I’d argue that Chicago can be looked at as a sort of microcosm for the United States. Many of our local issues mirror those of the entire country, and our diverse communities allow a vast scape of ideologies.
Those ideologies seem to be shifting fast and in just one direction: left.
Chicago has been led by Democrats since the 1940s, so the fact that the city leans left is certainly not news. But in our city’s most recent election, we gained a little insight into where Chicagoan’s perspectives might be leaning—and perhaps that’s indicative of where the country is headed.
On April 2, Chicagoans elected four Democratic Socialists to office, joining two others who won their seats on the city council in February’s first round of voting and solidifying the fact that DSA members will make up at least 10 percent of this cycle’s city council.
Among those six are Andre Vasquez of the 40th Ward and Jeanette Taylor of the 20th Ward. I spoke with them to see if they think Democratic Socialism is on the rise—and if the left is moving more left nationally.
Though for many, Democratic Socialism seems to be a newer term in American politics, Vasquez says for him, the ideas have been here all along.
“I grew up in the city and went to multiple different public schools because we were gentrified out of five different neighborhoods,” he said. “Growing up poor in the system as it is, I always felt that things were unfair and there was a different way to do things. When I finally realized that that was an ideology to be able to find the political words to articulate that kind of thinking was when I started organizing and I became a member of Reclaim Chicago […] Through organizing with them and having a better understanding about my oppression and a political analysis, that really helped identify the kind of system we live in [for me].”
Taylor felt similarly, explaining that after going on a hunger strike and going to jail for issues she cares about, she realized that the changes made by protests were temporary; someone needed to sit at the table to change legislature for good. She says she—and many of the other Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates she’s spoken to— identifies with Democratic Socialism in a way that is less about the label and more about the movement.
“A lot of us from the movement—we’re really movement candidates,” she said. “We’ve all worked with the city, we’ve all worked with different organizations and that’s kind of where we come from.”
The movement she’s referring to was spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and has been pushed even further to the forefront of political chatter by new U. S. Sen. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But that hasn’t always benefitted DSA candidates. Vasquez says that some of the biggest challenges presented by his campaign came from preconceived notions about the party, many gathered from prominent members like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
“Although we’re coming to a time where people are more comfortable talking about socialism, because of Bernie, it also causes some folks to already have an impression of what they think that means,” he said. “[Democratic Socialism] literally runs a spectrum […] So that’s really the challenge across the board. But the more you have real conversations with people the easier it is to understand how much of a shared value set we all have.”
While national members might be setting the tone for how Americans view Democratic Socialism, both alderman-elects agreed that politics on the local level might soon become the bigger influence.
Taylor pointed out that, historically, what happens in Chicago tends to influence what happens nationwide. When the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, teachers all around the country rose up to protest for better wages. The country began talking about charter accountability and police accountability after Chicago did, too, she says.
“What we do in Chicago sets the stage for what happens around the country,” Taylor said. “The thought that you’ve got at least six to seven people who come from the movement—who believe in community, who believe in the ‘from the ground up process’—will start to change the dynamic in this country. ”
Vasquez says that the way the six Democratic Socialist members won in April’s election will echo far and wide when it comes to organizing DSA party candidates on a national level.
“I think what we’re having is people who are to the far left or that are left in general are learning how to actually take the steps to build power at a community level,” he said. “And so when you have a city like Chicago that’s been so entrenched with this corruption that systematically is known across the country [and] in the world for being that way—to see that concentration of people really fighting for working families and the rights of workers, to get that much power—I think it’s absolutely something that it’s like a bellwether for what’s to come for the rest of the country.”
Neither knew if Chicago could ever become the first DSA run city, but they agreed that this election was a brazen start. For now, Taylor says she has a different idea for the city. She thinks Chicago could become the “City of the Movement.”