This weekend, 697 delegates from 49 states are congregating in Chicago for the largest-ever convention of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Socialism is having a moment. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” nearly snagged the Democratic Party nomination last year and is the country’s most popular active politician; socialist Jeremy Corbyn came close to controlling the British government; and young people identify with the ideology at record rates. There is a new and unbridled optimism about socialism’s potential.
In the last year alone, DSA’s membership has ballooned from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members. DSA boasts that it is now the biggest socialist organization in America since World War II.
Tempering this bubbling excitement around DSA are polls showing that socialism remains as unpopular with the general public as ever, the ongoing weakening of the American labor movement, and, of course, Republicans’ lock on the federal government. DSA may have a robust and growing social media presence, but it’s still just a tiny blip in the larger universe of left-leaning advocacy groups. (The National Education Association, for instance, has 3 million dues-paying members.)
“After Trump’s election, I thought the left would be on the defensive for a few years — the way it was when Nixon was in power and when Reagan and George W. Bush were in power,” said Michael Kazin, editor of the leftist magazine Dissent and a professor at Georgetown who is himself a DSA member. “Some of that has happened. But it’s also been true that there’s a renewed interest in the radical left — a fresh possibility that DSA might be able, and will certainly try, to take advantage of.”
1) What does DSA believe in?
Like most socialist organizations, DSA believes in the abolition of capitalism in favor of an economy run either by “the workers” or the state — though the exact specifics of “abolishing capitalism” are fiercely debated by socialists.
“The academic debates about socialism’s ‘meaning’ are huge and arcane and rife with disagreements, but what all definitions have in common is either the elimination of the market or its strict containment,” said Frances Fox Piven, a scholar of the left at the City University of New York and a former DSA board member.
In practice, that means DSA believes in ending the private ownership of a wide range of industries whose products are viewed as “necessities,” which they say should not be left to those seeking to turn a profit. According to DSA’s current mission statement, the government should ensure all citizens receive adequate food, housing, health care, child care, and education. DSA also believes that the government should “democratize” private businesses — i.e., force owners to give workers control over them — to the greatest extent possible.
But DSA members also say that overthrowing capitalism must include the eradication of “hierarchical systems” that lie beyond the market as well. As a result, DSA supports the missions of Black Lives Matter, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalism as integral parts of this broader “anti-capitalist” program.
“Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations; democratizing the political sphere to get genuine participatory democracy; democratizing the schools by challenging the hierarchical relationship between the teachers of the school and the students of the school,” said Jared Abbott, a member of DSA’s national steering committee. “Socialism is the democratization of all areas of life, including but not limited to the economy.”
DSA does have a history of members who were more likely to consider themselves “New Deal Democrats,” more interested in creating a robust welfare state than in turning the means of production over to the workers. But David Duhalde, DSA’s deputy director, says the “overwhelming majority” of its current members are committed to socialism’s enactment through the outright abolition of capitalism.
2) Where does DSA come from?
DSA traces its ancestry back to the apex of American socialism — Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America, which in 1912 received 6 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election.
The energy behind the Socialist Party would be depleted by FDR’s New Deal, which incorporated many of its reformist demands, and the unpopularity of Soviet Russia in the US. “By the late 1930s, most socialists basically became liberal Democrats,” Kazin said. “The party was never really a major or even minor factor after that, and then it imploded even further in the early 1970s.”
The catalyst for that second implosion was the Vietnam War, which split the vestiges of the Socialist Party. Their rift mirrored that of the Democratic Party, which at the 1968 convention saw divisions between the civil rights movement and antiwar students who opposed Lyndon Johnson’s war spill out into the open.
The history here is complicated and bitterly contested, but the upshot is that one faction of socialists — in particular, supporters of Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin — opposed unilateral withdrawal of the American military from Vietnam. These leaders saw themselves as spokespeople for the American labor movement, which backed Lyndon Johnson and was generally supportive of the war. (In 1965, AFL-CIO president George Meany declared that the unions would support the Vietnam War "no matter what the academic do-gooders may say.” Predominantly black unions were more skeptical of the war, Kazin notes.)
“If you were a socialist and working with labor, it was difficult to oppose the Vietnam War,” Kazin says.
Meanwhile, a separate faction of socialists associated with Michael Harrington wanted an end to the war and for the American left to align much more closely with the growing radical movements of the 1960s.
Harrington and Irving Howe, another socialist intellectual, “realized they had to connect socialism to feminism and black liberation, and were skeptical of the labor movement’s support for the Vietnam War,” Kazin said. “They also didn’t read Marx as quite the prophet that socialists of Debs's generation had.”
In 1973, Harrington made the break official and formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Nine years after its forming, DSOC fused with the New American Movement — which contained much of the (also diminished from the 1960s) remnants of the campus left — and became DSA.
“Still, DSA was little more than a group of people who got together and had a convention,” Kazin said. “I hadn’t heard people talking much about it until Bernie’s campaign.”
3) Is DSA a political party?
DSA’s ancestor, the Socialist Party of America, really was a political party that ran candidates like Debs and controlled the mayoralty of Milwaukee for years. But the idea that it’s a political party today is perhaps the biggest misconception about the DSA.
Unlike the Green Party or the Libertarian Party or even the new “Moderate Whig Party,” the DSA is not registered with the Federal Election Commission as a political party.
Instead, DSA is a 501(c)4 nonprofit. That frees it up to avoid cumbersome paperwork required of those organizations, and focus on what it calls its No. 1 objective — building a broad-based “anti-capitalist” movement for democratic socialism.
“I’d say that our chapters spend less than 10 percent of their time on electoral politics,” said DSA’s Abbott. “For 22 months of the two-year election cycle, we are almost entirely focused on non-electoral work.”
Insofar as DSA has done electoral work, it has traditionally been to pull the Democratic Party’s politicians toward its vision of social democracy. That was the original vision of its founder, the theorist and writer Michael Harrington, who saw “the Democratic Party as the only realistic vehicle for achieving political change.”
"If [Jimmy] Carter wins, he will do some horrendous things — I guarantee it. ... [But] the conditions of a Carter victory are the conditions for working-class militancy, and the militancy of minority groups, and the militancy of women, and the militancy of the democratic reform movement,” Harrington said in a 1976 speech urging socialists to support the Democratic candidate over Republican Gerald Ford.
Instead, the DSA has served as a signaling device for some Democrats — including black politicians from major American cities — to distinguish themselves from the party’s centrist wing. Brooklyn’s Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) and David Dinkins, who served as mayor of New York City in the early 1990s, were both DSA members. Current politicians affiliated with DSA include Khalid Kamau, a city council person in South Fulton, Georgia; Renitta Shannon, a Georgia state senator; and Ron Dellums, until recently Oakland’s mayor. These candidates technically run either as independents or on the Green Party or Democratic Party ballot line.
Sanders’s campaign and DSA’s growth have some young socialists dreaming about a powerful third party, separate from Democrats — but for now, these dreams remain just that. “There are some people in DSA who think we should be a new political party, but the majority of membership believes it’s too early,” Abbott said. “Maybe if we keep up our fast growth, that will change. But for now, most think it’s better for us to focus on being flexible in order to advance our social movement work.”
4) So if DSA is not a political party, then what does it do?
Once you get out of your head the idea that DSA is trying to operate like Jill Stein, its purpose is easier to understand.
But what does a movement for “democratic socialism” actually mean?
There are roughly three main planks. The first is building up local chapters to wage pressure campaigns that align with DSA’s mission — pushing officials to adopt single-payer health care, for instance. In Washington, DC, a DSA chapter has launched an education campaign to teach low-income tenants about the rights they have. The Los Angeles DSA has lobbied officials to adopt sanctuary city legislation.
“It’s direct protest actions, public events, door knocking, phone banking — all of the above,” Abbott said.
The second is to build up a power center for democratic socialism that can influence elections, often but not exclusively in Democratic primaries, even if DSA is not fielding its own candidates.
“The labor movement in the 1930s and the black freedom movement in the 1960s is what made the Democratic Party a vehicle for social democracy,” Piven said. “If we’re going to have a new period of reformism, it will surely occur through the transformation of the Democratic Party; hopefully, DSA will be one of the instruments of that transformation.”
The last major function of DSA is supporting union organizers, as in Nissan employees’ current feud with management. As Piven notes, these strategies are aimed at influencing the political system — even if they don’t take the form of a traditional American political party.
"I don’t think working to strengthen labor organizing or creating new unions is a path divergent from electoral politics; in some ways, it's the necessary precondition for successful electoral politics," Piven said, citing the link between union strength and Democratic vote share. "Movement politics ultimately succeed through their interplay with electoral politics."
5) What distinguishes DSA from left-leaning Democrats?
Some of the economic policies favored by left-wing Democrats are also supported by DSA, and that can make the two occasionally difficult to disentangle.
For instance, DSA is currently planning a “Summer for Progress” campaign centered on advocating for a platform that calls for a single-payer health care system (which about 60 percent of House Democrats already support); free college tuition (which House Democrats also support); and new Wall Street taxes and criminal justice reforms (which ... yes, dozens of congressional Democrats already support).
Further confusing matters is Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist” but supports a policy program that would essentially leave capitalism intact. His candidacy spurred a dramatic growth in DSA membership, and DSA backed him, but the Vermont senator has also referred to himself a “New Deal” Democrat who views Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — rather than Karl Marx or American socialist Norman Thomas — as his true ideological predecessors.
Many DSA members would go further than any of these New Deal Democrats. One useful distinction is that while progressive Democrats and DSA both believe in welfare state programs as a way to improve capitalism, DSA sees them as just one step toward completely severing the link between human needs and market scarcity.
Examples may help clarify the difference. While both DSA and some left-wing Democrats agree that the government should provide universal health insurance, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize hospitals, providers, and the rest of the health care system as well. While both will work toward higher taxes on Wall Street, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize the entire financial sector. While left-wing Democrats believe in criminal justice reform, some DSA members are calling for the outright abolition of the police and prison systems. While both DSA and left-wing Democrats support reforms to get money out of politics, some in DSA see capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with genuinely free and fair elections. In practice, however, the two wind up ultimately taking the same positions.
"There's a continuum between [Chuck] Schumer and [Nancy] Pelosi and liberal Democrats, who don't want to go further than the expansion of the welfare state, and the center of DSA, who would want everything in a Bernie Sanders program as a starting point and then think about what to do next," Kazin said.
6) What’s the deal with the red rose Twitter emoji?
If you spend enough time on Twitter, you’ll invariably notice that many DSA members have added a small red rose next to their avatars:
The rose traces its roots back to a speech in the early 1900s given by Rose Schneiderman, a socialist and women’s rights organizer whom FDR would later appoint to the Labor Advisory Board.
"What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with,” Schneiderman said.
The call for “bread and roses” became famous in 1912, when more than 20,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike to protest wage cuts that accompanied a shorter workweek. “It comes from the rising of working people, and in this case, the rise of working women who were horrifically abused and underpaid,” Piven said. “I think it’s the perfect symbol.”
Today, DSA’s red rose symbolizes just what it did in 1912: the belief that workers deserve not just the necessities to sustain life but the luxuries that will permit them to enjoy it too.
7) Is DSA just a bunch of Bernie Bros?
As DSA has grown in stature, some members of the commentariat have argued that the organization is little different from the so-called “Bernie Bro” stereotype of a Sanders supporter that emerged from his presidential campaign — young, white, male, and mad as hell about politics.
“Consider the Bernie Bro (Wellus actuallius), an aggressive subgenus of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters,” the Huffington Post said. “Herds of Bernie Bros ... have staked out a far more hospitable environment: the Democratic Socialists of America.”
In our interview, Abbott didn’t deny that the organization has a diversity problem on its hands.
"DSA is still a heavily white and heavily cis male organization, as have been most socialist groups in the history of the United States. That has not really improved,” he said.
Abbott said he couldn’t provide exact statistics on DSA’s racial or gender diversity until after the convention. “The percentage of people of color has increased from a relatively low percentage to a somewhat higher percentage,” he said.
Still, he noted that DSA has nine full-time staff members and six of them are women. Of those nine, he said, four are people of color. He also said that half of the elected national committee would be composed of women.
Additionally, four of the 10 delegates to DSA’s national convention are women, and one out of five is a person of color, according to Duhalde, DSA’s deputy director.
“We’re taking proactive steps to deal with it and do the kinds of work we need to to be strong partners and work in solidarity with all underrepresented and oppressed communities,” Abbott said. “But we have real challenges here.”
8) How real is DSA’s growth?
Since the 2016 election, scores of profiles in national news outlets have charted DSA’s growth. Reuters chronicled the “surge” in DSA chapters around the country. The Washington Post talked about DSA’s “war on liberalism,” and the Huffington Post did much of the same.
With 25,000 dues-paying members, DSA’s recent growth is certainly real. In Florida, DSA now has 10 chapters after only having a handful; in Texas, it has 13. Chapters have emerged this year in unlikely states like Montana, Kansas, and Idaho.
Still, it’s hard to know how much that growth should really impress us compared with historical trends. Kazin, for instance, notes that Students for a Democratic Society, a now-defunct left-wing campus movement in the 1960s, had upward of 100,000 members at its height.
The growth looks even smaller compared with the uptick in interest in other leftwing groups since Trump’s election. UltraViolet, a group that advocates women’s reproductive rights, currently has 300,000 members (though they don’t pay dues). The group Indivisible didn’t exist until after the 2016 election. It now has 3,800 local chapters to DSA’s 177. (Though, again, Indivisible members don’t have to pay dues.)
DSA members tend to point to the uptick of popularity for those who support their mission — the socialist magazine Jacobin, which has about 1 million pageviews a month; the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, which earns $72,000 a month from tens of thousands of paying subscribers; and politicians like Sanders and Corbyn.
And historians note that socialist movements can influence political parties, even if their electoral clout is diminished. “Why socialists have mattered in American history is not because they had power themselves but because they were committed, intelligent activists in other movements,” Kazin said. “That’s where I would look for DSA’s influence: In those movements, are people talking about democratic socialism?”
9) How does DSA relate to the “dirtbag left?”
Particularly in online circles, DSA is affiliated with a group of socialists collectively known as the “dirtbag left.” The dirtbag left is itself most associated with the Chapo Trap House podcast, which delights in sharpening the dividing line between socialists and liberals by ridiculing prominent politicians and journalists associated with the center left.
After the election, for instance, Chapo co-host Felix Biederman mockingly compared Hillary Clinton to Dale Earnhardt, joking that both had crashed because they “couldn’t turn left.” (Earnhardt was killed in a 2001 racing accident.)
“Rudeness can be extremely politically useful. There are arguments to be made over who constitutes a valid target, but when crude obscenity is directed at figures of power, their prestige can be tarnished, even in the eyes of the most reverent of subjects,” wrote Amber A'Lee Frost, a co-host of Chapo Trap House, in an essay for Current Affairs. “Caricature is designed to exaggerate, and therefore make more noticeable, people’s central defining qualities, and can thus be illuminating even at its most indelicate.”
DSA has certainly been a beneficiary of the Dirtbag Left and its iconoclastic rage; Chapo Trap House frequently directs its guests to support the socialist organization, and its founders are in Chicago for the DSA convention. Mother Jones called the podcast a “gateway drug” for democratic socialism, and DSA’s leaders recognize that’s correct. Even if DSA won’t adopt Chapo’s insult-humor shtick in its official platform, it’s hard to imagine that some of its beliefs won’t seep in some way into the organization through new membership.
Chapo’s “dirtbag” politics have alarmed other left-leaning writers. In an essay for the New Republic, Jeet Heer warned against what he called its “dominance politics” as counterproductive to building a coalition with center-left Democrats.
But in an interview last year, Chapo Trap House co-host Matt Christman countered that Donald Trump had captured the “transgressive thrill of defying the cultural expectations of the elite,” and that the left would be wise to reclaim it. Incisive put-down humor, he suggested, isn’t just useful for amassing a podcast following; it could also be helpful to an ascendant left-wing politics.
“The gonad element of politics is now totally owned by the right. All the left has now is charts and data. You cannot motivate people with charts and data and lecturing,” Christman said. “If we’re going to win, we cannot allow [right-wing provocateur] Milo Yiannopoulos and all of these carnival-barking Nazis to have all of the fucking fun.”