[Editor’s Note: Throughout this piece, first names have been used in the place of full names, as some of those interviewed requested that their full names not be published.]
On Feb. 11, the Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists, a local branch of the national Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), held its first meeting in Poughkeepsie. At the meeting, members of the local DSA chapter as well as the Dutchess County Progressive Action Alliance (DCPAA) discussed a possible agenda and collaborations between the two organizations.
Unlike the DSA, the DCPAA is a purely local organization and contains many smaller teams within it that focus on environmentalism. It started during the 2016 election cycle when it was founded as a movement to elect Bernie Sanders. After his loss in the primaries, members were devastated, but decided to continue their activism and to keep pushing towards a progressive agenda. Today, resisting Trump is at the center of their agenda.
Over pizza and soda in Pizzeria Bacio, the members of the two progressive groups shared their actions and invited one another to join in. Dean, who organizes DSA events and meetings in both Dutchess and Orange Counties, presented the main topic on the DSA’s agenda as “Medicare for All.” While universal healthcare is currently a national focus for the DSA, the Hudson Valley chapter is focusing on this at the state level because they believe that the New York Health Act will make this goal more attainable. This bill for the New York Health Act, or S4840, has been passed by the New York State Assembly for the past three years, but now a majority of the State Senate supports it. If passed in the Senate, the act will provide healthcare coverage for every New York resident and be paid for by the state.
The group is currently collecting signatures in support of the New York Health Act and plans to make their next meeting a canvassing event. The DSA sent questionnaires to Hudson Valley residents in order to learn more about people’s experiences with the healthcare system. Additionally, members of the group went door to door and asked questions aimed at finding out how people felt about the idea of healthcare for all. Peter, a DSA member since 1998, described his experience with canvassing and noted that even people on the political right acknowledge that the system is not working and needs to be improved, or even changed altogether. Peter made it clear that all are welcome at the canvassing event and noted that the DSA will train new canvassers. The event did not yet have a date at the time of the meeting, but this DSA-run canvassing was offered as an act of collaboration between the DSA and the DCPAA.
After discussing possible methods of collaboration, the meeting moved onto the members’ takeaways from a suggested reading that had been distributed before the meeting, “Trump After One,” an article by Kate Aronoff, Paul Heideman, Doug Henwood and Kim Phillips-Fein, which was featured in an issue of Jacobin magazine this past January. DSA member Carlos described the group’s takeaway from the article, saying, “It would be nice to be able to find a way to move forward.”
The topic of the meeting shifted once again as Dutchess County Legislator for District 11 Joel Tyner, who represents the people of Rhinebeck and Clinton, related his views and actions to those of the organizations. In doing so, Tyner, who is in his eighth two-year term as a legislator, told the table of his Senate campaign, which he announced on Dec. 3. He has been pushing for a single-payer healthcare system for over 20 years and describes himself as a longtime activist in Dutchess County. The end of his impromptu speech was a call for support, and he stated, “I don’t have to do this, I don’t have to fight.” He’s looking for widespread support, and he told the group that he would gladly stand with the DSA, a known socialist organization, at a campaign rally.
While Tyner was the only politician present, politics and political methods were discussed by members of both social organizations. One of the primary differences between the two groups emerged through their views of the two-party system. The DCPAA members’ approach seemed more radical, as voiced by Armstrong. While both groups want the Democratic Party to move left, they differ on strategy.
While she wants to push the Democratic Party “to the left,” Armstrong explained that she is not preoccupied with thinking within the two-party system and asked, “Do you infiltrate the Democratic Party or start a new party?” Still, she does not wish to be an insurgent. Her hope is that the two-party system works, but has begun to accept that, from her vantage point, it does not. She stated, “I’d love nothing better than to not feel like I need to be an insurgent in the Democratic Party, because it sucks so much.” She demonstrated that she does not view herself so much as a member, but instead as an influencer of the party. She was not alone. Darrett, another member of the DCCPA, echoed this discontent with the Democratic Party. He explained, “I’m a Dem. But I’m not really a Dem. Because I don’t like that corporations have taken over.”
DSA member Peter took a different approach. The DSA did not seem focused on disrupting the Democratic Party or changing the two-party system. In terms of political support, Peter said, “If you will accept DSA support, we will support you. We should be allies whether or not you call yourself a Socialist.” While Armstrong and Darrett of the DCPAA discussed infiltrating the Democratic Party, Peter stated, “We don’t care what ticket you run on.” For him it’s not about the labels, it’s the ideas and actions.
As the pizza was cleared away, the discussion wound down. The participants exchanged contact information for future collaboration and the meeting came to a close.