CHICAGO — “Socialist” used to be the dirtiest smear you could levy at a mainstream Democrat. But for America’s largest generation, those days may be over. According to a recent study, millennials, the largest demographic in the United States by age, view socialism more favorably than they view capitalism. Those findings may explain why the Democratic Party has found itself mired under endless infighting over Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpected resonance with the youngest members of the base.
But politics isn’t just about polls or popularity — it’s about power. And in order to wield that power, American socialists need to start making their mark on elections.
To that end, the Democratic Socialists of America has a plan. Since Donald Trump’s election, the DSA — which held its national convention in Chicago over the weekend to plan its path toward 2018 and beyond — says its numbers have quadrupled in a year to over 25,000 card-carrying members, turning them from a fringe group of lefties into the largest socialist organization in the U.S. since World War II.
And for Democrats willing to pull to the left and identify as socialists — or at least support socialist issues like single-payer health care, a raise in the minimum wage to at least $15, criminal justice reform and a rejection of corporate influence over politics — the DSA is staffing campaigns with hundreds, perhaps thousands of volunteers.
“We step in analogously to being hired consultants, except we do it for free,” DSA deputy director David Duhalde said in an interview.
The DSA is not a party. Instead, they provide candidates and manpower, sometimes for their own candidates, and sometimes for Democrats. When local DSA chapters decide to support a candidate, they swoop in, set up volunteer networks, tap into a national network of phone banks and bring in a media team that can make images, posters, videos and graphics.
But first, the candidate — Democrat or otherwise — has to win the DSA’s favor.
Abdullah Younus, an organizer for DSA, told Mic that the group’s New York City chapter received over 100 applications for their support for city council races, eventually settling on two candidates. One of them is the Lutheran Rev. Khader El-Yateem, the first Palestinian Christian to run for city council in the city’s history. El-Yateem fit the Democratic Socialist platform on a few important platform issues — criminal justice reform, support of nonviolent protest of Palestinian occupation — but, most importantly, he singled himself out as the only candidate in his district from either side of the aisle to refuse money from real estate developers.
Now, El-Yateem has 60 socialists volunteering, knocking on doors and creating original videos for the campaign. DSA canvases for El-Yateem in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, every day, taking on 30 to 40 shifts a week.
“We can promise people an army,” Younus, who volunteers as DSA field director for El-Yateem’s campaign, said.
According to Younus, his organization’s involvement proved instrumental in garnering El-Yateem more money, more manpower and more petition signatures than any other candidate in NYC’s 43rd district.
The DSA inherits its model from the Sanders campaign — a loss ultimately, but one that gave birth to a new paradigm for political organizing. Duhalde identified two lessons mainstream Democrats can learn from Sanders’ campaign model — a model which shattered fundraising records and garnered Sanders unexpected wins in states like Michigan.
The first is the DSA’s model for organizing its ground troops. The Sanders campaign used a combination of apps like Slack, virtual call centers and online forums to quickly convert rank-and-file volunteers into organizers who then become responsible for their own, new network of volunteers.
The other takeaway is a point that Berniecrats have been drilling Democrats on since the 2016 election loss: coming out with a strong set of ambitious goals instead of defining themselves by what they’re not.
In a statement, the Democratic National Committee said the party is aware of its gaps in messaging and is working to overcome them:
We know that we have to work harder to communicate and connect our values as Democrats with voters to address their real concerns about jobs, opportunity and the issues that impact families day to day. We have seen time and again that the economy continues to be the number one issue that keeps families up at night. That is why Democrats in the House and the Senate have worked on a plan that will help people by creating jobs, raising wages and providing workers with the skills they need to succeed.
At one point, Democrats caught flak for testing the waters with a bumper sticker emblazoned with the slogan, “I mean, have you seen the other guys?” Millennials may lean more toward socialism than capitalism, but their voter turnout is the lowest of any age group — a result, many on the left believe, of the Democrats not speaking directly to their politics.
But for now, DSA seems to need the Democratic ballot line and mainstream Democrats who can carry their policy platform into office. Twenty-five-thousand socialists might be a powerful campaigning force, but the group doesn’t bring any money to the table for its candidates.
And campaigns need a lot of money. As of 2013, the average U.S. representative spent $1.6 million to win. The average U.S. senator spent more than $10 million. For the innumerable local elections the DSA is embroiled in, candidates are looking at a number closer to mere tens of thousands in operating costs, but not all of their candidates can realistically drum up the same kind of crowdfunded cash flow that Sanders did without the same big-name brand recognition.
“We’re still figuring out how to reconcile being a socialist organization doing electoral politics in a country where you need to be able to raise huge amounts of money to be able to effectively run for higher office,” Renée Paradis, a lawyer on DSA’s national electoral committee, told Mic.
So, for now, DSA is focusing on winning local elections in 2017 before it begins to worry about its role in the 2018 midterms. And not all of the DSA’s candidates so far have come from the Democrats: Freshly minted city council members like Dylan Parker from Rock Island, Illinois, and khalid kamau, a Black Lives Matter activist from South Fulton, Georgia, come straight from DSA membership.
But the DSA is long past hand-wringing over whether Democrats in general are worth working with.
“It’s about winning,” Duhalde said. “And if people want to work with us to elect socialists, we’re happy to do so, whether or not they’re Democrats.”