This article originally appeared in Latterly, a magazine covering social justice issues globally.
Socialism never really took off in the United States, and since the mid-20th century openly socialist politicians have been virtually nonexistent. The last socialist mayor of a major city was Frank Zeidler of Milwaukee, and his term ended in 1960. Bernie Sanders is the only democratic socialist in Congress. Seattle elected a socialist to city council in 2013.
Meanwhile, in Europe, one-fourth of the members of European Parliament belong to the socialist political bloc. Left-wing parties, which surged after the fall of fascism, have retained much of their political strength. Often they’ve aligned with other left-leaning groups to ensure a realistic legislative outlet for their policies, as in the British Labour Party.
That’s where the historian Jack Ross believes the U.S. Socialist Party failed: It didn’t link up with other parties or popular movements when it had the chance. Others point to the unique divisiveness of American racism, the relatively high quality of life and the conflation of authoritarian communism with democratic socialism as other reasons socialism is practically a dirty word in the U.S. In the 2012 presidential election, fewer than 18,000 people (out of 130 million) voted for socialist candidates. One ultra-left socialist party, Socialist Equality, barely performed better than a party called “NSA Did 911.”
But since Sanders’ presidential run, enthusiasm for socialism began to rise, especially among younger Americans. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and interest spiked. One of the leading socialist organizations, Democratic Socialists of America, which is not a political party, has seen its membership jump from 6,500 earlier this spring to 11,600 now. About 4,100 of those members signed up since Nov. 8. The number of chapters and organizing committees has nearly doubled, as well.
To be sure, these are not large numbers, but, depending on local contexts and alliances (say, with Black Lives Matter), these activists could represent an influential new political force. I spoke with Maria Svart, national director of the DSA, by phone. I’ve edited the conversation for length.
There’s a theory that there’s a sizable portion of people who voted for Trump who would’ve voted for Bernie if he were the nominee. But do you think that’s true given that Bernie comes loaded with things that they don’t like necessarily — things like feminism and racial and LGBT equality?
I have not looked very concretely or granularly at the numbers, but I believe that there are Trump voters who are already regretting their vote and will regret it even more going forward. I think some of them would have voted for Bernie, yes. And I think it’s really important to [remember] about Trump voters that there’s a diversity there. Some would have voted for Bernie. Some of them are primarily motivated by anger at the establishment and economic pain. And other ones were motivated by white nationalism and misogyny. And figuring out which is which is important.
Let’s not forget only [about] 25 percent of [eligible] voters voted for Trump. So there are a whole lot of people who could be energized by socialists and by progressives in general. So I wouldn’t say that going after Trump voters should be the top priority, but I don’t think that we should completely ignore them, either. I think there are a lot of people who’ve just entirely given up, and there’s a serious danger that they will now give up even more.
Hope is a really important motivator for left-wing movements. But as the last month and the surge in membership in the DSA has demonstrated, fear is also a major motivator. So it may be a time — especially as the dream team that the GOP is putting in place looks to dismantle Medicare, Social Security, meal programs and enacts horrific, xenophobic and racist policies — there will be a chance to organize people.
Who, in your mind, is the priority? What’s your strategy in terms of demographic targeting?
Our immediate post-election strategy has been to build coalitions of the most targeted. Our chapters are reaching out to these communities and trying to build a network of everything from African Americans organizations, like churches or Black Lives Matter; to Muslims at mosques or community groups; to immigrant organizations like Latino churches, evangelical or Catholic churches or immigrant rights organizations; community-based organizations; feminist organizations; LGBTQ organizations; as well as people who may not be the target of vigilantes but will be targeted by Trump, so healthcare justice organizations, poor people’s organizations. That’s our No. 1 priority.
However, we are also about building power, and so there are a few really obvious things to do. We have to protect the labor movement. The labor movement is always under attack, and the reason it’s always under attack is that it is the strongest vehicle for building working class, multi-racial unity with a common class interest. And that’s because people come together in workplaces in ways that are not of their own choosing. Most people self-segregate in our society. Obviously there are things like bank redlining that are institutional reasons people segregate, but there’s also self-segregation to some degree. In contrast, in a workplace people get hired, often deliberately by bosses, so that they can try to divide and conquer them along lines of race, gender and citizenship status. So if they have to come together against their boss to demand their fair share, they learn to trust each other, work together and recognize they have a common class interest. And unions historically are the one place where people can truly learn that.
But a lot of people are not in unions. Some people have never been in unions, and some people are in states where unions have been facing a neoliberal offensive for 40 years. So there’s less of a culture of labor. Our perspective is a divided working class is already defeated. And one way to build unity is to talk about a common economic interest, but with recognition of other structures of oppression. So, you know, if you’re white and your neighbor is black, and your black neighbor’s house is burning down and you don’t go help them, they’re not going to feel a lot of trust, and you’re not going to have a really strong relationship. So for example, the police are disproportionately killing black people in the streets. You need white working class and poor people in solidarity so that you can be stronger, black, brown and white, together. But that’s not easy to do, and it’s a task abandoned by many progressives. DSA is an entirely volunteer organization at the chapter level, yet we see this as our task. So we’re trying to build up our capacity nationally to support the work that’s happening locally and provide them the tools to assess how best to build the kind of bridges I’m talking about.
I know you haven’t run candidates, that you’ve only endorsed them, but is that something you would do in the future?
Yeah, we definitely plan to do that. We’ve had a few candidates for local office win as DSA members openly, and we definitely hope to do that more. And it’s a similar situation where we want to assess based on context and based on our relative strengths and the office in question whether to run candidates. But we could support anyone from really progressive Democrats in primaries to open socialist DSA members in primaries to independents in places where that makes sense, especially nonpartisan races. We don’t want to be rigid. We want to be building independent power and not limiting ourselves essentially. We’re not a political party, and we don’t want to be a political party right now. But also we don’t want to just be protesting in the streets. Something that some people forget is that you don’t win elections if you don’t have a base, and it takes time and attention to build a broad base. And you certainly can’t build a base without there being a chance of being able to deliver something. So we need to be protesting around issues and bringing people into the movement now so we can run candidates later.
You mentioned you’ve grown dramatically.
Every time I talk to somebody in the media, the membership number has gone up and the percentage increase has gone up. Yeah, so we’re pretty overwhelmed handling the sheer number of people joining. And then the other good thing is that there’s been a dramatic jump in the rate of people self-organizing. People are just really worried and they want to take action and they know that the days are ticking and that Trump will be in office soon. And the election results definitely demonstrated the need, pretty definitely, for a sane and radical democratic socialist voice in American politics.