During the 2020 election, young voters were an integral part of President Biden’s winning coalition, initially supporting him more than any other age group. But in April, a Gallup poll showed President Biden’s approval rating at its lowest level among Generation Z, down to only 39 percent. After almost two years, many feel they have not seen the changes they were promised. In response and mindful of the midterm elections, Biden has recently proposed reforms favored by young activists, including targeted student loan forgiveness, clemency for marijuana convictions, and the inclusion of climate provisions into the Inflation Reduction Act.
Of course, the young left was already largely dissatisfied with the Democratic Party before Biden, but it took activists and organizers across the country to make these initial accomplishments possible. Much of this work started during Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, when many groups used the senator’s outsider status and platform to advance their own—such as the Democratic Socialists of America, which has seen record growth to 90,000 members strong. The organization’s youth section, Young Democratic Socialists of America, is no exception. Now, without a national candidate to rally around and with the midterms approaching, many YDSA members feel like the organization must clarify its role. Rather than hitching its wagon to Democratic candidates, YDSA has emphasized building its own infrastructure.
This past summer, YDSA held its annual convention for its 131 chapters nationwide. The resolutions on the meeting agenda ranged from dues sharing and travel equity to labor strategy and abortion rights. But Resolution 15, “For An Independent Working Class Socialist Party,” stood out. Offered by the Reform and Revolution Caucus, the proposal called for severing ties with the Democratic machine to formulate an independent socialist party, called the “dirty break” strategy. “Despite the short-term strategic advantage of running candidates within the Democratic Party, it is not enough for us to be satisfied with such an orientation for the indefinite future,” the document read.
Along with millions of other young people, many YDSA members now see the two-party system as an unviable path forward. As the youth section of the largest socialist organization in the United States, the group feels that it will be up to the group to eventually offer an alternative. “The Democratic Party is a fundamentally regressive and capitalist organization, and in order to build a socialist future, an independent, working-class, socialist party is necessary.”
Although a Sanders supporter during the 2020 Democratic primary, Jacob Alexander Chavarria, the president of Florida International University’s YDSA chapter, is now a fierce proponent of the dirty-break model. “It’s important for us, as socialists, to build genuine political movements.” In Chavarria’s mind, the final distillation of the issue is simple: to prove that socialism can actually win on its own merits. “I think it’s not only viable. It’s necessary.”
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Others were less certain. “I don’t see us able to make a dirty break,” said Kate Weaver, cochair of North Central High School’s YDSA chapter, citing the Democratic Party’s “power and wealth.” “The two-party system is so strongly ingrained in the political process, it is going to be difficult to break that mold.”
In late July, YDSA members approved the resolution. Despite calling for a break, the plan doesn’t immediately ban candidates from running as Democrats, but urges chapters to start identifying races where socialists can run as independents. “Under concrete circumstances, it can still make sense for DSA-endorsed candidates to run on the ticket of the Democratic Party.” The end goal, of course, is still decades away. “[T]he target of our electoral efforts needs to be to build the independent, working class power necessary to forge an independent, working class, socialist party through class struggle elections and candidates.”
How individual YDSA chapters will continue to engage with electoral politics will depend largely on the membership. Evan Caldwell, an at-large member of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee and former head of the University of Central Florida YDSA, said it “depends on local candidates.” For example, UCF YDSA—currently the organization’s largest chapter—worked closely with Democratic Socialist city councilor Richie Floyd in St. Petersburg last year. The group also allowed Maxwell Frost, a progressive Democrat and likely the first Gen Z congressman, to speak at their meetings. Though Frost was not as left as those in YDSA, Caldwell noted that his presence was guaranteed to “bring 200 people.” One question that a YDSA leader should always ask when coordinating with a candidate, Caldwell explained, was, “Are they getting more out of this, or are you?”
Simultaneously, a proposal called the “1-2-3-4 Plan” within the New York City DSA, one of the largest DSA chapters in the country, attempts to create a “party-like structure” that would unite all endorsed candidates under a single platform. The resolution is cosponsored by Jake Colosa, a cochair of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee. Approved candidates would share “coordinated and centralized comms,” and “common branding” throughout their campaigns. To get approved, the candidates would “explicitly, publicly, and prominently identity as Democratic Socialists.”
For YDSA, an independent socialist party would be nothing without a robust labor movement. At the summer conference, the vitality of labor organizing was discussed at length along with Resolution 2. “[W]e believe the working class is the agent of change in society through their position as producers,” reads the resolution, and “the task of the socialist movement is to organize the working class.” More than merely prioritizing labor, the proposal formulated a multistep plan for ingraining young socialists into sectors needing unionization. “[S]ocialists must take active interventions toward building shop floor power. This requires Industrialization, the active development of a layer of socialists cadre who can organize in the workplace on a day-to-day basis.”
The “National Labor Strategy” proposal was among the only resolutions to pass unanimously. “We’ve had a lot of trouble cohering around labor strategy in the past,” said Adam D’Elia, a member of City College (NYC) YDSA and a resolution cosponsor. He sees Resolution 2 as a step towards “making sure YDSA is centering labor.”
Another resolution, number 14, “For Abortion Rights, Bodily Autonomy, and Socialist Trans Liberation,” led to a national day of action. Across the country, YDSA chapters organized mass walkouts on college campuses to support abortion and LGBTQ rights along with the Graduate Student Action Network (GSAN), gaining coverage by both Jacobin and Teen Vogue.
Despite the seeming success of the day, several of that measure’s key architects took to Twitter to condemn leadership’s approach. Alex Franzblau, a cosponsor of the resolution and member of Florida International University’s YDSA, tweeted “I would argue YDSA’s decision to orient our event to GSAN is an illustration of the problems w/ this approach to ‘mass orgs.’” Though YDSA was the larger organization and did most of the work, Franzblau wrote, its message was diluted. “If we want to continue bolstering our cause through YDSA and DSA, we need to continue striving to put our voices at the forefront of our moment,” wrote Kaylee Dombrowski, cochair of Florida Gulf Coast University.
One of the harshest critics of R14’s implementation was Spencer Mann, cochair of Reed College YDSA and the resolution’s primary sponsor. Though Mann doesn’t regret their proposal, describing the action as “a positive step for YDSA,” they freely admit the organization is unfamiliar with arranging nationwide protests. Attempting to do so, Mann argued, “exposed a lot of logistical, structural, and political barriers to the type of organizing that I believe is necessary to build a fighting, campaigning organization.” These problems included an incorrect date choice, insufficient outreach, and faulty coalition building. The GSAN drafted and shared documents with YDSA, leaving “little time to edit them or incorporate our messaging.”
Some in YDSA are looking abroad for inspiration for running socialist candidates and coalition building. In Brazil, Lula da Silva is seeking to take back the country from Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration is defined by deforestation, bigotry, and nostalgia for military dictatorship. Gustavo Petro recently became Colombia’s first leftist president. In France, the NUPES coalition, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won 147 seats in the National Assembly, making it the largest opposition bloc.
With an eye toward what comparable youth socialist groups have accomplished overseas, Resolution 10 called for a youth-specific body on DSA’s International Committee. The IC youth committee would “support projects related to international solidarity and political education on high school and college campuses,” “provide assistance to YDSA chapters as pertains to international solidarity and political education projects,” and “act as a line of communication between YDSA campaigns and the IC broadly.” Andrew Basta, the secretary for University of Chicago YDSA, sponsored the legislation, calling it a “huge step to being in solidarity with workers in the Global South.”
Mann does not believe campus work is where YDSA’s role should end. “YDSA as a whole should be building towards becoming a mass youth wing of a future socialist party,” wrote Mann on YDSA’s national Slack channel, imagining a future where the organization is able to quickly mobilize thousands of students against state, local, and federal governments. Mann criticized the DSA’s lack of a coordinated national response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, citing the student protests against the Vietnam War as a historical example of coordinated masses of students pressuring the government to act. “That, to me, is the basis for a lasting mass organization.”