American socialists have been celebrating a comeback at the same time as approval ratings for Republican president Donald Trump and the opposition Democratic Party have hit all-time lows.
At the end of his first year in office, only 39 percent of Americans approved of the job President Donald Trump was doing in office – lower than any US president at that point in his term in at least 40 years. His opponents the Democrats, however, are not doing much better. According to a poll late last year, only 37 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Democratic politicians in general.
To find a political tendency that hasn’t suffered from the last year, you would have to look further to the left in American politics. Socialist organizations, long relegated to the sidelines of influence or even persecuted for their views, have seen their numbers grow considerably since Trump entered the White House.
One organization in particular has experienced a surge in membership. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), founded in 1982, had roughly 6,000 dues-paying members for the duration of its history. Then, in the two days following Trump’s election, 1,000 people joined DSA. Today the organization claims to have around 32,000 card-carrying members, having quadrupled in size in just over one year. This would make it the largest socialist membership organization in the US since the Second World War.
“When Trump was elected, our size exploded,” DSA National Director Maria Svart told DW. Svart attributes the burgeoning interest in DSA not just to a backlash against Trump but also to a failure of the Democratic Party to offer an inspiring opposition to Trump. “Our organization presents an alternative,” said Svart, that appeals to “communities long neglected by the Democrats.”
What is DSA?
DSA is not a political party but an organization of dues-paying members, most of whom volunteer their time to support left-wing politicians, labor unions, or single-issue campaigns like the push for a single-payer, state-run healthcare system. The organization uses the word “democratic socialism” to describe itself in order to distance itself from authoritarian socialist governments like the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
Prominent members or former members of DSA include philosophers Cornel West and Noam Chomsky as well as writer Barbara Ehrenreich. DSA considers itself a “big tent” socialist organization, meaning their members range on the political spectrum from left-leaning Democrats to further left Leninists (followers of early 20th century Russian revolutionary ideology).
In the November 2017 elections, 15 DSA-backed candidates won seats in city and state governments across the country. Some of them ran as Democrats, others as independents. While the DSA and the Democratic Party sometimes support the same Democratic candidate, the two organizations have no formal relationship. Several DSA members told DW that the Democratic Party is wary of supporting socialists in general.
The Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment on the DSA.
Bernie Sanders: a big boost for DSA
Few current politicians in the US call themselves socialist, with one notable exception: Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders ran for president as a Democrat in 2016, challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democratic Party, often describing himself as a “democratic socialist.”
Using that label apparently did not hurt him: An October 2017 poll showed Sanders to be the most popular politician in the US with a 53 percent approval rating – the only national politician seen favorably by a majority of Americans.
Although he has never been a member of DSA, Sanders claims to be part of their tradition. Margaret McLaughlin, chairperson of the Washington DC chapter of DSA, said that Sanders – intentionally or not – led thousands of young people to their organization after Trump’s victory.
“I think DSA, just by name recognition — the similarity between what Bernie calls himself and our organization — got a lot of people who were excited by what Bernie was saying to come organize with us,” said McLaughlin.
A broader left
DSA was not the only socialist organization to see its membership grow. Brian Bean, organizer for the International Socialist Organization, told DW that membership in his organization, which is significantly smaller and also further left than DSA, grew about 40 percent in the past year. Two thousand people attended their annual socialist conference in Chicago in July, 2017 – an increase of 30 percent from the previous year.
“Young people especially are seeing socialism in a more positive light,” said Bean.
The ‘S-word’ makes a comeback
The US has had a fraught relationship with socialism throughout the country’s history. In 1920, US Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs won nearly one million votes, but he did so from a prison cell. In the 1950s, the US Congress, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, put American socialists on trial for their real or fabricated ties to the socialist Soviet Union, an enemy of the US. Since then, socialists have had no significant presence in US politics.
For some analysts, the popularity of Bernie Sanders and the recent growth of the DSA represent a new era of acceptance of socialism in the US.
“I came of age in the 1980s when there was no dirtier word in American politics than ‘socialism’,” Dr. Jason Martinek, professor of history at New Jersey City University, told DW. “Now that is not the case. Millennials, who don’t have the Cold War baggage of their parents or grandparents, seem more open to socialist ideas.”
Indeed, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 said they would prefer to live in a socialist or communist society than a capitalist or fascist one, according to a 2017 poll.
Historian Eric Foner of Columbia University told DW that “there is definitely a greater interest in socialism today among young people.” But Bernie Sanders’s brand of socialism, said Foner, is more closely related to European social democracy than historical socialism.
“Generally today when people talk about socialism they have in mind an enhanced version of the New Deal,” said Foner, referring to the wave of investment in infrastructure and social services that followed the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.
Socialism after Trump
While an embattled Democratic Party struggles to hold its ground against Republican control of the US government, many socialists feel they’re winning support from the next generation of voters.
For DSA organizer McLaughlin, the new socialist moment is tied to a new generation. “Most of the communists on Twitter are under 18 because they don’t have any emotions attached to the Soviet Union,” said McLaughlin.
For those on the political right, the idea may be frightening that, for many young Americans, the word “socialism” does not have a negative connotation. For the left, that is good news.
“We’re slowly coming out of the cold war,” said McLaughlin.