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Angela Rapp sets up a cardboard cutout of Sen. Bernie Sanders next to a Democratic Socialists for Bernie table outside of Brooklyn College in New York on February 18, 2020.
Demetrius Freeman for Vox

What Bernie Sanders’s movement does now

Socialism still isn’t broadly popular in the United States, but Bernie Sanders is.

Phara Souffrant Forrest returned a set of keys she found dangling from a doorknob in a Crown Heights apartment building. She told the occupant not to worry — it happens to her, too. And then, she extended her hand: “Hi, my name is Phara, and I’m running for New York state Assembly.”

Souffrant Forrest, a 31-year-old union nurse from Brooklyn, is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that also endorsed Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. She’s a bit of a nervous campaigner, and having a reporter tag along the night I met her out canvassing in February wasn’t helping. But as the evening went on, she gained steam. She started her campaign early “because we’re overachievers,” she told me. “Talk fast, walk fast,” she joked as we went between apartments.

When speaking with voters, Souffrant Forrest doesn’t talk specifically about democratic socialism. Even though the night she was canvassing was a joint event for her, another local candidate, and Sanders (who describes himself as a democratic socialist), he often wasn’t a big part of the conversation, either.

Phara Souffrant Forrest, right, and Tascha Van Auken canvassing for Souffrant Forrest, Jabari Brisport, and Bernie Sanders in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Demetrius Freeman for Vox

What were top of mind were issues he helped bring to the national forefront, including Medicare-for-all, affordable housing, and climate change. And to make them a reality, candidates like Souffrant Forrest will have to outlast Sanders in the long term and in the short term, because her primary is actually two months after his in New York.

Since Sanders’s rise in national politics, democratic socialism and the DSA have been riding the Bernie rocket. But as his 2020 White House campaign appears increasingly tenuous, it’s time to start thinking about socialism in America post-Bernie. The “DSA for Bernie” campaign was about getting votes for Sanders, but it was also about bringing more people into the fold and, for lack of a better word, capitalizing on his national profile in the local realm.

I spoke with more than a dozen DSA leaders, members, candidates, and volunteers in recent months about the organization’s support for the 2020 presidential candidate and its goals overall. As one of the most prominent figures in American politics of the moment, Sanders gives the organization an avenue to spread the word about big issues. He’s a way to get and train new potential volunteers and members, and combining pro-Sanders canvasses with work for local democratic socialist candidates could help the DSA accomplish its bigger project of becoming a larger national movement.

Socialism still isn’t broadly popular in the United States, but Bernie Sanders is, especially among younger voters. Democratic socialists can use that to their advantage.

“We need to build something that will last beyond his campaign,” said Megan Svoboda, a member of the DSA’s national political committee, in an interview last fall.

Issues first, the “s-word” second

The Democratic Socialists of America was born in 1982 out of the merger of two predecessor organizations on the left. It can trace its roots back to Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th century. In other words, the DSA isn’t a new organization, and it’s not a big one, either. It got a big bump in membership after the 2016 election, with many disaffected voters looking for a place to go after Donald Trump’s win, and it now has about 55,000 members across more than 200 chapters.

Democratic socialism can be hard to define, but the DSA describes it as democratic control of the government and the economy, with decentralized “social ownership” of businesses, such as worker-owned cooperatives. Democratic socialists generally see universal government benefit programs like Medicare-for-all as intersecting with socialist goals.

Thanks to the rise of Sanders and other democratic socialists in national politics, the DSA has gotten a higher profile in recent years. That gives it some ability to punch above its weight, though it still pales in comparison to more powerful political actors, such as unions or the Koch family network.

The DSA voted to endorse Sanders in March 2019 and launched its pro-Sanders efforts last fall, through which dozens of chapters across the country signed up to support Sanders’s White House bid from the outside. Most are doing so through an independent expenditure strategy, which means they advocate for Sanders’s election but don’t coordinate with the Sanders campaign directly. For some context, Super PACs are generally organized as independent expenditure operations.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez officially endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race at a campaign rally in Queens, New York City, on October 19, 2019.
Bauzen/GC Images

DSA members’ strategy in campaigning for Sanders is much the same as ever: to lead with issues they think will resonate with the people they’re speaking with. They don’t necessarily avoid socialism, but it’s generally not the first item on the agenda.

Olivia Harding, a member of the DSA in Philadelphia and a regional organizer for the DSA for Bernie campaign, was canvassing for Medicare-for-all before canvassing for Sanders. She described to me how she approaches voters when she goes door-to-door: “I’m out here talking to people because I think Bernie is the best person for the job. Do any of those issues resonate with you?” She said the process feels like a hybrid between electoral organizing and labor organizing, “because it’s about finding an issue and being able to agitate about it.”

“If the s-word does come up, I say, ‘You know, yeah, Bernie is a democratic socialist, and he’s talking about things that most people already agree with,’” she said. Socialism “is not a secret.”

According to a November poll from Gallup, national opinion has moved toward more government involvement over the past decade, with more Americans saying government should do more to solve problems and that they believe business will harm society if it’s not regulated. But attitudes toward socialism itself have not really changed overall: About six in 10 Americans still view the term negatively. That said, Democratic views of socialism have improved, and young people view socialism more positively than older generations.

Sanders himself is objectively popular. According to a Morning Consult tracking poll, he is the most popular senator in the country, and among 2020 Democrats, past and present, he had among the highest favorability ratings of any candidate in the field.

Sanders has been one of the strongest candidates in the race, and he’s seen massive fundraising numbers. But as the primary has gone on, former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner, and Sanders’s path to the nomination has narrowed. Sanders losing might not be the worst thing for the broader democratic socialist movement in the US, said Ray La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

If Sanders were to win the White House, “he’s not going to be able to govern as a socialist, so in some ways, he might disillusion them. The country’s a lot bigger than they are,” he said. “In some ways, him being this vehicle for their movement and espousing these principles and pulling the Democratic Party left, they can live another day.”

For now, the democratic socialists behind Sanders are going to keep at it. The day after Super Tuesday, the DSA’s New York City committee sent out an email declaring “we’re in the fight of our lives” for a Sanders presidency.

Democratic socialism has to expand past Sanders if it’s going to persist

Sanders’s campaign slogan is “Not me, us.” And organizations like the DSA really feel that. Yes, they really believed in getting Sanders elected, but democratic socialism can’t be something that lives solely through a 78-year-old man.

“We want to be building a working-class consciousness in all of the country, and one of the understandable limitations of an electoral campaign is that you really have to focus on certain places and certain times to get someone elected. We want to be able to support that and get as many votes as we can to get Bernie elected, but we’re also playing a longer game,” Svoboda said.

Some of the DSA’s canvasses are held in conjunction with Sanders and local candidates, so beyond talking about the 2020 primaries, volunteers are also talking to voters about people running for state and city office. The DSA is also constantly building out its list of voter information — beyond asking whether someone will support whatever candidates they’re talking about, they are also trying to collect names, email addresses, and phone numbers, and to potentially get people to join their ranks or volunteer.

Eric Blanc, a longtime DSA member and graduate student at NYU, started a DSA chapter at Brooklyn College in New York. He figured “we were going to get a much better response for Bernie’s politics” at the school.

In a way, it’s fitting. Sanders attended his first year of college and kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign there, and its young, diverse, progressive student body matches up with his base — or, at least, his ideal base.

I joined a group of Sanders-supporting Brooklyn College students in December and again in February, when, armed with a life-size cutout of their candidate, they set out to spread the Bernie word. They huddled around a folding table with flyers and sign-up sheets, trying to keep the wind from blowing them away, and intermittently approached their classmates and other passersby, leading the conversation with mass incarceration, universal health care, and, most often, “free CUNY,” meaning making the City University of New York system tuition-free, as it was in the past.

Justin Freeman sought support from Jenny Nguyen for the Democratic Socialists for Bernie movement outside of Brooklyn College in the Flatbush neighborhood.
Demetrius Freeman for Vox
Freeman and Angela Rapp setting up the Democratic Socialists for Bernie table.
Demetrius Freeman for Vox

“The message that we’re trying to put out for the students here, and even the people in the community, is that all of the hot-button issues that we’re talking about here are things that affect everyone as a whole. And these are not radical points,” Justin Freeman, a 37-year-old philosophy student at Brooklyn College and a US Army veteran, told me. “The thing that’s happening right now, putting people in debt, people dying, this is the radical aspect of our society that we need to change.”

Many of the students I met at Brooklyn College weren’t DSA members, but their interest in Sanders had at least introduced them to the broader cause. It became clear that he was a gateway to a pipeline into socialist issues and, eventually, democratic socialism itself. Beyond canvassing, some of the students had attended readings to learn more about socialism, and they were learning on the go.

“I have faith in electoral politics. I have faith that everyday people can get involved in everyday politics,” said Angela Rapp, 22, who is studying psychology.

Mark Watson, a 19-year-old political science student, just wanted to talk about the issues. “When you explain the policies to people, it makes perfect sense. There’s no reason not to support any of this stuff unless you don’t care about other people, you don’t care about yourself,” he said.

Freeman saw all of this as a win. “You either like Bernie Sanders or you like free health care, so what’s the problem?”

The DSA wants to advance socialism wherever it can

The DSA’s national leadership provides resources to chapters across the country, and then it’s up to each local group to adapt it to whatever they think works best. Given that the DSA has more than 200 chapters across the country, that translates to a lot of variation. Most of the chapters that have decided to do Sanders-related work are doing so under the independent expenditure strategy. But some chapters are coordinating directly with the campaign, and others aren’t doing any Sanders-related work at all.

“Whereas the actual Bernie campaign might have a top-down approach of getting a volunteer network to go out and build these coordinated canvasses, we’re really encouraging people to almost do a self-directed canvas,” said Lawrence Dreyfuss, program associate for the DSA, in an interview in 2019.

Jim Dawson explaining canvassing strategies to a group of DSA members seeking to win support for local candidates and Bernie Sanders in Crown Heights.
Demetrius Freeman for Vox

The benefit of that approach, those within the organization say, is that each chapter is able to tailor its work to its local communities. Souffrant Forrest, for example, talked a lot more about affordable housing than I thought she would while out canvassing in Crown Heights. The downside of this distributed, choose-your-own-adventure model of organizing is that it can be somewhat haphazard, and not always employed in the ways and places that would be most effective, at least not on a national level.

For example, multiple DSA chapters in Iowa decided against campaigning for Sanders, opting to focus on local races instead. A scan of the DSA for Bernie events map showed virtually no formal activity in early-voting states such as New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, but multiple events in New York, which votes on April 28, and in California, which voted on Super Tuesday.

“This is American-style socialism, highly decentralized, as compared to socialism in places like Europe, like France. They have a more top-down, get-with-the-program approach,” La Raja said.

“There’s a lot of apathetic people when it comes to voting and politics as a whole, and what’s unique about Bernie Sanders’s campaign is that it’s about people power and getting people motivated and mobilized to change society,” Freeman, from Brooklyn College, said.

As the 2020 primary has worn on, Sanders has likely not been as successful as he had hoped in mobilizing people to get out to vote for him. But whatever happens with his campaign, he might have inspired enough people to get involved, or just to listen, so that the movement continues beyond his candidacy.

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