A little less than a year ago, the Democratic Socialists of America met for their biennial convention in relative obscurity.
Some 800 delegates, gathered in Chicago for a long summer weekend, discussed ways to build on their Trump-era membership surge and, in sometimes-pitched debates, wrestled with how deeply to engage in the 2018 midterm campaign season.
The election of socialists was settled on as one of three national political priorities, with a pledge that the organization “will concentrate its scarce national electoral resources on supporting chapters that are campaigning for open socialists who are running as Greens, independents, or in partisan Democratic primaries.”
Since then, candidates backed by Democratic Socialists of America chapters around the country have won up and down the ballot, from the Virginia state House of Delegates in 2017 to this year’s Pennsylvania state House primaries and in New York’s 14th Congressional District, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old first-time candidate, defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent who’s one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s June stunner spurred another spike in dues-paying members – the group now has more than 45,000 nationally, according to a spokesman – and set off a torrent of interest (and opinion) from both mainstream Democratic and Republican politicos.
In an interview, Democratic Socialists of America National Director Maria Svart discussed with CNN the group’s agenda, why it will not become a political party anytime soon and where independent Sen. Bernie Sanders fits in all of this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
President Trump’s victory in 2016 led to a surge in dues-paying DSA members. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was another watershed. Just recently we’re seeing candidates like Cynthia Nixon identify as democratic socialists – and actively seek DSA’s support. If there’s one thing that’s driving this surge, what do you think it is?
People want to live with dignity and comfort and that’s not working with the economic system we have now. People see things happening to them. Something happens in the economy and they get laid off from their job. Or some politician makes some decision and they lose their health benefits or their community is disinvested in.
Democratic socialism speaks to people’s fears and anger and offers a positive vision. We remind people of the power of collective action and we help people overcome the isolation and loneliness that they experience and that sense of powerlessness.
We believe that only we, working class people or poor people, have the power to make that happen – and that’s just resonating with folks.
What is the fundamental difference between the politics of DSA and someone like Bernie Sanders?
Well, we have one foot inside the Democratic Party and one foot outside the Democratic Party in the same way we have one foot inside electoral politics and one foot outside.
Our vision is to build a mass, multi-racial, working-class movement that brings people together across our differences and demands that our society and our economy be run democratically. Most of us believe that this will not work under capitalism. Our north star is totally transforming the system, even though our immediate vision and our immediate political program is similar to Bernie Sanders’.
What’s different is we want to democratize everything, ultimately. That’s the goal.
Right, but do people really understand that? There’s a lot of buzz around DSA right now, a lot of excitement on the campaign trail and always on social media. Does that interest line up with a legit understanding of what democratic socialism is?
That thing we have to remember is that we hear from the capitalist class every day in the mainstream media. We are surrounded by sexist, racist, homophobic ideas, nationalist and capitalist ideas. It is a total paradigm shift for people when all of it comes together – and these unfair things in the world make sense.
So it’s not a surprise that a lot of people experience unfairness and want something different, even if they haven’t thought through exactly how the capitalist economy works.
That’s why we have an organization. We argue with each other. We read our history. We read political philosophy, we talk to people at their doors and on the streets and, together, we make sense of the world. That’s one of the benefits of DSA and that’s why we love the rapid growth. Because people are coming into a community where they grapple with these questions.
DSA is not a political party. Why not?
In the US, there are institutional barriers, structural barriers (for any new party). But we also want to maintain the flexibility of being within the left wing of the Democratic Party, but also being outside of it.
We see our role now as shifting the Overton window – shifting the acceptable discourse, while also organizing people and building concrete power with a politically aware grassroots base that understands who the enemy is and is willing to hold politicians accountable. But that flexibility is important.
Right, but some people in the organization – dues-paying members – want to change that. When you’re face-to-face, what do you tell them?
That we make choices about what we do based on our understanding of the concrete reality.
And our understanding of the concrete reality right now is that trying to build a party outside of the Democrats and Republicans is very difficult because of the barriers those two parties have put in place. And the barriers that the capitalist class has put in front of working people and poor people, who vote at very low rates because there are deliberate barriers put in their place.
So many people in DSA do want to build a third party, but we also know that you can’t do that without an organized base. And we’re not there yet.
In its current form, DSA grapples really hard with how and where to get involved in elections. How do you weigh the opportunity that comes with helping and shaping a successful campaign against maintaining a kind of ideological purity?
Obviously it’s a balancing act.
That’s why we do constant political education with our members and constant organizing to grow and be in touch with working and poor people in our communities. We need that organized base to hold us accountable – to hold the politicians that we’re helping accountable.
But we fundamentally believe that as working people we become more empowered the more we exercise our power.
And the more visible it is that there are a few greedy people who rigged our economy, then point the finger at immigrants or disabled people or other vulnerable people, the more likely people are to have some clarity about our political strategy.
Is that frustrating, though, not being able to occasionally point to a candidate somewhere and say, “Listen, this person is great and supporting them would be hugely helpful in helping us accomplish the fundamental things we all want”?
No, because people need to grapple with tough questions and they are not going to be invested in the results unless they make the decisions. We believe very deeply in a democratic process and that, in the end, we’ll come out stronger (by adhering to it).
Looking over some election wins by people on the left this year and last – they’ve been mostly by people of color, often women, and in minority-majority communities or something close to it. What does that say to you about the left more broadly?
To me it says that the “Bernie bro” narrative is highly overblown by the interests of people that want to maintain the Democratic Party the way it is now. They want to undermine the political narrative and policy agenda of Bernie Sanders, even though he’s the most popular Democratic politician across demographic groups.
So it’s this ideological program to minimize Sanders based on identity, while ignoring class. And the reason that the candidates that we have endorsed that have been winning elections are not the typical “Bernie bro” stereotype is that it’s a construction and a narrative that is intended to hide the reality, which is these politics speak to all working people.
That in mind, DSA has traditionally attracted mostly white guys. As the organization’s leader, what are you doing to make it a welcoming place for women who share your politics?
Personally, I try to serve as a mentor to women in the organization and model the kind of behavior that we want. But it’s the structural things that really matter: the quotas on our national board, having a socialist feminist working group.
I’m not just a proud socialist feminist who talks about it all the time; I’m making sure that we have a national committee that can engage in campaigns like the national fundraising “Bowl-a-thon” that we do every year in solidarity with the National Network of Abortion Funds. This year we raised almost $100,000 for abortion funds across the country to directly pay for women that can’t afford to get a safe abortion.
So supporting the kind of programming that will lift up women’s struggles and highlighting the fact that things like the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and other states were led by women, and (talking about) the individual burden on women of bearing and caring for children and taking care of the elderly. We feel all the tremendous pressure on us individually and then the capitalist class benefits because they don’t have to pay for universal elder care and they don’t have to pay for universal child care.
So I make a point of talking about that and working to make sure that our political education activities speak to that. But I will say that naturally a lot of women and people of color in DSA get involved in leadership and have become some of our strongest leaders.