Disillusionment with America’s current economic and political system has grown by leaps and bounds since the Great Recession of 2008 and the election of Donald Trump eight years later. But many Americans unhappy with the status quo aren’t resigned to live their lives in miserable apathy. Instead, the events of the last decade have inspired many, especially young people, to search for alternatives – such as democratic socialism – to the current system where inequality runs rampant, personal debt explodes and good paying jobs and affordable housing are increasingly hard to find.
The rock star status that was lavished on Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont by millennials during his presidential bid, and the more recent primary election victories of self-described democratic socialist congressional candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Sarah Smith in Washington state, point to the rise of socialist ideas, at least inside the Democratic party.
The organization that has had surprising electoral success mainstreaming democratic socialism in U.S. politics is the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, founded in 1982. Along with recent electoral victories, the party has seen an 800 percent increase in membership since 2015, now counting 50,000 active members across the U.S. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kate Aronoff, a writing fellow at In These Times magazine, who talks about her recent article, “Why the Democratic Socialists of America Won’t Stop Growing: The Inside Story of DSA’s Dramatic Ascent.”
KATE ARONOFF: As I said in the (In These Times) piece, there have been sort of three big waves of membership in the last several years. Bernie Sander’s primary run of 2016 brought a lot of people into the organization given that he was identifying as a democratic socialist. The second big wave, which was even bigger than that was when Donald Trump was elected. So at about 2 a.m., or 3 a.m, right after the results were finalized, there was actually an immediate spike in membership in DSA as people sort of saw that, what the Democratic Party was doing wasn’t working.
And then the most recent wave in membership, has been following Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s victory. She is a member of DSA and they have her endorsement, DSA chapters of New York knock doors for her.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And give us a sense of DSA’s program. What is their political agenda? What are the big issues for members of DSA?
KATE ARONOFF: At or I believe just following their national convention 2017, the organization voted on three priorities. So these are sort of nationally stated priorities. So those are pushing for Medicare for All, doing electoral work and building strong unions. And so, most chapters are engaged in at least one of those three things. Some focus more on electoral work, some are focused more on Medicare for All or labor. But also there’s a range of work happening in any given chapter. And so, every chapter I spoke with practically had a number of different working groups. Even smaller chapters have, you know, five or six working groups and those are doing everything from pushing for eco-socialism, pushing for sort of a specific climate legislation that’s either statewide or local. There are socialist feminists working groups for many chapters who are doing things like bringing attention to crisis pregnancy centers, raising money for abortion funds. There are folks doing a lot of work around affordable housing in many chapters, especially in cities having sort of increasingly pricey housing stock amid the homelessness crisis as they are in LA (Los Angeles). And so it’s really a mix. I mean, it’s a highly, highly decentralized organization and so what chapters are doing on any given day, really varies, but its kind of a dizzying amount of work that’s happening even within single chapters.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What does the future of DSA in U.S. politics in your view – after you’ve researched and spoken to so many people about this article – do you have any thoughts as to where DSA may end up in the Democratic Party or U.S. politics more in general?
KATE ARONOFF: My sense is that right now there is a real forward momentum and it seems like DSA will continue to grow. I think specifically, electing people to office, not just Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, but also people like Rashida Tlaib in Detroit who is almost certainly going to Congress as a member of Greater Detroit DSA. I think that will continue to drive people into the party and so that will fuel not only their electoral work, but also so many things that they do which are not so related to electoral politics. I think one interesting question is sort of how much of a power broker DSA will become, particularly in safely blue district. So I think it’s certainly possible that DSA will elect folks in red districts – that’s already happened. But I think that in places where DSA has a huge base, have a lot of people who can turn out elections, there seems to be this growing recognition that the DSA can actually win elections.
And it’ll be interesting to see more and more politicians who may not have identified as democratic socialists before this started happening, before DSA became known as sort of a something much good that could significantly help a candidate win an election, how much people continue to sort of come to DSA and say, can you help us out? I don’t know if there are clear answers even within DFA right now about, you know, what their relationship would look like to Ocasio Cortez and Tlaib, once they’re in office, how it all sort of looks to push for their policies/priorities. I think the future is bright for DFA. Certainly. What exactly it looks like, I don’t have a crystal ball.
For more information on the Democratic Socialists of America, visit dsausa.org.