “And then, with no incentives to accomplish anything, the government can manipulate that, like societies have done in different countries.”

Yet both the Democratic Mr. Giraldo and the Republican Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas at times sound not unlike the young members of the DSA – especially when they discuss the impact of global capitalism.

“There should be some type of protectionism of our people, the people that live here,” says Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas. “You can’t just go all the way gung-ho with full-blown capitalism. Yeah, let’s just let China produce everything for nothing? No, I think there should be some control.”

Mr. Giraldo says much the same. “You look at big corporations, you know, and it’s the corporate greed, it’s about making the money for the CEOs and all their perks, and the shareholder profits. But they’re not giving anything back to the people.” 

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