Democratic Socialists Used to Be Decent

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‘This is not your grandfather’s democratic socialism,” a Washington Post columnist gushes in a video celebrating the congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. As someone involved in democratic socialism in the 1970s, let me confirm that the columnist is right. But not in a positive way.

DSA is a successor group to the Democratic Social Organizing Committee, established in 1973 and led for years by

Michael Harrington.

I participated in the DSOC founding convention in New York in October 1973, serving as one of its first college co-chairmen, and was an active member for the next decade.

I do not want to romanticize DSOC. We were a fringe political movement with scarcely more than a few thousand members. Like other groups on the left, we spent too much time on unrealistic policy schemes and narrow sectarian disputes.

But there was in DSOC an idealism, a commitment to democracy, and a recognition that decent people could disagree. Others on the left looked down with disdain on the “silent majority” who supported President Nixon and his policies. DSOC never did. Harrington strongly disagreed with Nixon’s policies, but he respected the democratic process and the dignity of American voters.

Today’s DSA endorses the anti-Trump “resistance” tactics of personal harassment. Last week a group stalked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he left a Louisville, Ky., restaurant. The Louisville DSA chapter tweeted a video of the incident, noting that “several” of its members participated. The national DSA then retweeted it from its verified account. One man in the video shouts: “We know where you live, too, Mitch!”

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Harrington would have recognized that such tactics are not only morally wrong but self-defeating. In his 1973 autobiography, “Fragments of the Century,” he criticized the left’s “fringe of confrontationists, exhibitionists, and Vietcong flag wavers.”

He often said that in order to be a socialist, you had to love America. In the late 1950s he traveled throughout the country for a project that became his best-known book, “The Other America.” He saw not only the country’s natural beauty but also the generosity and goodness of the American people, and the democratic possibilities for social improvement.

For most of the past 40 years, I have been involved in job training and antipoverty projects in California, working with our state’s unemployed, welfare recipients, ex-offenders, and workers with disabilities. Those experiences have led me away from Harrington’s economic policies. But his lessons about democracy and civility are more relevant than ever.

Mr. Bernick is a former director of the California Employment Development Department and author of “The Autism Job Club.”





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