For the Democratic Socialists of America, there has been a silver-lining in this dark year dominated by Trump. Thanks to a post-election membership boom, the organization is now 25,000 people strong. The DSA has become the largest socialist organization since the heyday of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party of America at the turn of the 20th century.
Most of the new members of the organization have been young people, whose affinity for socialist ideas – or at the very least a rejection of capitalism – has been growing in recent years as the punishing blows of neoliberalism have placed them in a more precarious place than ever before.
This newfound energy was on display at their biennial convention last weekend in Chicago, where approximately 1,000 delegates from dozens of chapters around the country gathered to debate resolutions, set priorities for the next two years, and elect people to serve on the National Political Committee.
So why has the DSA’s membership increased three-fold since Donald Trump won? The first reason is the most obvious one: the Bernie Sanders effect.
While polls had shown a growing dissatisfaction with capitalism in the wake of the Great Recession, there had not been a national figure that was able to coalesce that disquiet into an alternative vision for society, politics, and economy.
It was thought that Barack Obama might be this person at one point, but disillusionment set in once it became clear that Obama was not keen on using his mandate for the kind of truly transformational change that had been promised throughout his 2008 campaign for president.
Sanders’s entry into the race in April 2015 was, at first, treated as an afterthought. Not completely surprising, of course, given that Hillary Clinton had been, essentially, running for president for nine years. But with shock results in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Bern-feeling was off to the races.
Sanders, previously a little-known “democratic socialist” independent Senator from Vermont, was able to garner over 13 million votes and 43% of the Democratic primary electorate. But his biggest impact came in what he did for socialism in the United States.
So why has the DSA’s membership increased three-fold since Trump won? The first reason: the Bernie Sanders effect
Bernie Sanders managed to revive a political current that seemed all but dead in American politics. After decades of continual red-bashing from right-wing forces in media and politics, the notion that the people, not corporations, should own more of the wealth in this country suddenly became something worth discussing.
This feeling only accelerated after Trump’s elevation to the White House in January. While many Democrats saw the mass protests against Trump’s election as an aberration, leftists saw an opportunity to engage in building the base for socialist ideas around the country.
The DSA is the largest manifestation of this, but by no means is it alone: local organizations such as the Philly Socialists, the Mobile Bay Socialist Collective in Alabama, and the armed resistance group Redneck Revolt work alongside the DSA’s estimated 105 (and growing) chapters on projects ranging from tenants’ rights, reproductive justice, labor rights, to justice for the victims of police brutality.
But the growth of the DSA – and, perhaps, Bernie Sanders’s run for president – would not have been possible were it not for the complete isolation that working-class Americans and their families felt from mainstream politics.
The attempts that Democrats have made to reach out to these people – including, apparently, trying their hand at pizza sloganeering – have been too little and come too late.
When the Democrats had their historic majorities in Congress after the 2008 election, it seemed that they spent more time trying to be “bipartisan” than delivering on the promises they ran on: the Employee Free Choice Act, the public option for government-run health care, a marked withdrawal from policing the world and a raise in the minimum wage.
But if we are to believe Nancy Pelosi – “we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is” – then these were promises that were meant to be broken.
Because while the stock market is rising to new heights, people can see that they are not any richer than they were before. The unemployment rate is down, but people are still working multiple jobs and 16-hour days just to get by.
The television and radio sets across America tell the working class that sunny days are here again, but the first of every month brings the dark storm clouds of impossible choices and ever-increasing austerity.
Where organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America go from here is uncertain, but one thing is clear: those who toil and struggle from paycheck to paycheck have a growing number of organizations dedicated to ending their plight.