Democratic Socialists

Could the collective behind the Democratic Socialists of Philadelphia become America's new Tea Party?

Running from a downpour and into the atrium of the Fox School of Business on Temple’s campus was Dustin Guastella, while bright-eyed aspiring capitalists bustled around us as we talked socialism.

It was here at Temple, as a senior in 2013, where Guastella first got involved with the Philly chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. He was among the first wave of young recruits catalyzed by the Occupy movements to join the 35-year-old political organization.

Now as a member of the Steering Committee, he has been witness to a second, more overwhelming wave of engagement, one sparked in large part by the firebrand campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. While the Vermont senator has no affiliation with DSA, his loss in the 2016 primary election left his diehard base with little political refuge. The Democrats had failed them, and President Trump was in the White House.

DSA nationwide, an organization in existence since 1982, had a little over 6,000 dues-paying members across the country this time last year. Currently, there are some 20,000 among their ranks, spread across 120 chapters in 42 states and DC, according to a DSA national spokesperson.

Philly’s numbers have jumped from around 150 to 500, since January of 2015. Other cities have followed a similar pattern D.C.’s chapter jumped from 300 in January of 2015 to 350 in October of last year, and then doubled to 700 since Trump’s election. Though a Baltimore chapter opened recently which draws some membership away from the chapter. And NYC went from 350 in January of 2015 to 850 right before the election in October. Its total membership now sits at 2000.

In relation to the total electorate, of course, the DSA’s Philly chapter membership barely registers. But every member pays dues, based on their self-identified income level and what they can afford, in true socialist form. It’s a formula that they believe results in a more active, inspired movement that allows the members a say in tactics and policy craft.

In Philly, one of the main reasons behind the influx of DSA’s dues-paying members is the blistering sense that while many on the right are out-and-out “ghouls,” and have in store a number of destructive policies, those representatives “on the liberal left” – those tasked with resisting the far right agenda that the Trump administration has itemized – “are sort of hapless, and don’t know what’s going on,” Guastella said.

Guastella said many assumed if they just showed the Democrats that “Bernie would have won” the general, as the meme goes, they would recognize the errors of their ways and adopt the Vermont senator’s approach to politicking and messaging going forward.

Melissa Naschek, 22, joined the chapter after the election, and kicked herself for not supporting Bernie earlier on.

“I was sort of like, in general, not super plugged into politics … I was following the election but with not much of a political opinion,” Naschek said. “During the election, I would say things like ‘I’m glad Bernie’s in the election but he can’t win so I hope Hillary wins. But I think he’s good for the discourse.’ But I was also never a super Hillary fan I just sort of bought into the narrative that she’s the pragmatic choice. She’s who can get elected, and I want a Democrat in office, I don’t want a Republican.”

Conventional explanations for why Clinton lost, however, didn’t cut it for Naschek.

“Before, I think I was just passively a neoliberal. I didn’t really question capitalism at all,” she said. “After Trump won, I was sort of dissatisfied with what everyone was saying about the post-election analysis,” such as Van Jones’ “white lash” explanation, or “that people hated Hillary because she was a woman. That didn’t really satisfy me so I started to seek out alternative sources … and then in the span of like 2 months I was like ‘yeah fuck capitalism. I’m a socialist now.’”

Dem socialists

What the Democratic Socialists have done in capitalizing on establishment failures with grassroots organizing has been a success for this growing collective. 

It’s a precarious historical moment for the left – liberal or socialist – given the massive changeover at the state and federal level of Republicans in previously-Democratic seats. Nationwide, the DSA has attracted malcontents with a focus on physical demonstration and direct action, capturing a youthful energy they see as vital to fueling a political movement.

In Philly, their red “Socialism or Barbarism” signs dotted the crowds in January at Philadelphia International Airport during a protest of Trump’s travel ban from seven majority-Muslim countries. They could also be seen at the women’s march on Ben Franklin Parkway, and nearly every other resistance demonstration in Philly since Trump took office.

There’s significant overlap with the frustrations of new DSA members and the frustrations of Trump’s diehard base, namely economic anxieties, and a fading hope that those in charge, both Democrat and Republican, want to do anything about it. DSA’s main demographic isn’t the white working class, however.

“The best way to define it is downwardly-mobile millennials, folks who maybe went to college or didn’t, but were expecting to have the sort of standard middle class package,” Guastella said. “The standard American middle class package. And now what they’re getting in return is saddled with a bunch of student debt if they went to school, not many jobs, not much advancement if they’re in jobs.”

Marc Schwoerer, 43, said what finally pushed him to join DSA was the Philadelphia Democrats’ failure to stand behind the striking SEPTA workers that coincided with November’s election.

“You had the [Democrat] mayor and a Democrat governor both trying to get injunctions against the union and that really was like the last straw for me with Democrats,” Schwoerer said.

It was a failure indicative of what he sees as a decades-long crawl the Democrats have made away from labor as a central source of political agitation.

“It got to the point between labor and the Democrats where the Democrats felt that labor worked for them instead of the other way around,” Schwoerer said. “They just became to them basically a financial clearinghouse,” a slush fund to procure ground game and funds, “and then they ignore their needs.”

Margaret McLaughlin, 27, has been a political organizer for years, but only joined the D.C. chapter of the DSA on Election Day, a decision she planned-out weeks before regardless of the election’s victor.  She’ll be up for election for their Steering Committee next month.

She’s a friend of the Philly chapter and sees parallels in both chapters’ environments.

“I think a lot of cities have a lot of young people that have lived their entire lives under the binary political system but have always identified as left of Democrats,” McLaughlin said, “and now they’re realizing the failing of the Democratic Party and neoliberalism writ-large.”

And municipal politics have long-excluded the young and energized, she says.

“If you look at the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, there’s very little inroads for people in their twenties, millennials, to get involved,” McLaughlin said. “We’re shut out. So we start forming our own organizations, our own social networks, support structures, and we all move to the left together.”

The DSA’s social media presence is a living web of in-jokes, organic memes and adversarial interactions with establishment politicos.  And it’s fun.  Comparatively, the Democrats’ attempts to reach out to millennials can seem canned and corporate or worse, like a grandparent asking their grandson how to work email.

More than that, social media offers a chance for connection that wasn’t previously available. Leftists, usually scattered about, “are able to talk to each other, and realize that situations are unequal,” McLaughlin said.

“We see how quickly things are moving with this administration for example, and twitter allows us to stay on top of that,” she said.

Philly is primed for grassroots leftism, Guastella claims, for a variety of reasons: “Philly’s a working class city, more so than other cities on the East Coast, certainly more so than New York and more so than DC,” he said. “That I think is the single biggest factor to how we can grow in this city. And the other thing is, like other East Coast cities, the amount of people on the whole who are liberal, or Democrat voters, is much larger. Which automatically means there’s a space to the left that could be occupied.”

And entering into that space is the slow-trickling migration of socialist-sympathetic folks who, when approaching local politics, haven’t succumbed to the fatalism that has followed the election of Trump for many.

“It’s been optimistic,” Schwoerer said, noting the enthusiasm of those recruits much younger than he, “When you look at the demographics… the way that younger people see things, the future belongs to them really. I mean, the people that have the views that DSA has … Their core constituency is going to continue to grow and eventually it’s going to be more of a counterweight to what establishment Democrat politics are.”

One of the criticisms leveled at the DSA is that there is inherent in their aims a naivete, a lack of understanding of what is and is not possible within the bounds of the American political system. If you ask those involved in the group, they would counter that the failure of the Democrats to accomplish what used to be commonplace goals is not proof of what the system can or can’t handle. One criticism Guastella said he thinks is fair, though he disagrees, is that before you can go about building the left, you must first construct a solid and healthy center. The idea instead, he says, is to push left and let the stragglers catch up.

One straggler, Naschek, said she got on board with the Philly chapter because their membership was sizable compared to other groups of a similar bent.

“Once my politics changed I immediately was like ‘okay, I need to do something; I need to get involved,’” she said. “I liked the fact they have kind of like a ‘big tent’ philosophy. There’s no sort-of requirement that you must believe X, Y, and Z in order to be a member. I like that it’s very inclusive, and that there’s even debate within the DSA.”

The chapter is still fledgling despite the considerable boost following the election, and, given the “big tent” nature of the organization, there’s often disagreement on tactics, such as how much engagement the organization should have with establishment Democrats in the city. Guastella thinks the opposition to collaborating with their liberal peers in city elections springs from a misunderstanding of how open American political parties are at a local level, in stark juxtaposition to the fenced-off nature of the DNC.

“The Democratic Party, especially in Philadelphia, is not a unified, unitary block,” he said. “There are people who are very progressive and who like us and who are friendly with us and want to work with us. And then there are folks who are very standoffish, and they think that we’re a threat or we’re hurting their chances of getting elected and stuff like that.”

In the meantime, Guastella says, they will continue to pull the conversation leftward.

“I think there’s a good chance that many of them – who are learning the lessons from the recent election – will consistently move closer to our positions,” he continued. “Because now we’re out there showing a signal.”

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