Chicago (CNN)It was a little after 3 p.m. on Saturday here, the third day of the Democratic Socialists of America biannual convention, and it was time to vote. But the murmurs on the floor were growing louder and soon the problem became apparent. The student section of DSA, the Young Democratic Socialists, was absent.
Democratic Socialists are taking themselves seriously. Should Democrats?
A motion came to recess for 10 minutes, until the YDS meeting wrapped and its delegates -- some of them salty over being rushed -- could make their way to the main hall.
At that, Laura, a DSA member from Buffalo, stood to register a point of information. Recognized, she asked: "Did the YDS choose to go over time democratically or not?" There was a beat, then the room -- which held about a thousand people -- broke up with quiet laughter.
"They had an extended debate," the chair offered with a gamely stifled sigh, "that was not necessarily planned nor democratically decided." The motion to recess failed and it was back to work.
Over 36 hours this weekend, the country's largest anti-capitalist organization would vote to leave the Socialist International, a mismash of parties from around the world that DSA has been affiliated with since its inception in 1982; to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel (one Congress is now considering legislation to criminalize, a juxtaposition that delighted many delegates); and resoundingly affirm the push for universal, single payer health care as the organization's defining fight.
The work of preaching socialism in the US, to say nothing of its successful practice, has been a historically dangerous task. Many countries have capitalist economies; few venerate the capitalists like Americans. Here there is virtue implied in the accumulation (or holding) of wealth, both in the prevailing cultural and political milieu. The businessman in the White House can attest.
In the aftermath of President Donald Trump's election, DSA recruitment skyrocketed, from something like 8,000 in November 2016 to 25,000 dues-paying members on the even of the 2017 gathering in Chicago, according to organizers. As importantly, a new American left culture has found its spiritual home with the organization, growing up alongside and around DSA politics. If the 1960s political counterculture had rock music, the new socialists -- their affection for a good sing-song notwithstanding -- have podcasts, internet memes, and a vibrant independent media.
Binding it all together in a single, recognizable package is Bernie Sanders. The Vermont independent -- who identifies as a democratic socialist but is not a DSA member -- "brought single payer into the mainstream discourse and Trump (and the Republican effort to gut Obamacare) lit it on fire," said Jeremy Gong, a member of California's East Bay DSA, and newly elected member of the group's national political committee. But even before the first 2016 primary vote was cast, a New York Times/CBS News poll caught a snapshot of the rising tide, with 56% of Democratic primary voters surveyed saying they held a positive view of socialism.
Chris Maisano, an organized labor veteran from New York City, was also voted in for a two-year term on the NPC. Earlier in the weekend, he helped lead a breakout session called "Electoral Strategy for Socialists."
"This was a big, boisterous and loud movement," he said, recalling the century-old heyday of Eugene V. Debs, a five-time Socialist Party presidential nominee. The road back to relevance was laden with tripwires. Cold War era crackdowns, open or implicit, Red-baiting, derailed opportunities to build a mass movement. Four decades of Democratic Party drift away from the policies of public control, often in favor of "market-based solutions," and the success of union-busting strategies on the right, has kept the far left on the back foot.
"Sanders did a really great and tremendous job of opening the conversation and helping us get out of the closet a little bit," Maisano said. A campaign, especially one with the insurgent spirit of Sanders' 2016 bid, can galvanize support -- and inject immediacy into a movement -- in ways that meetings and readings and protests have failed. But the next steps will be more challenging. DSA, with its 25,000 members is both large, growing, and in the grand scheme of American politics, laughably small. The former, leaders say, will continue -- and the latter upended -- by one thing.
"I'm serious about winning," said Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the 28-year-old alderman from Chicago's 35th ward, who joined DSA and served as a Sanders delegate to the DNC. "I'm not dogmatic and I'm extremely pragmatic. We need to assess how it is that we can win and elect Democratic Socialist values and that's going to take different forms in different places. In the end, the Democratic Party is not an end unto itself, nor is a third party an end unto itself, a party whether it be the Democratic Party of a third party, is a means to an end."
Given the chance to formally, and forcibly, extract themselves from any relationship with the Democrats, and promote a third party alternative, delegates in Chicago voted overwhelmingly against a call for the senator to establish his own. When faced with the question more broadly, a number of delegates and member observers I spoke to were openly skeptical. "We don't want to end up like the Green Party," one activist mused.
Helping to secure victories for DSA-backed candidates, no matter their chosen ballot line, in even the smallest races is a key tactical priority for the organization's top officials.
"As a historian and a movement person, I know that when people win, they are motivated, and when they lose, they are not motivated," said Maria Svart, DSA's national director. "So that's a big part of why we think it's really important to take that into account and be really pragmatic and realistic."
The last six months have brought enough victories to meet the thirst. In South Fulton, Georgia, khalid kamau, a Black Lives Matter activist and endorsed DSA member won a seat on his city council. John Grant, a housing organizer in Seattle, won a DSA endorsement and, last week, the second slot in a run-off for a city council seat.
Mike Sylvester, now in his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, was among DSA's first nationally backed candidates. His bona fides included years of union organizing down in Boston and, as evident in our conversation, the ability to drop the term "socialist analysis" seamlessly into otherwise light conversation.
"The socialist organizations that I was in before (DSA) said you must believe these 15 dictums and these 59 subsections, otherwise you are tool of the capitalists," he said, laughing. "DSA has a much larger idea of what socialism is."
Sylvester is ambitious too and was one of the few on hand in Chicago to venture openly into discussion of DSA's place on the national electoral scene, as the 2018 midterms and 2020 general election come up on the horizon.
"It's our role to hold the left, to have a socialist analysis, to ask candidates where they are in terms of that -- and not to move toward them," he said. "It's to say, we can't support you because you're not for single payer, you're not for "Medicare for all. That's a benchmark for us. A bottom-line issue."
Indeed, conversations around the University of Illinois-Chicago Forum and in smaller conference rooms at the school's student center returned inexorably to health care. It was a matter of both conscience and, as many explained, a growing savvy.
"Politics is about identity whether we like it or not now," said East Bay DSA organizer Jess Dervin-Ackerman, who worked as a digital organizing manager at NextGen Climate during the 2016 campaign. "For me, it's about the issues. So when we go out and talk about single payer -- we chose that issue for a reason: it will help mostly working people and marginalized people more than everyone else."
When I asked her colleague at the East Bay chapter, Jeremy Gong, how DSA planned to persuade Democrats that socialism could advance the ball on what many identify as social issues, he pointed to abortion -- and sought to frame it as a fundamentally economic one.
"There is a false dichotomy between identity and class that has been leveraged by liberals (like those in the Clinton campaign)," Gong said. "We can say that abortion is legal, but unless they are free and universally provided, so people don't have to drive very far to get them, like they do in places like Texas, then they are not actually guaranteed."
Even if that argument is destined to lose with establishment Democrats, who are knee-deep in their own internecine squabbling, DSA's optimism is rooted in true belief. The message will sell, or it won't.
Delegates in Chicago and the members who followed along on social media for details are disproportionately young. For many, their participation in both the single payer campaign -- which included, for many, a place at the frontline in the fight to defend Obamacare -- and the DSA's internal politics has been their first foray into activism of any kind. Leadership wants that first taste to be sweet.
Svart, the national director, made the point by recalling a pervasive debate from the early days of Occupy Wall Street, back in the fall of 2011. Even as media members pressed them, and trollish political opponents prodded, OWS protesters often clashed over whether to issues an official slate of "demands." (Some OWS outposts did; most didn't.)
"People there didn't feel that the state was capable of responding to popular pressure. Young people tend have that perspective," Svart said. "They haven't lived through major social programs being created that changed the material reality of their lives."
Ultimately though, DSA wants to offer something more. And Svart believe it will define their destiny.
"As socialists, the ideological piece is so important because it's a lens through which people can understand the world. And they're not getting that anywhere else," she said. "So they're pissed off. We want to be fighting to change people's everyday lives and we want to be fighting for what we can actually win. We have this north star."