JOINING WHAT's LEFT
On a morning close to the election a woman boarded my F-train car to address her fellow riders. She wore a Hillary Clinton t-shirt, cautioned all of us to cast our votes for Her. The “or else” was her dream, an apocalyptic vision: Trump, she exclaimed, could not be President. Vladimir Putin was Trump’s boss; his wife wasn’t American. Russia was where those two truly belonged, and they had to be sent back.
“I wish I could send you to Russia,” said a man near me. He went on baiting her, asking if she worked for the campaign or if she’d registered to vote. The woman had nothing new to say, just the truth that we weren’t hearing. She resorted to yelling over him, repeating Angela Merkel’s name the way it’s spelled. But then she left our car and nobody else came to bother us.
Before that spat (or was it after?) a man squeezed onto a different F with a few facts and questions. Did we know the truth about our government? How it funneled guns and drugs into black neighborhoods? One woman couldn’t take it anymore although he’d barely started. She told him to face the facts of “black on black crime.” She said they brought it on themselves.
I thought these would be my wildest election memories. I didn’t know that the election itself would feel even stranger. Or that while looking at the red-drenched map, I’d wonder where that woman was: when would she find out that our nightmare had come true?
“Like a bad dream” is a common simile people use when describing Trump’s presidency. Many can’t wait to wake up from real life (and from actual nightmares, too). Lately I’ve tried to avoid using it: nightmares are nebulous, their origins unknown. But the reasons for Trump’s ascent are clear and can be traced. He’s a logical continuation of our country’s largest problems.
The best election postmortems present these issues as nuanced: they aren’t specific to only one group (a race or gender). But if we have to blame somebody, I pick the Clinton campaign, which was more invested in optics than strategy or policy. 2020 may not bring anything better – it’s becoming clear to me that the establishment’s interests collide with the base they claim to represent. And with the stakes as high as they are, we’re catching on.
Nancy Pelosi’s post-inaugural town hall on CNN best exemplifies this new awareness. After several soft-pitched questions and her spacey replies, NYU student Trevor Hill went off script. He tried to call Pelosi back to earth with the most polite “gotcha” question I’ve ever heard: Did she think the Democratic party would move left on economics like the youth had? He cited a Harvard poll from last spring, which showed 51% of young people polled rejected capitalism.
“We’re capitalists,” said Pelosi.“And that’s the way it is.” Hand-simulations of a scatter plot graph ensued.
Pelosi’s evasion isn’t shocking: direct answers rarely leave politicians’ mouths. But the reception to sound bites like these has changed. Trevor joined the Democratic Socialists of America after the town hall. He’s part of a cascade of new members joining the group – the organization’s membership has tripled since November.
I’m also new to DSA, an “election night” member like so many of us. I'm happy to see the organization in the news, but the bird's eye view most reporting offers doesn’t do the group much justice. To understand what DSA does, and who these new members are, I approached the group at the local level.
Here in New York City, DSA’s chapter has branches in Brooklyn, Queens, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. There’s also the Labor branch for those who work in unions. These branches meet monthly to update the membership on progress made by chapter-wide “working groups.” These are cause-based initiatives that also meet each month, and are the hubs of actual organizing.
They’re also where you get to know your fellow members, through planning actions or after-meeting drinks. I met Ben F. through the Racial Justice working group. We collected signatures in support of police reform legislation.
Unlike me, Ben doesn’t call himself a socialist, a surprisingly common stance for someone in DSA. I’m not using Ben’s last name at his request – he’s still unsure about publicly aligning with the group.
“At the end of the day I believe in commerce,” says Ben. “I just believe that the government’s investments should be placed differently.” That said, Ben realizes that DSA’s grassroots work is unmatched in New York. “You have to look at the brushstrokes,” he says, not just the broader picture. “That means getting something like the Right to Know passed, or making housing more affordable. Right now, the DSA has the ground game.”
I’ve found majority of us, however slight, champion a (democratic) socialist vision. Colleen Tighe, who I met at a protest outside Senator Schumer’s apartment, is more emphatic about what DSA stands for: “All of its political aims fit in with mine,” she says. She thinks the group will “create an option for a new future,” without just reacting “to both Trump and capitalism.”
On this, we three seem to agree: we may have been galvanized by Trump, but it isn’t all about him. “If you’re just being reactionary to Trump,” says Ben, “you’re going to lose. You can’t necessarily count a Trump loss as your victory. If that’s all you’re doing, without a vision as to what you need, then that’s a problem. And that was a problem with the Clinton campaign. It didn’t come up with an alternative vision.”
I pose the anti-Trump question to Jamie Munro too. He’s been a member since 2014 and leads the Climate Justice working group. “Our job is to destroy Trump’s presidency,” says Jamie, “and, more ambitiously, the ideologies and institutions that brought him to power. I worry that the goals of the anti-Trump movement are still pretty unclear. It could evolve into a more aggressive version of the anti-Bush movement in the mid-2000s, which was never very clear about what it actually wanted. Once the street demonstrations fade away, what are we left with?”
Joining DSA is also an approach to helping communities in a way the Democrats in leadership won’t: “People saw the Democratic party as their only option,” says Colleen. “They’ll continue failing as long as they capitulate to capitalism and neoliberalism. More and more, people are realizing their platform is mostly ‘Well, we’re not Republicans,’ which isn’t a compelling reason for support.”
Jamie agrees. “The party’s position post-election has been very scary; they’re just doubling down. On one hand, that leaves a big opening for people on the left. On the other hand, it probably means the Republicans – even despite their own disagreements and fractures – will be able to make another four years of gains. That’s bad.”
Although Jamie joined DSA three years before us, his reasons for joining are fundamentally similar to mine and Colleen’s. And like Ben, he had his own skepticism: “I just thought it made sense to join an organization. I knew I disagreed with a lot of people in DSA on certain political questions, but it also seemed like an open environment in which people could learn more about socialism and better articulate their politics.”
Before DSA Jamie organized around climate issues independently, an experience that lacked any cohesion: “We would bounce from major action to major action with very little in between. It seemed like there wasn’t much thought being put into how a left climate politics could be articulated. As a result, all of those grassroots struggles were kind of standing alone, with common goals and common enemies, but no overarching political project to unite them and give them more coherence. That’s a lofty goal for DSA’s Climate Justice working group, but I think that’s ultimately what we need to do.”
Coming to terms with the magnitude of the problems the organization is trying to solve, it’s not hard to get cold feet as a new member. After general meetings I wondered what I could possibly bring to the table. Other new members shared this same sentiment with me in casual conversations, while established members encourage us to take the time to think of what we’re good at.
Colleen, a professional illustrator, began volunteering her time through her artwork: “The national design committee needed illustrations for the web, signs, shirts, etc. And I helped create the signage for the Women’s Strike.” She’s also a member of the newly formed Media working group, which supplies the other groups with art or video for their campaigns.
Membership in Brooklyn DSA has swelled, but its lack of diversity is a concern Ben and I share. While women of color do hold leadership positions on the steering committee and in the working groups, Ben sees the dearth of black men as particularly problematic: “Black men are a bulk contingent of the ideals that DSA says they’re fighting for. At the end of the day, are we really representing these people if they aren’t there? Do they know about DSA? If so, are they not interested? Why are we failing to get people through the door?”
“If anything,” Ben says, “DSA in NYC has tried to overcome those struggles. And I know there are initiatives and goals I want to help accomplish, so I will do my best to do that.”
I see belonging to DSA as an investment in our future and community. For some this means socialism, or democratic socialism explicitly – for others it’s a way to be involved in areas where politicians have failed us.
Colleen says Americans are realizing the Democratic party rarely defends marginalized people, and that “the system of capitalism is failing, but they don’t know where to go. DSA is an easy entry point for a lot of people who want to be directed towards concrete actions in their community.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to have health care in a year from now,” Ben says. “Will DSA lobby for single-payer healthcare in New York? Probably… I will probably be fine. But I won’t be able to watch the decay of certain communities without feeling emotional pain.”
Jamie concludes with something I haven’t said out loud yet: “DSA is a community of people I can work alongside to bring about the world I want to live in. It sounds lofty and sort of corny, but it’s true.”