Behind the Explosion in Socialism Among American Teens

The dramatic growth of YDSA chapters confirms that millennials don’t think capitalism is working for them.

Rebecca Stoner February 14, 2018

Left to right: Graham Shelor speaks at a Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) meeting; Lillie Shelor, Andy Villegas and Chadrick Fleno attend. (PHOTO BY DONNA DUPONT/GERARDO LUNA PHOTO)

TAM­PA, FLA. — In a flu­o­res­cent lit class­room with hand­made posters cov­er­ing one wall, approx­i­mate­ly 15 high school stu­dents are chant­i­ng the words of black rev­o­lu­tion­ary Assa­ta Shakur: It is our duty to fight for our free­dom. It is our duty to win. We must love each oth­er and we must sup­port each oth­er. We have noth­ing to lose but our chains.” With some embar­rassed gig­gling, they recite it once, twice, three times, led by their vis­it­ing speak­er, Pamela Gomez of the Hills­bor­ough Com­mu­ni­ty Pro­tec­tion Coali­tion, an alliance of local pro­gres­sive groups.

“There are a lot of myths about what socialism is,” says Ginty. “High school is the perfect time to start educating ourselves. We are the next generation of voters. We can’t keep depending on older adults to lead the way.”

These stu­dents are some of the 40-odd mem­bers of the Blake High School chap­ter of the Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (YDSA). The Tam­pa high school has 1,697 stu­dents, a major­i­ty of them black or Lati­no, and the YDSA chap­ter reflects that. The chap­ter also has a high con­cen­tra­tion of LGBTQ stu­dents, the club’s biggest demo­graph­ic bloc.

The chap­ter is the brain­child of Gra­ham Shelor, 17. Slim and sandy-haired, a con­tem­po­rary dancer as well as an orga­niz­er, Shelor grew up in a fair­ly lib­er­al” house­hold but became dis­il­lu­sioned with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty dur­ing the 2016 elec­tions. They lied to me and the peo­ple of Amer­i­ca that they were going to make it work,” he says. It led to a domi­no effect of me see­ing the flaws in the cur­rent Amer­i­can system.”

Blake’s chap­ter is part of the youth­ful explo­sion of inter­est in social­ism that has led to YDSA’s impres­sive recent growth, with 130 chap­ters and orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees, a five-fold increase in two years. Since 2015, the aver­age age of a DSA mem­ber has dropped from 64 to 30.

YDSA’s mem­bers must be under 31 and are usu­al­ly affil­i­at­ed with a uni­ver­si­ty or high school chap­ter. Uni­ver­si­ty chap­ters out­num­ber high school chap­ters by about 10 to 1. Like its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, YDSA is mul­ti-issue and big tent.” It doesn’t require mem­bers to sub­scribe to any par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­o­gy beyond a com­mit­ment to fem­i­nism and an oppo­si­tion to racism, impe­ri­al­ism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia and, of course, capitalism.

Chap­ters are large­ly autonomous: Though many work with their local DSA chap­ter, they’re not required to. Often, they focus on youth and cam­pus-spe­cif­ic labor issues, like grad­u­ate stu­dent orga­niz­ing or fight­ing the pri­va­ti­za­tion of facil­i­ties staff at state uni­ver­si­ties. Blake’s YDSA has ral­lied in sup­port of a long-promised wage hike for their teachers.

The meet­ing begins with announce­ments about upcom­ing actions, like can­vass­ing for Medicare for All with the Tam­pa DSA. Then an invi­ta­tion is issued to join Hills­bor­ough Com­mu­ni­ty Pro­tec­tion Coali­tion in cam­paign­ing for Black Lives Mat­ter, immi­grant rights and envi­ron­men­tal justice.

For co-chair Kay­la Gin­ty, 16, YDSA is more than a con­duit to polit­i­cal action: It’s led her to ques­tion inher­it­ed polit­i­cal beliefs and define her adult polit­i­cal identity.

There are a lot of myths about what social­ism is,” says Gin­ty. High school is the per­fect time to start edu­cat­ing our­selves. We are the next gen­er­a­tion of vot­ers. We can’t keep depend­ing on old­er adults to lead the way.”

When the [2008 finan­cial] cri­sis hit, I think a lot of [young] peo­ple expe­ri­enced the impact of that on their home lives,” says YDSA Nation­al Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee co-chair Michelle Fish­er, 20. Their par­ents got laid off, they got evict­ed from their homes, and they need­ed to be able to do some­thing about it.”

In the 2016 pri­maries, 2 mil­lion peo­ple under 30 — YDSA age — vot­ed for Bernie Sanders, far more than vot­ed for Clin­ton (770,000) and Trump (830,000) com­bined. A sur­vey con­duct­ed by Har­vard University’s Insti­tute of Pol­i­tics found only a minor­i­ty — 42 per­cent — of mil­len­ni­als sup­port capitalism.

There’s a pop­u­lar belief that youth­ful rad­i­cals turn into mid­dle-aged con­ser­v­a­tives. A 2014 study by Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty polit­i­cal sci­en­tists, how­ev­er, found that the polit­i­cal events of a voter’s teenage and ear­ly adult years, cen­tered around the age of 18, are enor­mous­ly impor­tant in the for­ma­tion of these long-term par­ti­san preferences.”

For the stu­dents in Blake High School YDSA, the enor­mous­ly impor­tant” polit­i­cal events of their for­ma­tive years will include the sur­pris­ing­ly suc­cess­ful cam­paign of Bernie Sanders, the elec­tion-year fail­ures of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the rise of Trump. These events took place against a back­drop of sky­rock­et­ing stu­dent debt, a dis­mal job mar­ket, a sig­nif­i­cant decline in upward mobil­i­ty, and the first shocks of cap­i­tal­ism dri­ven cli­mate change.

Our gen­er­a­tion is real­ly polit­i­cal because we have to be,” says Fisher.

Rebec­ca Ston­er is a writer in Chicago.
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