Last weekend, as Donald Trump prepared to rally in Florida, Barack Obama laid low after his vacation with Richard Branson, and Hillary Clinton took in some Broadway shows, 250 young leftists from across the country crowded into a Brooklyn church to learn how to spread the good word about socialism.
They were there for Democratic Socialists of America’s annual Young Democratic Socialists conference, held at the Mayday Community Space in Bushwick, a church and all-purpose organizing center founded in 2014. Inside the meeting space, young leftists noshed on bagels, drank coffee and chatted about the day’s events. Some wore name tags with their preferred gender pronouns. The wifi password was “solidarity” (all lower-case).
Unlike those raised during the duck-and-cover days of the Cold War, young Americans today don’t see socialism as a political boogeyman. A poll released by Harvard University last April found that 51 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 do not support capitalism, while a third of those surveyed said they support socialism. Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign played a huge role in popularizing democratic socialism, a term that, in a new era of Big Tent leftism, can encompass political philosophies ranging from the senator from Vermont’s Scandinavian-inspired social democracy to complete social ownership (and democratic management) of the means of production. Last May, DSA, formed in the Reagan era through a merger of socialist groups with histories of schisms and splits dating back to the heyday of Eugene Debs himself, had 6,500 members. Now, the organization has roughly 17,000 members, with 100 chapters in 40 states.
Among the attendees was Trevor Hill, a sophomore at New York University, who has become one of the young left’s unexpected viral heroes. Earlier this month, Hill was slated to ask a question at CNN’s live town hall with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He had told CNN producers he would ask Pelosi a softball question about the HBO show Veep, but instead asked Pelosi how Democrats might move farther left on economic policy.
“My experience is that the younger generation is moving left on economic issues, and I have been so excited to see how Democrats have moved left on social issues. As a gay man, I’ve been very proud to see you fighting for our rights and many Democratic leaders fighting for our rights,” Hill said. “But I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel that the Democrats could move farther left to a more populist message, the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing—if you think we could make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics.”
“Well, I thank you for your question. But I have to say, we’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is,” Pelosi said with a laugh. “However, we do think that capitalism is not necessarily meeting the needs with the income inequality that we have in our country.”
Hill and other young leftists found Pelosi’s answer unsatisfying.
“The whole point was that young progressives have serious concerns about the Democratic Party, and we want to know if they’ll be responsive to them,” Hill told me. “They sort of proved, in a small way at least, that they’re not.”
Hill’s disenchantment with the Democratic Party began when he was in high school, when the 2008 economic recession made its mark on his family. Hill’s parents started selling possessions and scrimping on groceries in the hopes that the recovery would eventually dig them out. He remembered his frustration watching Democrats’ assurances that the stock market was rebounding.
“The stock market doesn’t mean much to a family that can’t afford a stake,” Hill said. “I lost a lot of faith in Democrats as far as leading the movement for working families.”
When Hill arrived at the conference on Saturday afternoon, several attendees came up to congratulate him on his CNN appearance and ask for photos with him.
“Wait, you’re the Trevor?” one student from Indiana University said. “I follow you on Twitter!”
For young leftists and potential recruits, Twitter has become the new Socialist Worker, spreading the Marxist dialectic one Simpsons joke at a time. Other alternative media, like the podcast Chapo Trap House and Jacobin Magazine, led young DSA members into the fold. For this and other reasons, DSA’s young members tend to skew toward the white, college-educated men.
At the conference, the generation gap between the older, more earnest activists speaking at the conference and younger, more irony-fluent members they were addressing made itself known.
As the first panel of the day started, light symphony music crackled through the speaker system.
“Can someone turn this mic off? It seems to be picking up the local AM radio station,” the panel’s moderator asked.
“It’s the deep state!” an audience member yelled with faux alarm.
Later in the day, Jose La Luz, a veteran union organizer, ended an impassioned speech by asking the young crowd to stand up from their seats and chant, “Sí se puede!” After the chant ended, a woman standing at the back of the room blasted an airhorn sound effect on her phone—the Internet equivalent of a heralding trumpet.
While many of the attendees hailed from liberal bastions like New York and California, the conference also drew attendees from states in the South and the Rust Belt, from states like Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.
Liz Frissell, a high school junior from Cleveland, received a travel scholarship to attend the conference. Though too young to vote, she rooted for Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign. After discovering DSA online, she moved to start her own chapter at her high school—an act that has drawn some pushback from her own peers.
“Usually what they say is, ‘When has socialism ever worked?’” she said. “I think the logical response to that is, ‘Do you call this—capitalism—working?’”
Some attendees, while onboard with socialism’s premise, had questions about the logistics of dismantling global capitalism.
“OK, fuck the system. But what does that mean?” asked Alanna Salwen, a sophomore at Cornell University.
The answer to the question, “What does America look like without capitalism?” isn’t straightforward, as anyone reasonably familiar with the history of American socialist organizations, including the various antecedents of DSA, could tell you. But post-2008 America has new blood attacking the problem, with popular young thinkers like Matt Bruenig taking valiant stabs at it. And for DSA’s young members, this type of utopian thinking is a big part of its appeal. If conservatives have found so much success mainstreaming ideas that were previously considered extreme, why can’t the left?
Many attendees at DSA’s conference said they wanted to support a party with more political imagination than Democrats today have shown. This year marked David Littman’s third time attending the Young Democratic Socialists conference. He took a 14-hour bus ride from Savannah, Georgia, where he lives with his parents.
“I think most people agree with socialist positions, they just don’t know it,” he said. “Everyone on Earth hates their boss. That’s universal!”
With the global rise of a virulently nationalist and unapologetically authoritarian right, progressives have struggled to formulate an appropriate response. While Democrats in Congress have tried to brand themselves as at the vanguard of the resistance, what victories the resistance has notched in the brief Trump era have come not from elected political leaders but from mass public outrage, organized activism, and protests. The message that young members came away from the conference with was clear: If they want an effective resistance, they’ll have to build it themselves.
Emma Roller (@emmaroller) is a freelance journalist living in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Journal, Slate, The New Republic, and elsewhere.