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The Socialist Network

Inside DSA's struggle to move into the political mainstream

Illustration by Doug Chayka

Future historians may well portray the second decade of the twenty-first century as the moment when American socialism returned from the dead. The collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s had supposedly sealed the overarching terms of political dispute within the confines of the “end of history”—the abrupt cessation of ideological hostilities stoked over the long Cold War, and the wan triumph of liberal capitalism throughout the globe. Socialism, at least on the American political scene, seemed destined to join antiquarian curiosities in the annals of left-leaning political agitation, somewhere alongside the transcendentalists’ failed commune at Brook Farm, agitations over the Single-Tax, and the temperance movement.

No longer. As the trend-spotting brain trust at New York magazine bewailed in a cover story steeped in elite befuddlement: “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” Their predictably glib answer seemed to be that it all had something to do with Brooklyn millennials.

In reality, though, the resurgence of socialism in our time is a tale of dogged organizing against formidable odds of attaining simple cultural and intellectual visibility, let alone electoral success. And it is, to striking degree, the story of a once-marginal band of activist insurgents gathered under the banner of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Anyone who came of political age during the 1980s probably thought of DSA as a moribund band of leftist true believers. The group’s ideology was warmed-over fare, dating from the heyday of the Cold War—timid and firmly anti-communist. Even the name seemed vaguely apologetic: We’re not dangerous radicals; we’re democratic like you! Much of the group’s activism seemed likewise geared toward modest electoral goals—mostly working with liberal Democrats—and its membership resembled a naturally occurring retirement community.

That, too, has all changed. With more than 50,000 members, most of them young—members in their mid-thirties feel like senior citizens now—DSA has become a vigorous organization that’s helping elect fairly radical candidates to office. It’s one of the reasons Donald Trump is now running against socialism.

But where does it go from here? Does DSA have a long-term strategy? Can its lead organizers and tacticians manage to bring about a left-wing version of the hard right’s takeover of the Republican Party from the 1970s onward?

It’s socialist tradition to begin with historical analysis, so here goes. DSA—and I should disclose that I’m a member and attend occasional meetings in Brooklyn—is a descendant of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, via a breakaway faction led by Michael Harrington.

The saga of the group’s founding partakes strongly of one of the more notorious, and least appealing, features of political organizing on the American left—recursive infighting over tactical niceties producing one splinter movement after another. Harrington, distressed by the Socialist Party’s rightward turn—it had deep Cold War affinities, and the post-split remainder, which renamed itself Social Democrats USA (SDUSA), drifted in a Reaganite direction in the 1980s—formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1973. The split reflected tensions in broader left-of-center politics. Harrington was friendly to what was then called “the New Politics”—later to be known, with very little analytical precision, as “identity politics”—and looked to draw in a “college-educated constituency” for a “conscience politics.” SDUSA—which had ties to the old labor wing of the Democratic Party that loved the Cold War and hated hippies—denounced Harrington as soft on communism and suspiciously eager to cultivate an affluent and elite base for his preferred version of socialism.

Such charges to the contrary, DSOC did have labor support—from autoworkers, teachers, and machinists notably—but its white male leaders had trouble connecting with broader social movements, however much they may have wanted to. So in a blow against factionalist division, DSOC merged in 1982 with the New American Movement, a successor to Students for a Democratic Society, to form DSA. It wasn’t the most propitious time to launch a new American socialist organization: 1982 marked the year that the stock market, and the capitalist investment world, entered a long bull market that lasted, with a few notable interruptions, until the financial crisis of 2008.

Harrington, who died in 1989, always thought of DSOC and DSA as operating within the Democratic Party, in coalition with feminist, civil rights, environmental, and peace organizations, and never as a party on its own. The idea, in the long tradition of meliorist left reform, was to transform the party from within.

Today’s DSA differs from Harrington’s in several important ways, beginning with its bolder, lefter policy agenda. At its 2017 convention, the organization voted to withdraw from the Socialist International—a consortium of social democratic parties around the world to which it had belonged from its founding—on grounds of the group’s neoliberal policy profile. That same convention endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure economic leaders to withdraw support from Israel and its increasingly apartheid-style regime in the occupied territories and to support reparations for the descendants of slaves. It’s impossible to imagine the DSA of ten years ago going for an agenda like that. 

And although the convention voted down a resolution explicitly distancing DSA from the Democratic Party, the consensus of the 20 or so members I talked with was that the party is something to be used and not merged with or transformed from within. One senior union leader, who had become an organizer for Democratic candidates and was annoyed by DSA’s refusal to fall into line, sputtered: This is not Michael Harrington’s DSA anymore!

True enough—though in reality, the seeds of DSA’s 2017 withdrawal vote had been incubating for some time. During the 1980s and 1990s, the youth wing of DSA was far livelier in spirit and further left in politics than the elder branch, which made no measurable waves at all. That generational divide became still more pronounced in the wake of a key mobilization of intellectual support behind socialism: the founding of Jacobin magazine in 2010. (Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara joined DSA before beginning college.) 

Millennial recruits influenced by Jacobin’s version of the socialist program—a suite of ambitious and uncompromising proposals that would anticipate many of the redistributive policies of the Sanders movement—began trickling into the orbit of DSA’s leadership circle. The magazine helped stoke interest in socialism among a cohort who’d come of age during the Great Recession. These new supporters—call them the Jacobinites—knew from bitter experience that the neoliberal case for a trickle-down recovery was something close to farcical: Coming of age amid the savage 2008 recession made them highly suspicious of the promise of capitalist opportunity as they faced down a long-term descent into crippling debt, punctuated by a series of too many crappy jobs in the gig economy. 

But membership didn’t soar until the Sanders campaign and then AOC’s victory (which was responsible for the organization’s biggest-ever membership surge). DSA membership averaged around 6,000 from 2011 to 2015; it passed 10,000 in November 2016 and 40,000 in June 2018 (when AOC won her primary victory). According to executive director Maria Svart, it’s now 56,000. 

DSA’s national organization is divided into about 200 local chapters, and the larger such local affiliates are divided into branches. (New York City has six geographical branches, as well as ones devoted to labor and youth.) They enjoy great autonomy. Members must belong to the national organization in order to vote, but the group’s national directorate cannot tell the locals what to do. And the local chapters are fairly loosely structured as well. Most, though not all, DSA members look to be proud of its multitendency nature: There’s no ideological or organizational line, unlike all the American left’s many Trotskyist sects of old.

May Day 2019, the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) protest at the Port of Oakland.
Photograph by Cayce Clifford for The New Republic

Soon after the post-Sanders surge, DSA got more deeply involved with electoral politics, endorsing 32 candidates in 2017, 21 of whom won. Judged by the standards of the big-money PACs and campaign committees that back major party candidates, that is of course a tiny number, and the offices were mostly low-level. But the 2017 tally nevertheless represented a much bigger string of electoral wins than the group had racked up ever before. And with the following year came many more—not just the House headliners, but in state and local elections across the country. Overall, by the organization’s count, 43 DSA-endorsed candidates won election last November, and 34 of the ballot initiatives they backed triumphed. Democratic leaders look alarmed, and Republicans have been reviving all the Cold War tropes about communism, updated with alarmist invocations of Venezuela.

But DSA is hard to attack from the outside on the traditional scorched-earth calculus of Beltway invective, for one simple reason: It’s not a party in any sense, even if some would like it to be one someday. Though the group’s leaders broadly concur that any sort of fusion strategy with Democrats is a bad idea—a judgment borne out by the depressing history of modern reform movements in America that have adopted some version of that approach—most also are aware of the profound difficulties entailed in organizing third parties. 

What Seth Ackerman of Jacobin calls “the ballot-line trap” —the well-documented tendency of third-party movements to wither and die once they seek to mobilize electoral support—persists even as the ideological features of the party landscape have shifted dramatically since the middle of the last century. 

In the 1950s, the Republican Party had largely made peace with the New Deal, much to the irritation of a small band of right-wingers. Agitation first came from intellectuals around the National Review, founded by William F. Buckley in 1955. Most of the early National Review stable consisted of ex-reds; in a 1975 article in Dissent, the historian John Patrick Diggins listed 18 writers who’d migrated from the communist and socialist left into the NR’s orbit. Both as reds and Buckleyites, they shared a contempt for liberalism and its temperamental squishiness. 

F. Clifton White, a Republican strategist who was one of the leading forces behind Barry Goldwater’s successful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, admired the ruthlessness and discipline of the reds. As Geoffrey Kabaservice put it in his 2012 history of the modern GOP, Rule and Ruin, “White saw in movement conservatism the vehicle through which to take over the Republican Party, using tactics he had learned from the Communists.” In the early 1960s, under White’s instruction, members of Young Americans for Freedom repurposed classic CP strategies, from how to arrange themselves at meetings (a diamond-shape formation) to the tactical creation of front groups. 

Republican moderates resented these techniques immensely. As Sam Rosenfeld notes in his 2017 book The Polarizers, they used rhetoric of “hijacking” to describe the right’s attempts to take over the GOP, summoning the familiar Cold War bogey of infiltration by foreign elements. They worried that the Goldwaterites were trying to smash the pragmatic, compromising model of American two-party rule and create ideologically driven bodies on the European model. But the moderates, lacking both conviction and passion, and based in the declining social formation of Northeastern WASPdom, were no match for the firebrands, who saw themselves as revolutionaries. The right succeeded, as we all know too well, in taking over the GOP. They failed in 1964 with Goldwater but hit the jackpot with Reagan in 1980.

Reading of such heady exploits in the battleground of ideological politics makes me jealous. Early in my college years, I was briefly a member of Yale’s Party of the Right. There were little more than a dozen of us in 1971. We felt like we were defending the last remnants of Western civilization. Ten years later, Reagan was president. When I look back on the left’s robust and unpredictable course of growth over the last few years, I find myself succumbing to the pleasing reverie that we might be on a parallel trajectory. 

While the Republicans were moving sharply right, the Dems were undergoing some transformations of their own. After Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1968, the party overhauled its internal structures. Delegate selection rules were rewritten to reduce the power of party insiders; primaries replaced the smoke-filled rooms of old. Affirmative-action goals would bring more women, black people, and young people to the national convention. Attempts to make the party more organizationally and ideologically disciplined were batted down by insiders, but the other reforms opened up the party and made it what it is today.

Then in the 1970s, as Lily Geismer shows in her 2014 book Don’t Blame Us, there were huge changes in the Democratic Party base—the replacement of an urban, working-class rank-and-file by a suburban professional-managerial elite. These suburbanites were not the dull middlebrows of Middle America; they were Harvard faculty or MIT-trained engineers living in posh suburbs like Lexington and Newton along the Route 128 corridor north of Boston. They were against housing discrimination, and even bused in some poor black kids from Boston to their high-end public schools—but they were also wedded to high property values, the major obstacle to integrating their communities, and made sure never to allow the number of Boston imports to change the complexion of the schools. They were not interested in tax-and-spend redistribution. This would become an important base for the transformation of the Democrats into the business-friendly party they’d become from the 1980s onward, a move that reached its culmination in Bill Clinton’s presidency—an overhaul that many center-left parties around the world also adopted.

Amid the ongoing fallout of the 2008 economic meltdown, these processes have been thrown into reverse. In much of Europe, the center-left parties have collapsed, with many of their former working-class supporters turning to xenophobic reaction—and political formations and parties that can be described, at a minimum, as fascist-curious. The reversal has taken more constructive form in Britain and the United States, home bases of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions. Blair is now an embarrassment, and his Labour Party is now run by an energized and expanded socialist membership, though not without some dissent from the displaced centrists. In the United States, Hillary Clinton, one of the key architects, along with her husband, of the Democrats’ centrist moves in the 1990s, suffered a humiliating defeat, and her comrades in the party are urgently regrouping (while lifting some of Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric). The party’s center of gravity, at least discursively, has shifted left, to the point where Kamala Harris has to deny she’s a socialist.

When you have to call yourself not-something, you’re implicitly acknowledging that someone else is dominating the conversation. But what does that mean for the future? Might the DSA manage to pull off the same sort of takeover that the “new conservatives” of the Reagan era carried out in the run-up to the 1980 election?

If so, the Gipper himself might appreciate the boldness, if not the results, of such a maneuver. As Reagan put the great question in a speech to the second Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 1975: “Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?” 

Most DSA activists I talked to, ranging from executive director Maria Svart to local leaders to rank-and-filers, are uninterested in such a takeover. They look at the Democrats as a vehicle to borrow, not own. As Svart says, while DSA members have shown a diversity of attitudes toward the Democratic Party, they still regard it as a “capitalist party” and are determined to build “independent power.” Until such power blossoms into a historic force on the national political scene, however, there’s no substitute for the party’s automatic ballot line. Sanders would have been a marginal curiosity had he run as an independent.

When you talk like this, far leftists remind you the Democratic Party is “the graveyard of social movements.” Some of the more ardent champions of this line of criticism see Sanders as a “sheepdog” whose job was to trick wavering leftists into supporting Hillary Clinton. Despite the loud complaints of establishment Democrats to the contrary, Sanders did campaign fairly energetically for Clinton in the general election. Still, no one would confuse the two.

Among other things, the hard-line left’s demonizing view of Democratic-branded seductions of power exaggerates the coherence of the party. As the political scientist Adam Hilton says, both major parties are “hollow” organizations—and porous ones—that can’t effectively police the boundaries of their ideological or intellectual identities. As Sanders showed, people can call themselves Democrats even when they’re not and run in their primaries. We’ve seen much the same phenomenon in congressional, state, and municipal races as well. 

All of which makes the party open to the instrumental view of institutional takeover that’s now pervasive in the DSA. Daraka Larimore-Hall—a serious and principled social democrat despite being vice chair of the California Democratic Party—is miffed by this attitude. As he says, “people don’t like to feel used.” He points to a democratic socialist club that the California Democrats considered establishing; no one expressed enough interest to get it off the ground, though DSA members easily could. In other words, Larimore-Hall wants the DSAers to become Democrats, but they’re not interested. 

While AOC—recently profiled on the cover of Time magazine as a bona fide political “phenom”—has gotten much of the attention, the DSA has also clocked some important electoral victories at lower levels. One key win was last year’s defeat of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of New York state senators who, though nominally Democrats, voted like Republicans. Governor Andrew Cuomo was an ally of the IDC; the conference’s votes kept the Senate from passing legislation that was to the left of his tastes, without forcing him to take the potentially unpopular move of vetoing it. A concerted campaign against the IDC incumbents succeeded in defeating most of them and turning control of the state Senate over to a more liberal majority. This has already allowed for the passage of some decent legislation, and also makes the passage of a state-level single-payer health insurance bill possible. Although the national DSA was not officially involved, many members participated on their own, and one of the key figures behind the toppling of the IDC was Susan Kang, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the organization’s Queens chapter.

Six DSAers ran for the Chicago City Council, and all won. One of the nation’s largest cities will be governed by a representative body that’s more than 10 percent socialist.

For someone steeped in the politics of the pre-2016 American left, stepping into a DSA meeting—at least the ones I’ve been to in Brooklyn—is a strange and lovely thing. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a typical gathering of leftists consisted of seven weirdos meeting in a ramshackle space, often fighting ancient battles about whether the USSR was a failed state capitalist experiment or a degenerated workers’ state. Goals were maximalist—to overthrow capitalism and build socialism—but no one really had an idea of what that meant. 

The DSA I’ve been observing is not at all like that. A group of mostly young people, they treat one another in a respectful, comradely fashion, and try to think and talk through seriously what they’re doing.

That’s not to say there aren’t internal disagreements. Some of those divisions take the form of caucuses and working groups. Some are identity-based, and some are more issue-based or ideological. There are groups devoted to Afrosocialism, disability interests, libertarian socialism, queer socialists, labor, ecosocialism, socialist feminism. A group called Build, which is not a formal caucus but an “organizing project,” is foundationally devoted to a diversity of tactics; “one foot in the institutions, one foot in the streets” is a slogan. Build partisans want to organize tenants, defend sex workers, topple white supremacy, and defeat capitalism, sometimes electorally and sometimes not. “Yes, and …” is another of their slogans.

None of these outfits causes serious trouble for the larger trajectory of DSA organizing. However, one caucus in particular, formerly known as Momentum, then renamed Spring, and again renamed Bread and Roses, is the object of ire from outsiders. 

There were about 200 people at the January conference for Spring (as it was then known)—less than half of 1 percent of the DSA’s national membership. Despite those small numbers, their influence is large. The original core of the group consisted of the Jacobin generation of members, several of whom were part of a Left Caucus in the pre-surge DSA, who were looking to heat up the old organization’s tepid politics. There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

At the center of the Bread and Roses dustup is a real, and unresolved, question about DSA’s future direction. I share some of Bread and Roses’ annoyance with horizontalism and programmatic vagueness, but DSA is a multitendency organization, and trying to marginalize a tendency is not a good strategy for something so young and promising. What’s more, the ostensible reasoning behind the Bread and Roses strategy also seems overblown: There’s little of the cultivated shapelessness of the Occupy movement within DSA, even among those derided as horizontalists—most active members are into serious political work. 

In February, a new DSA subgroup announced itself: Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC), which is an “explicitly reformist” group, in the words of Michael Kinnucan, one of its founders. No revolutionary socialists here. Many of its original core members hailed from a variety of electoral campaigns and show much greater interest in local and state races than Bread and Roses seems to. And they appear less interested in developing a national strategy, across the various chapters, than Bread and Roses is. According to Kristian Hernandez, a Texas-based member of Socialist Majority, they’re interested in “bottom-up experimentation.” And, according to Renée Paradis, a New York-based member, they are “not as ideological,” have no specific philosophical “program,” and are “skeptical of long-term scenarios.” 

Despite these factional tensions—and it should be said that most DSA members are unaffiliated with either the Bread and Roses or SMC agenda—internal relations look largely peaceful. The two recent notable exceptions are two formerly Spring-controlled chapters, East Bay in California and Philadelphia. (The racial aspect of these tensions was the focus of a report in The New Republic by Miguel Salazar in December 2018.) After months of tension, the situation in Philly came to a head in March, ending in what can only be called a purge. 

According to Dustin Guastella, a member of the local steering committee, the controversy revolves around matters of “authority” (namely the leadership’s) and structure positioned against a loosey-goosey horizontalist tendency in the chapter’s ranks. He and a few of his ideological allies are determined to stomp it out.

Dissident members of the chapter, gathered in a group called LILAC (Local Initiative/Local Action Committee), complain of the administrative staging of an “Orwellian farce,” in which meetings are stuffed with members sympathetic to the leadership.* Resolutions proposed by members to form a socialist-feminist group, or get involved in local city council elections, were repeatedly postponed. It looked like everything, including local politics, was to be subordinated to the Sanders campaign. Any mention of race or gender was regarded as a distraction from the “big” issues, meaning universal programs like Medicare for All. 

These organizational fights, and the chapter leadership’s hostility to anything that struck them as “identity politics”—including language in what was then Spring’s platform about confronting racism and sexism head-on—caused increasing consternation among the caucus’s leadership. Finally, the national group essentially purged the Philly contingent by re-forming the group under a new name, Bread and Roses. Since that divorce, the Philly chapter has been in suspended animation. 

To what degree is the Philly melodrama a portent of potentially destructive factional fights within the organization nationally? It’s always possible. The issues under dispute—centralizing vs. decentralizing tendencies, for example, both internal to the organization and its approach to politics in general, or spontaneity vs. protocol—have plagued the left since the nineteenth century. And for the last few decades, there have been similarly brutal feuds over class vs. “identity” (a very inadequate, dismissive name for a thorny constellation of issues). 

More recently, there was a dispute over how quickly DSA should officially endorse Sanders. The leadership looked to be in a hurry—and members of the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus objected because Bernie had yet to announce that he supported reparations for slavery. Although the caucus didn’t lodge an official objection, a number of members wrote an open letter of protest. Soon after, Sanders said he would sign a bill calling a commission to study the issue. Normally, appointing a commission to study something is a way of avoiding the issue—but in the case of reparations, many supporters really don’t know what form they’d take, so in this case, study could be productive. 

So far, DSA has been able to contain its internal disputes; in most chapters, people work together on common goals without serious trouble.

Does the existence of the caucuses magnify the disputes? Annie Shields, a Nation magazine editor who is active in the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch, thinks so; she sees them as vehicles for fighting for control within the organization. Maria Svart says she prefers disagreements be out in the open, but the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus is the only one that is officially recognized. 

My own sense is that there’s more disagreement within the caucuses than those with Manichean views might allow, and that there’s also less disagreement between the central tendencies of the individual caucuses with each other. So, in caricature, Bread and Roses is class-reductionist, and hostile to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. But its platform explicitly addresses these issues as ones that must be confronted explicitly. Fainan Lakha, a member of the tendency, denies the charges, though she insists any conversation about the “identity” issues should be linked to class. You can disagree with their emphasis, and their habit of separating class from the various “oppressions” (for example, race and gender figure pretty heavily in the division of labor and the inheritance of property). But it’s wrong to say they ignore them. And while tendencies like Build, the caucus that is not a caucus, may be caricatured by Bread and Roses types as tainted by the horizontalism bias, in fact members are not opposed to electoral work, even if it isn’t their major passion. The DSA’s forthcoming convention, to be held in Atlanta in August, could clarify these matters. The 2017 gathering was quite contentious, but the organization emerged intact and continued to grow dramatically. We’ll soon see if 2019 sails as smoothly. 

So, if taking over the Democratic Party isn’t the long-term strategy, what is? (I should say that some members aren’t convinced there’s much of a long term to think about, because of climate change. Shields told me that explicitly, and in asking around, it became clear that a lot of politicized young people agree.) The Socialist Majority Caucus isn’t all that hot on having a long-term strategy; its interest is largely in piling up concrete victories. But other factions, as well as the unaffiliated, put electoral organizing at the center of their strategy. For some, like the Bread and Roses caucus, the Sanders campaign is seen as doing a lot of work—educating more people about democratic socialism, drawing in new members, and developing DSA’s organizing potential through electioneering, just as it did last time. Sometimes it sounds as if they’re investing Sanders with magical powers, as if he represents a shortcut around a lot of hard organizing. This impression was strongly reinforced in Jacobin’s recent cover package laying out a policy agenda for a Sanders administration—for DSA members mounting local grassroots organizing campaigns, this all-in posture toward Sanders’s candidacy looked like a cult-of-personality in the making.

One promising route for the DSA’s efforts to reach a broader demographic is work with unions—and not just helping out on picket lines, as members did in a recent nurses’ strike. The New York City labor branch is actively encouraging members to get jobs in several targeted industries, like logistics and transportation (where strikes and other actions could seriously disrupt commerce, and thereby build working-class power), health care, education, and municipal government. The idea is both to build DSA and also radicalize the rank and file. Back in the 1970s, groups like the Socialist Workers Party directed members into industrial jobs with similar hopes, but they were mostly in basic industries that were in the early phases of a steep decline. An old Socialist Workers friend who’d been a computer programmer was instructed to get a job at a steel fabrication plant; he didn’t last past lunch on his first day and went back to coding. This time, according to Laura Gabby, a union carpenter and member of the labor branch, DSA wants people “to take jobs they can stay in for the long term”—and the pay will probably be better than what solidarity-minded DSA members would make working for a nonprofit.

Even as such tactical feints toward a majoritarian socialist strategy and messaging campaign struggle to take hold, the right’s long-term strategizing fills me with envy. Going back to the postwar roots of the Goldwater insurgency, the ideologues of the American conservative movement had a clear idea of what kind of society they wanted and how to get there. That kind of rigor and discipline presents problems for the left, which often shies away from ideal models because, as the political scientist Jodi Dean put it, they reek of “dangerous totalizing fantasies that posit an end of history and lead to genocidal adventurism.” And the New Right’s model is profoundly top-down—the opposite of a tendency that dreams of movements rising from the grassroots. Though DSA members frequently speak of collective ownership and control of the economy, none of us—myself included—has a really clear idea of what socialism in the United States would really look like, or how to get there.

In pursuit of long-term goals, the right was never shy about playing the “spoiler.” Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 directly against the spirit of the times and lost badly—though you could say he won 16 years later, when Ronald Reagan was elected. In 1965, William F. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City against John Lindsay; Buckley didn’t mind the risk of delivering the race to a Democrat, because he wanted to destroy the liberal Republicanism of which Lindsay was the perfect embodiment. People on the left are fearful of the spoiler role, in part because, as Chris Maisano told me, they fear the damage a Republican victory might do to the “vulnerable,” a conscience-troubling inhibition the right is free of. 

And then there’s the money, which the right had in considerable quantity (though more from the 1970s onward than in the 1950s and 1960s). There’s nothing like oodles of billionaire money to fund a network of think tanks and political operatives. Yes, we are many and they are few, but cash is a potent compensation for the numerical imbalance—particularly in the present Citizens United–enabled regime of mogul capture of American electioneering. Lacking that, to win concessions, the left needs to scare elites with threats of serious disruption, or even expropriation. Such reveries are not as radical or outside the mainstream as the rhetorical shock of this language may suggest—think of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s or the urban riots of the 1960s. And despite all the energy and organizing prowess of the DSA, we’re still a long way from any such urgent moments of reckoning. For the most part, though, I’ll swallow my worries over the long-term direction of the socialist project for now and take pleasure in the vigor of the movement.  

* An earlier version of this article misstated the name of LILAC, which stands for Local Initiative/Local Action Committee.