Nobody wants to read about socialists.
My boss tells me so the day before I'm scheduled to fly to Chicago to cover the national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which recently became the largest socialist organization in the United States since the 1940s.
DSA's membership has swelled to 25,000 since the election of President Donald Trump, more than tripling its ranks in a single year. New members tend to be young, fed up with centrist Democrats, and very good at Twitter. With all this fresh interest and attention, the big challenge facing the group is proving they're more than a well-branded online phenomenon and turning their growth into real political change. The question for DSA as its members headed into the group's annual convention: How exactly do they plan to build a new American left where basically everyone else has failed before?
But Stranger editorial director Dan Savage doesn't care about any of that. In a stuffy meeting room, he notes that the share of voters who backed Green Party nominee Jill Stein in several swing states exceeded the difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in those states. With that in mind, Dan has just two questions about the DSA: "Are they going to be spoilers? Are they going to run someone for president in 2020?"
At the muggy University of Illinois at Chicago campus, 1,000 delegates, observers, and journalists from around the globe arrive for the convention. The line to check in is dotted with different variations of a red shirt—the signature rose, a local chapter name, "socialism or barbarism."
As I wander around campus, the crowd is largely young, white, and male, though not overwhelmingly. (Contrary to stereotypes, some of DSA's most active leaders and organizers are women. Attendees talk about socialist feminism, and organizational rules require diversity on the group's leadership committee. During the weekend, DSA members vote to create a national Afro-socialist caucus.)
In the food court, one table discusses Lenin and another mocks the Democratic Party's new slogan (A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future). When I check in, I'm given a name tag, a campus map, a copy of the lyrics to "The Internationale," and a yellow piece of paper that says "SOCIALIST STRETCHING" at the top. The first step instructs me to "reach all the way up to our raised expectations of a visionary socialist future (stretch arms up, hold for 10)." I do not do this.
On the schedule for the weekend's convention: setting the group's political priorities for the next two years; considering resolutions expressing support for movements like the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS); and administrative issues like how the group should collect dues.
"We are part of a new left-wing insurgence," DSA national director Maria Svart tells delegates in her opening remarks.
"When we look at what got us here, we don't just blame Wall Street Democrats," Svart tells the crowd. "We don't just blame the sexism and racism of Trump [and] voter suppression by the Republicans. We also recognize the failures of the left to reach beyond the choir to build a multiracial, working-class mass movement."
"We are not interested in losing," she adds. "We are not interested in performing our politics. We are here to win."
Here to win what, exactly?
At the last convention, DSA decided its top priority would be working on the Bernie Sanders campaign. This year, there's very little talk about presidential politics. Instead, the group plans to focus on a full-throated campaign for Medicare for All and work to deepen its roots in the labor movement. Endorsing and campaigning to elect socialists to office comes third. And when DSA endorses, it endorses in local races. All weekend, there's more excitement about union organizing and campaigns for city council members than about trying to draft a presidential candidate. In other words: No, they're not spoilers.
"When people look at DSA, they should be thinking about the value that it would give to a broader progressive movement to have a strong socialist pole in it," Bhaskar Sunkara, a DSA member and founder of socialist magazine Jacobin, tells me, "and not thinking about what it could mess up. It's a pretty reasonable, pragmatic organization."
The question facing DSA is not who they plan to run for president in 2020 to "spoil" the Democrats—the group "will almost without a doubt not put up an independent candidate," Sunkara says—but how they use their newfound enthusiasm now. A small socialist organization is better positioned to phone-bank for a city council candidate or knock on doors in support of Medicare for All than do presidential campaign work. And there's a lot of local work to be done before 2020.
The spoiler question is an oversimplification, just like the assertion that leftists who critique both Republicans and Democrats see "no difference" between the two. It's possible to believe the Democratic Party has failed to deliver on policies that sufficiently address the failures of capitalism and to still see that Trump is a worse prospect.
"I think the consensus within DSA—I don't think I'm being provocative to say—is that if you're in a swing state, of course you vote for the Democrat in the presidential cycle," Sunkara says. "We'd rather be in opposition under a Democrat than a Republican."
But the socialist strategy over the long term is to build—from local elections up—an alternative that does more than settle for the current Democratic Party. Whether DSA can successfully achieve that goal remains to be seen.
"Our project is less about being a short-term electoral spoiler or anything like that. It is to build an alternative pole, alternative opposition, because you can't beat the right by just allying with the center if the center is alienating people and fueling that right itself," Sunkara says. "In order to break the cycle, at some point we need to articulate our own vision and promise of politics."
Throughout the weekend, delegates split their time between small group trainings and gathering on the convention floor to vote on resolutions and amendments using the arcane system of Robert's Rules of Order. They excitedly point out the closest thing the online left has to celebrities: the hosts of the podcast Chapo Trap House (or the "dirtbag left"). A leader from London Young Labour (the teens and twentysomethings arm of Jeremy Corbyn's party) serves as a proxy for the world's newest socialist hero. Throughout the weekend, the whole group breaks out in chants of "Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn" to the tune of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army."
For Ash Clark, the vice chair of Seattle DSA who joined the group after Sanders's loss in the Democratic primary, the millennial attraction to socialism should come as no surprise. They simply haven't been conditioned the same way. They have not lived through a red scare. And, in the meantime, capitalism hasn't won any loyalty.
"We really are out of options," Clark says. "You can't just get a better job. You can't just go to college and everything's going to be great... There's almost an element of nihilism with it, where we're kind of just like, fuck it."
Clark, a member of DSA's Left Caucus, wants to see DSA move further left, "away from Democratic centralism, away from neoliberalism."
But, she adds, "I understand that people in Kentucky maybe don't have that same mind-set because they haven't seen that work successfully... There's room for everybody."
Max Lewis, a former draft-card burner and Seattle delegate who's been involved in socialist politics for decades, says modern acceptance of socialism presents a "golden opportunity."
"We know sometimes movements are able to take opportunities and sometimes they slip by," Lewis says. "I think DSA is the organization to move forward with it."
Outside of DSA strongholds like New York, Seattle may prove the perfect testing ground. Shaun Scott, a Seattle writer who grew up in public housing in New York City, says some of his family members wouldn't have been able to get by without "one redistribution program or another, and all those things are steps up into a form of prosperity." Because of that background, Scott says, "class analysis is just kind of on the back of my eyelids at this point."
Seattle presents a case study of liberalism's failures, Scott says, as the city glimmers with growth but faces a worsening housing and homelessness crisis. Today, Scott is a field organizer for Seattle City Council candidate Jon Grant, a DSA member who's running on the promise of creating more city-owned housing.
"If there's discontent in the place that's supposed to be the most perfect, the place that other places are supposed to be aspiring to," Scott says, "then that lets us know how deep-seated the structural issues that we're taking aim at really are."
In a wood-paneled union hall two miles from the convention, 28-year-old Democratic Socialists of America member and Chicago City Council alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa hosts a fundraiser where $20 includes an open bar of PBR and Carlo Rossi.
Despite being a socialist, Ramirez-Rosa urges the room of young leftists against abandoning the Democratic ballot line. It's possible, Ramirez-Rosa says, to run true leftists as Democrats and "seize" the party from the inside. In some places, that's the only way to win.
Campaigning in Chicago, "one of the first questions you'll get when you knock on that door is 'Are you a Democrat?'" Ramirez-Rosa says. "And if your answer is no—it doesn't matter if the answer is no because you're a Republican, or the answer is no because you're an independent, or the answer is no because you're from the Workers Party—they're going to slam that door in your face."
Ramirez-Rosa's argument wins both nods and winces in the room. It's one of the central questions facing the rapidly growing political organization: Just how should they work with Democrats—if at all.
It's not a new question for the DSA. The 35-year-old organization has long been a "big tent," multi-tendency group. In general, DSA advocates for taking basic needs like housing and health care off the market, empowering workers to organize and control their workplaces, and weakening the influence of corporations, all toward the long-term goal of abolishing capitalism. Exactly how society should get there depends on who you ask. DSA welcomes socialists of various stripes, including some more willing to work with Democrats than others. DSA is not a political party (it's a nonprofit), but you'd be forgiven for assuming it is. (DSA members are running for local office across the country, including in Seattle.)
Ramirez-Rosa adds a caveat to his call to infiltrate the Democratic Party.
"There are places like Seattle where you can elect an independent socialist candidate like Kshama Sawant," he says, referring to the city council member who won election running with Socialist Alternative, "and in those places, where we can do it, we should do it... The bottom line is we need to win."
For Seattle socialists, there's little reason to back a Democrat.
"I think on the whole, we need to be less concerned about the Democratic Party and need to start developing our own center of gravity," says Andrej Markovcic, chair of Seattle DSA, who joined after Sanders lost the primary.
And for Seattle candidates, there's little to gain from calling yourself a Democrat.
When Jon Grant ran for Seattle City Council as a Democrat in 2015, he lost. "The entire Democratic establishment—almost every single Democratic incumbent and much of labor too—all sided with [incumbent] Tim Burgess, who only recently saw the light on marriage equality and a woman's right to choose," Grant says.
This year, Grant is running as a democratic socialist. Several months after he launched his campaign, he officially joined Seattle DSA. Soon after, the group endorsed him. Grant says the Democratic Party is "having an identity crisis when it can't embrace the ideals and values that democratic socialism represents." Grant is now one of six local candidates endorsed by DSA national and is likely to get phone-banking help from DSA chapters across the country.
"Until we do [embrace democratic socialist values]," Grant says, "it made a lot of sense for us to just run as an independent, to run as a democratic socialist, so that we can really make it clear that we just can't accept market solutions when we see time and time again that they're failing us."
Getting Grant elected could bring Seattle DSA new prominence—not to mention access to city hall—but the campaign will also test the group's future in grassroots organizing.
In Chicago, convention-goers constantly talk about the importance of maintaining allies in labor. Second on the group's list of national priorities: "expanding and deepening labor work." "There is no strong socialist movement absent a militant and powerful labor movement," it reads.
DSA pledges to increase its ties to existing unions and train its members on how to be "effective rank-and-file activists," changing unions from the inside. Expanding connections to labor is also DSA's core strategy for building a more diverse, more working-class movement—addressing the criticism that it's a movement led by white academics who've read Marx.
But unions and socialists have a complicated relationship in Seattle. When Kshama Sawant ran in 2013, most labor endorsements went to her opponent, an incumbent Democrat. This year, both Seattle DSA and Sawant's Socialist Alternative are backing Grant against Teresa Mosqueda, who works for the Washington State Labor Council and helped draft last year's statewide minimum-wage and sick-leave initiative. In other words: Seattle socialists will spend the next three months opposite nearly every labor union in town.
While some Seattle labor unions align with business—take SEIU Local 775, which has endorsed the same candidate for mayor as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce—Mosqueda did not win the chamber's endorsement and is running to the left of Tim Burgess. She's promising to champion workers' and renters' rights. She supports publicly funded housing, though she'd rather fund projects using bonding than taxes on corporations, as Grant has proposed.
After Socialist Alternative's endorsement, King County Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Nicole Grant called it "an insult to the same labor movement SA clings to for credibility."
Seattle DSA members argue there's a difference between "labor" and "unions." Just because union leadership is enthusiastic about Mosqueda doesn't mean rank-and-file members facing the city's housing crisis won't support Grant, they say.
"The onus is going be on us to make that case," Scott says. "I do think our policies are going to be better for working people."
For DSA nationally, the question of how to work with Democrats is more difficult to answer in a city like Seattle. It pulses through the weekend's debates. But while some members advocate for a stronger separation from the party, efforts to put that in writing largely fail.
During several debates, members suggest changes to the language around DSA's priorities for the next two years. One proposed amendment says the group should refrain from getting involved in internal struggles within the Democratic Party, like this year's fight over who should chair the Democratic National Committee. ("I don't want to be their junior partner," a speaker in favor of this change tells the room.)
Another amendment outlines the struggles socialists face to not cave to capitalists once in office. "In light of these challenges," the amendment reads, "DSA nationally should support explicitly socialist candidates wherever possible, whether they run independently or on Democratic Party ballot lines." The same amendment proposes that DSA should not endorse candidates who take money from corporations or are backed by any candidates or groups that do.
Neither change would bar DSA from ever backing Democrats, but they would make more explicit the group's oppositional relationship to the party. Both end up failing.
Another proposal would express DSA's support for the "draft Bernie" movement to urge Sanders to run a third-party campaign. The Democrats have become "a toxic brand and a failed party," the resolution reads. "DSA is not tied to the Democratic Party. Why tie our strategy to a sinking ship?"
Delegates vote to table that resolution. To the question of its future alongside the Democratic Party, DSA does not appear ready to completely sever ties.
On Saturday night, hundreds of DSA delegates flood in from a fundraising banquet to a sweaty after-party in the offices of labor magazine In These Times. A DJ plays to the packed dance floor. Partygoers lean on desks littered with beer and LaCroix cans. There are shots of Malört and free copies of Jacobin, and the Jeremy Corbyn chant echoes again.
Next to the keg, a sign quotes Marx: "'From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.' Please donate to ensure that everyone who needs a drink gets one."
The next morning, delegates clutch coffee cups as they make their way to the meeting rooms. I see a few red-eyed Seattle members, including one who doesn't drink but is still exhausted from "just mainlining socialism" until 5 a.m. Through the fog of a hangover, delegates take their final votes. They finalize the group's priorities and break out into chants: "This is class war, eat the rich and feed the poor!"
Delegates are urged to go home and build campaigns on local issues, to back socialist candidates in their hometowns, and to strengthen their ties with labor unions. They're optimistic and frenetic, and they aren't thinking about how to spoil the election for Democrats. There's too much work to do.