Stewart Alexander bristles at the misconception that he's running for president of the United States to make a point.
"It's a very serious campaign. It's more than just raising awareness," Alexander, 60, told The Root. "Working people have been very disappointed under the leadership of Barack Obama. They've also been disappointed under the leadership of the two political parties in Washington, D.C. I'm running as a candidate that's presenting serious change."
Alexander has repeatedly presented that change in several political campaigns launched over the past two decades. In 1989 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Los Angeles as a nonpartisan candidate. He dusted himself off in 2006 for the California lieutenant governor race, running under the socialist Peace and Freedom Party and placing last. As the Socialist Party USA's vice presidential nominee in the 2008 presidential election, he and running mate Brian Moore made the ballot in eight states and received 6,528 votes.
Yet in his current bid for the White House, again under the Socialist Party USA, Alexander believes that his chances technically measure up to those of most of the other candidates. "If you look at the Republicans right now, I would say none of them are going to win," said Alexander, who works as an auto salesman in Murrieta, Calif.
In his view, one of the biggest hindrances for him and running mate Alex Mendoza is not their platform but the reality of third-party candidates being so rarely covered in corporate media. That advantage, he said, goes only to corporately financed contenders.
"That has a huge influence over people's thinking. If I could be on the 5 o'clock news every day," Alexander said, pausing to laugh at the prospect, "then people would start realizing, 'Here's a campaign that is saying something different from the Democrats and the Republicans.' "
On the Party Platform
Founded in 1973, the Socialist Party USA advocates for democratic socialism. Under this model, the idea is for people to own and control their neighborhoods and local governments. "Consider how a school board works," Greg Pason, national secretary for the Socialist Party USA, told The Root as an approximate example of the local system his party envisions. While representatives would be voted in democratically, their decision-making power would be decentralized to the community level.
"People should also control the means of production and distribution, as the collective owners and managers of worksites in their communities," said Alexander. He argues that instead of a few executives and stockholders wielding control over industry and manufacturing, the people who work at the facilities should run them as cooperatives.
"It's the difference between being gainfully employed while taking care of the needs of society, versus only accommodating big corporations who are making huge profits," he said.
The Socialist Party USA also emphasizes public rights to social services, such as a single-payer health care system and free college education, both of which Alexander says he would be committed to if elected president. "But the top thing on my agenda, as it should be for any person who's running for president, is the economy," he said, proposing a public-works program that would invest public funds into businesses, owned and managed by working people, to directly create jobs in infrastructure and high-speed rail. "The economy under capitalism is in shambles."
Black Views on Socialism: Higher Than Average
One of the reasons that Alexander remains confident about at least some of his views taking hold eventually is the growing numbers of Americans who are open to socialist ideas. Among those with the sunniest perception of socialism: African Americans.
According to a December 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 55 percent of African Americans view socialism favorably, significantly higher than their views of capitalism, while only 36 percent of blacks respond negatively. Among Americans overall, 31 percent view socialism positively, and 60 percent have a negative reaction.
Other groups with more approving views on socialism in the recent poll — which broke down its findings by race, income, age and political affiliation — were half of young people ages 18-29, and 59 percent of liberal Democrats.
"People are starting to realize that capitalism is not working for them," said Alexander, citing the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of public disenchantment. "They can understand that when they don't have a job, when they're only a couple of paychecks away, or one crisis away, from being homeless. When they hear the message that socialists are talking about, such as single-payer health care and not supporting cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, they hear things that relate to their own circumstances. It may have been unheard of 25 years ago, but people are starting to look at socialism as an alternative now."
He added, however, that Alexander's campaign activity, which has mostly focused on California, is building. In March Alexander plans to head East, traveling to New York City, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., while a Southern tour is scheduled for the spring. "We will try to continue organizing the party through Stewart's campaign and getting the word out," said Pason. "It's been do-it-yourself-style outreach and very grassroots, but he's done a great job."
Why He's Running
Born in Newport News, Va., Alexander moved to Los Angeles at age 7 with his parents and seven siblings. It was there that much of his political activism took root: He served as the labor and industry chairman for the Inglewood branch of the NAACP throughout the 1980s and as the host of a weekly political talk-radio show dealing with social issues such as gangs and redevelopment. Meanwhile, he and his wife managed their own cleaning company.
But it wasn't until 1998 that he took a serious look at socialism, after a friend invited him to a Peace and Freedom Party meeting. A few hours into it, sitting in the conference room of a small roadside hotel in Fresno, Calif., it hit him.
"During that meeting I realized, 'I am a socialist,' " he said with a laugh. "I felt like I was finally around people who wanted to have a serious conversation about the needs of working-class people."
Fourteen years later, Alexander said that in order to effect the social change he wants to see, stepping outside of hotel conference rooms and into electoral politics is required. "That's what democracy is all about," he said, before grumbling again about the hold that money and the two major parties have over state and federal politics.
"We need to move into a truly democratic process so more voices can be represented," he said. "But as more people are falling away from the Democrats and Republicans, looking for some choice outside of that, the Socialist Party USA is building a strong support base as we move into this election season."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.