Seizing the means of production is so hot right now.
Long relegated to the fringes of American politics, socialism is surging on college campuses in the aftermath of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders — a self-described democratic socialist — and Donald Trump’s victory. The Young Democratic Socialists of America went from 12 chapters at the end of 2016 to 47 in June, and at least 100 are expected by the end of this semester (329 colleges registered for materials in August).
“By losing an election to Donald Trump, the Democrats demonstrated that they aren’t the answer,” 20-year-old Michelle Fisher, the national co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and a junior at Wesleyan University, told VICE News.
But it’s not just because of Trump: Fisher’s disaffection with the Democratic Party has been brewing for some time. “I think when [Barack] Obama was president, I thought he was fine because I didn’t know any better,” she said. “He inherited a lot, but he did a lot to continue the U.S.’ imperial politics and also deported more people than any other president.”
Surging in the Trump era
While the Democratic Party’s College Democrats of America’s 1,200 chapters still dwarfs the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), the sudden surge of an alternative progressive movement among the young threatens to further splinter the Democratic Party as it tries to rebuild after the disastrous 2016 election and energize young voters in 2018 and 2020. The Democrats’ narrow presidential-election losses in 2000 and 2016 were due in part to liberal third-party alternatives drawing away votes, and the fast rise of the YDSA could further exacerbate that dynamic.
“Democrats demonstrated that they aren’t the answer.”
“I think the idea is that we create something within this country that is pure and not tainted by the kind of capitalist, imperialist practices that a lot of organizations in this country are,” said Sanjeev Rao, a 20-year-old at Indiana University Bloomington, who founded the YDSA chapter there last spring.
Young Democratic Socialists of America isn’t the only progressive organization to surge in the Trump era, of course. And whether it can sustain this growth remains an open question. The Democratic Party, for its part, is intent on attempting to foster unity in opposition.
“This is only a good thing for the Democratic Party,” said Sabrina Singh, the deputy communications director at the Democratic National Committee, said of the rise of YDSA. “There is incredible enthusiasm on college campuses across the country, and we’ve seen a number of groups rise to bring about progressive change and get involved in Democratic politics.”
But eight YDSA organizers at colleges across the country said that helping the Democrats is not their goal. Instead, they want to remain distinct and offer a more progressive alternative to the Democratic Party. “Democrats have more moderation, but it’s the same policy of class war as the Republicans,” Chance Walker, the co-chair of the new YDSA chapter at University of Texas San Antonio, told VICE News.
At UT San Antonio — where half of the student body is Hispanic, a key constituency for Democrats — there is now only a socialists club and not a Democratic one. The College Dems club at UT San Antonio went kaput in 2016, according to the university, and Walker helped start a YDSA chapter this past fall.
“I first heard of YDSA because of the Bernie Sanders campaign,” Walker said. “Before that, I was a political nihilist: Politicians don’t care about you, we’ll never have the economic opportunities that our parents and grandparents had, no matter what we do.”
“We’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is.”
Democratic Socialists of America — which is not yet a political party but organizes for far-left candidates in the Green Party and runs candidates in Democratic primaries against more conventional Democrats — was founded in the 1980s when two democratic socialist organizations merged. It has since labored in relative obscurity with low membership and few electoral victories. Sanders’ strong campaign in 2016, however, demonstrated that a socialist message could have tremendous appeal, especially at a time of nearly unprecedented income inequality and stagnant wages.
Fear of the “S-word”
Democrats have long shied away from the S-word for fear of being painted as closet Marxists. During the 2016 presidential primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said that Republicans were eager to face Sanders in a general election “because they can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle.”
And at a CNN town hall in February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded to a question about young people losing faith in capitalism and whether the party would move to the left to appeal to them by saying: “We’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is.”
But college kids say that’s old news, man.
The NYU student who asked Pelosi the question, 20-year-old Trevor Hill, told VICE News that Democrats can’t win over college-aged students like him if they continue to fight inequality “through the same methods that keep screwing over the same people.”
At the town hall, Hill cited a 2016 Harvard Kennedy School poll showing that 51 percent of 18-29-year-olds said they did not support capitalism. But that same poll also measured that only 33 percent supported socialism, suggesting that democratic socialism could struggle to be a viable alternative unless its supporters convert large swaths of Americans.
Fisher says that she and other organizers realize they are in for a long, potentially multi-decade battle. “I’m not sure that by 2020 we’ll have enough power to influence proposed national legislation,” she said.
But she added that she and other young socialists just don’t feel the socialist stigma that Pelosi and McCaskill do. “I think people in my generation — people who grew up post-Cold War — I don’t think socialism is as much a scarlet S as it is for older folks,” said Fisher, who grew up in a center-left Democratic family in suburban Atlanta before joining the YDSA at college.
“The taboo for me was never there.”