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For Philly's socialists, election wins signal momentum

There are about 30,000 dues-paying members in the Democratic Socialists of America, which does not a movement make until you consider that, pre-Trump, there were about 5,000 of them.

Diana Purnell, of Point Breeze, and her neighbor Mindy Isser, a member of Philly’s growing sphere of socialists, talk about the need to vote on Election Day last week.
Diana Purnell, of Point Breeze, and her neighbor Mindy Isser, a member of Philly’s growing sphere of socialists, talk about the need to vote on Election Day last week.Read moreRaymond W. Holman, Jr.

Natalie Midiri couldn't even watch.

It wasn't that she was pessimistic about the elections on Nov. 7. As a member of the national political committee of the Democratic Socialists of America — the most prominent socialist organization in the country — she had a hunch that the explosive growth her own organization had seen over the last year might be a harbinger of good things.

In Center City, the watch party for Larry Krasner — the progressive district attorney candidate who ran as a Democrat and was endorsed by the local DSA chapter — was raucous with the same kind of anticipation. But Midiri, on her couch at home, turned off her TV shortly after the returns started coming in.

The Rutgers alumna and Philly-based community organizer remembered how she'd felt last year, when she'd been certain Donald Trump would never be president, watching Hillary Clinton's lead slip all night — "worse and worse," she said.

And so this November she decided to spare herself the stress.

When she woke this time, though, it was to good news. Krasner had won. The fledgling DSA chapter in Pittsburgh, founded less than a year ago, had elected members to a judgeship and a county council seat. A Philly chapter member is Upper Darby's new treasurer. And of the 32 local and state candidates across the country that either belonged to the DSA or were endorsed by them, 21 had won.

"I went into the election thinking we would see the pendulum swing — that the horrors of Trump were going to push more people to go out and vote, and we'll see the Democrats and the left take a little back," said Midiri. "And it was great that this time, it actually played out."

There are about 30,000 dues-paying members in the Democratic Socialists of America, which does not a movement make until you consider that, pre-Trump, there were about 5,000. And Midiri and others on the political committee, the group's governing body, say the current president does have something to do with the swelling of the ranks on the left. But before there was a Trump effect, there was a Bernie Sanders effect.

"A lot of it has to do with radicalization of the millennial generation," said Joseph Schwartz, a Temple University political science professor and a DSA political committee member, who joined in the early 1980s, shortly after the organization's founding. Then, membership was cobbled together from the remnants of Eugene V. Debs' Socialist Party and the Students for a Democratic Society. "Now, it's the old new left meets the new, new left," he joked.

Most of the new membership today, he said, is under 35, college graduates disillusioned by the growing feeling that the American dream — the house, the steady job, the upward mobility — is increasingly out of reach.

If Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist himself, appealed to those young people — or opened them up to the possibility of organizing outside the Democratic Party, Schwartz said, Trump's election galvanized them.

Midiri, who was working the group's new-member hotline shortly after the presidential election, remembers a surge of calls to a number that once rang only a few times a month. On one conference call for new members, she said with a laugh, about 60 people told her they'd first heard of the DSA on "Chapo Trap House," the immensely popular politics podcast known for its hosts' vulgar, irreverent banter and leftist leanings. In leftist circles on Twitter, rose emojis — the group's symbol — bloomed in bios.

"I'd been a leftie for a while," said Jonah Gardner, who now runs social events for the Philly chapter, at happy hour at a bar near Temple University's campus. "But watching Trump get elected made me think there was a moral necessity to fight back."

Still, the Democratic Party this is not, nor even Democrat-lite. Generally speaking, Midiri says, the DSA advocates for "democracy extending into all spheres — in the workplace, the economy, the home," she said. That means a platform built on anti-capitalism and universal social programs — with support for single-payer health care as a nonnegotiable litmus test.

And the DSA is not without its growing pains. There's a need to diversify the largely white, largely college-educated organization, Schwartz said. And there's the question of whether the DSA can sustain what momentum it has.

The challenge for people like Midiri — and, now, Gardner — is getting new members into the streets. Sometimes that's simply by hosting the happy hours and the "socialist Quizzo nights" that Gardner organizes. But with its membership swelling — Philly's chapter jumped from about 200 to 500 dues-paying members this year — the group hopes to get some work done.

"We see the internet as an organizing tool," said Adam Goldman, a substitute teacher, the chapter's treasurer and a member since 2011. "But the real relationship-building happens in person — going door to door, meeting people and talking about their lives. It's not as dour as you would think."

It was bitterly cold in Point Breeze on Election Day, but Mindy Isser had some 65 houses to canvass, and so she shrugged on a leather jacket and got to work. A union organizer raised in Elkins Park, she's a socialist, politically speaking, but hasn't joined any of the socialist groups in town.

And, like many in her sphere, she's never been thrilled about electoral politics.

But Krasner's candidacy, Isser felt, represented something different. She was drawn to his criticism of mass incarceration and promises to end cash bail. He was well-known to progressives in Philadelphia, representing members of Occupy and Black Lives Matter in court.

And so, for the first time in her life, Isser started to knock on doors.

"I can't believe I'm out here caping for a politician," she joked, using a term for promoting someone, after hitting a few dozen houses on Election Day. Several canvassers, some of them bedecked in DSA T-shirts, had met in her Point Breeze living room and spread out across the city. Over and over, standing on doorsteps, she repeated the same themes: Yeah, I don't like politicians either. Yes, the system is broken. But you can, at least, vote for someone who might make things better.

"To be able to build the world we want," Isser said, "we need to build a base."

There is intense debate in socialist circles about whether to engage in electoral politics — several of Isser's friends criticized her for getting involved with Krasner. In the absence of a larger party apparatus, DSA members and others in the constellation of smaller socialist organizations around the city tend to turn their attention to causes, not candidates.

"What some people see as a central fault line on the left now is whether or not one supports aligning with the Democrats ever or at all," said Adolph Reed, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "But that's an expression of misplaced principle. The answer is: It depends — on context, on the moment, on what's at stake."

For their part, the Democrats welcome the help. In an email, Elizabeth Renda, a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, credited coalitions with progressive groups for the party's wins last week. And several socialists elected last week ran as Democrats.

Twenty-one local and state elected officials isn't a revolution, nationally speaking. But, DSA members say, it's a start.

"Even at 30,000 members, we don't have the illusion that we're strong enough to radically transform American society," Schwartz said. "We need allies. But the recent elections do show that if you're really rooted in your community, you can get elected as an open socialist."