CHICAGO—Back in February, the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America was searching for an issue to rally around and energize its influx of new members.
Fortuitously, SB 562, the Healthy California Act, which would establish a single-payer system in the state, was being considered around that time. So as much of the progressive universe turned its focus to Congress, where the fate of Obamacare was left hanging in the balance, the DSA chapter began training hundreds of canvassers to go door-to-door through the streets of California.
“We decided that we should actually just start building a base and start developing our members into good organizers,” Mary Virginia Watson, a member of the East Bay chapter, told The Daily Beast. “We also looked at it as a leadership development program as well.”
The first canvas held by that East Bay chapter featured about 25-30 people, according to Watson. The next one brought in some 200 people. East Bay DSA said they ended up getting some 1,600 people to pledge their support for single-payer and are still active in the recruiting and door knocking efforts.
The bill ended up passing the California State Senate in June only to, later in the month, be shelved by Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who called the proposed legislation “woefully incomplete.” Nevertheless, the effort taught the DSA a lesson: at a time when Donald Trump’s twitter handle sets much of the political agenda and sparks fevered media coverage, they can have a larger impact by focusing on the hyper-local.
That’s where the group has put much of its focus this year as it has grown to a 25,000-member organization. It hasn’t fully ignored the national scene. Instead, it’s tried to distill those debates down to the community-level. It’s main advocacy over the fate of Obamacare was done via sit-in protests at GOP state offices, in conjunction with larger national groups. They didn’t just fight repeal, they also advocated for universal coverage by deploying an arduous canvassing effort intended to educate neighbors and friends about the benefits of such a policy. Beyond the East Bay chapter’s work, New York City’s DSA group mobilized around the New York Health Act, another universal coverage bill.
The work goes beyond health care. The national organization also lent support to workers hoping to unionize in a Nissan plant in Mississippi -- an effort that ultimately failed this past Friday. The emphasis on union-organizing also extended to a recent national AT&T strike, during which some local chapters encouraged members to join the picket line.
Though the legislative fights have produced few successes, the electoral ones have ended in victories. According to the organization, there are now 14 DSA members holding public office throughout the country including Carlos Rosa, Chicago’s 35th Ward Alderman, Mike Sylvester, of the Maine House of Representatives and Khalid Kamau, a city council member in South Fulton, Georgia.
The local focus comes, in part, out of necessity. DSA’s structure is decentralized in nature, with a diffuse membership that doesn’t uniformly prescribe to the same methods or priorities as national leadership. The organization also is not a political party. And at this point in its history, new members and local leadership are not all focusing on electoral politics. Some recognize that national Democratic officials don’t want the association with the socialist label; and so battles are chosen wisely.
But the past year has also been a boon for membership, owing both to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success as a presidential candidate and angst over the Trump administration.
Nearly a thousand gathered this past weekend in Chicago to debate, celebrate and raise money. At a banquet on Saturday evening in the University of Illinois at Chicago forum, round tables were strewn with red placards that had been used to vote earlier in the day and served as coasters at night. Among attendees, there was collegial competition, as chapters from various cities attempted to outbid one another for the title of biggest donor to DSA. One member flitted around the convention floor passing a mic to the potential donors from each chapter—from a Texas delegation where some DSA-ers wore red “Y’allidarity” shirts to the Greater Baltimore chapter which contributed exactly $420.69, a two-part reference to marijuana and, yes, the sexual position (Socialists are children too).
Before the actual fundraising began, which resulted in a reported $100,000 for the organization, Marcus Barnett, an organizer for Great Britain’s Momentum campaign pumped his hand in the air, motioning to the sky with an index finger, as the crowd sang “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,” to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. Referred to lovingly as the “absolute fucking boy,” the leftist UK leader’s approach is seen as a template to follow domestically. And, to a certain degree, DSA has been animated by his and Labour’s gains this past June, which resulted in a hung parliament.
But with new growth has come some points of tension for DSA, mainly over how best to spend the political capital they’ve accrued. During the convention, there was talk of a plan to march on Washington in support of single-payer healthcare, a type of action that a larger political organization might take. But even before it could get off the ground running, individual members expressed skepticism.
“The idea of trying to get a sizable chunk of our membership to Washington D.C. is going to give me an anxiety attack,” Kelsey Goldberg, a DSA member from Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast. “These marches get a lot of attention which is great, but if there’s not the infrastructure behind it, and actions behind it, then it’s just this symbolic thing.”
Instead, Goldberg suggested a national day of action akin to the sit-ins in protest of ACA repeal. By the convention’s end on Sunday, there was nothing set it stone.
Self-awareness over their organizational limitations hasn’t meant that DSA members simply ignore national topics or, as Golberg put it, symbolic action. During the convention, some 90 percent of the gathered delegation passed a resolution backing the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) global campaign to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It was the first time in DSA’s history that it took a position on the issue and after the final tally came in some members raised their hands in celebration, chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
That vote generated some of the few headlines out of the Chicago confab. But it was, ultimately, a small part of the weekend’s focus. DSA members are more interested in pushing agenda items like a minumum wage hike and single-payer health care. And they’ve come to the conclusion that the way to do that isn’t simply by pressuring the Democratic Party to move in their direction -- though notable shifts have been made -- but, rather, by trying to influence the politicians and communities that immediately surround them.
It’s a new era for socialism in the United States even if the ideas and some of the songs have been a mainstay of leftist ideology for years.
At the closing of the convention, DSA members gathered in a UIC room, with an aesthetic more befitting of a college philosophy class than a revolutionary uprising, and sang “The Internationale,” a standard of the socialist movement since the late 19th century.
“Arise ye prisoners of starvation,” the song goes. “Arise ye wretched of the earth. For justice thunders condemnation. A better world’s in birth!”