The Democratic Socialists of America Have Actual Political Power. What Will They Do With It?
Older members of the socialist organization were amazed to see the massive attendance at the convention this year. Now, they need to figure out how to harness it all.
CHICAGO, IL—In 1973, Jack Clark met with about 20 or so like-minded socialists in a hotel on the Upper West Side of New York to decide what they wanted to do about the existing framework of socialist parties in American politics.
Forty-four years later, he was sitting in the rafters of the University of Illinois in Chicago forum looking down on a packed convention floor of closer to a thousand Democratic Socialists of America.
The organization has undergone a massive growth spurt since the 2016 presidential election, ballooning to 25,000 national members including an influx of young people devoting themselves to organizing and politics, in some cases, for the first time in their lives.
With that growth has come a challenge many DSA members have never faced before: what to do with actual political prominence and relevance.
“There’s an awful lot of positive energy here, people just feel good about being in a room with so many other people,” 68-year-old Jack Clark, the first national press secretary for the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, told The Daily Beast. “None of us have been in a room with 700 active Democratic Socialists who represent people back home. This is just a new experience, I think, for everybody.”
DSA has rich political roots in America, going all the way back to the rise of the labor movement. But in the post-Trump-election word, it finds itself more involved and influential than at any other point in its recent history. The group is organizing from the ground up, applying pressure on national and local politicians, making policy inroads in states, all while providing an outlet separate and apart from the traditional two-party system.
It’s come a long way since its founding in the 1970s when Michael Harrington, a socialist activist and professor of political science in New York, served as chairman. Clark, who was involved with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), attended the seminal 1982 convention in Detroit during which DSOC and the New American Movement, another socialist political organization, converged to form the modern DSA. Back then, he could hardly have imagined speaking to national reporters while overlooking a sea of tables with groups representing nearly every state sporting rose pins on various lapels and jackets.
“I knew we were growing, I was figuring that we had 18,000 or 19,000 and that it sort of plateaued there,” Clark said of DSA’s national membership. He joked that the convention would soon need to be set up like traditional Democratic party ones where there are bigger placards with state names so people can actually find their comrades in the crowd.
In Chicago this weekend, the various caucuses and local chapters oscillated between votes on amendments to the constitution and meeting in smaller groups throughout the campus to conduct workshops on issues from housing to Medicare for All initiatives.
Hanging over it all were the frustrations with the binary choice often presented by the American political system. For many, the DSA was a draw precisely because they were disappointed and disinterested in the major party politicking that had given voters the option of Trump and Hillary Clinton last year. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) campaign was a carrot that drew them into major party politics, providing a national, popular outlet for their ideas. The toxicity of Trump’s administration, has been the spark that’s kept them engaged.
“When I started, we always felt that the ideas that we were promoting had a place in the political dialogue in this country and it was our job to create openings and to make those ideas relevant to the political debate going on,” 68-year-old Frank Llewellyn, former National Director for DSA, told The Daily Beast.
Llewellyn and others acknowledged that the success of Sanders as a candidate, who helped popularize the term “democratic socialist” while running on the Democratic party line, catapulted DSA from a 7-8,000 member group shortly before the presidential election to its 25,000-member strong group now. But, he noted, “Sanders didn’t run with a socialist flag.”
“That’s what socialists do when they win elections is they say: you know these are the things we need to do to make your life better. And, generally speaking, voters know when someone is committed to a set of ideas and when someone is just giving you lip service,” Llewellyn said.
It was Sanders’ authenticity, Llewellyn added, that made him such a palpable force and allows him to remain the most popular politician in the country.
But now the DSA has to turn its eyes to other candidates and initiatives, particularly at the state level. The group has already seen successes in a number of local contests including the election of Khalid Kamau to city council in South Fulton, Georgia. In Seattle, DSA-backed Jon Grant, is poised to go to a runoff for a city council position in November. Additionally, the New York City chapter is mobilizing for two local candidates in Brooklyn.
In the immediate future, this is where the organization perceives that it can accomplish the most. And when it comes to member-support for Democratic candidates, in the midterms and beyond, everyone will be assessed on a case by case basis.
“It’s folly to think that an organization of 25,000 people, even if we grow to 100,000 people, is going to fundamentally reshape U.S. politics in a way where independent candidacies are the norm,” Clark said. “I think we should push in Democratic primaries as much as we can for left-wingers to challenge corporate Democrats where they can.”
But, as Clark said, the 2018 midterm campaigns are going to present DSA-ers with a “yes or no option” in many cases. Democrats that are up for reelection are not going to come out overnight and say they are socialists. However, if their ideals and approaches approximate the vision of DSA, Clark said it’d be silly not to at least give them a shot. Senators like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) represent a “pretty good group of Democrats” in Clark’s eyes.
That a DSA endorsement is a potent political weapon at all is remarkable itself, argued Maxine Phillips, the 70-year-old former national director and current volunteer editor of “Democratic Left,” the official publication of DSA, told The Daily Beast.
“Historically nobody’s really wanted the endorsement,” Phillips said laughing. “There were people who would send back the money if we sent a check to their campaign or something. I can’t remember who it was but once it became known that they had taken, a check for $100—this was years ago—he returned it because the newspapers got a hold of it. So times have changed. But we’re not in the business of endorsing Democratic politicians necessarily unless we think they’re going to advance our ideals.”