|National Director||Maria Svart|
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New American Movement
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New York City, New York
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the United States
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a democratic socialist organization in the United States. DSA is a multi-tendency organization of democratic socialist and left-wing social democratic and labor-oriented members, often also affiliated with other political parties and/or organizations. DSA was a member of the Socialist International (SI) from its founding in 1982 until August 2017, when it voted to leave the organization over the SI's acceptance of what it perceived as neoliberal economic policies.
DSA has its roots in the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose most prominent leaders included Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. In 1973, Harrington, the leader of a minority faction that had opposed the SPA's rightward shift and transformation into the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) during the party's 1972 national convention, formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). The other faction that split following that convention was Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), which remains an independent democratic socialist political party. DSOC, in Harrington's words "the remnant of a remnant", soon became the largest democratic socialist group in the United States and was merged in 1982 with the New American Movement (NAM), a coalition of intellectuals with roots in the New Left movements of the 1960s and former members of Socialist and Communist parties of the Old Left, to form DSA.
DSA initially consisted of approximately 5,000 ex DSOC members and 1,000 ex NAM members. Upon DSA's founding, Harrington and socialist feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich were elected as co-chairs of the organization. DSA does not run its own candidates in elections, but instead "fights for reforms [...] that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people". These reforms include decreasing the influence of money in politics, empowering ordinary people in workplaces and within the economy and restructuring gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable. The organization has at times endorsed Democratic electoral candidates, notably including Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders as well as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
By the end of 2017, DSA membership had risen from over 6,000 to over 32,000, primarily due to the influx of youth in reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump, hence becoming by far not only the largest socialist organization in the United States in the 21st century, but also the largest socialist organization in the United States in over a century. As of April 2018, membership stood at 37,000 and the number of local chapters had increased from 40 to 181. The current median age of its membership is 33 (vis-à-vis 68 in 2013). In the off-year 2017 election, fifteen candidates who were members of the DSA were elected to office in thirteen states, most notably Lee Carter in the Virginia House of Delegates, adding to the twenty members already holding elected office nationwide.
Formed in 1982 after a merger between the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM), DSA is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. At the time of the merger of these two organizations, DSA was said to consist of approximately 5,000 former members of DSOC, along with 1,000 from NAM. The combined Old Left and New Left heritage of DSA was created from this merger: DSOC was founded in 1973 from a minority anti-Vietnam War caucus in the Socialist Party of America (which had been renamed Social Democrats, USA) while NAM was created as a successor organization to the disintegrated Students for a Democratic Society.
At its start, DSOC had 840 members, of whom 2% had served on its national board—approximately 200 of whom previously held membership in Social Democrats, USA or its predecessors in 1973 when SDUSA stated its membership at 1,800, according to a 1973 profile of Harrington. The red rose is part of the official logo of DSA, having traditionally been a symbol of socialism since the 1886 Haymarket Affair and the resulting May Day marches from the 19th century to the current day (and carrying over from its precursor organization DSOC). It is the most widely used symbol by democratic socialist, social democratic and labor parties and organizations worldwide. However, the bi-racial handshake is ideologically an American feature and pertains to the DSA's staunch anti-racism.
In electoral politics, DSA—like DSOC before it—was very strongly associated with Michael Harrington's position that "the left wing of realism is found today in the Democratic Party." In its early years, DSA opposed Republican presidential candidates by giving critical support to Democratic Party nominees like Walter Mondale in 1984. In 1988, DSA enthusiastically supported Jesse Jackson's second presidential campaign. Since 1995, DSA's position on American electoral politics has been that "democratic socialists reject an either–or approach to electoral coalition building, focused solely on [either] a new party or on realignment within the Democratic Party". During the 1990s, DSA gave the Clinton administration an overall rating of C-, "less than satisfactory".
DSA's elected leadership has often seen working within the Democratic Party as necessary because of the nature of the American political system, which rarely gives third parties a chance politically. That said, DSA is very critical of the corporate-funded Democratic Party leadership. The organization has stated:
Much of progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries in support of candidates who represent a broad progressive coalition. In such instances, democratic socialists will support coalitional campaigns based on labor, women, people of color and other potentially anti-corporate elements. [...] Electoral tactics are only a means for democratic socialists; the building of a powerful anti-corporate coalition is the end.
In 2000, DSA took no official position on the presidential election, with several prominent DSA members backing Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader while others supported Socialist Party USA candidate David McReynolds and others voting for Democratic nominee Al Gore.
While we have no illusions about how a Kerry administration would govern—absent mass pressure from below—and are not impressed with his delayed criticism of the war and his earlier commitments in favor of 'free trade,' we also realize that the Bush administration is as reactionary as Reagan's. A Kerry defeat would be taken not as a defeat of the US political center, which Kerry represents, but of the mainstream Left. As a result, it would embolden the Right and demoralize the Left (as well as trade unionists and people of color) as much as Reagan's 1984 defeat of Mondale did. On the other hand, a Kerry victory will let us press onward, with progressives aggressively pressuring an administration that owed its victory to democratic mobilization from below.
The only resolution on upcoming elections at the DSA's 2005 convention focused on Bernie Sanders's independent campaign for the Senate. The organization's 2007 convention in Atlanta featured record-breaking attendance and more participation by the organization's youth wing. Sanders gave the keynote address.
In 2008, DSA critically supported Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in his race against Republican candidate John McCain. In an article written in the March 24 edition of The Nation, senior DSA strategists Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr., along with Tom Hayden and Danny Glover, announced the formation of Progressives for Obama. In the article, the four issued a joint statement arguing that Obama was the most progressive viable Democratic presidential candidate since Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
Following Obama's election, many on the political right began to allege that his administration's policies were "socialistic", a claim rejected by DSA and the Obama administration alike. The widespread use of the word "socialism" as a political epithet against the Obama administration by its opponents caused National Director Frank Llewellyn to declare that "over the past 12 months, the Democratic Socialists of America has received more media attention than it has over the past 12 years".
For the 2016 presidential election, DSA endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as the favored presidential candidate. They note the importance of his candidacy as a self-identified democratic socialist candidate as well as "a lifelong champion of the public programs and democratic rights that empower working class people". DSA managed the #WeNeedBernie campaign, an internally focused initiative directed towards mobilizing DSA supporters for Sanders. After the defeat of Sanders, DSA called for the defeat of Donald Trump, but it did not officially endorse Hillary Clinton.
In the off-year elections of 2017, DSA members won 15 electoral offices in thirteen states, bringing the total to 35 (the DSA, having changed its electoral strategy at its national convention, had anticipated picking up approximately five seats): city council seats in Pleasant Hill, Iowa (Ross Grooters), Billings, Montana (Denise Joy), Knoxville, Tennessee (Seema Singh Perez), Duluth, Minnesota (Joel Sipress), and Somerville, Massachusetts (JT Scott and Ben Ewen-Campen); and a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates (Lee Carter), amongst other offices. 56% of the DSA members who ran in this election cycle won compared to the 20% previously in 2016. These results encouraged dozens more DSA members to run for office in the 2018 midterm elections.
In the 2018 midterm elections, DSA anticipates seeing the first DSA member in Congress and reaching 100 elected officials nationwide from its strategic down-ballot campaigns. Four DSA members (all women) won Democratic primary contests for seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, two of them defeating conservative male Democratic incumbents. They are Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee, Elizabeth Fiedler and Kristin Seale. Additionally, Jade Bahr and Amelia Marquez won their primaries in Montana for the State House,, and Jeremy Mele won his primary for the Maine House of Representatives. In California, Jovanka Beckles won one of the top two spots in the primary and advanced to the general election for a State Assembly seat in the East Bay.
Membership in DSA is obtained through the payment of annual dues, which in 2010 ranged from a "low income and student" rate of $20 to a "sustainer" rate of $130, with a basic rate of $45. Every member receives a paid subscription to the organization's quarterly newsletter, Democratic Left. The organization also offers "family memberships" at the rate of $80, which include only one subscription to Democratic Left and sells subscriptions to the publication to non-members for $10 per year.
In the early 1980s, the estimated membership of DSOC was 5,000, but after its merger with the New American Movement (NAM) the membership of DSA grew to an estimated 7,000 in 1987. In 2002, Fox News claimed there were 8,000 members in the organization and three years later DSA announced on its website that its membership had increased by some 13% since July 2003 as the result of a recent direct mail campaign.
DSA does not release annual membership numbers, nor do officials of the organization state them with precision in the press. However, it does publish annually its sworn declaration of "Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation" in its official magazine so as to qualify for subsidized postage rates from the United States Postal Service. In the twelve months previous to its 2009 declaration, the group indicates that Democratic Left had an average total paid distribution" of 5,707 copies. The total paid distribution numbers of Democratic Left over recent years are as follows:
|Year||Average total paid circulation||Issue where statement appears|
|2001||5,846||Vol. 29, no. 3, p. 15|
|2003||4,890||Vol. 31, no. 3, p. 2|
|2004||4,535||Vol. 32, no. 3, p. 2|
|2005||4,622||Vol. 33, no. 3, p. 15|
|2006||4,883||Vol. 34, no. 3, p. 3|
|2007||5,443||Vol. 35, no. 3, p. 3|
|2008||5,710||Vol. 36, no. 3, p. 3|
|2009||5,707||Vol. 37, no. 3, p. 3|
|2010||5,874||Vol. 38, no. 4, p. 15|
|2011||5,707||Vol. 39, no. 3, p. 12|
|2012||6,204||Vol. 40, no. 3, p. 3|
|2014||6,445||Vol. 42, no. 3, p. 13|
|2015||6,216||Vol. 43, no. 3, p. 10|
|2016||6,745||Vol. 44, no. 3, p. 11|
|2017||28,811||Vol. 45, no. 3, p. 8|
DSA reported that its membership grew to more than 30,000 members since Donald Trump's election as President on November 8, 2016, enabling it to make gains in the Democratic Party's left. This rise comes mainly from supporters of Bernie Sanders (the Senator from Vermont who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination that year) as well as a growth in left interest amongst American youth, spurred on by organizing on Twitter, publications such as The Baffler and Jacobin, and the popular podcast Chapo Trap House. However, people under thirty had been warming to socialism since the Obama administration and the Occupy movement as noted in a 2011 Pew Research Center report. Given its burgeoning membership, DSA faces several tactical and strategic issues, such as its relationship to the Democratic Party, the administrative and ideological role of the central leadership in a bottom-up, deeply democratic organization and its own demographic representation in an increasingly diverse country.
As a big tent on the political left with an emphasis on inclusivity, DSA is not politically monolithic and its decisions are often made by topic-specific committees. Thus while DSA chapters may choose to follow national initiatives, typically they focus on local, on-the-ground concerns such as brake light clinics to avoid unwanted interactions with the police, disaster relief or Medicaid expansion or the like. In late March 2018, for example, the Denver Democratic Party adopted an anti-capitalist plank thanks to 15 DSA members who had been elected at their caucus earlier that month. Issues ranging from municipal Wi-Fi to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel had been bruited, but ultimately "something along the lines of the original Clause IV of the British Labour Party's constitution, which explicitly advocated for common ownership of the means of production" was decided upon.
DSA is organized at the local level and works with labor unions, community organizations and campus activists on issues of common interest. Nationwide campaigns are coordinated by the organization's national office in New York City. As of 2017[update], the DSA website listed 85 local chapters, two statewide chapters, 29 Young Democratic Socialist chapters and 63 organizing committees. As of April 2018, 181 chapters were extant.
Governance of DSA is by the group's National Political Committee, which since 2001 has been a 16-person body. The organization's constitution states that at least eight of the NPC's members shall be women and at least four members of "racial or national" minority groups. A seventeenth vote is cast by the representative of DSA's youth affiliate, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, who elect one male and one female delegate who split the vote. The NPC meets four times a year.
The NPC elects an inner committee of six, including five of its own members and one representative of the youth section, called the "Steering Committee". At least two of these are constitutionally required to be women and at least one a "person of color", with the National Director and the Youth Section Organizer also participating as ex officio members. This Steering Committee meets bimonthly, either in person or by conference call. DSA has a Religion and Socialism Commission, in which Cornel West has played a leading role. John Cort was a founding editor of the Commission's magazine, Religious Socialism.
DSA publishes Democratic Left, a quarterly newsletter of news and analysis. This publication continues in an uninterrupted run from the original Newsletter of the Democratic Left published by DSA forerunner the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee since its establishment in 1973. In 2008, DSA members active in the American labor movement founded Talking Union, a blog that focuses on labor politics, working class struggles and strategies.
Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) is the official student section of Democratic Socialists of America. YDSA chapters and members are encouraged to pursue and promote a democratic socialist political education and participate in social justice activism, often taking part in anti-war, labor and student-issue marches and rallies. YDSA publishes a newsletter called The Red Letter and until recently also a blog titled The Activist. The organization's national activities revolve around supporting DSA campaigns and initiatives and organizing various student conferences, usually held in New York City.
DSA received an unexpected boost in membership the very day National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre excoriated socialism in general and YDSA in particular at the Conservative Political Action Conference session of February 22, 2018, when more than 100 sign-ups were three times the daily average.
The highest decision-making authority of the organization is the organization's national conventions, which are held biennially. These gatherings of the organization are as follows:
|Year||Dates of convention||Location|
|1999||November 12–14||San Diego, CA|
|2001||November 9–11||Philadelphia, PA|
|2003||November 14–16||Detroit, MI|
|2005||November 11–13||Los Angeles, CA|
|2007||November 9–11||Atlanta, GA|
|2009||November 13–15||Evanston, IL|
|2011||November 11–13||Vienna, VA|
|2013||October 25–27||Emeryville, CA|
|2015||November 13–15||Bolivar, PA|
|2017||August 3–6||Chicago, IL|
Throughout his life, Harrington embraced a democratic interpretation of the writings of Karl Marx while rejecting the "actually existing" Communist systems of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, Harrington said:
Put it this way. Marx was a democrat with a small "d". The Democratic Socialists envision a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning [...] and racial equality. I share an immediate program with liberals in this country because the best liberalism leads toward socialism. [...] I want to be on the left wing of the possible.
Harrington made it clear that even if the traditional Marxist vision of a marketless, stateless society was not possible, he did not understand why this needed to "result in the social consequence of some people eating while others starve".
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, DSA voiced opposition to that nation's bureaucratically managed economy and control over its satellite states. The DSA welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union. Sociologist Bogdan Denitch wrote in DSA's Democratic Left (quoted in 1989):
The aim of democrats and socialists should be [...] to help the chances of successful reform in the Soviet bloc. [...] While supporting liberalization and economic reforms from above, socialists should be particularly active in contacting and encouraging the tender shoots of democracy from below.
Harrington voiced admiration for German Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which sought to reduce antagonism between Western Europe and Soviet states. As co-chairman of DSA, Michael Harrington wrote:
[Willy Brandt] launched his famous ostpolitik (Eastern policy), and moved toward detente with the Soviets and Eastern Europeans—a strategy that was to win him the Nobel Peace Prize. Disaster came in 1974. There was a spy scandal--a member of Brandt's inner circle turned out to be an East German agent--and the chancellor resigned his office.
One older leaflet detailing the group's official ideas, "What is Democratic Socialism? Questions and Answers from the Democratic Socialists of America", states that "no country has fully instituted democratic socialism". Nonetheless, according to DSA there are lessons to be learned from "the comprehensive welfare state maintained by the Swedes, from Canada's national healthcare system, France's nationwide childcare program, and Nicaragua's literacy programs". The "tremendous prosperity and relative economic equality" established by the social democratic parties of the countries of Scandinavia and parts of Western Europe are lauded.
DSA's ideas are somewhat influenced by those of its first chairman Michael Harrington, Chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy (1964) and member of the National Executive Board of the Socialist Party of America (1960–1968). Opposed to capitalism and then-existing versions of Communism alike as cruel and anti-libertarian social systems, Harrington advocated working for a realignment of the Democratic Party, transforming it from an amorphous amalgam of conservative, centrist and left-liberal politicians into something like a Western European social democratic party, within which DSA would be the anti-capitalist left-wing. The DSA Constitution outlines the basic notion behind its ideology by saying:
"We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability status, age, religion, and national origin, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo. We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships. We are socialists because we are developing a concrete strategy for achieving that vision, for building a majority movement that will make democratic socialism a reality in America. We believe that such a strategy must acknowledge the class structure of American society and that this class structure means that there is a basic conflict of interest between those sectors with enormous economic power and the vast majority of the population."
The DSA sees itself as a big tent and multi-tendency organization with members expresses a wide range of socialist and anti-capitalist views. DSA members have views ranging from Eco-Socialism, Democratic Socialism, Revolutionary Socialism, Libertarian Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, to Social Democracy. Some of these views are represented in different working groups and caucuses within the DSA including the Communist Caucus, the Refoundation Caucus, and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
At the 2017 DSA Convention, the group announced its withdrawal from the Socialist International. The resolution passed states that the DSA will "[build] direct relationships with socialist and left parties and social movements around the world that we can learn from and which share our values."  Also, “Our affiliation with the Socialist International hinders our ability to develop stronger relationships with parties and social movements that share our values and which, in many cases, are bitterly opposed to their country’s SI affiliate(s),” Passed also was a resolution which solidified the DSA's solidarity with the cause of the Palestinian People and with the movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Stating, "Democratic Socialists of America condemns all efforts to deny the right of Palestinians in the United States and their allies to free speech, assembly, and academic freedom." The resolution further condemned Israeli actions, comparing those actions to apartheid, stating::
“Israel has engaged in a program of rapacious colonization (‘settlements’) of the Occupied Palestinian Territories...Israeli settlers in the West Bank are given the rights of Israeli citizenship, subject to civilian law, and are permitted to drive on roads barred to Palestinians...Palestinians in the West Bank are not Israeli citizens, are subjected to military law, including being tried in military courts with a 99% conviction rate, are forced to drive on different roads…[T]here are today at least 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
“…[A]ll of the aforementioned constitutes apartheid…”:
DSA has shown its solidarity with Ahed Tamimi. The organization called for immediate release from detention. The statement also reiterated the DSA's support for the liberation of the Palestinian people.
In 2016 the DSA issued a statement of solidarity with Venezuela. The statement called the sanctions placed on Venezuela by the Obama Administration unjust and illegal. It called for the United States to cease its interference in Venezuelan affairs, saying, "We call on the President and Congress to reverse these actions and stop seeking to undermine the Venezuelan people and their legitimate, democratically elected government."
The DSA opposes US intervention in the Syrian Civil War. A statement issued in April 2017 called the intervention by the Trump administration both a violation of domestic and international law. The DSA in the same statement called for protests of Trump's actions and for the lobbying of Congress to halt any further intervention.
DSA maintains itself as an anti-racist and antifascist organization. Members have been present at various antifascist marches and protests, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Boston Free Speech Rally, the 2017 Berkeley protests, and many other right-wing rallies surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials. The organization positions itself with other left wing groups who fight fascism in the United States, including the IWW, the International Socialist Organization, and Antifa. DSA also criticizes the police in the United States for their handling of antifascist activities and activities of such groups as Black Lives Matter. DSA also connects this fight with fascist groups to its broader struggle against capitalism saying on its website, "We believe that the terror unleashed on our comrades can be defeated. We also believe that the wider system of racist oppression can be defeated, but only with the ending of the capitalist system which birthed it." The organization believes in defending communities from neofascist violence and building a multi-racial working class movement. This involves deplatforming reactionary and racist groups and events, believing that a united front of left-wing organizations need to confront these forces wherever they appear.
The DSA is says it is committed to to the liberation of the LGBT community, connecting anti-gay prejudice to capitalist exploitation. This includes pushes for equal rights and protections for all those who identify as LGBT. This includes rights to housing, jobs, education, public accommodations, and healthcare. DSA also recognizes that those who are most discriminated against based on identity are disproportionately women and people of color. The organization also seeks to ensure public schools are safe places for LGBTQIA+ students, and that students should have total access to facilities which reflect their gender. DSA also supports protection of same-sex marriages but, "views marriage as only a first step in recognizing the diversity of human relationships."
DSA aligns itself with the socialist feminist movement. The organization holds that capitalism is built on white supremacy as well as male supremacy. The DSA maintains that reproductive rights are central to the feminist movement. Connecting democratic socialism and socialist feminism, the organizations says "that birth control and safe abortion should be provided as part of a comprehensive single-payer healthcare program...". But believing that electoral politics can only take socialist feminism so far, the organization says that the emphasis must be on community based grass roots movements. DSA also says socialist feminism must also include the rights of the LGBT community.
O'Rourke, William (1993). "L: Michael Harrington". Signs of the literary times: Essays, reviews, profiles, 1970–1992'. The Margins of Literature (SUNY Series). SUNY Press. pp. 192–196. ISBN 0-7914-1681-X. ISBN 9780791416815.
Originally: O'Rourke, William (November 13, 1973). "Michael Harrington: Beyond Watergate, Sixties, and reform". SoHo Weekly News. 3 (2): 6–7.
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