After Bernie lost and Trump won, I realized the Democrats weren't going to win my battles for me.
I first heard the word "socialist" in the movie Clue. It's an early laugh line delivered by Tim Curry as he discusses his deceased wife's previous indiscretions that led him into this murder mansion mess. You see, she used to hang out with *dramatic pause* socialists. "We all make mistakes," he confides to the room of murderous Washingtonian shit-heels and the dead body among them.
As the product of the American public education system, that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of this concept of "socialism." Sure, there were the tales of "communist" Hollywood types being blacklisted during the red scare, and sure, I had read enough Howard Zinn to know that "trickle-down theory" just meant "rich people pissing on the poor," but that was it. Most people don't acquire much more than a back-of-the-napkin understanding of politics, and mine was: There are two options available, and one is full of the most hateful, bigoted, dumbest, racist people imaginable, so the other one is good enough.
Like so many others, I was heartened by Bernie Sanders's campaign—particularly his desire to work on developing free or cheap higher education options, his dedication to "Medicaid for all," and his continual highlighting of income inequality—but when Sanders inevitably lost to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, there was a sense of air being let out of the balloon. The specter of a potential Trump presidency loomed on the horizon, forcing most Sanders supporters to back away from their hopes of an actually progressive candidate in favor of yet another lesser of the two evils ticket. Sure, maybe Clinton won't prosecute corrupt bankers or give us the government-backed healthcare system we need, but the alternative would be worse in so many ways.
That all changed on Election Day.
The Democratic Party, however reasonable and adult, clearly was not going to save us.
If elections are like Thanksgiving dinners, where extended families with long-simmering gripes and resentments play nice for a few hours before shit-talking on the ride home, the election of Donald Trump was like your dickhead uncle getting hammered and causing ruckus enough to shift the family dynamic for good. It's a horrific scene, and maybe some relationships are fractured without repair, but the positive side of having dirty laundry forcibly aired amongst mixed company is that it can no longer be ignored. And guys, America's been floundering about in some soiled diapers for awhile now.
For me, the day after the election was a Highlander-like flood of previous misconceptions being flushed away, of half-considered possibilities being throw open. The Democratic Party, however reasonable and adult, clearly was not going to save us. Trump was the orange brick that broke the camel's back, but in the wake of the sweeping national GOP victory, if you looked around you realized that Republicans had taken over state governments across the country. For someone like me, the only point of the Democratic Party was to beat back the Republicans, and it had failed at even doing that.
So I looked for another way.
I didn't want to fret about Russian influence or FBI Director James Comey—replaying 2016 seemed like a dead end—so I forked some money over to the ACLU before realizing that a freelance writer's income won't likely make much of a difference. Like everyone else, I went to protests, mass gatherings that gave a much-needed voice to opposition but have all-too-obvious limitations. Rallies don't lead to actual change as long as the people with guns aren't listening. At my wit's end, I did what any reasonable and sane person would do in this political climate: I became a card-carrying member of a socialist group*. I chose the Democratic Socialists of America.
This isn't an uncommon story, I've found. Whenever there's a show of hands at any of the recent DSA East Bay meetings for how long everyone's been members, a huge majority goes for the "after the election" option. The DSA, subject of several media profiles, now has more than 15,000 members, a drop in the ocean compared to the major parties but a huge number for a previously unknown group of lefties. Why the DSA? As a fellow member summed up nicely the other day over beers, after the mind-rattling we all got Election Night, he wanted to figure out who "got it right and follow them." The "ones that got it right"—that is, who predicted the failures of the Clinton campaign, but also rejected Trumpism—are all over the internet, if you know where to look.
The "dirtbag left" podcast Chapo Trap House has become the central reference point for whatever you want to call this new American socialist movement, which makes sense, as they're working in a medium that's immediately accessible. (Doesn't hurt that the hosts are bright and funny as all hell.) There's also left-leaning publications like Current Affairs, the Baffler, and Jacobin, each of which examines the world through the failures of capital in a slightly different way. And of course, there's the cavalcade of "leftist" Twitter accounts, many of which are now adorned with roses, long a symbol of socialist movements throughout history, next to their handles. Among these are @LarryWebsite, a DSA organizer based in Philadelphia and huge 76ers fan, and the brilliant @crushingbort, the pseudonymous media critic who wrote a single tweet that completely changed how I view the world:
It's worth pointing out that, while Twitter is a horrific cesspool the world would be better without, accounts like these "work" because of the constraints and chaos of the medium, which forces you to adopt a concise rawness to get your point across. That many do so anonymously, removed from the brand-building punch-pulling of mainstream political analysis, makes their 140 characters more potent.
It's not like socialist tendencies, or general leftism, is a new concept at all. It's been lingering on the edges of the culture for as long as America's been a country. But the potential for these humanistic ideals—that societies should lift up their most vulnerable, that quality of life for all is more important than the material advancement of some—to actually elbow their way into the system seemed to die right around 1980. That was when, you'll recall, the American populace elected a saber-rattling former actor who preached "small government" as the answer to everything, and threw a peanut farmer who actually gave a shit out of office. I'm in my mid-30s; for my cohort, actual, unapologetic liberalism simply didn't exist on a mass scale until Sanders's rise. (Bill Clinon's aggressive centrism and Barack Obama's technocratic administration never made the hearts of leftists swell.) And it was Hillary Clinton's horrific choke job that made socialism look even more attractive. If an established political party, with all the think tanks and algorithms and celebrity endorsements, can't succeed when facing the least popular, most extreme candidate of all time, well, maybe it's time for new ideas?
For me, membership in the DSA has mostly offered an oasis of sanity.
Where this movement goes is anyone's guess. I don't know whether the DSA proper will break through, or if the flag will be carried by some other organization, or if a conglomeration of a bunch of them together will shift Democratic policies left, as conservatives once upon a time took over the Republican Party. It's growing, there's no doubt about that, at the same time more and more people realize how powerless the Democratic leadership truly is. And as it's growing, it's not being dragged down by political lifers or opportunists, but being borne aloft by passionate people who are working to find realistic and legitimate paths ahead. (In the East Bay chapter, we're focused on trying to get a single-payer healthcare system established in California; other chapters have their own goals.)
But for me, membership in the DSA has mostly offered an oasis of sanity. Protests and calls to congresspeople are nice, and no doubt have made some kind of difference, but Rex Tillerson is still secretary of state, Betsy DeVos is still secretary of education. Trump is still president. Protests at airports are symbolically important, but an aggressive campaign against undocumented immigrants still seems to be brewing. Actually finding a group that's not only passionately opposed to this new moronic White House, but offers a promising vision of how to win future elections and what to do beyond? For me, that's been a stabilizing force in our new reality of chaos.
An earlier version of this article called the DSA a "socialist party." It is not a political party.
Follow Rick Paulas on Twitter.