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.”

She’s one of about 24,000 people—70 to 80 percent of them under 35—who have joined DSA since November 2016. After she graduated in June of that year, Naschek became a researcher and lab technician at her alma mater, a competitive job that can kick-start a career in neuroscience. She earns a little over $20,000 a year, which is enough for the essentials, including her rent, but leaves little for unexpected expenses. She had planned to go to grad school and then, most likely, into a career in academia, but since her political awakening she’s changed her mind, discouraged by how much of her field depends on funding from the pharmaceutical industry and on for-profit patents. Her decision, as she described it to me, was guided by “classic Marxism”: She was discouraged by “the way in which profit becomes this thing that is only meant to sustain itself and destroys anything that gets in the way.” She also doesn’t want to sacrifice the 20-odd hours a week she now spends organizing as co-chair of DSA’s Philadelphia chapter.

“I always really believed in the idea of a meritocracy—you know, like ‘Work hard and you’ll be fine,’” Naschek told me later. “But all of that completely eroded…once I became a Marxist.” She puts herself in the same category that she believes most new DSA members belong to: “downwardly mobile millennials.”

For most of its 35-year history, DSA was an obscure fringe group. Its founder, Michael Harrington, grew up in a Republican Irish-Catholic family and had aspired to be a poet. Then he had an epiphany in a streetcar in 1949, according to his own semi-mythological telling. As Harrington recalled it, after he graduated from college, his cousin set him up with a job in the Pupil Welfare Department of the St. Louis public-school system “without any idealistic thought on my part.” Making a home visit to a student one day, Harrington entered a shack in a post-Depression sharecropper district. In the house, he later recounted in his autobiography Fragments of the Century, he encountered “cooking smells and the stench from the broken, stopped-up toilets…. Suddenly the abstract and statistical and aesthetic outrages I had reacted to at Yale and Chicago became real and personal and insistent.” Riding the streetcar home, Harrington decided to devote his life “to putting an end to that house and all that it symbolized.”

In 1962, he published The Other America, a book on poverty that challenged the perception that America had become a middle-class country. Poverty persisted, Harrington wrote, because “the structure of the society is hostile to these people,” perpetuating disability, sickness, and self-doubt, while still “ask[ing] of the poor that they get up and act just like everyone else.” The book made Harrington famous, but it couldn’t sustain a movement. At that time and over the decades that followed, the American left was splintering, uncertain how to respond to the authoritarianism of socialist regimes abroad. Harrington joined, and subsequently quit, a handful of tiny leftist groups. To the larger US society, Harrington said, he and his fellow travelers seemed like “a small band of nuts.”

It was this irrelevance that Harrington wanted to escape when he founded Democratic Socialists of America in 1982 by weaving together the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, two small groups that had grown out of the antiwar movement. Harrington aimed to put aside the left’s infighting: DSA would be an independent coalition working inside and outside the Democratic Party—in other words, a kind of friendly socialist lobby.

Harrington’s slogan, “the left wing of the possible,” highlights the quixotic nature of his vision. For him, socialism in America was a direction rather than an outcome. In Harrington’s DSA, there were no revolutionary politics, but he argued that influencing Democrats could actually work, and therefore those tactics were “the most radical things we can do.”

Still, his approach rested on an optimistic view of the Democratic Party and its relationship to socialist politics. In a conversation in The New York Times Magazine in 1984, Harrington’s comrade Irving Howe asked him about DSA’s conciliatory approach and its interaction with centrists. “Time passed, tempers cooled, old disputes faded,” Harrington replied. “And by now practically everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, must be our main political arena”—a statement that would have been scandalous to Harrington’s friends in the Socialist Party, who lumped Republicans and Democrats together into one big self-serving ruling class.

One of Harrington’s crucial assumptions was that, having lost to a conservative Republican like Ronald Reagan, the Democrats would develop left-leaning policies to oppose him. If anything, the opposite proved true, and versions of Reagan’s policies—particularly on welfare—found their way into Democratic legislation. Even given Harrington’s moderate approach, Democrats rarely wanted anything to do with his project. “Socialism” retained a bad odor, even when modified with the word “democratic.” When Harrington died in 1989, his organization hadn’t grown much beyond the 6,000 aging members it had had at its founding.

Two years after Harrington’s death, a local Baltimore TV channel covered the opening of the 1991 DSA convention, where a speech was given by Bernie Sanders, an independent who had just been elected to the US House of Representatives from Vermont. Sanders opened with a crack about Marxist theory, in which “the moment in history…is never now.” In Vermont, he continued, “we’re not that smart—we’re a little bit dumber”—so he’d decided to eschew the DSA’s strategy and instead run as an independent left candidate against a Democratic opponent.

Similarly, in a 1983 profile in The New Republic, Jon Margolis noted that Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, “disdains what little nationwide Socialist movement there is (the Democratic Socialists of America) for its gradualist philosophy and its ties to the Democratic Party.” Sanders, who wasn’t a DSA member then (and still isn’t), saw no point in trying to be a leftist inside the Democratic Party: “To be cooperative means to be co-opted. If I don’t do anything, what the hell was I elected for?” Still, he was in office, and American socialists didn’t really have much else. At the 1991 convention, Harris Gruman, a DSA member, told the TV anchor something that I heard almost verbatim from DSA members in 2017: “The phenomenon of Bernie Sanders is very encouraging to us.”

DSA is now frequently referred to as “the largest socialist organization in the United States,” with 32,000 dues-paying members. What that means, however, is as deliberately ill-defined as ever. DSA is not a political party, but a self-described “multi-tendency” organization. As it was under Harrington, the party’s structure is broad and mutable; the focus is on principles, not policies. Politically, it accommodates everyone from centrists who believe in public services to communists.

Bhaskar Sunkara, the 28-year-old editor of Jacobin magazine, joined DSA in 2007. It was the summer between high school and college for him, and he had taken an internship at DSA in the same building that it’s located in now, on Maiden Lane in New York City’s financial district. One of the small office windows, he recalled, faced a brick wall. The organization felt “austere and bleak,” an aging remnant of old radical New York. Its activities consisted of going to events and protests that had already been planned by others, mostly just to be there symbolically, as socialists. DSA had two permanent staffers in the office, and Sunkara guessed that a lot of the members might have known Harrington personally. The whole thing was “pretty much unblemished,” he told me, “but also it was utterly irrelevant.” During his internship, Sunkara and another junior office worker wanted a watercooler in the office; instead, they had to bring their own mugs to fill in the bathroom.

At DSA meetings, Sunkara said, organizers used to ask: “Is anyone here under 60?” The question now is: “Is anyone here over 30?” Today, the median age of DSA’s membership is 33, down from 68 in 2013. Like the organization itself, all of the events I attended were social, chaotic, and hopeful. There were icebreakers, happy hours, and scraps of paper passed around to gather e-mail addresses. The age distribution is immediately apparent at gatherings, and it gives DSA meetings a funny dynamic, like a multigenerational family get-together in which the parents have left the room.

(L. Couch)

Despite the organization’s amorphous nature, its aims over the past year have gotten explicitly more political. Chapters formed from the leftovers of the Sanders campaign’s networks—there are now more than 300 local groups—are experimenting with doing their own electoral campaigns, some with running local candidates. In the state and municipal elections across the country on November 7, 15 DSA members won their races, bringing the total number of DSA members in elective office to around 35, as high as it’s ever been. One was Lee Carter, who defeated Jackson Miller, the Republican majority whip of Virginia’s House of Delegates. While Carter received funding from Democratic Party–aligned sources, he positioned himself as an outsider, unbeholden to the party. Toward the end of the race, flyers were distributed that showed Carter’s face alongside Lenin’s and Stalin’s, which Christine Riddiough, a 71-year-old IT professional and a member of DSA’s electoral committee, described to me as an attempt at red-baiting. Riddiough, who lives in Washington, DC, joined DSA at its inception and recognized this ploy from the group’s early days. Back then, she noted, a flyer like that would have seriously damaged a Democratic candidate; but “people aren’t as susceptible to those tactics as they used to be.” The effect, if any, of this late smear campaign was minimal: Carter won 54 percent of the vote, beating the incumbent Miller by eight points. Around 50 DSA volunteers worked on Carter’s campaign; Riddiough estimated that they “knocked on most if not all of the doors in that district.”

The people in their 20s who now make up the bulk of DSA’s membership were motivated to join the organization by Sanders, from whom they “heard the phrase ‘democratic socialist’ probably for the first time in their lives,” Riddiough said. “They have turned to DSA probably just because of the name,” and they’re now motivated to take action at the state and local levels.

DSA’s endorsements are recommended by an 11-person electoral committee, and the criteria are loose and intuitive. The candidates should “identify as some kind of socialist” and be willing to advertise their DSA endorsement openly. The national body, Riddiough explained, “doesn’t say ‘You can’t do that’” or set compulsory policies or beliefs, and local chapters can support whomever they wish. When I asked what might count as a deal breaker for an official national endorsement, Riddiough replied that this was discretionary—and mostly uncharted territory—but that “if some chapter totally goes against principles, we might talk to them.” Perhaps more stringent are the criteria that relate to the organization: It chooses candidates who have at least an outside chance of winning, in order not to symbolically diminish the value of a DSA endorsement. It also aims for those candidates whom it can help through activities like phone-banking, fundraising, and door-to-door canvassing, as well as get-out-the-vote efforts. In other words, DSA emphasizes tasks that give its members some experience in grassroots political organizing as much as they offer the chosen candidate a boost.

“We’re still working out what we’re capable of,” Riddiough said. “There are some in DSA that see it becoming a separate political party, and some who would like to make the Democratic Party move further to the left. Right now, it’s hard to imagine what it will be,” she added. “We want it to be a political force, somehow.”

Like Melissa Naschek, many new members referred to their “radicalization” when I asked what led them to join DSA. It sometimes seemed an odd term to use for signing up as a dues-paying member in a diffuse organization with few requirements and no strict policy line. The term covered a lot of things about the lives and thinking of these new members, but the most common was a rejection of the Democratic Party. Often, that translated into diminished faith in party politics altogether; for many, the appeal of DSA is precisely that it isn’t a party. These days, there is far less interest in the soul of the Democratic Party than Harrington and his generation had; today’s new members see themselves as further left, and often favor militant ideas more than their predecessors did.

Earlier this year, Jo-Ann Mort, a former vice chair of DSA and a founding member of its feminist commission, published a statement subtitled “The American Left loses its way,” in which she detailed how foreign the organization now felt to her given “the emergence of a younger, more ‘anti-imperialist’ left that sees the centrist politics of their socialist predecessors nearly as much a part of the problem as the more mainstream democratic leaders.” Mort wrote that it’s unlikely Michael Harrington “would have felt at home, were he alive, in the organisation he founded…. [I]t’s not even clear to me that he would have been welcomed in today’s DSA.”

Joseph Schwartz, a professor of political science at Temple University who has been a member of DSA since the beginning, told me that back when he joined, people had come from the New Left—a term for the social-justice-driven activist movements of the 1970s—but also from labor groups, which are much weaker now. Today, Schwartz said, DSA is the “new New Left.”

“DSA almost doesn’t stand for anything,” he continued, “and 10 years ago revolutionaries wouldn’t have joined DSA.” It was regarded, another longtime member offered, as a place for “shills for the Democratic Party.”

When I asked Schwartz what he’d noticed about today’s new members, he replied: “Radicalized liberals can briefly go through a phase. Now it’s hip to say you’re a Marxist-Leninist. People like the hammer and sickle; they like to wear a red star, have the posters in their bedroom.” Schwartz, born in the Bronx in 1954, found this baffling. “I know it’s trendy: ‘Screw the bourgeoisie.’ But, you know”—he paused—“Marx wanted to expropriate the bourgeoisie, not exterminate them.”

Rahel Biru, the 29-year-old co-chair of DSA’s New York City chapter and an administrative manager for a start-up, has spent the past year “onboarding disillusioned Democrats,” as she put it. People are joining so fast, she added, that it’s hard to know what their membership might mean to them: “Right now, people are a little too comfortable saying DSA is x or y, when maybe it’s not. People are subsuming their discomfort with, say, a commune to campaign for single-payer. Marxists are swallowing their discomfort with, say, our participation in the Democratic primary.”

When we talked about recruiting people to the organization, Biru mentioned Twitter as an important resource, since so many of DSA’s new members have formed their politics online. The organization has always been largely white and male: It’s roughly 90 percent white and 75 percent male, a makeup that is impossible not to notice at meetings and gatherings. “For whatever reason,” said Biru, who is black, “socialism attracts white men. I don’t know why, but they’re really into it, and they self-recruit.”

One particular Twitter user, @LarryWebsite, is responsible for more than 10 percent of DSA’s new membership. The owner of the handle, 25-year-old Christian Bowe from New Jersey, came up with using the now-ubiquitous rose emoji to indicate one’s DSA membership online, and he told me that he has carefully refined his Twitter posting into a deliberate recruiting strategy—one that includes publishing pictures of food, memes about Marxism, and references to the number 69.

Sunkara told me that many of the people joining DSA now tend to “know what they’re against” because they’re unhappy with the status quo, and that, today, “one of our main enemies is the center.” Membership in DSA offers some analysis of the world, as well as ways to participate in politics and activism. The organization’s recent growth—much of it among a “subcultural left, young people in their 20s,” according to Sunkara—makes it a phenomenon, but not necessarily a meaningful one. Or as R.L. Stephens, a former campaign strategist at the service workers’ union Unite Here who joined DSA in February, told me, the risk is that DSA will become “an open forum,” a network rather than a site of political action.

This past August, the DSA national convention took place in Chicago. There were about 1,000 attendees, and several media outlets covered “the largest gathering of democratic socialists in an era.” DSA’s political priorities and strategies, as broad and nonbinding as they might be, are periodically set at the convention, where a 16-person group called the National Political Committee is elected every two years, in what has historically been a fairly calm and uncompetitive process. The lead-up to the August convention, however, was different. With DSA’s sudden growth and significance, the stakes for its members were higher; the campaigning and electioneering began in the spring with 42 candidates in all, far outstripping the number in previous years.

Over the summer, three loose coalitions formed, each bearing its own program: Momentum, Praxis, and Unity. When I asked the members of the groups how they differed, I was told that Momentum consisted of “soft Trotskyites” and was the most explicitly Marxist, oriented toward the campaign for single-payer and other overarching policy initiatives. Praxis was “Maoism lite,” with a “from-the-ground-up” approach and the heaviest focus on social justice and questions of identity. Praxis emphasized new ways of engaging people, such as the free clinic for repairing brake lights that the DSA chapter in New Orleans recently mounted. (Broken brake lights are a common reason for police stops, which can escalate into immigration or criminal-background checks, especially for people of color.) Both Momentum and Praxis consist predominantly of young people, while the third coalition, Unity, was the least ideological, with an emphasis that was described to me as “old-DSA-ish stuff” (i.e., cooperation with the Democratic Party) and “reform and realignment.”

Even when you’re speaking directly to members of each group, clarifying their differences can be difficult, and the three blocs remain in a messy semipublic competition with one another. But as much as their philosophies might overlap, each group presents a distinct direction for DSA at a time when the organization’s primary task is helping to define what socialism might look like in the United States today.

On August 6, the afternoon the convention ended, the Twitter handle @turing_police, an account from Los Angeles that is regularly critical of DSA, posted a series of tweets about a newly elected National Political Committee member, Danny Fetonte, referring to him as an “Actual Police Officer.” Fetonte, a co-chair of DSA’s Austin chapter, had, between 2009 and 2014, worked for CLEAT (the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas), a subdivision of the Communications Workers of America and the state’s most powerful police union. Earlier in the year, CLEAT had opposed an early version of the anti-racial-profiling Sandra Bland Act; the union has a “Blue Lives Matter”–ish reputation, mostly due to accusations that it has helped to protect brutal cops.

Fetonte hadn’t explicitly mentioned his work with CLEAT in his campaign materials for 2017, instead describing his time as spent organizing “state workers.” The tweets picked up steam online, and within 24 hours things had reached a crisis level. People threatened to withhold their dues or resign their memberships in DSA unless Fetonte was expelled. Those in favor of his expulsion argued that people of color and those victimized by police brutality were alienated by Fetonte’s presence and that it symbolically reinforced white supremacy—at the same convention, a resolution had been passed advocating the “abolition of prisons,” evidence of the new politics of a younger generation with which Fetonte, who is 67, seemed out of step, if not actually at odds.

Those against Fetonte’s expulsion argued that there were procedural standards and rules that made it untenable—and also that DSA had no precedent for taking action against members based on their employment history. Fetonte, for his part, dug in his heels and got a lawyer. He claimed that he had hidden nothing (when he ran for the same position in 2015, his work with CLEAT was explicitly mentioned). Although Fetonte’s employment with CLEAT ended when he began to feel that his politics weren’t in line with those of the police union’s leadership, he became known on social media as “the DSA cop.” By the time he resigned weeks later, on September 8, Fetonte had posted several letters online, sometimes referring to himself in the third person. In one missive, he wrote that his detractors resided in “Berkeley and Brooklyn”—i.e., middle-class kids in their 20s who were mired in questions of theory and an academic conception of politics—and dismissed them as “Internet bullies who act tough behind a keyboard but have never been hit by a billy club, never been in a street fight, never fought scabs on a picket line, and never been arrested” and therefore had no “knowledge learned in life, no respect for folks who have lived real struggle and have built real organizations.”

Fetonte-gate was a conundrum for DSA, which, having been small and insignificant for so long, isn’t used to solving conundrums. During my months observing the organization, I spoke with many members who had previously worked for entities that could be considered at odds with DSA’s values: the US military, the white-shoe law firm Jones Day (which has mounted several conservative legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act), and the Democratic Party itself. Indeed, I spoke with one other person who had previously held a position similar to Fetonte’s—as a union organizer for correction officers—and who remains a DSA member to this day. For his part, Fetonte said: “The background of the dispute about me was not based totally on the police.” Instead, the antipathy from his younger co-adjutors, he told me, was “because I want to work with progressive Democrats.”

In addition to stirring online outrage, the Fetonte controversy divided an already factionalized organization. It also showed how greatly the membership had outgrown its regulating apparatus. “Right now, the goal is achieving operational unity,” said Schwartz, the longtime DSA member. “That’s what’s being worked on as much as anything. How do we bridge personality differences? That’s what we’re thinking. It’s not like we know how to build a project like single-payer.” Projects like that, it became clear, are contingent on how well the organization works overall.

It’s hard to imagine what DSA should look like, because there aren’t many precedents. The most common political groups either work the way political parties do, requiring some adherence and loyalty to a party line, or through delegation, whereby believers pay their dues and staff members then go out and organize. DSA’s model can be disorderly, because it’s based on radical democratic participation. When every voice is amplified to the same level and everyone’s participation is weighted the same, there are moments when it’s unclear what they’re even doing together.

DSA has a newly youthful feel to it, startlingly dissimilar from the geriatric-seeming organization before 2016. Sometimes, speaking with these newly minted socialists, I wondered whether the lack of clarity could present some advantage. This generation may need a new definition of “democratic socialism,” one that departs from its previous history.

Dustin Guastella, a 26-year-old graduate student from the Philadelphia chapter who works on DSA’s Medicare for All campaign, told me that even though the organization’s politics can be a little muddled, the hope is that “things will congeal over time around strategy, around whatever ends up being the most appealing.” Much of what happened over the past year “was more moods,” he added. “Some of those are productive, some not, to put it kindly.” But politics “develop reactively over time. They don’t start coherent.” When Guastella speaks with new members at meetings—where 100 people will reliably turn up—“you get so many different answers when you ask, ‘What is the ideology?’ But you get very clear answers when you ask, ‘What are the programmatic issues that are important?’”

The great DSA upsurge came between November 2016 and February 2017, when over 10,000 people joined. Their first year’s membership is now up for renewal, and it’s an open question how many of these people, who joined in reaction to Trump and Clinton, will stay. The organization is still relatively small, and most of the day-to-day work of organizing is boring, granular, and repetitive—something that many new members have been immersed in for the first time. Christian Bowe, the recruiter known for his Twitter presence, told me he’s aiming for around 6,000, or a 60 percent retention rate.

Throughout the years of his own membership, Schwartz said, DSA has had a terrible time recruiting people. “Now these people are chasing DSA, rather than DSA chasing people. We don’t even really know what brings people out of the woodwork. But now, these young people—most of them view their new political home [as] DSA.”

They’ll be the ones to decide what happens next.