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DSA Today: Interview with Activists in the Democratic Socialists of America

The explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been one of the most extraordinary developments in recent American politics. In 2012, DSA had only 6,500 members, with less than a dozen active chapters. Four years later, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign brought a flood of new members, as millions of Americans were exposed to the idea of democratic socialism for the first time. Then, in the nine months after Donald Trump’s election, over 13,000 people joined, most between the ages of 18 and 35. By December 2018, DSA had some 55,000 members in 166 chapters and 57 high school and college groups, making it the largest socialist organization in the United States since the hey- day of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.

What makes this so remarkable is that for over a half century socialism had virtually dis- appeared from American life. The Cold War all but destroyed the strong American tradition of anti-capitalism. DSA began as a feeble remnant of once powerful movements, created in 1982 by veterans of various socialist, communist, and New Left groups. Thirty years after its founding, it had a net growth of only a few hundred members.

Now all that has changed, with dizzying rapidity. DSA has emerged as the main institutional beneficiary of a growing embrace of the idea of socialism by Americans, particularly positive view of socialism. Last October the White House Council of Economic Advisors felt compelled to issue a seventy-two-page report attacking socialism and what it claimed were the socialist ideas of various leading Democrats.

Nationally, DSA has identified three priorities: electoral politics, Medicare for All, and labor. But individual chapters have taken on a host of other issues as well, including afford- able housing, opposing public subsidies for corporations, seeking the creation of government-owned banks, environmental  justice,  and free college for all. Perhaps the most remarkable DSA successes have been in the electoral arena. Over the past few years, dozens of DSA-endorsed candidates have won election to city councils, school boards, judgeships, and state legislatures, in blue states like New York but also in red states like Montana, Texas, and Tennessee. Two DSA members sit in Congress—New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

…DSA has identified three priorities: electoral politics, Medicare for All, and labor.

To get a sense of what DSA is like today and where it might be going, New Labor Forum interviewed four activists: Allie Cohn, 48, a teacher of hearing-impaired children and member of the Knoxville, Tennessee chapter, who was elected to the DSA National Political Committee (NPC) in 2017; Chris Maisano, 36, a New York City labor union staffer, who also sits on the NPC; Anthony Rogers-Wright, 41, a musician and deputy directory of an environmental organization, who belongs to the Seattle chapter; and Cea Weaver, 30, a housing activist and community group staffer, who is a member of the New York City chapter steering committee. Allie, Chris, and Cea are white; Anthony is African-American. The views they express are their own, not those of the organization. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

When did you join DSA and what brought you to it?

Allie: I have basically been a lifelong liberal who has very slowly radicalized and was kind of catapulted into radicalization by the Bernie primary campaign. I really didn’t know about the [term] democratic socialism until Bernie started using it. At the time, I lived in Gainesville, Florida and I was a delegate for Bernie at the [Democratic] National Convention. As soon as the election ended, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. At the convention, there was a call for people to go back to their areas and hold a host party for the Our Revolution live-stream event. I was like, well, I guess I’ll do it and meet some new people. Someone showed up from DSA who said I would love for you to come to a DSA meeting and talk about your experience at the convention. And that was kind of all she wrote. Because I walked into that meeting, and I was like, I just found my people!

Chris: I actually first joined in the late ’90s when I was in high school in suburban New Jersey. A few factors pushed me in this kind of direction politically. One is coming from a working lower–middle-class family, lots of mom and dad working really hard, seeing it not necessarily add up to the level of maybe I thought it should have or they thought it should have. I was raised very Catholic, went to Catholic school, the church a lot. Learned about Catholic social teachings, about rights of workers, the poor, etc. And also a lot about what our government was doing in Central America in the ’70s and ’80s. So that got me thinking about what we were doing in the world and made me curious about learning more. I went online on whatever search engines existed at that time and searched for socialism or democratic socialism and this is what came up: Learned about Michael Harrington [a founder of DSA], who I found to be sympathetic because this was another guy who had come to socialism through a somewhat similar path, particularly his kind of Catholicism. So that’s where it started.

Cea: I joined DSA in 2016. I grew up in Rochester, which is a struggling Rust-Belt type city in upstate New York, super divested. I graduated from college in 2010 at the height of the housing market financial crisis, and I got a job as an AmeriCorps volunteer working in buildings that were facing foreclosure. I got involved in DSA and got interested in socialism really because of experiencing the housing crisis and the ways in which U.S. capitalism has created a housing and property market that never is really going to serve low-income people or people of color. I share with many of our members and many people of my generation a complete unmooring of this concept that one day we’re going to become homeowners and that’s going to just solve all of our economic problems.

I got…interested in socialism really because of…the ways in which U.S. capitalism has created a housing and property market that never is really going to serve low-income people or people of color.

Anthony: I was aware of DSA, but got more education into what their goals and mission are working on the Bernie Sanders campaign as a policy surrogate. What brought me to it was that it wasn’t necessarily a political party but was working to have the tools and organizing to challenge political parties. In this case, the Democratic Party, obviously. What drew me to it were definitely the ideals that make up the type of platform that I adhere to.

What is the DSA notion of socialism, and what does socialism mean to you?

Allie: I definitely do not want to speak for all of the organization, because we’re a very big tent. You have the more socialist democrat kind of crowd and then you have the full-on libertarian, socialist, and radical, and that kind of thing. I can give you the DSA stock answer, which is basically, we have this vision of a humane international social order that’s based on democratic planning to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships. The economy and society should be run democratically to meet the public’s needs and not to make profits for a few. I think that for me, what it means, basically, is that the power is amongst the workers.

The economy and society should be run democratically to meet the public’s needs and not to make profits for a few.

Chris: I guess my socialism is in certain respects a more traditional sort of socialism. I take a lot of inspiration politically and organizationally from the mass socialist parties and movements of say, a century ago, whether it’s the American Socialist Party, the German Social Democrats, the Italian Communists. We’re obviously living in very different times, but I do think that many of the problems and dilemmas that we’re facing are kind of similar to what they faced back then. These past thirty, forty years in neoliberalism, they’ve brought capitalism back to its default setting, where the employers are on top, both in the workplace and in the economy and in politics, and workers are on the defensive. Especially with climate change on the horizon, there would have to be some major role for the state in terms of planning, in terms of reshaping the economy, in order to meet these challenges.

Anthony: I guess I wouldn’t dispute anyone that characterized me as a socialist. It’s not the first thing that I think about. I’m certainly very aligned with the vast majority of socialist principles, 100 percent. I think that where sort of Marxism misses the point a bit is in more of a feminist racial context. People like Claudia Jones and Hubert Harrison [Caribbean-born leftist leaders], and later Cedric Robinson and other black Marxists, included a heavy racial justice component to their practice of socialism, and their understanding of socialism. I would probably refer to myself more as an anti-capitalist than I would a socialist, if that makes any sense.

What’s your chapter like?

Cea: The New York chapter has, at this point, seven, maybe eight branches. We have many, many different working groups, and we have a countless number of political projects. Our working groups are really where the vast majority of the work takes place and that’s where we’re trying to build issue-oriented campaigns that address the current political crisis in New York. Our branches are geographic, so you could meet in Central Brooklyn, North Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, wherever is close to your home. That’s where we’re getting our internal democracy. That’s where a lot of political education takes place. But the branches often end up plugging into the various campaigns that the working groups are working on. I think people do really experience a crisis of capitalism at the neighborhood level. We also have an extremely active labor group. Right now, we are doing a lot of work on the expiring rent laws and fighting for a radical expansion of rent controls. We are doing a ton of work on the New York Health Act, which is a New York version of single-payer, to try to get that passed through Albany. We’ve obviously done a good deal of electoral work. Of course, that’s not everything that we’re working on, because any project that you can conceive of and organize for, DSA is going to take it on. We have some very healthy political debates about campaigning and the role of mutual aid and how best to do organizing and anything you could think of.

Allie: Our Knoxville chapter has 150 members. And not only does Knoxville have a chapter, Memphis has a chapter, Middle Tennessee has a chapter, East Tennessee has a chapter. We have three Young Democratic Socialists of America chapters in Tennessee. Chattanooga has a chapter.

The Knoxville group started off older. Over the last two years, it’s brought in more and more young people. Unionists. We have a couple of Trump voters, Republicans, libertarians. We have it all in the South. We have a monthly general meeting, with about forty to fifty people. There’s also now a religious socialism group that meets. There’s a political education group that meets. We have an electoral working group that’s starting up. And we also have a health-care committee.

The other big issue that we’ve had to deal with is the fascist alt-right population that has really crept up here.

We’ve done some anti-privatization work—the governor had wanted to privatize food facilities management in all the state universities, and public facilities, and the parks. And so we organized with our local United Campus Workers union around that. We’re trying to do some of the Medicare for All stuff, but we could not even get Medicaid expansion here. So it’s baby steps for some of these things. We actually had a candidate that’s a DSA member that ran for state house in the last election. We find when we go door knocking, when you talk about health care, and you talk about a living wage, and you talk about housing and education and all the issues that are so prominent for the working class, that it appeals to everyone. Yeah, the word socialist has a negative connotation. But I think people start to understand what we’re really talking about when you start to talk about the issues. The other big issue that we’ve had to deal with is the fascist alt-right population that has really crept up here.

Anthony: The Seattle chapter is very white. I mean, really white, first and foremost. What it does is try to increase awareness about some national issues. Mainly Medicare for All, and every now and then some fossil-fuel information. And they will work for local candidates as well.

But I wouldn’t say it’s clear to people who aren’t in DSA what Seattle DSA does, what their theory of change is. [Since 2013, Seattle has had a socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant, but she belongs to a different group, Socialist Alternative.]

How is DSA as a national organization managing its explosive growth? What role do caucuses play in the group?

Chris: Traditionally, the way that DSA operated was that we’d have members who would do lots of good things, whether it’s in the housing movement, the labor movement, whatever the case may be, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were members of DSA or consider themselves to be socialists. For the most part, people joined DSA just to say, “Hey, I’m committed to a set of values. I’m committed to a set of ideas.” Now there’s a growing recognition that kind of mode of operation isn’t sufficient to the challenges that we’re facing. People are joining to be active, to be organizers, not just to pay some dues. For a long time, this was happening so rapidly that it was really difficult to keep up with this influx, just on the most basic administrative terms like making sure we’re keeping track of everyone, making sure people are getting mail, making sure we know when people’s dues expire.

A lot of people are politically in formation. They’re interested. They’re learning. Somebody will have maybe one set of politics one day and then six months later they have a bunch of different views on whatever subjects you were talking about. A lot of people are also learning how to be part of a group for the first time. People sometimes are not socialized to deal with a group of people in person that they may not always like but have to do work with and come to some decisions and then try to carry them out.

There is a strong and clear current within the organization, in terms of how people think about how it should work and how decisions should get made, that is pretty similar to what became very familiar during the ’90s, the 2000s, Occupy Wall Street, the flourishing of anarchist-inflected approaches to doing political work, where groups come together around specific interests, issues. They form. They try to do something. They dissipate. There are other people who are interested in more traditional organizational structures where there are clearer lines of authority, where you try to arrive, as much as we can, to collective decisions and then try to carry them out together.

Allie: Just in the time since I was elected to leadership, we’ve increased by 35,000 members. So there’s going to be growing pains for sure. The NPC meets four times a year as a group in person. And we don’t all agree. But we can also see the greater good and go, okay, let’s keep going forward. That’s how I approach it. At our 2017 convention, we had 1,000 delegates. And yes, there were definitely blocks of voters. But we’re in a democratic organization, truly democratic organization. I think that for me, because I’m newer to this, I probably have a little bit of a Pollyannaish view of stuff. I think even with the caucuses, there still has to be some kind of compromise. And some people can be uncompromising. I don’t know if the left will ever escape that.

[T]he organization has a diversity problem, and…in order for us to continue to be relevant we have to recruit more people of color to join DSA.

Cea: Whether formally or informally, the internal caucuses are where you go to find a home. Some of the caucuses are social networks. That being said, they also are reflective of your opinion of how an organization should be organized. What’s the role of electoral politics in DSA? How do we orient ourselves to the non-socialist left? All DSA members (I hope!) agree that the organization has a diversity problem, and that in order for us to continue to be relevant we have to recruit more people of color to join DSA. But our members disagree about the best way to do that: some would prefer to focus on mutual aid projects; others would prefer to focus on our internal community and what happens in our meetings (i.e., we should always provide child care!); others believe that we can build a strong internal culture through focusing on external campaigns that are relevant to and center [on] the leadership of working-class communities of color. The right answer is probably a combination of all three. It’s a critical question for us, and we should try everything.

How does DSA see its relationship to the union movement?

Chris: For a very long time, DSA’s orientation to the labor movement was mostly predicated upon having positive relationships with the more progressive union officials, bureaucracies, and staffs. In the last couple of years, because of both the decline of institutional labor and then the influx of lots of new people with different ideas, that’s flipped and now I think the common sense of how DSA should be approaching the labor movement is much more focused on trying to build an actual rank-and-file base within the unions rather than trying to have kind of letterhead-level relationships with international presidents or local presidents or staffers. So I would say, yeah, there is definitely an orientation towards trying to get as many of our members as we possibly can, whether they’re already coming from these sorts of workplace settings or if they’re looking to try to marry their professional or work life with their political activism, into positions where they can either go into a union and be part of the political life there or be in a place where it might be possible and strategic for them to try to organize something that doesn’t currently exist. This is an area we’re still trying to figure out, because there is something of a tension as to what is the goal of our labor movement work. Is it to go into what currently exists of the labor movement to try to reform it, reorganize it, put it on a different path, strengthen it? Or is it to go out there and try to be organizing people working in coffee shops, restaurants, the vast unorganized workforce?

[I]s the goal of our labor movement work…to go into what currently exists of the…movement to try to reform it, reorganize it, put it on a different path, strengthen it?

Allie: I live in a very weakened area of the country when it comes to labor. So locally, our focus is to build up worker solidarity and to build up the unions that exist.

What role do you see electoral activity playing for DSA?

Cea: Electoral work is some of the most public work that DSA does, and as a result is some of the most debated. Our members debate whether or not electoral work is an effective way to build the base and deepen our ties to working-class communities; whether or not it helps us advance socialism in our lifetime; whether or not—when doing electoral work—we should engage with the Democratic Party line. DSA has—to steal the language of the capitalists—a real competitive advantage in electoral politics. There’s a clear target. There’s a clear timeline. You can make a pretty big difference with just three to five hours a week. So we’ve gotten really good at developing electoral field programs, because DSA has a whole bunch of really energized foot soldiers. It’s a lot harder to figure out how a whole bunch of activists should convince the boss of a place where they don’t work that he should recognize the union, or that the governor of New York should implement an advocacy agenda. I think that it’s really critical that we get better at it, because I’m not necessarily an electoral person. I see its value for our organization, and I believe it’s a critical tactic to bringing us towards the future, but I do believe that electoralism is a tactic and not the goal. And I think most people in DSA probably believe that.

Chris: From my point of view, I guess the question comes down to: What are we doing electoral work for? Is our goal to kind of nudge the Democratic Party in a different direction? Is our goal to ultimately aim towards the formation of a kind of mass working-class or socialist party? Is our aim to do something else? That’s one of the lines of distinction that separates certain groups of members in DSA from others.

Anthony: DSA should consider there is definitely the possibility for slates at the local level, and we kind of saw that, to some extent, with the New York 2018 Democratic primary, where there were candidates who were at least somewhat affiliated with DSA. I really do think that DSA’s role within the Democratic Party is to continue agitating it. I mean, it’s not going to seize or turn the Democratic Party into a socialist party. But what it can do is become a major component of the Democratic Party, such that policy and party platforms cannot be moved without the support of this wing of DSA people who may also identify as Democrats, as it pertains to just being able to get on a ballot and qualify for debates and whatnot.

I really do think that DSA’s role within the Democratic Party is to continue agitating it.

Allie: On the local level, it’s hard because, for example, city council, nine members—you get one who is aligned with you on a lot of your issues. But that’s not really going to build enough power to shift any of the legislation. I don’t think we can expect, particularly in Knoxville, that in the next five years, we’re just going to have this progressive city council because we’re electing more progressive individuals. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of moving people through conversations. In my opinion, you have to have somebody who’s willing to have those conversations when they’re running for office. When you have someone who is a leftist who’s running, it pushes the narrative for everybody who’s running.

DSA is a predominantly white organization; how has it handled issues of race and diversity?

Anthony: DSA does have to vastly improve its practice as it pertains to people of global community outreach. It is still considered a white-dominated organization that has not been as aggressive in its outreach to not only a diversity of numbers but a diversity of shared power amongst non-white people. We have not really seen a lot of what black and brown leadership in DSA has done and is doing to build a broader base of support for DSA. Quite frankly, we really haven’t seen a coordinated effort on DSA’s part to include an anti-racist platform—specifically anti-racism and specifically anti-black racism—and demonstrate that this is something that’s important, not sort of like a trickle-down social justice variety of, “Oh, Medicare for All is racial justice.” Yeah, we get that it would definitely help a majority of people of color, but that’s not necessarily racial justice.

Quite frankly, we really haven’t seen a coordinated effort on DSA’s part to include an anti-racist platform…specifically anti-black racism.

Chris: This has always been one of the perennial problems of the left, but the specific modality that it’s taken I think is unique to us. To a significant extent, it’s because of the kind of class base that we’ve been drawing from. By and large, we’ve been drawing from people who are from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, usually pretty well-educated formally, and for various reasons have decided that the society is broken in various ways and they need to do something to fix it. Also, it reflects the mode in which people tend to be coming into the organization, which is self-selecting people just joining by signing a form on the internet and then maybe showing up to a meeting. Whether we’re talking about poor white people, whether we’re talking about poor black, Latino, whoever, for the most part they’re not going to be interested in doing something like that. They’ve got so much shit going on in their life that they’ve got to deal with personally—family, work, whatever—that kind of the path by which people join the organization is just not something that’s going to be organic to them.

Cea: I want to push back just a little bit on the idea that working-class people of color and low-income people don’t have the time; there are a lot of political organizations that are driven by people who are motivated by the fight for a better world and after they’ve worked really, really hard workdays come to the meeting. Yes, I don’t think that people are going to find our internet, speak-to-young-white-millennial twitter page and then sign up, but I do think that through recruitment drives and organizing and showing up in solidarity in the neighborhoods where we exist and diversifying the methods by which we do outreach and recruit members—which I think the housing and labor campaigns are doing—we can diversify our organization.

Where would you like to see DSA go in the next period?

Chris: I like to think back to the old Socialist Party, the one time where we had an actual mass American socialist movement. At its height, it had something like [a] hundred and—what?—twelve thousand members. If we wanted to reach that level proportionately, we’d have to reach something like three hundred [thousand] plus members. I would love us to try to approximate that level. I think DSA should be less a kind of a container in which a movement of movements occurs and people kind of just do their own thing and whatever ideas best rise in this marketplace of organizing, if you want to call it that. I would like us to get towards something more along the lines of the new political formations that we’ve seen emerging in various other countries around the world, whether that’s the Momentum movement inside the British Labour Party, Podemos in Spain, or La France Insoumise.

I would like us to get towards something more along the lines of the new political formations…emerging…inside the British Labour Party, Podemos in Spain, or La France Insoumise.

Cea: I think our organization needs to become more diverse. I think it’s great that it’s an organization of millennials, but I do think it also needs to be an organization that’s diverse in many different ways. I want us to get to a place where it’s relevant and possible to fight for a new public housing program. I want to be able to make deep economic shifts to make an immediate impact on climate. I want us to win some other stuff besides elections.

Anthony: DSA has to identify what it does and show how it does it and then prove why it works to continue increasing its ranks. Instead of explaining socialism as this alternative track, just communicate socialism as really the only way. We know this is the only way forward for the world we want and know it is possible.