Can socialist ideals gain support in Pittsburgh? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Can socialist ideals gain support in Pittsburgh?

“If people look into their family trees, they might realize they have been a socialist all along.”

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But Madonna notes many areas in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County, are “socially conservative” and this might be a deterrent in getting voters to back the DSA and its endorsed candidates. DSA strongly supports reproductive rights, prison abolition, disability rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. It also has been a strong presence in supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and other immigrant-rights protections.  

But Shuck still sees some openings for a rise in socialism’s popularity in Pittsburgh. He notes the Community Land Trust in Lawrenceville — an affordable-housing program where a nonprofit ensures low-income purchasers can buy homes — is a form of socialism. The DSA also supports Pittsburgh City Council’s push to raise the realty-transfer tax. Shuck says the tax will fall mostly on wealthy developers, not middle-income home buyers. He believes things like housing, food and health care, should be human rights, not commodities to purchase. 

“And we have the capacity to provide this for everyone, but the reason we are not doing it right now is because of political will,” says Shuck. 

The U.S. has the highest Gross Domestic Product of any nation in the world, at about $18 trillion, but according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. has the fourth most unequal economy of developed nations. 

The widening gap of inequality appears to be playing out in Pittsburgh, too. According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Pittsburgh saw a 13 percent increase in Gross Metropolitan Product from 2010-2015, which was above the national average. But the region only had a 3 percent increase in jobs, well below the national average. According to a 2016 report from news organization Bloomberg, of cities with populations over 250,000, Pittsburgh was the ninth most unequal city in the country. 

But converting Pittsburgh to a more socialistic system may not be all that easy. Bruce Katz, an economist with Brookings, recently co-wrote a report on Pittsburgh’s new economic emergence as a tech and health-care hub, where he acknowledged the need for more broad-based growth. The report recommended training programs be established at community colleges, nonprofits and businesses to prepare blue-collar workers for the jobs emerging in advanced manufacturing fields. 

“What is realistic right now?” says Katz, in an interview with City Paper. “With Donald Trump as president and a divided government in Harrisburg, big government interventions seem difficult.” 

But Katz’s recommendations aren’t that different from what DSA is initially proposing. Katz says local governments like Pittsburgh should model themselves after governments in northern Europe, which have excelled at capturing the wealth of public goods, like selling of public land, and using those profits to invest in public services. This model also relies heavily on strong labor unions, which Pittsburgh DSA are already supporting, and working to help unions grow. 

The biggest differences between what Katz is proposing and DSA’s goals are long term. Northern Europeans support utilizing capitalism to benefit workers and create welfare. Cohen and Shuck want this too, initially, but eventually they want to do away with capitalism entirely.

Shuck says this is possible. By getting endorsed candidates running at the local level, he says DSA can build a grassroots movement to push the politics of the region to the left. This year, DSA member Anita Prizio is running for Allegheny County Council as a Democrat and independent candidate Mik Pappas is running for magisterial judge. Both have been endorsed by the Pittsburgh DSA for their “progressive” and “radical” policies. 

Cohen says Pittsburgh’s DSA is a “big tent” organization, and there are many different roles for potential members, including electoral politics, education advocacy, socialist feminism and even just helping to make memes. She rejects the notion that Pittsburgh is too moderate or conservative to embrace socialism, and notes the robust history of labor organizing in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“If people look into their family trees,” says Cohen, “they might realize they have been a socialist all along.”

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