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  • A supporter of Bernie Sanders holds a placard in protest at the perimeter walls of the Democratic National Convention.

    A supporter of Bernie Sanders holds a placard in protest at the perimeter walls of the Democratic National Convention. | Photo: Reuters

Published 13 February 2017
Maria Svart of DSA says the U.S. can have a democratic socialist future, but only if we build a movement to challenge both capitalism and racism.

While the U.S. has lost its chance at having arguably its first ever progressive president, Bernie Sanders, one group wants to capitalize on his political revolution and even nourish and support more people like him to infiltrate the Democratic party and fix the Democratic party.

The Sanders Campaign and the Revival of Socialism in the US

Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership double over the past few months in part because of Sanders’ reintroduction of socialism into the public eye and also as a reaction to the far-right takeover of the White House with the victory of Donald Trump.

Maria Svart, the national director of DSA, speaks to teleSUR about how her organization is using Sanders’ vision to fight Trump and neoliberalism within the Democratic party while aligning with other social and grassroots movements such as the Black Lives Matter, Women’s March and the Native American water protectors in order to ultimately achieve a social democratic United States.

teleSUR: Since the election, DSA’s membership has more than doubled, growing from 7,500-16,000 members. How do you explain this spike?

Maria Svart: For one thing, Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary exposed millions of Americans to democratic socialist ideas and values. He brought these ideas back into the mainstream of political debate. Then, in the general election, we watched the Democratic Party leadership ignore the lessons from the primary, which demonstrated that people are not just open to but actually hungry for, left populist ideas. Finally, when Trump won the electoral college vote, many people realized that he would move quickly to double down on the voter disenfranchisement and suppression of dissent that the GOP was already known for. Essentially, people realized that we need a fighting Left lifting up visionary ideas and challenging the billionaire class, one willing to do the deep organizing at the local level to build long term independent political power.

Many point out that the Democratic Party has abandoned its working class roots for decades and has steadily moved to the right, becoming, fundamentally, a neoliberal party, which critics suggest was one of the main reasons behind the Trump victory and Republican control of Washington. Some on the left argue that a new political party should lead the political revolution Bernie Sanders called for. Is that DSA’s vision for change, or do you support radicalizing the Democratic Party from within?

Given the immense structural barriers to forming a viable national third party, yet the equally immense influence that Wall Street has on the leadership of the Democratic Party, DSA has a strategic approach. We are building an independent, organized base that can work with progressive elected Democrats, but can also hold neoliberal Democrats accountable by threatening them with independent political power. We are agnostic on the question of whether working within or outside the party is inherently better, and instead we look at the specific context and work to elect open democratic socialists to local office. Frankly, what may matter most is that we believe in working between elections to engage the most marginalized in organizing campaigns around issues that resonate and for victories which will help people realize their own collective power. That's the only way to build the large, organized base capable of either moving the Democratic Party to the left or founding a successful third party in the long term.

What actions have your organization taken so far to counter the Trump administration’s anti-worker, anti-immigrant, anti-environment blitzkrieg? How are you coordinating and working with other anti-trump groups?

Within days of the election, we had our local chapters set up rapid response infrastructure to mobilize DSA members quickly when needed, reach out to leaders in the most marginalized communities, especially mosques and immigrant organizations, to offer support against vigilante violence, and organize bystander intervention trainings. We also knew that Trump would use divide and conquer but eventually attack all of us, so our next step was to have chapters reach out to a broader range of groups who would be targeted - LGBTQ groups, civil rights and anti-police brutality groups, women's groups, synagogues, disability rights groups, anti-poverty groups, unions, etc. We are also coordinating nationally with groups like the People's Summit Network, Our Revolution, the #ResistTrumpTuesdays of the Working Families Party, and others.

How can grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock water protectors, along with swelling numbers of politically active women and students, help lead the fight against Trump, transform the Democratic Party, and help build a unified, national political project over the next four years?

The only way we can win is by standing together, rather than allowing Trump to pick us off - or buy us off - one by one. The historic Women's Marches showed millions of people were unhappy with the Trump agenda. Then a week later, the spontaneous airport protests over the Muslim ban showed our potential for solidarity, and the rowdy in-district town halls and protests outside even Democratic politician's offices showed that we're not counting on politicians to save us. But it will take work to sustain, and grow, this swelling civic engagement. Capitalism pulls us apart and makes us compete, so we instead need to create new spaces for community and collaboration. We must welcome new people into the movement and in fact we need to deliberately reach out, through door to door canvassing and talking to our non-political friends, co-workers and neighbors. We need to organize the approximately 45% of voters who didn't bother to vote in the presidential election and move them into action now, well before the next election. As democratic socialists, we see our role as three-fold: 1) defensive fights to protect the most vulnerable, 2) proactive fights to organize the disenchanted, like Medicare for All, not just protecting the Affordable Care Act, and 3) ideological fights, to lift up an alternative vision and blame the billionaire class instead of scapegoats. And we see the best place to do that as part of the broader progressive resistance to Trump, particularly bringing together the Sanders primary supporters and groups rooted in working class communities of color.

Can the United States have a democratic socialist future? If so, what does that future look like?

The U.S. can have a democratic socialist future but only if we build a movement to challenge both capitalism and racism. Trump invokes a mythical America with his right-wing populism that depends on expelling or subjugating non-whites to provide for "true" Americans. Until our people learn through solidarity that we can only win together, we will be divided and defeated, and that means both protecting each other, and pushing for universal solutions, not half measures that leave us vulnerable to division again. Thus we need a democratic movement of the majority capable of demanding, and winning, major reforms like healthcare, housing, and education for all, clean air and water, childcare and elder care, full employment or a universal basic income, mental and reproductive healthcare, and the list could go on. That movement must make extending democracy not just into the economic sphere, but also the social and cultural spheres, a priority, which means challenging sexism, racism and other "isms" as distinct though intertwined with capitalism. Until and unless the most marginalized are free - women of color, particularly LGBTQ or undocumented women of color - none of us will be truly free. But when we can say "we the people" and truly mean all the people, then we will be powerful enough to democratize the finance industry, make public investment decisions for the good of the planet and people, and promote worker self-ownership instead of profit driven exploitative workplaces. This is the future we want.

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