The Reds Are Coming—& They're Young, Female, & Determined To Win America's Heartland
Can socialism flourish in the Midwest? In the battleground state of Minnesota, activists are testing their theories.
It was a brisk evening in March when Julia Tindell, a 26-year-old graduate student and “disillusioned Democrat” arrived at the Boneshaker Books shop in Minneapolis, ready to dip her toes into socialism. Boneshaker is a volunteer-run and collectively organized bookshop that offers “progressive and radical literature and a place to spark conversation, inform, and inspire." The conversation on this particular night, the one Tindell dropped in on, was being held by the SocFems, a feminist socialist collective that was gathering to discuss a forward vision for their group.
Tindell had never been to a socialist meeting before, and she didn’t know if it would appeal to her. What she did know was that the status quo wasn’t working. “I was seeing economic barriers that the Democrats didn’t really seem to be trying to solve in meaningful ways — that nobody seemed to be trying to solve in meaningful ways,” she says. She had toyed with the idea of joining the Democratic Socialists of America in the past, but the culture of the organization seemed too male, too... Bernie Bro.
This was not at all true about the SocFems, who greeted her warmly. There were nine members in the group, women who were mostly in their 20s and 30s (plus a baby), each of whom were eager to introduce themselves to a newcomer. They crowded around each others' phones and tablets to read the document that they were editing, a branch manifesto that wove together threads on intersectionality, reproductive justice, and anti-capitalism. Tindell had editing experience, and so she made some suggestions. When she mentioned to the group that she’d been a writing center tutor, another member offered her praise: “Thank you for your labor.” By the end of the night, the SocFems had their manifesto, and Tindell had found an exciting new purpose, a “framework for that missing piece” in her political identity. “It was really radical stuff in my mind,” she says. “It was taking a hard line and it was just really exciting.”
Just two days later, Tindell went to her first Twin Cities DSA meeting — the SocFems saved her a seat. Two days after that, she joined the chapter’s Racial Justice working group. Within a few months, she was a part of the rank and file, organizing a socialist feminist book club and “Abolish ICE” marches. She was excited about the momentum and energy, but not sure what would come of it.
Then June brought with it a watershed moment for Tindell and her comrades: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old card-carrying DSA-member, swept the primary in New York’s deep blue 14th congressional district, ousting the powerful 10-term Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez’s win was just the rallying cry the group needed. “At DSA, we say a better world is possible and when Alexandria won it was sort of like, ‘Yes, wow, a better world is possible," Tindell says. "We can win.”
Thirteen days after Ocasio-Cortez' surprise upset, Tindell and other members of the Minnesota chapter gathered at a drab community center meeting room in a residential neighborhood in South Minneapolis for their quarterly general meeting. Turnout on the muggy Monday night was more than twice the average attendance. They ran out of nametags — and chairs. “I’ve been looking forward to saying this sentence for a couple of weeks now,” Nic Rea, the chapter co-chair began, as he looked out from a lectern draped with a red banner upon a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200 (mostly) young people. “Raise your hand if this is your first-ever DSA meeting.” A sea of arms shot into the air. Others, like Julia Tindell, whooped and clapped in welcome. Rea bobbed with excitement, a huge smile on his face. “That’s how it’s done!” he cheered.
The stream of speakers that followed dispelled all of Tindell’s fears about Bernie Bros. Female members filed to the front of the room to make announcements about Medicare for All canvassing, a just-launched fund to provide financial support to struggling members, and a new effort to “infiltrate” the state Democratic Party. Tindell and her fellow SocFems led breakout discussions about a reading from a black feminist lesbian socialist group called the Combahee River Collective.
Even more exciting: About half the campaigns that showed up to pitch their case for endorsements were representing female candidates. “She was the first candidate... [to] call for the abolishing of ICE — before it was popular, before it was cool — because it’s something that impacts her life every day," a campaign staffer for local congressional hopeful (and rising Democratic star) Ilhan Omar told the crowd. “She is proud to call herself a democratic socialist, she’s very excited about this. So I hope you guys endorse us, too."
Nationwide, Ocasio-Cortez’s win was a transformative moment for the DSA, adding even more velocity to several years of momentum. A deluge of headlines and cable news segments dedicated to democratic socialism and its rise filled the news cycle. Local chapters reported an uptick in inquiries and members, driven in large part by interest from millennials on the left —the average age of a dues-paying DSA member has reportedly plummeted from 68 years old to 33 in the last five years. A brand-new wave of young, female supporters has joined the movement thanks to the victories of both Ocasio-Cortez as well as that of Rashida Tlaib, another female socialist who won a crowded primary in a safe Democratic district in Detroit.
All of this represents a significant shift for an organization that has had a reputation for being dominated by white men since it was founded in 1982, and which currently doesn't have an actual card-carrying member elected to federal office. Not even Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who nevertheless thrust issues at the core of DSA’s platform (income inequality, free college, Medicare for All) into the the mainstream conversation during his presidential primary battle with Hillary Clinton, is a member. Now, the DSA will have at least two people in Washington, and both of them are young women of color: Ocasio-Cortez is just 28, and Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is 42.
For Hannah Lee Lindstrom, 26, the excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s win gave clarity about her own political ideology after years of exploration. “I went to libertarian meetings, anarchist meetings, communist meetings, and I just found that the socialist agenda is what I truly found myself believing in,” says the waitress and community college student from Shoreview, MN. Sixteen-year-old Grace Bassekle spent a morning standing in line in the rain to attend a Sanders rally in late July after learning about democratic socialism through a YouTube video she watched about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. “I was like, ‘Oh, I do agree with certain issues that they talk about,’” the Minnesota high school junior says. “We should have free public colleges because as a society we should be investing in the younger ones. We shouldn’t have students going to school and being in debt.” Hilary, a 32-year-old musician and retail worker living in St. Paul, was also moved by the New York race to get involved. She attended her first DSA meeting in July: “I know it sounds a little snobbish, but I was like okay, they can really organize, and this is amazing so let me see what’s happening in my city.”
As convinced as women like these are that their moment has finally come, many questions remain. Is this new rush of enthusiasm following Ocasio-Cortez’ epic win enough to sail democratic socialists on the ballot to victory in 2018 and beyond? Are Americans in the heartland ready to vote for socialists?
Voters’ appetite for a big swing to the left has been a popular point of debate for political prognosticators for months. The central question: How far left is the Democratic Party — and America — really ready to swing? Can socialist policies really win in places like Minnesota, a battleground in America’s predominantly purple heartland? Trump narrowly lost the state by 1.5 percentage points in 2016, as his slim victories in the neighboring Michigan and Wisconsin delivered his White House win. All three states are seen as must-win for Democrats seeking to take back the presidency in 2020. The fear is that if the Democrats go too far left in the primaries this year, they risk alienating voters they need to win in general elections come November, when regaining control of Congress, as well as picking up governorships and seats in state legislatures, is paramount.
With primary season now pretty much complete, the answer is still far from clear. Most of the heartland candidates Ocasio-Cortez has backed since her win in June — James Thompson in Kansas, Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan, Cori Bush in Missouri — have lost. But there have been scattershot victories for the socialists, as well: Four female candidates backed by DSA won their Democratic primaries Pennsylvania in May, unseating male incumbents in the process. In Montana, two millennial democratic socialists — 28-year-old Jade Bahr and 24-year-old Amelia Marquez — are on the November ballot for the state House. And of course, Tlaib also won her race.
If you ask the newly activated young socialists on the ground in Minnesota at least, these wins are proof enough that Midwest values already are socialist values — the electorate just doesn’t realize it yet.
To be sure, supporters are aware that socialism is still a very dirty word for many, especially older voters in more conservative areas. Even DSA-endorsed candidates sometimes shy from the label. One Democratic political consultant working in the Midwest, who requested anonymity, said one of her candidates welcomed DSA’s endorsement grassroots support, but didn’t even put it on the campaign website for fear of backlash. “There’s a segment of the population that came of age during the Cold War that are never going to be down with that label, that label is going to be toxic to them,” she says. But that doesn’t mean the issues can’t win, she says.
“People make it out to be like it’s this big deal that this wave of communists is infiltrating your neighborhood, but its not like that. We’re going out there and talking about these policies,” the consultant, who’s active in both DSA and establishment Democratic political groups, adds. “They’re going out in their red T-shirts, yes, but they’re talking about Medicare for All, they’re talking about free college, they’re talking about infrastructure investments. DSA is focused on those issues that have broad mainstream appeal and they’re organizing around those issues.”
Kara Gloe, a DSA member in rural Northern Minnesota, has a similar view. She didn’t specifically mention her ties to the organization when campaigning for her nonpartisan school board seat. But still, she points to the Midwest region’s strong history with labor unions as a sign some of DSA’s most basic principles — fair wages and workers’ rights — can resonate. In just two years, her local DSA chapter has ballooned from seven people sitting around a coffee shop to a membership roster of a few hundred people. “I think the ideas have been embraced historically in the Midwest for some time,” Gloe, 38, says. “And so if we can move people off of the word and help them understand the ideas, I think socialism absolutely can win in the Midwest.”
Emily Anderson, a 38-year-old city council member from Eau Claire, WI, agrees. Anderson, who won her seat earlier this year as part of a progressive wave, sees socialist values as “natural values for people in the Midwest who think things like an honest day’s work is worth an honest day’s pay,” she says. “When I was knocking doors I would start out and say if you work full-time you should be able to support your family and everyone was like, ‘Yes that’s a really core belief here and I think people are really concerned about that.’”
The fact so many young people are even open to the word “socialism” represents a huge shift in American politics: One 2016 poll from Harvard found 41% of likely voters between the ages of 18 to 29 support socialism (among Democrats, the figure spiked to 50%). This year, one in five women 18 to 35 would be more likely to vote for a socialist candidate, according to an August poll by Refinery29/CBS News, while another 54% said it wouldn’t make a difference.
The appeal really shouldn’t be a surprise: Millennials feel suffocated by the weight of student loans, sky-high housing prices and the widening income gap — of course ideas like free tuition and childcare are popular. Social and racial justice and intersectionality are also a big part of the democratic socialism ethos. As members of the most diverse generation, millennials see firsthand in their own lives the ways in which discrimination, institutional racism, and sexism can limit potential. It’s not abstract to them.
“We were the generation raised on Sesame Street and these positive messages about what it is to live in a community and we have access to specialty media that enlightens people about the injustices that go on,” Lindstrom says. “We have a unique perspective in the world and I think we take equity and equality more seriously.”
At the end of the day, though, millennials' openness to socialist policy ideas doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to abandon capitalism outright. And because of the lingering stigma among many, the DSA has a very long road ahead of them — and they know that. This is not to say the wins on the ballot don’t matter. But overall, the DSA’s main goal — for now, at least — is a culture change from capitalist to anti-capitalist. That's why a more telling measure of their success is not whether they can win elections in the Midwest, but whether they can convince the American public to try out socialist policies.
The idea is that by working through the existing political system to win on policy, they will be able to push the Democratic party further and further left. Today, it’s the $15 minimum wage and stronger unions; tomorrow, it will be social ownership of the means of production. To that end, local chapters like the Twin Cities DSA are much more focused on activities that are true to the organization’s activists roots, rather than electoral organizing. The bulk of their work is flooding their communities with efforts to build grassroots support for their issues and movements, organizing trainings, door-to-door canvassing trips, and protests. In August, the Twin Cities DSA held dozens of events and meetings, but in the end, just four of 30-plus events on the August calendar had anything to do with the elections.
On this front, they are seeing more victories: While the number of candidates sporting the socialist label on the campaign trail remains small, the tenor of how Democrats are campaigning is changing. And that, some might argue, is a sign that DSA’s agitation is working. Progressive bona fides, if not socialist ones, are in: Andrew Gillum, who campaigned on all the DSA-backed talking points, just upset the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida. Christine Hallquist campaigned on many DSA-embraced economic justice ideas to win the Democratic nomination in Vermont. And of course, there’s Cynthia Nixon in New York. Nixon is trailing in the polls ahead of her September 13th primary, but her insurgent (and newly declared democratic socialist) campaign has already succeeded in pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo left. And that’s just governor’s races — there are many down-ballot candidates actively campaigning for the socialist-leaning voter’s support.
What happens in November and beyond will be the true test of whether the DSA – and its ideas — have any staying power. On the ground in Minnesota, at least, the socialist revolution is still wobbly. The Twin Cities Chapter’s exciting spike in enthusiasm after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory did not translate to electoral wins. Despite the initial flood of endorsement requests, Ilhan Omar’s campaign and others ultimately never returned a last-minute DSA-questionnaire that included specific policy issues and a pledge to run as a socialist. Just one of the two local candidates the group did endorse, DSA member Jennifer Nguyen Moore, was on the August primary ballot for county commissioner in St. Paul and, even with a steady stream of phone bankers and door-knockers from Twin Cities DSA doubling her volunteer reserves, she lost by about 100 votes. As for governor, the more progressive Democratic candidate, Erin Murphy, who had support from many members (although not an official endorsement), lost, too.
But revolutions don't happen overnight. Last week, a trio of socialists, including Hannah Lee Lindstrom, gathered for a more somber meeting, compared to the joyous packed houses of the early summer. For about an hour, they batted around ideas for the next eight weeks of activities, analyzed what went wrong this primary season, and looked ahead, with optimism, to next time. “In the first round, you’re not going to get a majority and win over the masses,” Lindstrom said as the meeting came to a close. “As the new generation gets older, things are bound to change.”
The midterms are coming. And yes, you, Millennial women voters, are a big enough voting block to reshape the political landscape. But what do you want, and do you want it bad enough to take it? In a series of stories exploring the vast diversity of American women voters, Refinery29 is going to deep to figure out what's possible. Read more here.
Correction (September 11, 2018): An earlier version of this article stated that the DSA has never had a member elected to federal office. Ron Dellums served as a vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and a self-described socialist. He represented California in Congress for 27 years before retiring from that office in 1998.