For David Green, head of the Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Donald Trump’s victory in November was both distressing and cause for optimism in his quest to pull the Democratic Party to the left.
“We need a party that’s open to progressive forces, and that’s why we have to elect progressive leadership within the party,” Green said, while attending the Michigan Democratic Party’s spring convention in Detroit earlier this month.
Membership in the DSA, founded in 1982, has surged since Trump’s election on Nov. 8, putting the movement in a position to make inroads on the Democratic Party’s energized left. The membership gains are fueled by supporters of Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator from Vermont who sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
The DSA is not a political party, but it supports many of the same short-term policy positions as the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party: a $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, free college, and opposition to free-trade deals.
But unlike most mainstream Democrats, the DSA also has a long-term vision of a democratic socialist society in the vein of countries like Sweden and Denmark, where workers have a more direct say in how their jobs and the economy are run, alongside a more robust public sector.
Since November, national membership has almost tripled to about 17,000. Its leaders have said meetings are packed and new chapters are cropping up nationwide, including in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, where Trump scored upset wins over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to take the White House.
The DSA’s membership is tiny in the grand picture. In the 31 states plus the District of Columbia where party registrations are tallied, the Democratic Party alone has about 45 million members.
Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University, said while the DSA’s numbers remain small, its growth reflects a trend of the Democratic Party’s left wing gaining clout after Clinton’s loss. Many analysts said her defeat was at least partly due to her inability to win over Sanders’ supporters.
Noel notes the election this coming weekend of a new chair for the Democratic National Committee, seen as a dead heat between Sanders supporter Keith Ellison, whom DSA supports, and Clinton supporter Tom Perez. Noel said it is not only a key inflection point but also a demonstration of the progressive bloc’s newfound power.
“They’re doing more mobilization and organization within the party … all of the candidates now feel this is a wing of the party they feel they have to take seriously,” Noel said in an interview. “That kind of action is probably going to play out in internal party conflict over the next two to three years.”
The surge has buoyed the spirits of DSA officials including national director Maria Svart, who says the surge in new members began immediately after Trump’s victory.
“The day after the election, our membership coordinator turned to me when she looked at her computer in the morning and said ‘I can see the moment when Donald Trump announced that he’d won,'” Svart said. “People started joining online in massive numbers.”
Trump’s election has galvanized not only the DSA but other left-leaning political groups. Since the Jan. 20 inauguration, protests against his policies and pronouncements have drawn tens of thousands of people nearly every weekend, providing new opportunities for the DSA and other groups to attract supporters.
“We’re not going to work within the Democratic Party, but we’re not going to work totally outside it either,” Svart said in an interview, adding that the DSA would eventually like to run its own candidates for office.
At the Michigan Democratic Convention, Green and his DSA chapter were successful in getting several members elected to the Michigan Democratic Party’s state central committee for the first time in over two decades. In January, Sanders supporters in California managed to elect a majority of delegates to that state’s party leadership.
“State politics is where a lot of policy is done so it matters who’s running for these offices,” Georgetown’s Noel said. “Control over who gets to be candidates is huge and these people have control over that in these positions.”
(Reporting by Justin Mitchell; Editing by Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis)