Donald Trump’s dark presidency may turn out to be the best thing that has happened to Socialism since Eugene Debs at the height of the socialist movement in American politics. Anyone puzzled by my sense of optimism should look to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a grassroots organization whose membership has jumped from about 5,000 a year ago to around 31,000 today.
The foundation for this resurgence has been the young people who grew up in the era of untrammeled capitalism. For decades, they’ve seen that the Democratic center is not capable of dealing with the concentration of economic power and the rapid rise of rightwing xenophobia that is sweeping the western world. Put simply, young voters are turning to democratic socialism as a means of resistance against Trumpism, as well as the prevailing political settlement that enabled his election victory.
This kind of desire for revolutionary change was on full display in last year’s special elections, when unapologetically socialist candidates won a slew of surprising victories from Virginia to Montana. Leftist candidates were boosted by the infusion of grassroots politics, ultimately delivering a banner night for the DSA, who won 15 races across the country, bringing the current number of elected DSA members to 35. Their success proves yet again that a radical left platform with a clear break from the establishment consensus does not mean an automatic recipe for electoral oblivion.
This emerging cohort is disillusioned and angry by a multitude of factors: the Reagan revolution and the exploits of financialization; Clintonism with its failure to offer a counter-vision while capitulating to the Neoliberal project; and the subsequent tidal wave of ideological cuts after the crash of 2008. Instead, they crave a genuine political alternative, and draw inspiration from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos in Spain, which in turn has drawn inspiration from Syriza in Greece.
But this isn’t only about elections— it’s about building social bonds in areas hardest hit by the economic crisis. The alternative is to move away from the idea that voters are like commodities, and to harness support by treating people with human decency. And such endeavours have already begun. Take for example, the DSA preventive grassroots measure, which is fixing brake lights in poor communities — perhaps insignificant at first glance — but vital when you consider how often Black men lose their lives at the hands of police in routine stops for broken break lights. You can see similar scenes in Indianapolis, where the DSA chapter is strengthening pro-immigration movements, providing communal eating, and fighting for decent wages. Indeed, the left hasn’t done this kind of direct action through patient and committed grassroots work in a very long time.
Clearly, the decisive arrival of Bernie Sanders and his movement has been a central component to all this. And his biggest impact came by resurrecting democratic socialism that seemed all but an afterthought after decades of red-baiting and McCarthyism.
For too long, a large proportion of the electorate — particularly young people — have been demonized and ignored, with the sense of desperation growing across racial and gender lines. Meanwhile, through Trump’s regressive “tax reform” the political class have fueled the fires of class struggle once again in choosing to neglect working-class Americans and their families. While the county desperately craves for a genuine alternative, it is being offered the same old unworkable solutions to a host of growing problems.
Whatever your opinion of ground-up organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, they have certainly given people something to believe in. Their supporters are campaign-oriented and pluralistic with deep roots in their local communities. By tapping into this newfound pulsing energy with bold proposals, the DSA and closely linked groups could become a progressive version of the Tea Party, transforming the Democratic Party politics.
It is encouraging that such a passion for grassroots politics exists. It’s difficult to predict where the Democratic Socialists of America go from here, but my instincts tell me this brand of resistance resonates among many broken communities. And if they succeed, their impact will be felt far beyond American politics.