Could America’s Socialists Become the Tea Party of the Left?
If America’s democratic socialists learned anything from watching Bernie Sanders’ deep run in the Democratic primary last year, it’s that they don’t have to be losers any more.
Inspired by the Vermont senator’s success at forcing leftwing ideas into the nomination battle, the nation’s largest socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, has watched its dues-paying membership, which historically has hovered around 5,000, swell to 25,000. The DSA is still nowhere near the levels of the Socialist Party in 1920 when nearly a million people voted for Eugene Debs, but its members, too young to remember the Cold War much less the “red scares” of the 1910s and 1950s, aren’t content to sit quietly on the political sidelines, perennially irrelevant in a system built to sustain two major parties.
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They want to win. And to do it, socialists are dispensing with their penchant for symbolic protest votes and their principled disdain for an electoral process they believe can’t deliver meaningful change. Sanders’ ability to run well in primaries across the country, say new DSA members, proved that democratic socialism isn’t destined for the kind of third-party tokenism that bedevils the Green Party and World Workers Party among others. And it has opened their minds to an electoral strategy that was until very recently considered heretical.
“The only viable electoral strategy is to work with the Democratic Party,” says Michael Kazin, the editor of leftist magazine Dissent. “There is no viable third party.”
The consequence of this willingness to play in the main arena is that a loose confederacy of splinter groups—socialists, anarchists, communists and leftists, all spearheaded by the DSA—are more willing than ever to sacrifice ideological purity for a chance to work as insurgent coalition inside the Democratic Party. The DSA leadership insists that it feels no loyalty to the Democratic National Committee, but it is eager to challenge Democrats on their own turf.
“Absolutely, we definitely want to primary neoliberal Democrats,” says Maria Svart, the DSA’s national director, who like others in the DSA uses the epithet “neoliberal” to paint moderate Democrats as insufficiently progressive. “What we’re trying to do is build an organized grassroots constituency for democratic socialism, and the politicians we’ll support are the ones who can win.”
Of course, when it comes to throwing electoral weight around 29,000 members collectively don’t make much of an impact. (The DSA has gained 4,000 members since its August announcement.) But that doesn’t discourage the group, which points to a surprising precedent as proof that it can punch above its weight class. In April of 2010, the Tea Party claimed just 67,000 members, and yet still managed to win 47 seats in the House of Representatives that November. That’s because millions more Americans supported the Tea Party movement without signing up, and voted for Tea Party-affiliated candidates running as Republicans. By positioning themselves as the natural heirs of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, the DSA leadership thinks it can claim the allegiance of Americans who might not want to pay its membership fees but nevertheless support the ideas of democratic socialism.
Whether Democrats need this kind of progressive shot in the arm is a matter of debate within the party. But there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the party to play host to a Tea Party-like parasite.
“The country is an overwhelmingly moderate country looking to see its political system pull away from extremism,” said Mark Penn, a former pollster and advisor to both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Penn warned competitive primaries should help build the party rather than tear it apart. “Are they splintering the Democrat vote or are they adding to it?”
The evolution of the Democratic Socialists began almost as soon as Clinton sewed up the nomination. Sanders does not affiliate itself with the DSA, but the DSA actively supported Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination. Once the Sanders campaign dissolved, the DSA became a landing ground for former volunteers in Bernie’s campaign, many of whom were registered Democrats.
“I already considered myself a socialist,” says Amy Zachmeyer, now the co-chair of the DSA’s Houston chapter, “but didn’t realize there were so many of us until Bernie Sanders kind of made it OK to talk about being a democratic socialist.”
By signaling its willingness to compete within the Democratic Party, the DSA has attracted more than just out-of-work Bernie staffers. Even incumbent Democrats look at it with new interest. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Chicago alderman and member of the Democratic Party who joined the DSA last year, says he joined DSA once he recognized the organization had begun to embrace a kind of democratic socialist realpolitik.
“While they had the right analysis, they had the right values, [they] were not necessarily engaging in the electoral arena in a way that I thought was necessary if the left was going to win,” says Rosa. But starting last year, he “began to see a DSA that was much more focused on being a disciplined force to help elect leftists.”
Rosa is not alone: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; Mike Sylvester, a state legislator in Maine; and Nirva LaFortune, a city councilwoman in Providence, Rhode Island, are among the elected Democrats who’ve joined the DSA.
And although it took the rise of a 76-year-old senator from Vermont to normalize socialism within Democratic Party politics, it was another event that kicked the DSA into high gear: the election of Donald J. Trump.
“If you look at our growth in membership, our big surges have been after big announcements by this administration,” says Margaret McLaughlin, the chair of Washington D.C.’s DSA chapter. “Like the Muslim ban, DACA. Charlottesville was huge.”
DSA leaders hope their bolstered roster and influx of new funds—along with the continued specter of the man in the Oval Office—will help position the organization to challenge the Democratic Party from the left. Currently, there are 25 DSA members running for office—from Seattle, Washington to Lakewood, Ohio to New York City—and the group expects to endorse a larger wave of candidates for the 2018 midterms.
One of the DSA’s members running for office this November is Lee Carter, a former U.S. Marine and self-described socialist who is challenging the GOP whip in Virginia’s state house. In Carter’s district, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly 13 percent. And yet, Carter says he has received little support from Virginia’s Democratic party. “The state party’s resources are stretched thin,” he explains.
But the local chapter of the DSA has made Carter’s race a priority. Once it endorsed his campaign, the group started mobilizing its members to canvas Carter’s district on his behalf. “We’ve managed to knock on tens of thousands of doors,” says Carter.