Abby Harms was laid off from their job at a Denver board-games store the same day that the city went into lockdown. Within days of filling out a petition for laid-off service workers, Harms (who identifies as nonbinary) got an unexpected call from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Did they need food or help getting groceries? Assistance filing for unemployment? Did Harms want to participate in a rent-cancellation campaign? To the last proposal, Harms eagerly agreed, and soon they were a dues-paying member of the DSA.
“I felt like I was doing something productive out of this whole nightmare,” the 32-year-old Harms, who says their politics have always been far-left, told me. “I had a purpose and something to fight for.”
Membership in DSA chapters around the country has surged in the past eight weeks. An estimated 10,000 people have joined since March, bringing the group’s total membership to roughly 66,000, according to internal figures. Enrollment fluctuates month to month, but the DSA hasn’t seen numbers like this since the election of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, a spokesperson said.
Leaders of the DSA attribute some of this recent growth to Senator Bernie Sanders suspending his presidential campaign in early April, which sent his supporters seeking another outlet for their organizing energies. But current economic and public-health conditions have sparked anger nationwide—and the present moment seems especially ripe for socialist outrage. Millions of Americans like Harms have been fired or furloughed. Fast-food workers and grocery-store checkers are risking their lives for minimum wage, while white-collar employees are attending Zoom meetings from the safety of their homes. And governors are flouting federal guidelines in allowing businesses to reopen, risking the “needless suffering and death” of their residents, as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci put it.
“People are really starting to just look around and say, ‘Man, capitalism isn’t working,’” said the co-chair of the Detroit DSA chapter, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. “If the markets can’t even produce hand sanitizer or toilet paper or masks during a plague—what good is this system?”
For DSA members and other leftists, the political revolution always seems to be just around the corner. With Sanders out of the presidential race, a surge in membership isn’t likely to seriously affect the politics of the broader Democratic Party—especially a Democratic Party led by the establishment-backed former Vice President Joe Biden. But the coronavirus crisis and ensuing global recession will not be resolved in the next few weeks or months. The financial toll will be felt for years—maybe decades—to come, and with Congress’s push to expand the social safety net, more and more Americans could be open to government playing a bigger role in their lives. There is, in other words, great potential for systemic change in this as-yet-unwritten future—a potential that DSA members recognize.
“There’s the sense that [this situation] is unacceptable and immoral, and that feeling is really pushing people into the meticulous work of organizing,” says Julia Shannon, who sits on the steering committee for the Los Angeles DSA; her chapter gained 300 members in April, its largest month of growth ever. “We have to try to work toward harnessing that momentum and energy to create structures that work for the majority of people.”
The DSA, founded in 1982 by the writer and activist Michael Harrington, had 5,000 members in 2015, when Sanders began his first run for president. At more than 66,000 members now, it’s still small: The Libertarian Party, by comparison, has more than 600,000 registered members. But in the past two years, the DSA has seen high-profile allies take power: Representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, two freshman rabble-rousers sometimes described as the future of the Democratic Party, are card-carrying democratic socialists and have become the group’s unofficial spokeswomen. Eleven DSA members were elected to state legislatures in 2018, and more than a dozen others are seated on city councils across the U.S.
The organization’s ascendance in the past few years is “as impressive as anything that’s happened in left-wing history” since the Socialist Party of America reached its peak membership in 1912, Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College and a charter member of the DSA, told me. The past eight weeks in particular, he said, represent “a significant moment” for the group.
Right now, the DSA is emphasizing recruitment, framing their efforts as giving struggling workers “a way to fight back,” the DSA Denver labor chair, Mariah Wood, told me. Her chapter, which recruited Harms, has organized more than 200 laid-off service workers as part of a citywide campaign to urge Governor Jared Polis to cancel rent and mortgage payments. The chapter teamed up with other local groups, including the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and several trade unions, to urge the Denver City Council to help lobby the state government, which it did. (While Polis has argued that canceling rent is not within his power, he ordered a temporary ban on evictions in the state earlier this month.) Before now, such a collaboration would have been unlikely because of DSA’s radical reputation, Wood said. These days, “people are enthusiastically working with the DSA,” she said. “It’s a good time to be a socialist.”
Midwest DSA chapters, too, have seen growing interest in their work. Membership in the Twin Cities DSA has ticked upward since late February by some 200 members, said the group’s 29-year-old co-chair Rita Allen. The chapter saw a blitz of new members with Bernie fever in the run-up to Super Tuesday. After Joe Biden regained his lead in the primary, even more people joined the chapter as a way to keep pushing for Medicare for All and other Sanders-backed legislation. Within weeks, the state shutdowns started happening.
“Anyone who lives with a little precarity in their life … could see that the overall response to the pandemic was completely insufficient,” Allen told me. “We seized on that moment.”
The Twin Cities DSA began calling for an eviction moratorium, for the cancellation of rents and mortgages, and for the state health-insurance provider to extend its open-enrollment period. At the onset of the pandemic, the group began organizing neighborhood grocery runs and created a “solidarity fund” to raise and distribute cash—nearly $25,000—to needy community members.
The DSA is interested in recruiting higher-income workers on the front lines of the crisis, too. Through word of mouth, the Twin Cities chapter has reached out to health-care employees who feel like their workplace conditions are unsafe. Bridget Gavin, a 38-year-old Minneapolis nurse, told me that she was alarmed and frustrated by the lack of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment at the hospital where she works. A Sanders supporter in the primary, Gavin was approached in mid-April by a handful of other nurses recruiting for the DSA, and she agreed to join the organization. “I feel supported and heard and challenged in a good way,” Gavin told me.
If the DSA is smart, it will channel members’ energy and outrage into electing political candidates and campaigning for its pet legislative reforms, including the Green New Deal, high-quality affordable child care, and universal health-care coverage, says David Meyer, a sociology professor at UC Irvine who studies social movements and public policy. The U.S. government is “going to be spending shitloads of money” to get the country going again, Meyer told me. The next few weeks and months offer a chance for leftist reform groups like the DSA “to get in and decide where that goes and to make claims.”
The DSA has faced and will continue to face obstacles in pushing for reforms, given the organization’s tiny size—it’s way smaller than the major political parties—and the anti-socialist attitudes that are still prevalent in America. But the group has been propagating these ideas for decades, “making it well positioned to capitalize” on the societal upheaval happening now, Meyer said.
Since joining DSA in late March, Harms has been making 40 calls a week to other laid-off or essential workers, encouraging them to sign petitions, attend DSA meetings, and join Denver’s rent-cancellation campaign. Harms is heading back to work at the board-game shop this week, now that Colorado is reopening. But when I asked whether their DSA work will continue, Harms answered with an immediate and definitive yes.
“We’re going to see real change after this,” Harms said. “People won’t forget what this was like—to not have income and not have a job and still be expected to pay all these different bills.”