How Democratic Socialists Are Building on Bernie's Momentum
"Has anybody been angry before about capitalism?" Hannah Allison, a 29-year-old organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America, asks from the stage of a recent meeting in Los Angeles.
The nearly 100 DSA members who've gathered at the Friendship Auditorium in Griffith Park on this Saturday afternoon erupt in cheers and applause, after hours of presentations by speakers at least twice Allison's age.
Allison, who's based at DSA's New York City headquarters, has been visiting the group's local chapters around the country on a mission to get new members – especially younger and more diverse individuals, including those catalyzed by Bernie Sanders' campaign – excited about organizing toward so-called democratic socialism. There are signs her efforts are starting to pay off. The group, which officially formed in 1982 but has roots in the early-20th-century socialist movement, has experienced a renaissance of late. The LA gathering is one of the group's largest in 25 years. And since last March, the DSA's membership has nearly tripled, to more than 15,000 members, with 90 local groups in 37 states.
Relative to other political groups, the DSA's numbers are still small, but the group is poised to become a leader in the national resistance against Trump's administration, if it can figure out what to tackle first. The independent, member-funded organization has attracted a legion of social-media-savvy young followers at a time when progressives are feeling angry and disillusioned with the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. With its DIY ethos – members are encouraged to form their own chapters, organize niche committees and run for a position on its board of directors – the DSA offers get-your-hands-dirty activism as an antidote to what its members see as the corporate, stuffy fundraiser culture in Washington. But its greatest appeal – an egalitarian approach, combined with a desire to smash capitalism – may also prove to be its biggest challenge when it comes to having a lasting impact on U.S. politics.
Credit Bernie Sanders for DSA's explosion in growth. The Independent Vermont senator ran for president last year as a Democrat but has long identified as a democratic socialist – or, as he defined it in a 2006 interview, someone who believes in a democracy that's not influenced by Wall Street. At the time, he described democratic socialism as a system in which the government plays a strong role in ensuring all of its citizens have access to health care, childcare and a college education, regardless of income. "It means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment, that we create a government … not dominated by big-money interests," he said. "I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly."
Most members of the DSA would agree with that statement. In fact, the group's website includes similar language: "Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically — to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few," it reads, also calling for a radical transformation "through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives." (The DSA supported Sanders during the 2016 primary, praising his proposals and campaigning on his behalf, but Sanders has never been a member.)
"Bernie Sanders did a great service to us by saying, 'I'm a democratic socialist.' You then had a ton more interest coming in because of that, and I think interest in socialism [in general]," says DSA organizer Brandon Rey Ramirez, 26. "I think people want something different, and they want to be part of something where they feel like it's not super bureaucratic." Ramirez, like many of DSA's members, is a former Sanders supporter who critiqued Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign for its reliance on Wall Street funding and neo-liberalism, or "the trust of free markets over labor" and regulation, as he puts it.
DSA members point to Sanders' involvement in the Young People's Socialist League - a former student group under the umbrella of what was then the Socialist Party of America - while attending the University of Chicago in the early Sixties as evidence of his alignment with their ideologies. The DSA, too, is largely modeled after the Socialist Party of America, a fringe party that formed in 1901 and dissolved by 1972. Decades later, many of the party's former leaders, like Eugene Debs and Victor Berger, are revered as cult idols by young DSA members. Still, many Americans continue to think of "socialism" as a dirty word, likely thanks to its associations with communism and the Cold War. A Gallup poll from last May found that Americans of all ages favored capitalism to socialism, with one exception: people ages 18 to 29, whose views of each ideology were equally positive.
But with income inequality rising steadily in every state - a trend that's likely to continue thanks to Trump's plans to deregulate Wall Street and fight federal minimum-wage increases - some members of the DSA see socialism as the only path to economic parity in the United States. That includes members like Max Belasco, an IT worker at UCLA who says he had to sleep in his car for three months after moving to Los Angeles because he couldn't afford to pay rent, and his friend Tyler Wilson, who says workers from a temp agency he used to work for were routinely taken advantage of by corporations - or, as he calls them, "sexual harassment factories" - who viewed them as little more than disposable help. Belasco founded the unions and labor committee within DSA's Los Angeles chapter last month in an attempt to organize and align with union members throughout the city.
Membership in the DSA nationally has been further bolstered over the past several months by celebrities like Rob Delaney touting it on Twitter as the new cool kids' club for people who want to make a difference. "My web-page's sole purpose now is to lure teens & millennials into the #ripped arms of feminist socialism," the Catastrophe star tweeted to his 1.3 million followers last month with a link to the DSA's website. Other new members credit their interest in the DSA to the popular podcast Chapo Trap House, whose hosts frequently roast the Democratic Party in favor of socialist and even nihilist ideas. The organization's most enthusiastic members proudly feature the rose emoji - an iteration of the DSA's logo - in their Twitter handles.
But for all its great intentions and recent growth, the DSA has its work cut out for it to be able to make a measurable impact in Trump's America. One hurdle it could face is focus: The organization's goals tend to fluctuate depending on the individual chapter and local leadership. (Organizers say that's the point, dubbing the DSA a "big-tent" organization.)
Organizers are also grappling with a diversity issue. "Because of the way it's passed along on Twitter, we do have a lot of white dudes, which was much less true before [the election]," says LA organizer Miranda Sklaroff, 30. The DSA has struggled to recruit both women and people of color - the populations the DSA most aims to stand in solidarity with. It's a challenge that has not gone unnoticed by the organization's national leadership. The group's constitution - a series of organizing principles last amended in 2001 - mandates that half of the 16 slots on the DSA's board of directors be reserved for women, and a quarter of them for people of color. But at the recent event in Los Angeles, the sea of mostly white, male 20-somethings is jarring, even as the solidarity with other groups is evident. "Black Lives Matter is real important," says DSA member Bernie Eisenberg, a Korean War vet who wears a "Veterans for Peace" trucker hat and a nametag describing himself as "the other Bernie." "I notice we have the signs up, but we need more people of color here to really move forward."
Eisenberg and other old-timers like self-described anarchist Carol Newton, 77, and 90-year-old retired social worker Jack Rothman are living evidence of one of the group's advantages: It's intergenerational, with activists from the Sixties passing along their knowledge to those of the social media generation, and vice versa. Ramirez recalls, for example, being amazed to learn about the time Newton knocked over a bus during a protest against the Vietnam War. "Somebody just goes, 'How the hell do you knock over a bus?' She's like, 'You just keep on pushing.' And it was just like, Jesus Christ, she has this awesome attitude.''
The most important thing the DSA might offer at this point is what Chapo Trap House co-host and longtime DSA member Amber A'Lee Frost called during a recent episode "a place to find comrades." That's how Sklaroff sees it, too. The DSA "is like a good balm for the existential dread and anxiety to go out and work and meet people who want to change the world just like you do," she says. "Right now we need everyone to just get together in a room and start working." For her part, she co-organized a museum workers' strike on Inauguration Day, participated in the Women's March and protested in front of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office last month to encourage her to vote no on Trump attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.
With new activist groups forming on a near daily basis in response to the Trump administration, Ramirez also sees the DSA's decades-long foundation as an asset. "What's interesting about DSA is that it's the long history of organizing, laying the intellectual groundwork - it's built from both activists and academics, and now it's getting injected with this new kind of activist: the person who had been at Occupy, or they were activated by the Bernie Sanders campaign, or they want to resist Trump," says Ramirez.
For Newton and other DSA leaders, Trump's unexpected victory leaves them with conflicting thoughts: They see his administration wreaking havoc on the country and are doing everything they can to help those affected, but they also recognize that it's been a boon to their own organization. "We've been trying so hard for so long to build a chapter," Newton says. "Now look at all we have to do. We're going to be busy now for at least four years."
Toward the end of her speech, Allison, the New York DSA organizer, puts the dilemma in blunter terms. "Trump is awful, right? But ... as socialists, he's created this really good moment for us where we don't have to sugarcoat things or lie anymore. We can say we're socialists, right?" she says. "And that's why I think this particular moment, while dangerous, is so important."
To seize on the moment, she says, the DSA must build an inclusive movement with space for everyone to participate, and rely on its network of chapters to implement direct action at the local level. "We want to be a force that the neoliberal Democrats have to reckon with, that the GOP has to reckon with," she says. "That the racists and white supremacists have to reckon with."
Of course, accomplishing that will also require socialists to do something they're generally averse to: accumulating money. "But it's really important," Allison says on stage, "because nobody else is going to fund the overthrow of capitalism, so we've got to fund this shit ourselves."
The crowd laughs, and several people take out their wallets to pay their dues, passing envelopes back to Newton. Some members rush off to sign up for Sklaroff's feminist socialist committee or Belasco's unions and labor committee. There's talk of organizing a carpool to attend a protest happening at the airport that day, while others spread the word about upcoming actions. There's a lot of work to be done.