What is the DSA?
Maybe you've got a few particularly vocal friends who keep posting about the Democratic Socialists of America. Maybe you've noticed more and more people in your Twitter feed with a rose emoji in their profile name, or maybe you noticed protesters with DSA signage countering white supremacist rallies in recent weeks. With a new organization making the news every week (and nonsense lingo like "the alt-left" making the rounds), it's more important than ever to tell the bad guys from the good, the sickos from the sensible. So, towards that effort: what exactly is the DSA? Here's a short course.
The DSA is a socialist organization
It was formed in 1982 from the merger (rare in
The DSOC and NAM themselves were also formed in reaction to the drift into neoliberalism that had taken over the Democratic party at large. The DSOC had split from the Socialist Party of America during its 1972 convention, and NAM was formed after the disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society, to build a cohesive leftist organization that crossed racial, class and gender boundaries. Upon the DSA's founding, writers and activists Michael Harrington and Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed ) were elected as co-chairs of the organization.
In 2017, the DSA is also growing, and fast: they recently held their bi-annual convention in Chicago, and have reached their largest membership ever, over 27,000 official members, four times the number of members from just last year , making them the third largest socialist organization in US history. Chapters exist in almost every state.
What does "democratic socialism" mean?
In some circles, the term "socialism" has become almost derogatory. It's the term your crazy right wing uncle uses to describe anyone supporting universal health care, for instance. It's Stalin or the cause of the chaos in Venezuela. "The Right convinced a majority of the public that the causes of economic stagnation were strong unions and over-expanded public provision," writes Joseph M. Schwartz in his History of Democratic Socialists of America.
By adding that little D word before it, Democratic Socialism tries to distance itself from these negative connotations. Democratic Socialists see capitalism as a problem, but aim for more realistic, incremental change, since an overhaul of our entire economic system isn't likely on the horizon anytime soon. They envision a social order based on some form of social ownership of public resources as well as complete racial and gender equality. They spend a lot of time discussing and planning how, exactly, this transformation should happen.
No, it isn't the same as communism
While opposed to capitalism, Democratic Socialists consider communism (or, at least authoritarian examples of it) an equally unsuccessful alternative. Writer and activist Michael Harrington, one of the DSA's founding members and major thinkers, explained it succinctly in 1988 at a fundraiser for a poverty-fighting organization he had formed, The Next America Foundation: "The democratic socialists envision a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, and racial equality." And Donald F. Busky defined it as such in Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey : "Democratic socialism is the wing of the socialist movement that combines a belief in a socially owned economy with that of political democracy." Modern-day communism is seen as highly undemocratic and totalitarian in practice. "Democratic socialists wish to emphasize by their name that they disagree strongly with the Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism," explains Busky.
That said, you will likely hear DSA members toss around terms like "Late Capitalism." Once used by Marx, the phrase has morphed to be emblematic of our current socioeconomic climate, where everything, including art, has become commodified and consumable. It also connotes extreme income inequality. It's the term you use to describe a 18 dollar glass of wine, or a studio in Dogpatch, San Francisco selling for 1.5 million.
What's the DSA's platform?
Put it this way: if there is a spectrum, Betsy DeVos is at the opposite end. The first sentence of the DSA's Constitution sums it up: "We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race and sex, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo."
Fundamentally, the DSA stands in opposition to neoliberalism (privatization, deregulation, free trade) as well as capitalism and our devotion to it as the answer to everything. Anti-austerity, labor solidarity, decreasing the influence of money in politics, empowering ordinary people in workplaces and within the economy, restructuring gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable-all are flags of the DSA agenda.
Currently, post-Trump, the DSA is focusing on candidates and initiatives at the state level. For example, the DSA considers the election of DSA member Khalid Kamau to city council in South Fulton, Georgia, as a recent success. They backed him and he is one of the first Black Lives Matter organizers to be elected to public office in the country. Future candidates that the DSA are supporting include Jon Grant, running for Seattle city council position in November, as well as two City Council candidates in Brooklyn-Lutheran pastor Reverend Khader El-Yateem and Jabari Brisport. "I've been part of several activist organizations and DSA has been the best at plugging into local battles," Brisport told The Gothamist .
But they do have an international agenda. At the recent convention, the organization voted to leave the Socialist International (a collective of international socialist organizations), in order to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
What's their target demographic?
At the recent convention, various sources clocked the crowd as being predominantly under the age of 35 . Not only was the crowd young, but many of the newly elected delegates had been members for less than 6 months. "There are young, scruffy, and often bearded men aplenty who fit the BernieBro stereotype," reported Slate writer Osita Nwanevu. "But according to the DSA's figures on delegates in attendance, 40 percent of the Chicago crowd are women, and 20 percent are people of color."
In the recent past, the DSA experienced growth during the Great Recession (and the Occupy Wall Street Movement that followed it), and interest in the organization has, of course, spiked since the election of Donald Trump. Many members also recognize the organization's recent growth as a result of Bernie Sanders' populist campaign. Still, one attendee at the convention (who preferred to remain anonymous) noted that while quite a few Bernie T shirts and swag decorated some delegates at this month's convention, there was almost nothing about him or his possible 2020 campaign from the stage or in conversations.
That said, there are clear ties between the candidate and Democratic Socialist ideas. The DSA isn't explicitly aligned with Bernie, but they did endorse him vigorously, and consider his successful presidential campaign to be an indication of their groundswell of support. As for Sanders, during the Democratic presidential debates (how long ago it seems), he defended the movement, and he has aligned himself with the DSA in the past. For example, Bernie addressed the movement in 1991 .
The movement strives to be a democracy, warts and all
The Democratic Socialists try to be orderly. At the convention, " DSA Guidelines for Respectful Discussion " were followed. Most DSA members strive to remain pragmatic and realistic rather than anarchic, and believe in working for favored Democrats while, of course, opposing most Republicans.
The basic structure of the DSA can be found on their website: "DSA's primary political leadership is the National Political Committee (NPC), a sixteen-person body which functions as the board of directors of DSA and is elected every two years by the delegates to DSA's National Convention. Every DSA chapter is entitled to send a certain number of delegates to the National Convention, based upon the chapter's size. There are also 'at-large' delegates to represent areas where there are no active chapters."
But, like all democracies, it's not easy. At the convention, according to one attendee who preferred to remain anonymous, a contingent tried to pass resolution that would have prohibited DSA from endorsing or working with any organization that takes corporate donations on an election effort. Then it was pointed out that this would include.... Planned Parenthood. Oops.
The DSA is not a political party (yet)
While the DSA has endorsed democratic electoral candidates like Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, DSA members tend to keep a vehement and ideological distance from the political establishment and mainstream Democrats. (They don't like Hillary much, for instance). They have also remained critical of these politicians, even after offering an endorsement-when Obama was lenient on Wall Street after the big bailout of 2008, the DSA took note. "To put it simply, if it is too big to fail, it is too big to be in private hands," wrote Frank Llewellyn and Joseph Schwartz (national director of DDSA and chairman of DSA's steering committee) in the Chicago Tribune in 2009. "If the government were to nationalize just one of the insolvent banks (Citicorp or Bank of America), a publicly owned bank could provide a real check on the behavior of the others."
And two years ago at the previous convention, some DSA members called upon Bernie to run as an independent, and have considered him a sheepdog for neoliberal dems ever since.
Ultimately, the DSA is a big tent organization encompassing a wide range of views, and the main ideological divides are largely between members who believe in working with the Democratic Party, versus those who dislike the Democratic Party altogether and do not think it can help achieve socialist goals. That means that there are many different voices, and alongside members who believe in working with Democrats, there are anarchists and others who want to shatter the system. For example, the DSA's ' libertarian socialist caucus ' include "syndicalists, council communists, anarchists, cooperativists, and municipalists, among many others" according to their website. They believe the path to socialism does not happen through the efforts of a political party "but rather in the creation of independent institutions in civil society that give the working class and ordinary people direct power over their lives."
And as discussed above, there are contingents within the DSA who don't even see becoming a political party as a worthwhile goal. But that's not to mean they, as a whole, desire anarchy. It's more about outside-the-box thinking. The DSA looks for solutions outside of just electoral politics, meaning they participate in many forms of political activism other than working on election campaigns. Still, after decades witnessing the effects of income inequality, racism, and the rise of the 12 dollar avocado toast, the DSA they aren't naive-they know they need to enact change slowly, locally.