When Arielle Cohen was first approached about joining the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, she hesitated.
“What I said exactly was: ‘I’m definitely a capital "F" feminist, but I think I’m a lower "s" socialist,’” Cohen said.
A longtime activist for reproductive rights and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cohen said she liked the ideas at the heart of the DSA -- things like universal health care, free college tuition and raising the minimum wage.
“DSA doesn’t take on single-issue fights,” Cohen said. “We will fight in issues and in solidarity, but we have to build a collective narrative and a collective strength in order to tackle the big problems in the systematic issues.”
Those “big problems” Cohen referred to all come from what DSA sees as the main problem: capitalism. Their philosophy is that most social ills and economic inequality are connected and caused by disparities in wealth and power.
University of Pittsburgh political science professor Meri Long attributes much of the recent enthusiasm for democratic socialism to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He was endorsed by the DSA, and Long said he brought the concept of “socialism” to the attention of American voters.
“He obviously galvanized a lot of people,” Long said.
Sanders received more than 99,000 votes in Allegheny County during the 2016 Presidential Democratic Primary election.
Since the 2016 presidential election in November, DSA’s national membership has tripled to around 25,000 people. Locally, there are about 300 members that attend Pittsburgh’s meetings and events.
Long said Sanders' ideas resonated with young voters especially, who she sees as less averse to socialism.
“The biggest impact you might see from something like DSA or some of these other types of activist groups are on what the two parties do and what kind of policies they support,” Long said.
As an example, she pointed to the growing number of congressional democrats who support the idea of single-payer health care or what the DSA refers to as “Medicare for all.”
“That’s been a huge hallmark,” Long said. “So even if they’re not a technical party [and] winning seats, they might be influencing things like policies.”
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than half of Democratic voters now favor a single-payer system. That’s up nearly 20 percent from three years ago.
Long said while Sanders was criticized for detracting from the more centrist Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, she thinks the reason for voters frustration lies elsewhere.
“People are sort of organized by how much they dislike the other party, as opposed to how much they really like their own party,” Long said.
DSA co-chair Adam Shuck said his organization isn’t looking to pull people away from the Democratic Party. Rather, he sees election-related action as one facet of their work. Yes, they’ll endorse candidates, but they also spend a lot of their time organizing marches and rallies, he said.
Shuck said he understands that some people have the wrong idea of what being a socialist means.
“They might have, you know, like, dusty old visions of Stalin and breadlines and the USSR,” Shuck said. “That’s not really our politics.”
Shuck said the DSA will work incrementally within the existing democratic structure to create change. Eventually, he said they want to ensure that politics benefit all people, especially those who have been marginalized.
“At the end of the day, the project of this American socialist left is to create a mass workers' movement to eventually take power and create a better society,” Shuck said.