This past October, on a Saturday afternoon in a Unitarian church in Philadelphia, about 50 people were seated in a loose configuration of folding chairs, taking turns raising their hands to speak. Most were in their mid-20s; they wore jeans, sweaters, the occasional nose ring, and backpacks decorated with pins.
The gathering was an “open strategy” session of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter to talk through DSA’s nascent Medicare for All campaign. A poster affixed to the door showed a line representing the cardiac-rhythm strip of an ECG monitor and featured a rose, an old socialist symbol that DSA has adopted as its logo. Volunteers stood up and shared their experiences knocking on doors and explaining the benefits of single-payer health care on a canvassing trip through the Philly suburbs. One said that she’d been nervous to approach strangers in their homes, but had been surprised by the friendly responses she’d received. Another reported his method of establishing common ground with the person standing in the doorway—by discussing medical problems and costs—and then trying to tie the provision of health care to “socialism as an ideological concept.”
At the front of the room was 23-year-old Melissa Naschek. Four pieces of butcher paper had been taped onto the church basement’s clapboard walls, and each time an idea was suggested, Naschek transcribed it in slanting cursive: “Reaching out to low-wage workers”; “Contact labor unions”; “Media programs”; “How to debate.” Under a category headed Ignore, the most prominent word was “Trolls.”
Naschek grew up on Long Island with two Democratic-voting professionals for parents. She has long brown hair, glasses, and a deliberate but nervous manner. At a bar around the corner after the DSA meeting, she described what she called her “radicalization.” She was in her final year at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, studying neuroscience and spending her spare time in the Ivy League Model UN Club. Until that November, she hadn’t been “very political at all”; she was what she termed “a normal liberal.” Naschek voted for Hillary Clinton in both the Democratic primary and the general election. When Donald Trump won, she started questioning the analyses she’d read in her usual media outlets. She switched from The New York Times to leftist publications like The Intercept, In These Times, and Jacobin. The narratives of American politics that she found there, she told me, were “just completely different from anything I’d seen.” Within a few months, Naschek had “denounced liberalism and begun identifying as a socialist.”