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More and more Americans are turning into Democratic Socialists. Why?

The past couple of years have been rough for left-leaning Americans.

But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the fact that another world is possible. One of those glimpses occurred when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary against longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in what some are calling “the year’s biggest political upset.”

Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She is the latest and greatest in a series of electoral victories for the organization since the 2016 election when Bernie Sanders’s campaign helped put democratic socialism on the political map for many Americans. Her district has historically gone Democratic in general elections, and it is unlikely that she will face a serious Republican challenger in November.  

Earlier this spring, four female candidates backed by the (DSA) won Democratic state primary races in Pennsylvania. Three of them don’t have Republican opponents for the general election this fall, which means barring any extreme circumstances next year there will be at least three Democratic Socialist-backed candidates in the Pennsylvania statehouse.

These victories are part of a struggle over the future of the Democratic party (and American politics in general), between more establishment Democrats and more leftist upstarts entering politics.

The past two years have seen membership in the DSA surge around the country. I was part of that surge, joining the Portland, Oregon chapter last year. Membership in DSA has gone from about 6,500 dues-paying members in 2014 to roughly 37,000 this year.

That growth was spurred by the unexpected popularity of Sanders’s presidential campaign, but it has been sustained by the fact that Democratic Socialism speaks to people’s lived experiences of the world under capitalism, and to their disillusionment with the options provided to them by establishment parties.

In an era of rising inequality, DSA argues for redistributing wealth. Because top executives earn more in two days than the average worker does all year, DSA organizes for stronger unions and workers’ rights. As the climate changes and weather patterns grow more volatile, DSA pushes for a shift away from extractive industries that pollute the air, water, and earth that we all share.

I came to DSA relatively recently, along with thousands of others.

But I came to it because of a longstanding disappointment with the Democratic party.

As a queer teenager in the early 2000s, I remember desperately reading through Democratic party positions on gay marriage and finding that almost no one would go on the record as fully supporting marriage equality. It is hard to explain how my stomach sank when I realized that the politicians who were supposedly “on my side” still either didn’t believe in the full validity of my feelings or simply didn’t care enough to fight for them.

In college, I remember learning that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet and then some. That’s what I think about most when I think about why I joined DSA.

That scarcity is not an inevitable fact of life: it is possible to feed everyone, to house everyone, to give everyone healthcare. Republicans and Democrats are caught in the myth of scarcity, an ideology that encourages greed, and only argue over the parameters of how much greed is too much.

Democratic Socialism embraces the fact that we have enough for everyone if we only cared enough to figure out how to share our resources more equitably.

Ocasio-Cortez and Pennsylvania politicians Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Kristin Seale are signs of a shift in American politics. But they’re not the only ones.

Last year, my own home state of Virginia elected Lee Carter to the state legislature. Carter is a member of his local DSA chapter and defeated the Virginia House Republican whip. At the same time, progressives won a number of other victories. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, defeated a Republican incumbent who had introduced an anti-trans bathroom bill to the Virginia House of Delegates. In fact, 15 DSA-backed candidates around the country won elected office in 2017.

Aside from Carter’s entry into state-level political office, their positions are at the local level, ranging from school board members to city councilors.

But their humble positions belie the fact that local politics often have a major direct impact on people’s everyday lives. That is a reality that has shaped Republican and right-wing organizing for years but has been a weak point for Democrats. Now, DSA members are offering a leftist alternative at that level, and people are choosing it.

DSA doesn’t operate as a political party in the U.S., opting instead for a nonprofit organizational structure. That means the candidates they back are running as Democrats, but bringing a stronger leftist sensibility to the party.

And now Ocasio-Cortez is leading the charge into national politics.

By Laura Muth

Laura Muth is a writer and researcher with a BA in political science from Johns Hopkins and an MA in international affairs from Boston University. They write at the intersection of security and human rights issues, with a special interest in gender, nationalism, racism, and religious identity. Laura loves connecting specific current events with larger trends in global politics.