Summary: The Democratic Party of 2023 is not exactly a bastion of moderatism, and it has taken a pronounced leftward shift since the mid-2010s. On the Democratic Party’s left flank, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has become a notable power bloc, becoming the current face of far-left politics in the United States. How both the Democrats and the DSA respond to the DSA’s rapid ascendancy will significantly impact the ideological and rhetorical framework of American politics in the coming years.
The Democratic Party of 2023 is not exactly a bastion of moderatism. A pronounced leftward shift within the party has been evident since at least the mid-2010s, and no group is more closely associated with its furthest-left reaches than the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Thrust into the mainstream by the unexpectedly strong electoral performances of prominent politicians such as self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the group is presently the face of far-left politics in the United States.
One side effect of the DSA’s association with multiple high-profile elected officials has been to obscure the reality that it is a deeply radical group, with positions that are far to the left of even the Democratic Party’s political base—to say nothing of the American electorate write large. In truth, the DSA is best understood as a revolutionary movement that seeks nothing less than to overturn the very foundations of American society. Its economic proposals would eliminate American business activity as we know it. It demands the total dismantling of functional law enforcement nationwide. Its hatred of Israel is so vitriolic that at times it has crossed into the realm of moral depravity.
The past decade has seen the DSA expand from the relatively obscure political fringes to become a notable power bloc on the Democratic Party’s left flank, though there has also been significant pushback against some of its more extreme positions. How both the Democrats and the DSA respond to the DSA’s rapid ascendancy will continue to significantly impact the ideological and rhetorical framework within which American politics takes place. Accordingly, it is important to understand exactly what the DSA is and what it represents.
What Is the DSA?
The Democratic Socialists of America was established in 1982, but like many decades-old groups of the American Left its story predates its founding, and pinpointing precisely where it began can be difficult. But it probably makes sense to start with Michael Harrington, who was both the most prominent American socialist during the second half of the 20th century and the individual most responsible for creating the DSA.
A socialist activist since the early 1950s, Harrington was elected to the executive committee of the Socialist Party of America in 1960. He was also involved in a group called the League for Industrial Democracy, whose youth wing was in the process of reforming itself into a nascent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1962, Harrington famously argued with Tom Hayden and other early SDS leaders over the Port Huron Statement—the group’s manifesto—because he believed it should have been more explicitly anti-communist. That same year, he published a study of poverty in the United States called The Other America, which was reportedly influential on the anti-poverty efforts of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
After factional strife caused the implosion of SDS in 1969, some former members went on to found the New American Movement (NAM) in 1971, which emphasized a socialist-feminist ideology. Meanwhile, Harrington set up the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1973 after the Socialist Party of America had dissolved the year before. Harrington had supported Democrat George McGovern for president in 1972 and dreamed of bringing together the constituencies of the “three Georges” (McGovern’s liberals, AFL-CIO president George Meany’s blue-collar northern unionists, and Alabama governor George Wallace’s blue-collar southern populists). In 1982 the NAM and the DSOC merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America, with Harrington serving as chair/co-chair until his death in 1989.
Harrington advocated for socialists to work within the Democratic Party, and the DSA counted U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA) as one of its vice-chairs as early as 1983. Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) was also an early DSA member, and David Dinkins, the Democratic mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993, was a member too. During the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries, DSA support was largely divided between Jesse Jackson and the eventual nominee Walter Mondale, but in 1988 the group was an early endorser of Jackson’s second campaign, which it considers “the first truly multiracial, (implicitly) social democratic one in U.S. history.”
Also like Harrington personally, the DSA viewed the Soviet Union as unacceptably authoritarian. Historian Harvey Klehr wrote in his 1988 book Far Left of Center: The American Radical Left Today that the DSA “vigorously and continuously denounced Marxism-Leninism and those regimes founded on its principles” and that the DSA was “committed to democratic values and democratic society.” The group advocated instead for what it called “socialism with a human face,” and many DSA members watched with disappointment as the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe gravitated toward Western-style market capitalism after the Iron Curtain began to lift in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Although the DSA remained very much active through the 1990s and early 2000s, it struggled somewhat in the prevailing political climate of the era. Membership dropped from 10,000 in the early to mid-1990s to 6,500 in 2014. However, late in 2014 the DSA made a pivotal decision to go all in behind the looming presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Although Sanders was not a member of the DSA and the group viewed him as a less-than-ideal leftist, they believed him to be “sufficiently radical and inspiring” to support. When Sanders ran a second time in 2020 the DSA was again fully behind his candidacy, which they saw as a critical step toward “building a mass movement of working people that can change society.”
The unexpected success of Sanders’ presidential campaigns and his public self-identification as a democratic socialist did much to boost the national profile of the DSA, though other factors also drove the group’s rapid growth. On election day 2016 the DSA counted about 8,500 members, which ballooned to 24,000 by mid-2017—including 1,000 people who reportedly joined the day after Donald Trump was elected president. In 2018, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise Democratic congressional primary victory in New York reportedly prompted the largest single-day membership gain in the organization’ history. As of October 2023, the DSA’s website claimed that it had over 92,000 members, though a report from the group’s national convention in August of that year counted just under 78,000 members. Still, even this lower number would represent more than tenfold membership growth in under a decade.
One of the most important things to understand about the DSA is that it is a political activist group, not a political party. It is legally organized as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization—the same nonprofit category as the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, or the AARP. This can be confusing, particularly since the DSA has published a detailed political platform, endorses candidates for office, counts multiple high-profile elected officials among its members, and is otherwise actively involved in American politics.
The DSA is governed by a 16-member national political committee that is elected every two years. Membership dues accounted for a full 88 percent of the group’s total revenue of $6.8 million in 2021. There is also an affiliated 501(c)(3) charitable arm called the Democratic Socialists of America Fund (DSA Fund), donations to which are tax-deductible. The DSA Fund’s mission is “to help spread democratic socialist ideals through educational materials and activist training.” It is comparatively small, with 2021 revenues totaling only $333,692, a significant portion of which appears to have been routed through donor-advised funds. Considering its modest budget, on a dollar-for-dollar basis the DSA punches far above its weight in national political influence.
More than 200 local chapters and organizing committees are affiliated with the national DSA, some of which also have their own IRS tax-exempt statuses. Chapters vary significantly in size: A survey found that about 50 percent had 1–100 members, 38 percent had 101–500 members, and 12 percent had over 500 members. The largest DSA chapters naturally tend to be located in major urban areas. The New York City chapter has traditionally been particularly influential, reportedly accounting for roughly 10 percent of the national organization’s entire membership.
In the next installment, DSA is a deeply radical organization with views that are far outside the ideological mainstream.