Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic upset, before Julia Salazar’s New York state Senate campaign blew up into a national news story, and before House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spurned any notion of socialism’s ascendance in mainstream politics, a handful of candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America won their May primaries in bids for seats in Pennsylvania’s state legislature.
The candidates—four women—got coverage from a few major outlets, but by the end of the week the story of their success had mostly receded into the background as national attention shifted to the next batch of primaries.
“It’s hard for me to say what would’ve happened if my race had come after Ocasio-Cortez’s or Julia Salazar’s. Would we have gotten more attention? I don’t know,” Elizabeth Fiedler, the DSA-endorsed candidate running in Pennsylvania’s 184th state House district, told me. “But we ran a campaign based on a bold vision for the kind of world we want to live in, and that wouldn’t have changed.”
Fiedler is just one of 28 state-level candidates heading into November’s general elections who have been endorsed by the DSA’s National Political Committee, the 16-person body that serves as the organization’s board of directors. There are 22 other DSA-endorsed candidates on the ballot in local elections, and five more on federal tickets. Fiedler, along with two of the other Pennsylvania women who won the same night as her—Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato—are virtually guaranteed to win their races due to the makeup of their districts, as are more high-profile DSA candidates, like Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar.
DSA was formed in the early 1980s as a result of merging two groups that sprang from anti-Vietnam War and socialist feminist organizing; it's not a political party. Yet come January, DSA, a group whose ideals have often been deemed “too fringe” for mainstream politics, will have unprecedented sway in the Democratic Party. But the DSA’s success in electing candidates to office has spurred debate within the organization, as some members consider how best to leverage its newfound influence while others wonder if DSA should be invested in electoral politics at all.
In elections, DSA is familiar with the question: What happens if we lose? Now its members are trying to answer a very different one: What happens when we win?
“You ask 10 different members of DSA and you get 10 different answers,” Allie Cohn, a member of the National Political Committee, tells me. “We’re a big tent, so you have some people who think we should have our own party, some people who think it’s impossible to change the Democratic Party from the inside, some people who think we should use the two-party system to our advantage—and then there’s all of the ideas in between.”
The rise of democratic socialism in US politics may come as a surprise to those who thought the election of President Donald Trump would require the Democratic Party to moderate its platforms in order to capture voters lost in 2016. Instead, the midterm elections—a referendum on the sitting president and his party—have so far been defined by unexpected losses for middle-of-the-road Democrats in their primaries as a result of challengers from the left.
Many of the outsider candidates who pulled off these upsets were self-identified democratic socialists, while others, though shying from the label, enthusiastically embraced platforms like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and getting corporate money out of politics. It's also worth noting that many of them are women, the result of both more women stepping up to run for office this year and DSA's socialist feminist working group, which Cohn says "helps to foster working class women candidates that are eager to lead."
Ocasio-Cortez dealt the biggest blow to the Democratic establishment with her June primary win, unseating 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, thought to be next in line for House Speaker if Democrats regained the majority. Following Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, 1,152 new people joined DSA, the largest spike for the organization since the month following Trump’s election, when six times more people became members of DSA than the month before. Since November 2016, the group’s nationwide membership has exploded from 7,000 to more than 50,000, with the median age of DSA members dropping from 64 to 30.
For many DSA members, the defining event of the 2016 presidential election wasn’t the defeat of Hillary Clinton, but that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist whose candidacy helped sow the seeds for the rise of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party. Cohn, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, says she could most accurately be called a “slacktivist” before Sanders’ presidential bid, showing up to protests and voting Democrat every election, but doing little else. “When Bernie announced he was running I became completely energized,” Cohn says. “At the time he was using the term democratic socialist, but I didn’t know about DSA.”
Cohn became a delegate for Sanders. One day, when she was hosting a viewing party for Our Revolution, the progressive organization spawned from Sanders’ campaign, the chair of DSA’s Knoxville chapter approached her and asked if she’d come to a meeting. “I remember thinking that I’d found like-minded people, so I started going to meetings more regularly and became a member.”
Tascha Van Auken, a member of DSA’s national electoral committee, came to DSA through a similar conduit. Van Auken had worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, but instead of backing Clinton, Obama’s ideological proxy, in the 2016 election, she too became a Sanders delegate, drawn by his campaign’s grassroots approach. “I was very interested in the type of stuff DSA is doing now: building true grassroots power from a volunteer base so that that volunteer base isn’t just being used to empower a single person at the top,” Van Auken said.
It’s this ethos that’s informed DSA chapters’ approach to campaigning for the 2018 candidates the organization has supported. The effort to earn Salazar—for whom Van Auken served as campaign manager—the Democratic nomination for her state Senate seat involved organizing alongside a coalition of progressive groups, and furthering specific goals DSA wanted to achieve aside from simply electing Salazar to office, like pushing for tenants’ rights and raising awareness around sex work criminalization.
Though the DSA’s involvement in two-party politics took off in 2018, Auken and others emphasize that it’s not the first time the DSA has gotten involved in elections. Before working on Salazar’s state Senate grab, Van Auken helped out with Khader El-Yateem and Jabari Brisport’s New York City Council campaigns in 2017. She said she and her fellow DSA members took much the same approach in their efforts to get the two candidates elected.
The only difference was they lost.
“We’re getting to a point where the socialist movement has developed a sort of working theory for how you get electoral power that that we’ve seen works,” said Sean McElwee, the cofounder of leftist research firm Data for Progress. “But the next question is: What happens once you’ve won the elections? What’s the first piece of legislation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should introduce? How do you hold her accountable? Who staffs her DC office? Who staffs Julia Salazar’s Albany office?"
Cohn told me the group doesn't "usually answer strategy questions" when I asked if DSA had made policy or staffing suggestions to candidates the group helped to office.
“There’s much less clarity on that, and on what tactics DSA is going to use,” McElwee said.
Since DSA is a non-hierarchical organization, it currently has no definitive position on where it stands in relationship to the debates occurring among its membership. Even members like Cohn, who have a direct hand in the group’s electoral strategy, avoid speaking as authorities on the subject. The national DSA’s electoral group’s mission statement, however, attempts to more clearly define how the group will relate to the current political system.
“It is essential that National DSA prioritize cultivating and supporting socialist candidates who will be accountable to DSA’s political agenda,” the statement reads. “This work will be critical to the development of a genuine alternative to the neoliberal third-way politics of the corporate establishment within the Democratic Party.”
When you ask Michael Inouye how heavily the DSA—or, in his case the Democratic Socialists of Honolulu (democratic socialists in Hawaii don’t recognize the federal government’s “illegal annexation” of the island)—should invest in electoral politics he quickly becomes apocalyptic. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped its latest report earlier this month, Inouye has taken to thinking of elections as matters of life and death. The question of who’s best fit for office is, for Inouye, more precise: Who’s going to save us from “complete species annihilation”? His answer is democratic socialists.
Inouye worked on the viral campaign video for Kaniela Ing, showing the 29-year-old DSA- and DSH-endorsed candidate plucking away at a ukulele as he outlines his vision for a world where everyone's basic needs are met. "Our message is mainstream; it just makes sense," he wrote in a tweet, sharing the video. "Hawaiian values are democratic socialist values." In the end, Ing fell to centrist Democrat Ed Case in Hawaii’s 1st congressional district—one of just a handful of defeats which suggests an unevenness to the allure of democratic socialist candidates in some areas.
During our conversation, Inouye found himself defending both sides of what he calls the “pro-electoral” and “anti-electoral” debates he says have recently become more frequent in socialist circles. First he argued the “pro” side.
“During the elections in Hawaii, I saw progressive people who didn’t identify as socialist finding a pathway to their own radicalization through knocking on doors, phone banking, and just being around other DSA members,” Inouye said. “Elections in themselves and the work that goes into them can be a recruitment tool.”
Then he found himself convinced by arguments for the opposing camp.
"Sometimes I feel like we may be investing too much in elections when we could spend those resources building power elsewhere,” Inouye continued. “We’re not going to end capitalism, imperialism, mass incarceration, patriarchy, or racism through electoral politics."
But then on second—or third—thought, he added: “But I still think it’s important to replace these motherfuckers because we have fascism creeping into the highest seats of power while the world around us is literally burning.”
“We’re not going to end capitalism, imperialism, mass incarceration, patriarchy, or racism through electoral politics.”
The question of accountability looms large for the DSA. Some members worry about candidates getting sucked into what they see as a morally bankrupt two-party system and moderating some of their democratic socialist views once they take office. Others worry about eventual missteps from DSA-backed candidates, and anticipate future disputes over how best to respond to them.
“If we see candidates start backsliding and start talking about soft imperialism or reforming capitalism, rolling back on abolish ICE positions—that could be a moment for us to hold them accountable,” Inouye says. “No matter how well-intentioned and passionate they are, they’ll inevitably fuck up against the extraordinary pressures of the corporate political establishment.”
Recently, DSA members got an idea of what that might look like. In July, just a little more than a month after her primary win, Ocasio-Cortez gave a PBS interview that earned her criticism from within her own ranks: While conservatives slammed Ocasio-Cortez for condemning Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine, DSA members were equally unhappy that she affirmed Israel’s “right to exist” and came out in favor of a two-state solution.
Following the interview, a coalition of groups within the DSA as well as more than 150 DSA members from chapters across the country wrote an open letter to Ocasio-Cortez, calling on her to “publicly and unambiguously clarify her stance on Palestine” and commit to seven positions on the conflict. If she didn’t agree to the list of demands, the petitioners asked that the DSA National Electoral Committee rescind her endorsement.
“That she is a political outsider, a member of the community, a real person (so to speak) is undoubtedly an enormous part of her appeal,” the letter, posted on Medium, reads. “To change her tone and shift her values now that she has been nominated undermines her appeal and smacks of selling out. We rallied for someone to challenge business-as-usual, not conform to it.”
In September, another open letter came, this one on DSA's website, from about 100 DSA members who maintained that they stood with Ocasio-Cortez and believed she would be an advocate for Palestine in Congress
“Attacks from the right do not surprise us,” the statement reads. “But what does surprise and dismay us is attacks from people who identify as leftists, including some members of DSA.”
Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t available for interview for this story.
DSA's endorsement questionnaire asks for candidates' stance on universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, labor unions, climate justice, LGBTQ rights, campaign finance, and more, but doesn't specify what happens if an endorsed candidate strays from their originally stated position on these issues. Cohn said candidates aren't expected to align perfectly with DSA on every issue, though she told me "most are very close."
"The flexibility and knowledge of local conditions gained by basing much of the organization’s decision-making power in the chapters is the greatest asset available for guidance in this area," Cohn explained. "Meaning, we aren't doctrinaire and we understand it’s harder to run in some places with certain positions."
Still, McElwee says DSA may have to consider just how far it's willing to allow candidates to deviate from the group's policy platforms once sworn into office.
“It becomes a matter of—do you yell at Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter? Do you release a public statement as an organization? Or do you handle it privately, and call one of her chiefs of staff and say, ‘Hey, can I put you in touch with someone so we can get in alignment on this?’” McElwee says.
In the absence of establishment backing, DSA may have played a significant role in helping insurgent candidates cross the finish line. But it’s not necessarily the case that the candidates who have benefited from the group’s efforts feel a deeper allegiance to DSA than they do to grassroots organizations that lent them support.
Innamorato, the Pennsylvania state legislature candidate, said that while her democratic socialist views are deeply held—she’s been a DSA member since 2016—DSA’s definitive ideological platforms can at times come up against her primary role as a candidate, which is to heed the concerns of her would-be constituents.
“When you go into a community, you have to listen first,” Innamorato tells me. “I think sometimes instead of saying, ‘We want to have a conversation with you and talk about what policies you have to prioritize, DSA wants to say, ‘We have the answer right here: It’s democratic socialism.’”
DSA, by virtue of being a socialist nonprofit organization, isn’t using vast sums of campaign dollars to hold candidates to their word. Instead, its members must rely on its newly elected allies’ desire to avoid backlash and bad press from the group, whose influence will only continue to grow with its rapidly expanding membership, and as socialist ideals continue to accrue social and political currency.
But mostly, DSA seems to be relying on candidates’ good faith. “These aren’t empty promises,” Cohn said. “These are platforms these candidates wholeheartedly believe in, and they’re already working really hard to see them come to fruition.”
While DSA waits to see how its candidates fare at the ballot box on November 6, it’s clear the group has already significantly altered the Democratic Party.
As Medicare for All has become more popular within the party, backing the single-payer health care proposal has become a litmus test for progressive candidates in 2018; an August survey found that a majority of Republican voters also support the policy. The call to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) went from being a “radical” proposition to something sitting senators were asked about on MSNBC, and roughly a dozen sitting members of Congress came out in support of.
But the rise in the group’s sway over electoral politics has brought with it additional scrutiny and media attention to which its members and endorsed candidates aren’t accustomed. For the first time, the DSA’s internal politics—say, disputes over whether to endorse newly professed democratic socialist Cynthia Nixon in her mayoral bid—are the subject of stories in The New Yorker; controversy surrounding Salazar’s New York state Senate race catches the attention of major cable news networks.
Moving forward, DSA may have to wrestle with the finer points of what it wants to achieve under a microscope.
Still, even Van Auken, who, as Salazar’s former campaign manager, perhaps best knows what it’s like to deal with the unexpected spotlight on DSA-backed candidates, is looking forward to the challenge. DSA has been waiting for this moment for years; now it’s finally come.
“If and how DSA should be involved in electoral politics has always been a topic of debate,” Van Auken says. “But this moment is different: We don’t just get to talk about these things; we get to work them out in real time.
“As hard and as messy as it’s going to be, that’s what it means to bring more people into the political process,” she continued. “That’s what’s exciting—we’ve reached the next step and we get to figure it out.”