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The inside story of DSA’s dramatic ascent.
By Kate Aronoff / 08.10.2018
Visiting Julia Salazar’s north Brooklyn campaign office one warm July weekend, I’m greeted by a volunteer with a spreadsheet. Like nearly everyone else in the converted coffee shop, she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and she asks me cheerily if I’m there to canvass. I’m not, but if I were, I would be instructed to make my way to a training session on the sunbathed patio out back that is scattered with half-full bottles of sunscreen. After that – in the span of just a half-hour – I would know everything I need to know about how to help elect a card-carrying socialist to the New York state Senate.
If Salazar makes it to Albany, she will join the ranks of 42 DSA-endorsed candidates who are now or will soon be serving in offices from the Moorhead, Minn., school board to Capitol Hill (that is, if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wins the general election as handily as she did her primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District). So far this year, local chapters have endorsed at least 110 candidates.
DSA may soon have 50,000 members across 200 local groups in all 50 states – up from 6,000 members in 2015. The surge in freshly minted socialists came in three waves: First, those energized by Bernie Sanders’ primary run; second, those brought in by Donald Trump’s election and the Women’s March; and third, those inspired by 27-year-old DSA member Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in May over incumbent – and Democratic heavyweight – Joe Crowley.
So what is DSA, exactly, and what is it doing with this growing army?
DSA’s electoral work has attracted national media attention in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s historic win. Yet it’s just one part of a bottom-up approach to politics that sees the ballot box and state power as tools for advancing toward a more radically democratic society. Members – most of them millennials, in small towns and big cities in every corner of the country – are engaged in everything from occupying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices to evangelizing about Medicare for All. Many reporters have tried to divine what DSA believes, be that the group’s policy prescriptions or its ideology. DSA, though – to crib from Karl Marx – isn’t looking merely to interpret the world, but to change it, campaign by campaign, door by door. What’s made DSA’s ascendance remarkable is less its analysis of capitalism than its ability to put people angry about capitalism to work.
It’s telling that, unlike most socialist groups, DSA was formed out of a merger – not a sectarian split. In 1982, at the dawn of the Reagan era, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New America Movement (NAM) combined forces. DSOC had been founded in 1973 by socialist intellectual Michael Harrington and other members of the Socialist Party who had grown disenchanted with political irrelevance. NAM, founded in 1972 by former members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was rooted in ’60s counterculture, the New Left and second-wave feminism. (In 1976, members of DSOC and NAM moved to Chicago to found In These Times, and for the next decade the then-newspaper reported diligently on the ins and outs of DSOC, NAM and DSA.)
The 1980s would prove a tough decade for left politics, the 1990s and 2000s even more so. DSA shed members and closed chapters around the country as a few loyalists and a steady trickle of young recruits kept the organization running.
Enter Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign and his stalwart identification as a “democratic socialist,” a surprise boon for an organization with those two words in its name. DSA’s commitment to being a pluralistic, “multi-tendency” organization also meant it was open enough to accommodate thousands of newcomers.
Democratic socialism itself has always been a heterodox term, encompassing everyone from ideological Trotskyists to New Deal Democrats. The surge of new, mostly 20-something members include anarchists, Marxist academics and – most numerously – political neophytes excited about Sanders’ message and frustrated with the Democratic establishment.
DSA isn’t keen to enforce a strict definition of “democratic socialism” – although mainstream media outlets newly hip to DSA are desperately looking for one. On its website, DSA writes:
At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people. …
Our vision is of a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives. We call this vision democratic socialism – a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.
Members I spoke with took this to mean everything from taking public goods like healthcare off the private market (along the lines of Scandinavian social democracies) to worker-ownership of the means of production. Central Iowa DSA co-chair Caroline Schoonover was among many to say that democratic socialism means “taking power from the few and giving it to the many.” All saw small-d democracy – people having a say in the decisions that affect them – as central, both in politics and workplaces, and in DSA itself.
The Socialist Feminists of Democratic Socialists of America organize a protest outside of the New York County Republican Office in New York City on July 5, 2017. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
For this story, I spoke with around two dozen DSA members from chapters around the country. The primary source of their excitement was that DSA chapters seemed to be actively working on something, not just sitting around reading Marx. Like the citizen action group Indivisible, which also exploded after the election, DSA let people shake off a feeling of helplessness about the political climate and roll up their sleeves.
DSA also offers a community. Chapters host regular beach days, parties, fundraisers and social events, like Metro D.C. DSA’s recent “No ICE Cream Social.” If Indivisible was able to connect many alienated, middle-class suburbanites jarred out of their political comfort zone, DSA has provided a home for tens of thousands of downwardly-mobile, debt-ridden millennials grappling with a system that simply isn’t working for them.
Adam Shuck and Arielle Cohen, 32 and 29, joined Pittsburgh DSA in its infancy; Shuck was among the seven people who first met at a bar in 2016 to talk about getting the chapter together. Each was energized by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign but disillusioned by his presidency. “I thought we were going to see some kind of New Deal,” Shuck says. The frustration led him at first to join the International Socialist Organization before the Sanders campaign brought him to DSA. While a student at SUNY Purchase, Cohen grew disillusioned with the sausage-making and compromise that created the Affordable Care Act, and organized with Occupy Wall Street before moving to Pittsburgh and finding her way to DSA. Now, Shuck and Cohen co-chair the Pittsburgh chapter.
Pittsburgh DSA held its first general meeting in December 2016 with around 100 people. Now it has a dizzying number of working groups: a health justice committee campaigning for Medicare for All; reading groups tackling Marx and Engels; an anti-imperialism committee lobbying for legislation criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine; a socialist feminist working group exposing crisis pregnancy centers; an ecosocialist group fighting the privatization of the city’s water and sewer system; a housing rights group pushing for protections for renters; and a number of inward-facing groups handling tasks like recruitment and communications.
The chapter also brought the newly revived DSA one of its early electoral victories, rattling the local Democratic machine. In December 2017, the group threw its weight behind Summer Lee’s campaign to represent House District 34. In the May primary, with the help of DSA and groups like Our Revolution and the Sierra Club, Lee, 30, a recent law school grad, beat Paul Costa, 57, a 19-year incumbent and member of a dynastic Pittsburgh Democratic family.
Lee had experience working on school board races and on a coordinated campaign to elect Katie McGinty governor and Hillary Clinton president in the 2016 general election, and she was impressed with DSA’s electoral work on Mik Pappas’ judicial campaign. Pappas ran on a platform of ending cash bail and working to end mass incarceration, and won in a landslide, with the help of a dedicated grassroots turnout effort staffed in part by DSA members.
“They were running 20 or more canvassing shifts a week,” says Lee. “I had never seen that type of energy around magistrate elections. I realized that ideologically we aligned.” She joined DSA shortly thereafter and sought them out as her first endorsement.
It wasn’t easy. DSA’s candidate endorsement process is a microcosm of its baked-in commitment to direct democracy. For every decision, at every level, there’s deliberate space for members to duke things out, combined with a commitment to ultimately supporting the group decision rather than splitting off into rival factions. The very question of whether to engage in the electoral process – and in particular, to work within the Democratic Party – remains fraught, with many members skeptical of investing limited organizational resources into elections rather than base-building.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)
New York City DSA hotly debated whether to endorse Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s challenger from the left, Cynthia Nixon, after she declared herself a democratic socialist. Several dozen DSA members signed a “vote no” statement arguing that universal healthcare and rent control will be won not by electing candidates to office but by “building working-class power that holds [them] accountable,” citing the successful teachers’ strikes in Republican states. In late July, NYC-DSA officially endorsed her after an extended series of debates.
“We have folks who distrust electoral work, and even among those that don’t, there are different ways of thinking of how to approach it,” says DSA National Director Maria Svart, 38, a former SEIU organizer. “Everybody appreciates that electoral success only comes when you have an organized base. Having all these tendencies in conversation means that everybody learns from each other.”
While the endorsement process varies from chapter to chapter, in some cases—including Lee’s—the first step is filling out a lengthy form with questions from each of the chapter’s working groups. Typically, one is whether the candidate identifies as a socialist. Members weigh that alongside specific policy questions (“Do you support universal rent control? Abolishing the police?”) and a range of other concerns: How much of an impact could the chapter have on the race? How will it build the chapter’s capacity and the movement to challenge the capitalist class?
Next comes the interview process. After filling out Pittsburgh DSA’s questionnaire, Lee was interviewed by a roomful of members. The group voted to endorse both Lee and Sara Innamorato, a state representative candidate, and the two supported one another’s campaigns.
Ocasio-Cortez, in New York, jumped through even more hoops. Because her congressional district spans the Bronx and Queens DSA chapters, she had five interviews: with the electoral committees and membership of each branch, and then the citywide convention. “We put her through hell,” jokes Michael Kinnucan, a DSA member now co-managing the state Senate campaign of Julia Salazar (whom the organization endorsed alongside Ocasio-Cortez in a parallel process).
Abdullah Younus, co-chair of NYC-DSA and a member of DSA’s National Electoral Committee, explains that the extensive endorsement process isn’t just a means of vetting candidates, but of building members’ commitment to them. “It makes it a lot easier to have the same folks who write the questions come out and knock for those candidates,” he says. “They’re talking about work they’re invested in.”
Salazar, 27, estimates that some 800 DSA members live in and around her district, which has translated into hundreds of volunteers spreading the word about her September primary. Even in her short time with the group (she joined in late 2016), she’s seen a change in how fellow leftists relate to electoral politics. “I think part of it is people seeing the term ‘democratic socialist’ normalized in the electoral realm, through Bernie mostly, at least initially, and so seeing it as an actually viable strategy,” she told me between knocking doors.
Though she’d worked on legislative campaigns as a staff organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Salazar only recently began to consider electoral work. “It’s not something I ever thought about before – not just for myself, but in seeing leadership development in community organizing as a path toward seizing state power,” she says. “That sounds like a jump, right? But ultimately that’s the goal.”
New York state senate candidate Julia Salazar (R) knocks doors in Bushwick, N.Y., with a fellow DSA member in July. (Photo by Raul Coto-Batres)
Thanks in part to the Sanders campaign and Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset, that goal feels more within reach now than it has since the days of the Socialist Party’s Eugene Debs. Big, universal programs like a federal job guarantee or Medicare for All draw overwhelming popular support. And small, local races offer an opportunity for the grassroots to tip the balance.
Establishment candidates in Democratic-controlled cities effectively depend on low turnout. Their political consultants tend to rely more on advertising and glossy mailers, and less on actually talking to people – particularly people who don’t usually vote. Mobilizing even a few thousand new voters in that context, then, is a fairly straightforward formula for victory. When DSA member Lee Carter won a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates in November 2017, he beat his Republican opponent by 9 points – a margin of 1,850 votes.
“Our party structure protects incumbency, and relies on an ignorant electorate,” Summer Lee says, noting how much time her campaign spent educating voters about the election itself. “If everybody were voting, we’d have a completely different system.”
Depending on the city, DSA can offer a large, self-organized volunteer base to candidates who navigate its endorsement process. Pittsburgh DSA estimates that its volunteers knocked on some 70,000 doors through the course of Lee’s campaign. Turnout in Lee’s district was 14 percent higher than in others around Allegheny County and 54 percent higher than in the last midterm election.
Still, it’d be nearly impossible for DSA-endorsed candidates for higher offices to make do with only DSA’s support, and they often work alongside other organizations like Justice Democrats, Our Revolution and the Working Families Party – especially for bigger races. Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, for example, convinced Ocasio-Cortez to run and helped staff her campaign, and she gained the backing of Black Lives Matter-Bronx and People for Bernie Sanders, among others. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign reached 120,000 doors overall.
By being an organization that does much more than campaign for candidates, DSA hopes to upend the notoriously transactional, short-term nature of electoral work, enabling its members and elected officials to build relationships with and commitments to their communities that extend beyond election day. DSA is still figuring out how to build independent political organizations to hold the politicians it helps elect accountable. Thus far they’ve relied on their close ties with dyed-in-the-wool DSA members-turned-candidates like Lee Carter. DSA, Carter says, has “been the core of my support since I’ve been in the legislature. I still go to meetings whenever I can, and they help me get in contact with other groups.”
DSA member, Hawai’i state representative and now U.S. House candidate Kaniela Ing says he hopes that DSA remains “part of an independent Left, and does not get too caught up in electoral and legislative politics” – and that it holds politicians to account, himself included.
“I’m a movement candidate,” Ing says. “Hopefully my role is to help push whatever movements are building over the finish line. Elected officials really like to take too much credit for bills they pass that are really the result of the public waking up and forcing politicians to act.” He says he hopes to have regular check-ins with DSA should he make it to Washington.
Electoral work also feeds into DSA’s other campaigns. Pittsburgh DSA’s membership swelled in the wake of Lee and Innamorato’s wins. “[Email] list building, data tracking, how to talk to people at the doors – that all helps build the muscle that can also help with canvassing for housing justice,” Shuck says.
“When we canvass an area, we’re often knocking a door many times, whether for a candidate, for Medicare for All or for housing justice,” Cohen adds. “At this point, people know us when we come to the door, and they know what DSA is.”
NYC-DSA’s Abdullah Younus sees electoral work as a training ground. He says that canvassers for the New York Health Act, legislation to create a statewide single-payer system, “got skilled on this kind of work by going through the electoral working group.”
For all the recent attention to DSA’s upstart electoral success, it’s only one part of the group’s work nationwide. Many chapters don’t engage at all with elections, or are just starting to think about whether they would like to run candidates. Michael I. Esealuka, co-chair of New Orleans DSA, says, “It would be difficult for us as a small chapter to develop the type of accountability mechanisms we need to hold people [we elect] accountable to our socialist vision.”
Prior to the victories of Carter, Lee and then Ocasio-Cortez, DSA was perhaps best known for agitating to push Medicare for All into the national spotlight—a campaign adopted by delegates from around the country at DSA’s biennial convention in August 2017 as one of three national political priorities, alongside building electoral power and stronger and more militant unions. Forty-five chapters across 20 states held a weekend of action for Medicare for All in April, tabling at farmers’ markets, hosting public events and, as always, canvassing. On the labor front, DSA chapters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma raised money for strike funds to support the militant teacher walkouts this spring, and the national DSA sent an email encouraging members around the country to contribute what they could.
Many individual chapters have their own priorities, reflecting local concerns and political climates. Providence DSA, for example, is campaigning for more democratic control over investor-owned electric utilities. New Orleans DSA has focused on base-building work that includes running clinics to help people deal with medical debt, coordinating with the AFL-CIO in developing young rank-and-file labor leaders, and mending broken brake lights, an excuse used by police in the traffic stops that can be “especially perilous and life-disrupting to undocumented immigrants and PoC [people of color],” as the chapter explains on Facebook.
Because there are big DSA chapters in cities with expensive housing stock—Los Angeles, Chicago and the Bay Area, for instance – the fight for affordable housing has emerged as a major priority. “Housing justice is probably the biggest issue in Los Angeles; the homelessness crisis is at a tipping point,” says Arielle Sallai, a member of DSA Los Angeles’ steering committee. DSA-LA and other California chapters are canvassing to pass Proposition 10, an initiative on the ballot in November that would loosen a statewide limit on rent control. Similarly, Chicago DSA is supporting a campaign to overturn Illinois’ rent control ban, with the backing of Alderman and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
On many issues, including housing and homelessness, DSA chapters are well aware that their members often don’t look like the populations most directly affected. Although DSA does not have up-to-date member demographics, it has historically leaned white and male.
Coalition-building is one way to correct for this. “Housing work is a great chance to be part of a radical coalition and talk to as many individuals as possible,” Sallai says. DSA-LA has teamed up with local groups like the LA Tenants Union that have been working for years against gentrification.
Esealuka, a black woman, is frank about the fact that New Orleans DSA is a majority white organization in a majority black city. “It’s a problem, obviously, but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome,” she says. “It’s not like we have to write DSA off because it’s majority white and majority male. … Because we have 45,000 members [nationwide], we have so much potential to do good in this country. It’s just a matter of being more intentional about embedding ourselves into things that matter to working-class people.”
Noting the high proportion of women taking on leadership roles in her chapter, Esealuka suggests that all chapters equip members with the organizing skills to develop the leadership of women and people of color. Internally, many chapters have also created specific spaces, such as the national Afrosocialist Caucus or Socialist Feminist working groups, for DSA members who aren’t white or male to feel welcome and build community.
Though Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) infamously said after Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win that socialist politics can’t work in the Midwest, they’ve certainly found an audience in the heartland. Iowa, for instance, has the highest number of DSA chapters per capita of any state. Members in chapters outside of big blue coastal cities may talk about socialism a little differently than their counterparts and run different campaigns, but they agree on the basics of what they’re fighting for. Chapters in blue cities like Denver are quick to say they don’t automatically find a warm reception just because they’re talking to Democrats, and chapters in red or purple states note they don’t necessarily face open hostility. For the past two years, Central Iowa DSA has marched in the state fair parade through Des Moines, flanked by Trump floats and those from local businesses. “You get thumbs up about Medicare for All and everybody needing healthcare,” says co-chair Joe Ellerbroek. “You might get a middle finger at an ICE protest every once in a while.”
Eleven-year House of Delegates incumbent Jackson Miller sent out a red-baiting flier about his DSA challenger, Lee Carter, in 2017. Carter won anyway.
After decades of socialism being nonexistent in mainstream political debates, however, most people simply are not familiar with the term itself. “I didn’t know I was a democratic socialist when I decided to run, and I didn’t know that this group existed,” says Summer Lee. “I just knew that these policies are policies that we need. When you go to black communities, we really are more inclined to socialism. We don’t always have that language in our communities, but we know that these policies are what’s needed for our communities.”
Asked how they talk about democratic socialism with voters, all seven DSA-endorsed candidates I interviewed offered some variation on the same answer: “I don’t lead with that.”
Ocasio-Cortez says she opts instead to “show people what we’re fighting for. What I talk about is Medicare for All, tuition-free public college and housing as a human right. In my interpretation of what democratic socialism is, it is the fight for a basic level of dignity that our society refuses to violate.”
Ing says, “Usually, when I talk about money in politics or the government not representing us, that transcends any left-right values. Most people see the world from bottom versus top: Are you with us, or them?”
DSA candidates running for office and DSA members knocking doors, then, articulate socialism as a common sense set of practices and beliefs: swearing off corporate donations, supporting big, universal programs that promise to redistribute society’s resources more equitably, and returning decisions to the hands of the people most directly affected. As DSA makes inroads selling the public on the virtues of democratic socialism and infiltrating the halls of power, it will also figure out what to do once it gets there.
For the moment, DSA members and candidates are making the road to a 21st-century American socialism by walking it – and knocking on a few hundred thousand doors along the way.