With Donald Trump as President, Americans Are Flocking to Socialism

Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has surged since the election.

Kate Aronoff

DSA members protest at the Women's March on Washington, D.C. (DSA / Twitter)

One evening the week before Christ­mas, about 100 peo­ple squeezed into a room in the Brook­lyn Free School, locat­ed on one of cen­tral Brooklyn’s posh­er streets. The pri­vate school’s chair col­lec­tion exhaust­ed itself with­in min­utes as atten­dees packed the room for the month­ly meet­ing of the Brook­lyn chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) — which, just a month ear­li­er, had fit eas­i­ly into the same space.

For now, DSA is proving an on-ramp for those frustrated with Trump and the Democratic establishment alike.

Since Nov. 8, 2016, thou­sands have joined DSA. The orga­ni­za­tion has bal­looned to over 14,000 mem­bers, more than dou­bling in size from 6,500 mem­bers in May 2016. DSA Nation­al Direc­tor Maria Svart says of new sign-ups, You could lit­er­al­ly see the moment when Trump was declared the winner.”

Orga­ni­za­tions such as the ACLU and Planned Par­ent­hood are report­ing a sim­i­lar spike in new mem­bers and dona­tions in the wake of Trump’s elec­tion. But inter­est in social­ist groups, grown accus­tomed to being small and iso­lat­ed in U.S. pol­i­tics, appears to be surg­ing in a way it hasn’t in decades. Many of those join­ing are young peo­ple who don’t have their par­ents’ Cold War hangups about social­ism. Politi­cians like Bernie Sanders — an avowed social­ist whom many sup­port­ers are look­ing to for an effec­tive counter to Trump — have fur­ther sparked their inter­est in a pol­i­tics out­side main­stream Democ­rats and Republicans.

That puts DSA in a promis­ing, if uncer­tain, posi­tion in the wake of Trump’s elec­tion. Peo­ple … are look­ing to DSA as an orga­ni­za­tion that full throat­ed­ly sup­port­ed Bernie Sanders in the pri­ma­ry and has the poten­tial to be a seri­ous part of the fight­back, both to Trump and to the neolib­er­al wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty,” says Svart.

Found­ed in 1982 out of the rem­nants of the 60s New Left, DSA also has roots in Eugene Debs’ Social­ist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca, which at its height in 1912 boast­ed 113,000 dues-pay­ing mem­bers. Eager to avoid the pit­falls of insu­lar ide­o­log­i­cal squab­bles, DSA strives to work with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and social move­ments. Fol­low­ing the elec­tion, DSA chap­ters have mobi­lized to sup­port orga­niz­ing by com­mu­ni­ties threat­ened by Trump and his sup­port­ers, includ­ing local mosques and immi­grant rights orga­ni­za­tions. DSA is also work­ing on build­ing a mul­tira­cial mem­ber­ship — its cur­rent mem­bers are pre­dom­i­nant­ly white — while sup­port­ing exist­ing orga­niz­ing by com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Brook­lyn DSA’s Racial Jus­tice work­ing group, for exam­ple, is part­ner­ing with the New York-based group Com­mu­ni­ties Unit­ed for Police Reform to help pass the Right to Know Act, aimed at increas­ing trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty on the part of the NYPD.

Ulti­mate­ly, says Svart, there’s agree­ment with­in the orga­ni­za­tion about the need for a mul­ti-racial, anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ment that is in touch with the grassroots.”

For now, DSA is prov­ing an on-ramp for those frus­trat­ed with Trump and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment alike. The Brook­lyn meet­ing on Dec. 22, 2016, was the first for Han­nah Sil­ver­man, a New York native who worked on local Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns in high school but grew dis­il­lu­sioned with pol­i­tics before head­ing off to Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, where she grad­u­at­ed in 2015.

I was afraid [the meet­ing] would feel futile,” she said as chairs were being col­lect­ed toward the end. Instead, she was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by the tai­lored facil­i­ta­tion — after a dis­cus­sion of the impor­tance of orga­niz­ing open­ly as social­ists” at the local lev­el, the meet­ing broke out into small­er com­mit­tees on every­thing from afford­able hous­ing fights to cli­mate jus­tice — and the high atten­dance. Look­ing at Trump’s elec­tion, the only way to spin it pos­i­tive­ly is that it com­pelled a lot of peo­ple to become polit­i­cal­ly active,” she not­ed. It cre­at­ed a sense of urgency that was miss­ing.” She plans to attend next month’s meet­ing. In New York City alone, DSA now has 1,000 members.

But deep-blue Brook­lyn isn’t the only place where demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism is under­go­ing a resur­gence. Local orga­niz­ers are in the process of get­ting six new chap­ters off the ground in Flori­da and four in Ohio, both of which went for Trump in Novem­ber. DSA’s tiny nation­al staff, fund­ed entire­ly by dues and small dona­tions, has been over­whelmed by requests to cre­ate new chap­ters around the coun­try and is look­ing for ways to expand accordingly.

Tom Tilden, 59, is among those DSA mem­bers set­ting up shop for social­ism deep in Trump coun­try. Tilden is a DSA vet­er­an, hav­ing joined when he lived in Chica­go in the late 80s. But when he moved to Nebras­ka in 1993, Tilden says, he didn’t con­sid­er start­ing a new chap­ter there, though he remained a mem­ber of the nation­al orga­ni­za­tion. When peo­ple talk about the Left” in con­ser­v­a­tive Nebras­ka, Tilden explains, they’re refer­ring to peo­ple in the mid­dle of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty left­ward. The Left’ is pro­gres­sive. Peo­ple don’t usu­al­ly think in terms of socialist.”

But that may be chang­ing after Sanders’ pri­ma­ry run, which changed the nature of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in the state” while strip­ping away some of the taboos that plague social­ist pol­i­tics, says Tilden. In Nebraska’s March 2016 cau­cus, Clin­ton won just 10 of the state’s pledged del­e­gates to Sanders’ 15, and he suc­cess­ful­ly won over some of the state’s most rur­al coun­ties. Since the cau­cus­es, Tilden has been work­ing to get a new chap­ter off the ground in Oma­ha, and anoth­er has sprung up in near­by Lin­coln. About 30 peo­ple attend­ed the first meet­ing in Decem­ber 2016.

Like many oth­er DSA mem­bers around the coun­try, Tilden sees poten­tial in build­ing insti­tu­tions out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but is also a firm believ­er in try­ing to stage a takeover from the inside. This fall, he joined Key­stone XL pipeline oppo­nent Jane Kleeb on the tick­et to run Nebraska’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. She’s now the party’s state chair. Tilden is sec­ond asso­ciate chair, and has sim­i­lar goals for his work in this posi­tion as he does as a local DSA orga­niz­er: Reach­ing work­ing-class vot­ers, espe­cial­ly those who went for Trump but might yet be won over to the kind of anti-racist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ment that DSA hopes to build.

Peo­ple in rur­al Nebras­ka are more pro­gres­sive than they real­ize,” Tilden rea­sons. While door-knock­ing dur­ing the Sanders cam­paign, he and oth­er vol­un­teers found that many rur­al vot­ers took firm stands against cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture and attacks on pub­lic edu­ca­tion. I think once we work with them on their issue, they’ll see that the peo­ple on their side are not the Republicans.”

Instead, Tilden hopes, they just might embrace an entire­ly dif­fer­ent shade of red.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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