Will Trump backlash make American socialists great again?
Posted August 4
Relegated for decades to the back benches of American political life, a resurgent socialism, championed by figures like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is emboldening a new generation of mostly young, tech-savvy progressive activists and organizers.
Over eight months, beginning with President Donald Trump's election victory and throughout the chaotic beginning of his administration, the Democratic Socialists of America have seen a massive spike in their ranks, from 8,000 in November to more than 25,000 as this week's biannual national convention begins in Chicago.
DSA members were on the front lines of the fight against Republican plans to overhaul Obamacare, often marching alongside more moderate protesters in defense of the law. And they are a vocal part of the emerging coalition in support of a single-payer health care system, or "Medicare for all." But their ambitions are broader, with plans now to redraw the boundaries of socialism's influence in a country that has been traditionally hostile to similar movements.
Activist Charles Lenchner, a New Yorker who worked on former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign and co-founded groups like Ready for Warren, in support of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and The People for Bernie Sanders, is running for DSA's National Political Committee this weekend. We spoke about the future of DSA, the opportunities and roadblocks up ahead, and his candidacy. (The interview has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.)
Krieg: You've been around the world as an activist and an organizer, most recently as a member of DSA and co-founder of Ready for Warren and The People for Bernie Sanders. How did you get started?
Lenchner: In high school. Israel, where I spent most of those years, has lots of political parties and all of them cultivate youth leagues, so there is a lot more going on, as opposed to in the United States where you don't have political parties in a parliamentary sense. So there isn't really an infrastructure that exists at all levels that gets young people interested and involved.
At age 15 or 16, I assumed people were curious about each other and connect and see what's up. I thought that Arab citizens would be as interested in connecting with me as I was with them. I can now laugh at that, but that's how I felt at the time. It was very wholesome. Most wholesome I've ever been.
And then, as the army got closer, I became more left-wing and more invested in figuring out how to end Israel's occupation and more ideological because I saw that it was really just the left that was trying to end it. So I got involved in left-wing organizations.
Over a year before my draft date I organized a youth group and this youth group recruited people who pledged to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Think of me as a high school senior meeting every week with other young people who are all intent on being jailed. We were going to be drafted, go to basic training, and then they'll send us to the West Bank and we'll say no, and then we'll go to jail. That was plan.
And that's what happened. I was the first one of the group to be drafted and the first one to be sent to the West Bank and the first one to be sent to prison. All in all I spent about two months in Israeli military prison during the First Intifada for refusing orders to serve there.
I was already fully committed to left-wing politics, but imagine living your life knowing that you survived two months in prison. It's very hard to become demoralized. I've been in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. What are you going to throw at me now?
Krieg: How does someone go from the experience you just described -- entering left politics as a young person, organizing, being jailed -- to your life this past decade, when you've mostly worked for or on behalf of relatively mainstream politicians, like Dennis Kucinich, and causes?
Lenchner: It was a long process. I've been continuously in the US for about 17 years now. In those years, I started off working for organizations that were based in the Middle East and then I moved into politics by working with Kucinich in 2003. It was a very long, slow process of becoming a more professional activist and understanding the world I'm operating in. I'm still learning and careful not to pretend to be that guy who knows everything. I'm not. But the left has a tendency to put itself in this self-imposed ghetto. For me, it was always clear that the best place to be in politics is where the energy is. And being able to participate in mainstream movements isn't a contradiction to being a leftist. I would turn it around and say, if you want to be a good leftist, how can you defend not being where the people are?
Krieg: DSA is growing, obviously, but a 300% or 400% spike in membership doesn't happen if you're healthy to begin with or if you'd had more than a few thousand people as late as last Election Day. The organization has been around for decades. Why did it become so stagnant -- and why is it multiplying now?
Lenchner: The reason why it grew so rapidly is a combination of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
It is a reminder that while individuals and organizations have a certain amount of power, the circumstances that we exist within, those are the determining things. The people that have carried the torch for DSA for years may have asked themselves, What are we doing? Handful of people meeting in living rooms, having meetings that attract few new members. What are we doing here? Now, we know. They were keeping the organization intact for this moment. In that sense, it's a reminder that you may sometimes feel as though you're not in the center of things the way you want to be, but everyone has a role. And all those DSA folks who kept the torch alive for all those decades when it wasn't as prominent -- we would not be here if not for them. We owe them everything.
Krieg: Beyond the reaction to Trump and the energy created or channeled, or both, by Sanders, why is this group now growing so fast -- and what is going to take to keep that up beyond these current circumstances?
Lenchner: We're an organization that is simultaneously socialist, but also very rooted in a real world of politics. We've participated in Democratic Party primaries like with Bernie Sanders and in other elections around the country. We have a tradition of not being outside the political system, but just on its left edge. That's true for us in a way that is not true for a lot of other left wing organizations. That meant that we were in the position where we could really grow.
Also, because DSA had so few chapters and, in a sense, because DSA was small, it meant that new people joining the organization had the real feeling that they could make it their own. If we were a stronger, more robust organization eight months ago, then people joining us would have been swallowed up by a whole system ready to instruct new members. Instead, we opened up the doors to 15,000 people who now have the challenge of figuring out what they want the organization to be. We're lucky that DSA is the kind of open organization where that is the kind of challenge that is welcomed and not seen as a threat.
Krieg: So when a political organization, especially one dedicated to democratic principles, quadruples in size it is effectively a different thing. Most of the people who are members now were not a year ago. How does DSA keep manage its identity now when, as we'll see this weekend, rival factions begin to emerge and potentially clash?
Lenchner: Let me answer that this way: my head is at -- I'm imagining us as an organization of 100,000 members and I keep asking myself, What are things going to look like then?
What are the kinds of realities that we're going to face if we grow another 500% of the next few years? What is it going to look like when we elect multiple DSA members to Congress? We've had people in high political office. When it happens again, the next wave, some of the conflicts that we might suffer from today will be irrelevant. It's important to hold on to that fact and realize we're on a rocket ship trajectory and that things that loom large today are going to seem insignificant in two or three years.
Krieg: Do you envision DSA as being an organization that, as time goes by and in addition to its advocacy, runs candidates for as many offices as possible, or do you see more in the vein of the Working Families Party, which might have a ballot line but is fundamentally, electorally, is about providing support and endorsements in primaries?
Lenchner: DSA is not a political party and that's an important distinction. We are not on any ballot. Our sense is that instead of committing ourselves to being a political party, we have the freedom to run people within any political context that makes sense. That might mean a nonpartisan election, like they have in Seattle, it might mean inside a Democratic primary, it could mean as a third party member -- all of these options are open to us precisely because we are not a political party. Becoming a party would constrain us. Instead, we get to offer a hand to any alliance, any relationship where we think we can advance a left agenda. That means forming coalitions with other entities and it means creating in this country, for the first time in many generations, entire constituencies that are devoted to democratic socialism.
When you think of constituencies in American politics, people often break it down by demographics. What do women of color want? What do white seniors want? But imagine a world where, in addition, you have ideological blocs that are saying, We're the constituency for single-payer, we're the constituency for not instigating disastrous wars in the Middle East -- creating entire blocs of voters that hold firm to those principles -- and threaten any politician who disregards them.
That's what DSA, with a big boost from Bernie Sanders, is bringing back to American politics.
Krieg: When we've spoken in the past, you tended to be either advocating a policy or for a candidate. Building a political organization is obviously not that. It's more abstract. Maybe more difficult. You can't, as an example, paper over an internal policy dispute with some beloved candidate. How is it different?
Lenchner: Because DSA is, by design, a big tent organization, it means that the more successful we are, the more competing and cooperating strands there are going to be. So in an effort like the Sanders campaign, you might work with unlikely allies, but you have a mission. You are winning votes for one person.
When you're with an organization that has more than one school of thought, you don't always have that one defining goal that makes everyone line up and work together easily. In that sense, we're probably going to have some of the dysfunctions of a family, where we all come together for holidays but it doesn't mean we don't fight. I don't know that this is a bad thing. And it's not as though our counterparts in other places don't have their own internal fights, as well.
I was thinking, even within the Trump White House, I can't think of anyone at DSA talking about someone else at DSA sucking their own c--k (A reference to Trump's now-former communications director). We're just not there yet! And, frankly, because we don't hold that much institutional power, there is a great deal of good humor and patience that might not exist if we were actually in control of levers of policy and budgets in this country.
Krieg: There has been a dust-up, among DSA people and friends of the movement, in recent weeks over Syria policy, a particular blog post seemed to trigger it, and there is going to be a vote on BDS (a movement to divest from and sanction Israel) in Chicago. What do you think is the single most pressing issue, politically, facing DSA now?
Lenchner: I wouldn't say "pressing," but I can tell you there is clearly a spectrum where, on one side, you have people who feel as though DSA has been a little bit too attached to Democratic Party politics and their goal is to liberate DSA so that it's more free to explore building power and competing outside the framework of Democratic Party primaries or supporting Democratic candidates.
And then, in contrast, you have other folks who are saying, well, we don't think that the Green Party strategy is very useful. We don't think that other socialist organizations that have hovered on the margins have been especially successful. We think that if the majority of working class voters are still inside the Democratic Party, it makes sense for us to compete there and make sure Republicans don't win.
But you have to remember that it's not two completely different schools of thought. Even the people who are one side will still concede that the other folks have a point and ought to win some of the times. So, for example, there are very few Democratic Party loyalists within DSA who aren't perfectly fine working with the Working Families Party, which is in fact a third party. Or that aren't supportive of efforts to back someone like (Seattle city council member) Kshama Sawant, who belongs to a rival organization (called Socialist Alternative), but clearly has earned broad left support. And on the other side, even the folks who have more of an affinity to third parties, I haven't heard anyone say that working for Bernie Sanders was a mistake. Not a single one.
We live with these contradictions in a much more intense ideological way and that's something that, for instance, regular Democratic Party politics doesn't have to concern itself with.
Krieg: Do you expect the measure to support BDS will pass?
Lenchner: Yes. By an 80% margin.
Krieg: Which brings us back to the Democratic Party. You're talking about keeping a foot inside the tent. BDS is not looked upon too kindly by many liberals. Democratic leaders in Washington have their names on a bill that would effectively criminalize it. How do you manage those channels -- do you try?
Lenchner: The truth is that, most young people, don't have that loyalty to the traditional politics of supporting Israel, right or wrong. Because DSA is made up largely of young people who don't need to worry about fundraising goals for the DNC, they don't need to worry about Chuck Schumer's fundraising for the DSCC -- why shouldn't they support policies that are much more critical of Israel? There is literally nothing institutionally to prevent them from going to the mat for something like Palestinian human rights. There is just no barrier to that.
Palestine is a wedge issue on the left. It is a convenient marker. As in, "Are you really on the left? Show it by supporting BDS. Oh, you won't do that? Well, you're not really a leftist." BDS is a litmus test -- not that consequential at this point -- for an organization that is trying to assert itself as "not-the Democratic Party." It's not as if DSA is suddenly becoming an organization primarily focused on foreign policy.
Krieg: When you announced you would be running, there was a line that caught my eye -- you say you want to "professionalize the management of DSA." Given the scorn so many progressives, and certainly leftists, have for professional consultants in politics, how do you go about making this argument with people who instinctively reject it?
Lenchner: First of all, let me be clear: I adore the current staff. But they are going to expand and change to meet the needs of a growing organization.
When I was younger, I was lucky enough to be taken to Scandinavia, to places like Sweden and Denmark, and I found there that the government and various other entities fund youth organizations where the people in charge are young people -- high school and college students -- but the staff are adults who have been working there for years. And it was clear that the hierarchy was that the staff was under the control of these elected student bodies. I thought it was great. The young people are in charge! But when it comes to filing your taxes or making sure the payroll happens on time, why wouldn't you have people who do that for a living be the ones doing it?
In the same way, DSA needs to focus on being a participatory democratic organization, but things like making sure fundraising letters are sent, or making sure that internal elections are done properly, or providing support for programs -- that's the kind of stuff that I feel like there's a division of labor among people who have specific job functions and the organization as a whole, which is made to function politically. But that expertise is not well distributed or made available at the chapter level. And in some ways, the left sometimes has a hard time drawing a line between those two things.
I'm not certain that the person who is making sure people renew their membership dues has to be motivated by pure socialist principles. I'd like them to be motivated by what the percentage of membership renewals.
Krieg: So we're a little more than six months into Trump's time in office. DSA grew in his wake. Where do you want the organization to be in three and a half or so years, as the country is going back to the polls in November of 2020?
Lenchner: I don't know if I have a direct answer. I think that socialists are more likely to be impactful in local elections. The situation we had with Bernie in 2016 is kind of unique. I'd point out this: There is always going to be a conflict within the Democratic Party between people who want things like single-payer and other folks who are focused on fundraising and making peace with corporate interests that are more aligned with Democrats. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a fact of life in our political system. What's new is that there hadn't been as many organizations mobilizing the left side of that equation and being able to do it by raising small dollar donations, enough that can actually compete with the big money that comes from PACs and wealthy individuals.
That's new and that constituency isn't just DSA, bravely alone waving a red flag, that's a whole sector -- that's Our Revolution, that's (new Our Revolution president and former Ohio state senator) Nina Turner, that's unions who supported Sanders, that's people like Kshama Sawant in Seattle. DSA is one component in the growth of larger left impacting American politics.
And that sector is now able to exert so much power we're seeing Cory Booker try to legalize marijuana at the federal level? Seeing folks like Kamala Harris rhetorically endorse single-payer? We're basically seeing a massive shift of otherwise mainstream Democrats bend over backwards to use the words and the policy positions of people that are far to their left -- and they're doing it because we actually have the gravitational pull for a change.
Just imagine where that will take us after DSA spends a few years capacity-building and learning the skills and knowing the differences between voter file software and how to manage active canvassing campaigns. Once we get that better mastered, I think you're going to see the number of openly socialist candidates holding office rise from less than 100 to many thousands, as was the case in the heyday of the Socialist Party.