As recently as 2009, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—the largest socialist organization in the United States—was described by former member and current New Yorker writer George Packer as “dangerously far along the road to oblivion.”
How quickly things change.
In 2015, an obscure senator from Vermont announced that he would pursue the presidency, and would take on Hillary Clinton, the candidate most considered a lock for the Democratic nomination, in doing so.
This certainty was quickly challenged. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist, proved remarkably adept at tapping into grassroots energy, and this energy prompted a flood of organizing and, ultimately, results. Though Hillary Clinton eventually secured the nomination, Sanders ended his presidential run with over 13 million votes and a sizable base of enthusiastic supporters and volunteers looking to move his political revolution forward.
Sanders’ entrance into the presidential race, and his subsequent use of the term “democratic socialism,” sparked a surge of interest in a group that had long remained on the margins of the American political scene.
DSA, founded in 1982, saw its membership begin to trend sharply upward as 2016 progressed. Overall, in the last several months, the organization’s membership has tripled, and the momentum has yet to slow. Its most recent landmark: 20,000 dues-paying members, a goal to which organizers have been looking since the organization reached 10,000 members back in November.
And with this growth in membership has come increased attention from some of the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines. Rolling Stone ran a profile of DSA in February, as did The Los Angeles Times.
DSA also appears to be making all the right enemies.
“Socialism’s Rising Popularity Threatens America’s Future,” warned a recent National Review headline.
Fox News, which has long been hysterically warning of the rising socialist tide, has featured DSA in several recent segments; Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster, insisted last year that the kids are only getting into socialism to get laid; Bill O’Reilly has felt it necessary to “explain” democratic socialism to his audience; and the Conservative Political Action Conference hosted a panel discussion centered on how to convince America’s youth that socialism would rapidly turn the United States into Venezuela.
For long-time organizers, this is all evidence their hard work is beginning to pay off.
More important than disdainful attention from America’s reactionaries is the appeal of DSA among Americans disaffected by the political mainstream and looking for an organized, grassroots group into which they can channel their energy. The Democratic Party has long been the default option, the lesser of two evils, but people are tired of such a narrow spectrum of choices.
“Our growth alone shows that people want to be for something, not just against Donald Trump, and they want to have a voice,” wrote DSA’s national director Maria Svart in the latest edition of Democratic Left, the organization’s quarterly publication. “We have an ideological perspective that was missing from mainstream political debate until Bernie Sanders’ primary run, and it’s now on us to carry out a strategy to match.”
This strategy includes building and organizing at the local level in every state, including those that have long been considered solidly and irrevocably conservative, like Texas (which now has ten chapters) and Oklahoma.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, one organizer from Tennessee told me that “a group of unrepresented radicals has been growing underground and is now surging up to lead in areas of the country that the Democrats have long considered sacrifice zones.”
“In the future,” he added, “we are hopeful that candidates and campaigns will not feel obliged to toe the Democratic Party line just to have access to some meager organizational resources. We will build our operational capacity to the point that we do not swallow our radicalism to support candidates, but they have to radicalize their positions to win our support.”
DSA considers itself a big-tent organization, and it hosts a considerable variety of left perspectives. But at its core, notes Jared Abbott in Democratic Left, is the belief “that capitalism is fundamentally at odds with democracy.”
Increasingly, as recent polls have indicated, Americans, particularly younger Americans, are coming to share this view. And as income and wealth inequality become more pronounced, organizers expect interest in democratic socialism to continue to soar.
With this newfound energy, DSA is hoping to play a significant role in the fights immediately at hand, from helping protect immigrants and refugees to fighting for a health care system that guarantees insurance for all as a right.
Crucially, though, these efforts are always informed by long-term objectives; “the surest way to resist and defeat Trumpism,” argued DSA’s post-election statement, “is if we build a strong organized democratic socialist movement in U.S. politics, a movement that must become as diverse as the working class itself.”
Jake Johnson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep.