POLITICS
05/22/2017 12:23 pm ET Updated May 22, 2017

Socialism Is So Hot Right Now. Thank Bernie Sanders.

You may not have heard of the Democratic Socialists of America, but the group is attracting a lot of young political talent.

WASHINGTON ― Consider the Bernie Bro (Wellus actuallius), an aggressive subgenus of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

In the year since Sanders lost the Democratic primary, members of this species have been pushed out of their native habitat and forced to migrate to new ecosystems. Some nested down in social media, encroaching on classmates’ Facebook posts and female journalists’ Twitter updates with condescending diatribes about Slavoj Žižek. Others made their way to the hostile environs of Donald Trump’s campaign, finding sustenance in the idea that there was no difference between the Republican and Democratic nominees for president. Still more found their way to your dinner table, nourishing themselves on ponderous expositions of neoliberalism, where and how they refill their beer growlers, and why Bernie would’ve won.  

Herds of other Bernie Bros, however, have staked out a far more hospitable environment: the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. For the uninitiated, DSA ― the inheritor of the American Socialist Party, co-founded by Eugene Debs and instrumental in the progressive reforms of the early 20th century ― is a chapter-based national political advocacy organization that crusades for policies such as a higher minimum wage, safer working conditions and universal health care.

DSA openly uses the big, bad, scary s-word that countless Republican consultants have used to smear Democrats over the years. And despite decades of efforts to stigmatize it, socialism is kind of in right now.

This was partly fueled by Sanders’ underdog presidential campaign ― he identifies as a democratic socialist but caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate ― as well as by an economic recovery that has left many working people in the dust, experiencing a growing sense of disillusionment with the Democratic Party.

“We were highly visible in the Sanders campaign,” Joseph Schwartz, a DSA national vice chair and professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, told HuffPost. Schwartz said DSA’s growth began to accelerate as the Sanders campaign picked up steam in mid-2015, and has continued since Trump took office.

DSA has rooted itself in the millennial psyche with astonishing speed. A quiz posted on Reductress earlier this month was titled, “Is He Into You, Just a Friend, or Trying to Get You to Join the Democratic Socialists?” Comedian Rob Delaney regularly promotes the group on social media. And that rose emoji you keep see popping up on Twitter? It’s likely a reference to both DSA’s logo and that of Socialist International, the global consortium of socialist organizations. Along with #resist and #NeverthelessShePersisted, the rose emoji has remained one of the more enduring social media trends since last November.

“The real massive influx was starting with the day Trump was elected,” Schwartz recalled. “Many people want to fight back against Trump, but they also realize that the centrist, pro-corporatist views of the Democratic Party are partially what gave rise to him.”

Socialist group at the White House, May 15, 1920.
Universal History Archive via Getty Images
Socialist group at the White House, May 15, 1920.

DSA officials say their member rolls shot up from around 8,500 on Election Day to about 21,000 as of early May, and they’re getting upwards of 10 requests a week to help open new chapters. New members are overwhelmingly young and tech-savvy, thanks in no small part to the groundwork the Sanders campaign laid by bringing millions of young people into politics.

This engagement was on full display at a May Day rally in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Around noon, some 100 or so activists from a variety of progressive organizations gathered in a small park in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Making small talk near the obligatory drum circle were around 10 members of DSA’s D.C.-area chapter, nearly all of whom had signed up to join DSA on or after Election Day.

DSA’s contingent was one of the largest on hand, but was nearly all white and male ― contrasting sharply with the rest of the crowd, which was far more diverse and representative of the neighborhood’s large Salvadoran community. The DSA attendees who spoke with HuffPost said they had joined DSA since November and were first drawn to it through the Sanders campaign.

“Ever since Trump won, I think people have been feeling very scared and want to do something, and DSA is a great organization to channel that,” said Nick from Poughkeepsie, New York, who declined to give his last name. “I had an awakening during Sanders campaign. I was monitoring the growth of all these organizations and saw that DSA was gaining all these members and felt like DSA spoke to me.”

James Mathias, 25, from northern Virginia, had previously volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and later participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement. After voting for Sanders in the 2016 primary, he voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election. While he wasn’t wild about Clinton’s policies, he felt compelled to vote for her out of political necessity, given Virginia’s swing state status.

Mathias said political realism drew him to DSA and that he has yet to experience the organizational or political disappointment he did with Occupy and Obama.

“Each time, I kind of drifted in and out, because both of those things petered out, either literally or philosophically,” Mathias recalled. “Occupy wasn’t focused on engaging with existing political structures. DSA is focused on building power for political ends. I really see a bias for action and not shying away from political structures.”

Indeed, DSA doesn’t fashion itself as a vehicle for high-level political office ― most of its members who have run for office have run in municipal elections ― but rather as “America’s largest Socialist organization,” per its website. This isn’t a wishy-washy expression of being (The Socialist International was in our hearts all along!), but an acknowledgement that its foundational work is in lending organizational support to candidates from other parties and organizations whose policies align with its agenda.

This includes other liberal advocacy organizations and economically progressive politicians like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sanders.

DSA didn’t endorse Clinton in the 2016 general election, but its chapters actively organized a “Dump Trump” movement targeted at the Republican nominee. That left open the possibility of voting for Green Party nominee Jill Stein or even Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, but DSA officials told HuffPost they expected a large number of their supporters would back Clinton.

Despite DSA’s often antagonistic attitude toward the Democrats, Democratic officials say they’ll happily accept DSA’s support whenever it’s willing to offer it. 

“We welcome the help of groups across the country who are fighting to defeat Republicans and elect progressive leaders that stand for the same values that make our party so great,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told HuffPost in an email. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a federal contract workers rally to celebrate Andrew Puzder's decision to withdraw from
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a federal contract workers rally to celebrate Andrew Puzder's decision to withdraw from consideration to be secretary of labor on Feb. 16, 2017.

While a membership of 21,000 is still small as political entities go ― progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org touts over 7 million members, for example ― DSA members’ engagement has caught the attention of the progressive community. They showed up in large numbers at May Day rallies across the country this year, including a New York City rally that attracted well over 1,000 DSA members.

“The people who are joining DSA are people who are extremely active,” said Bob Master, a veteran labor activist and the co-founder and co-chair of the Working Families Party of New York. This gives the group tremendous leverage, Master said: Having a young, energized and tech-fluent base of volunteers is a welcome addition to any political coalition.

DSA’s willingness to adapt to the current political framework and engage with other organizations has drawn plaudits from other progressive activist and organizations.

“DSA has been an excellent ally, joining with our members in canvassing area businesses; they hosted a fundraiser party that raised $1,000 and helped us expand our operations,” said Hannah Kane, an organizer at Many Languages One Voice, a Washington, D.C., immigrant community group that led the May Day protest. “They’ve just been all-around excellent partners.”

George Goehl, the co-director of People’s Action & People’s Action Institute, a Chicago-based advocacy organization, partly attributes DSA’s rise to “the Democratic Party and its constant tacking toward the middle and feeling like the answers to its problems lay in a more moderate, less-structural set of reforms.”

“We failed in the last election because we had a candidate who was unable to tap into the anger that people are feeling,” echoed Master. “The Democratic Party cannot limit itself to saying ‘Trump is a bad guy because he fired James Comey.’ [It] has to speak to the growing sense of economic stagnation and diminishment.”

Naturally, Democratic officials disagree with this assessment. Hinojosa, the DNC spokeswoman, said the party and its new chairman, Tom Perez, possess “an unwavering commitment to workers and will continue to fight for working families on behalf of the Democratic Party.”

We failed in the last election because we had a candidate who was unable to tap into the anger that people are feeling. Bob Master, co-founder and co-chair, Working Families Party of New York

DSA naturally draws comparisons to the Green Party, a fact that is not lost on DSA members or leaders. But DSA officials see major differences between the organizations ―  particularly in the Green Party’s complete separation from other political parties and what they see as the Greens’ inordinate focus on presidential elections.

“We’re more flexible in terms of tactics,” said Schwartz. “We prioritize doing social movement work, and we see electoral politics as coming out of that.” The Green Party’s emphasis on its presidential tickets, he added, “is not an intelligent way to build an independent third party.”

Green Party officials dispute that. In an email to HuffPost, Scott McLarty, media director for the Green Party of the United States, noted that “the Green Party runs hundreds of candidates for local and state office every election cycle.”

“One of the main reasons we run presidential candidates is the support they give to state parties and to state and local candidates,” added McLarty.

DSA has several challenges as its membership balloons, including what to do with all those new members. Although individuals unable to pay membership dues are still allowed to join, DSA relies on dues to maintain operations, which includes paying the salaries of the eight full-time employees in its national office. Right now, only two DSA chapters employ part-time employees, but DSA officials expect that number to grow considerably as large chapters in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco continue to add members.

Activists outside DSA also say it’s imperative that the group not lose focus on its overarching mission, or let the Democratic Party’s decidedly less-than-socialist views dilute its platform.

DSA’s biennial convention in Chicago this August will be a major test of both its organization and focus. The group’s 2015 gathering in Baltimore featured roughly 150 attendees, but organizers expect this year’s convention to attract 500.

Organizers hope to avoid what transpired at last year’s Green Party convention, which got so bogged down by ideological infighting and poor planning that it ultimately devolved into one giant lightbulb joke.  

“Managing growth is really hard, and when organizations grow, it’s hard to stick with your principles,” said Goehl. “A little too much power or access can pollute things.”

An arguably greater challenge for DSA is diversifying its ranks and combating the growing impression that it is merely a refuge for wayward Bernie Bros. Indeed, most DSA members interviewed for this article were white men.

DSA officials acknowledge that this overwhelming whiteness is inherently limiting. “We have to make space for diverse voices, including from immigrant communities,” said Schwartz. “If we don’t tackle things like mass incarceration, police brutality and the lack of economic opportunity for people of all races, we won’t unite working people.”

In addition to promoting an agenda that it believes appeals to communities of color, DSA officials argue that the group’s focus on economic matters has the potential to appeal to female voters, who tend to back Democratic candidates and prioritize social welfare issues such as paid maternity leave and access to affordable health care.

Julia Griffin is a 21-year-old DSA member from northern Virginia who works in the service industry and who attended the May Day rally in Washington. She said her Christian faith helped draw her to DSA; she sees in socialism a helping-thy-neighbor ethos that’s central to her religious beliefs.

“After the election, I was so frustrated with the Democratic Party and so disappointed with everything that went on, I definitely needed to feel part of an organization that was actively working to make people’s lives better,” said Griffin.  

Ultimately, activists outside DSA say that if it wants to transcend its status as yet another outside group hoping to influence Democratic politics, it’ll need to establish itself as a real third party ― not only by notching some wins with local candidates, but also by enacting reforms once they take office.

“If you’re attracting working-class and low-income members, you got to deliver some tangible victories,” said Goehl, of People’s Action & People’s Action Institute. He listed the establishment of local credit unions as an example of the type of policy reforms he believes locally-elected DSA members could achieve.

“You can deliver a wide range of victories ― they can be electoral, they can be narrative, but they have to be tangible after a while,” Goehl added. “This is not theoretical to people; this is about having a place to live and having health care.”

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