Before the 2008 crisis, the Democratic Party had been on a trend since Jimmy Carter’s 1977-1981 presidency of moving rightward and branding itself as the less conservative and more modernizing wing of the new neoliberal order. As the left declined further into the 1990s, the party was able to pursue almost openly racist policies to draw reactionary white supporters back from the Republican Party. This trend was halted however in the 2008 elections with the economic crisis. The liberal bourgeoisie began to be represented by politicians who pursued a pre-Carter-era Keynesian economic policy focusing on the long-term health of American capitalism. Barack Obama represented the return of this “more human” face of the Democratic Party, with his defeat of Hilary Clinton, a representative of 1990s-era Democratic reaction, in the Democratic primary, and subsequently John McCain, a Republican ally of the then-universally-reviled George W. Bush, in the general election.
The lack of real improvement under these policies for the quality of life of the proletariat and the proletarianizing petit-bourgeoisie has resulted in new movements developing in the 2010s, including Occupy Wall Street which ran concurrently with other similar popular movements such as the Spanish Indignados and the Gezi uprising in Istanbul. While at the time it did not result in more vitality for any existing American left organization, nor did it result in the formation of a particularly popular new one a new organization being formed by the American left, Occupy Wall Street did inject into the national discourse a focus on income inequality, an inequality that has been massively expanding since the economic crisis and the decline of the status of the petit-bourgeoisie. Furthermore, it informed future left activism and introduced new young people to the left.
These precariously petit-bourgeois young people, many of whom have had to drop out of university or undertake unpayable debt to continue their education, have been a major force in both the 2015-2016 Sanders campaign and the Democratic Socialists of America. Up until the Sanders campaign, the Democratic Socialists of America was a run-of-the-mill reformist outfit made up mostly of aging former 1960s-70s student radicals. This demographic’s influence can be seen in the substantial age disparity between Sanders and Clinton primary voters which is even more significant than their class difference and by the focus of even the Democratic right on protecting the “shrinking middle class”.
Bernie Sanders had been pursuing social democratic policies in Vermont and in the Senate for more than 30 years by 2015, but did not achieve any sort of nationwide success or recognition until the change in the objective conditions brought about by the crisis and Occupy Wall Street. His 2015 presidential campaign announcement was initially not taken seriously by the liberal media and was treated like similar 2000s-era flashes in the pan like left-leaning Dennis Kucinich. However, as the year wore on, and he began rapidly gaining popularity among the newly-radicalized young people, the pundits’ tones began changing from derision to fearmongering, especially as he began winning primaries.
This general radicalization of the proletariat post-crisis can be demonstrated by comparing who voted for Sanders compared to who voted for Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries. Among voters in the Iowa caucus who earned more than $100,000/year Clinton won, whereas among voters earning under $50,000/year Sanders won.
The DSA were early endorsers of Sanders, and through the campaign came into contact with these pro-Sanders youths who had also adopted the newly-popular title of “democratic socialist”, also used by Sanders. After Sanders’s loss in the 2016 primary to Clinton, Clinton subsequently lost the general election to Donald Trump, himself riding a comparable nationalist wave similar to those manifested in the British UKIP and the German AfD. However, many of those Sanders supporters remained active within the DSA afterwards and founded dozens of new branches, including Young Democratic Socialists branches at high schools and universities.
More proletarian and more radically left-wing elements have since been drawn together within this big-tent left-wing association. There are official DSA anarchist groups, and Marxist-Leninists active within the DSA are beginning to find a voice. The tension within the DSA between the social democrats and the radicals manifested itself early on in this new period of growth, with controversy erupting over the accession of a police union organizer to the DSA’s National Political Committee. The two wings of the association have also come into conflict over the control of many local branches such as the East Bay DSA.
The social democratic wing has focused itself especially in electoralism, supporting candidates such as Julia Salazar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and now Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, controversially holding a DSA-wide vote to endorse Sanders before the 2019 DSA convention can debate whether to endorse him and how to engage in the 2020 campaign should he be endorsed, sparking further animosity between the strictly Democratic-Party-electoralist social democrats and their anti-electoral or alter-electoral elements within DSA, who represent the radicalized youth.
The DSA left and Trotskyist and Marxist-Leninist elements outside the DSA have been opposed to this kind of electoral focus, with many on the SEA left complaining that the right has disbanded or undermined their other work. The DSA right claims that community work is ultra-leftist, or at least a distraction from the more important goal of getting progressives into elected office. Meanwhile, the strictly anti-electoral left, such as the former New Communist Party – Liaison Committee (NCP-LC) Maoist groups, have focused on condemning the DSA in its entirety, saying working alongside reformists is a form of class treason, and have responded with minor acts of vandalism, including with dead animals. Some Marxists within the DSA, including the entire North Georgia chapter, have left due to a dissatisfaction with the DSA right’s control. While DSA candidates like Ocasio-Cortez have been able to push more substantial policies into the mainstream discourse such as the Green New Deal, they have also been less strongly anti-imperialist than non-DSA leftists who have also been elected under the Democratic Party’s banner.
The near future of the DSA will certainly see increasing tensions between the leading right who will turn the group’s activities more and more towards campaigning for Democrats, and the DSA left who will try to pursue more extra-parliamentary activist work, while engaging with the Democratic Party either not at all or in a more critical manner as a way of driving the Democratic Party base leftwards and into more activist activity. Regardless of who wins this struggle, it will determine the direction of socialist politics in the US to some extent, as the DSA remains the largest US-wide socialist organization, and the de facto face of the left in the eyes of the US mainstream.