The Kids Are All Red: Socialism Rises Again in the Age of Trump

Socialism — yes, socialism — is having a moment in America. And it’s hotter than ever among Philly millennials.

Illustration by Rob Dobi

It’s one of those final, bittersweet Fridays of the summer, and a dozen people are crowded around a picnic table at the El Bar in Fishtown. With their horn-rimmed glasses, hand-rolled cigarettes and lukewarm PBRs, they look like your standard-issue young hipsters. But here’s the difference between them and the men with manicured beards across the patio: These are card-carrying members of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist group in the nation.

As the Market-Frankford train whistles above their heads and a cat prowls around their feet, they talk about what the world would look like if they called the shots.

Brittany Griebling, a bubbly 35-year-old social worker, says socialism is “people making choices for themselves”: “So what would it be like if, in health care, patients had 50 percent of the power instead of zero percent?”

Jeremy Low, another 30-something — he has the unenviable task of rolling cigarettes for his friends, or “comrades,” as these socialists often call each other — nods along. Socialism is “democracy with a small ‘d’ in all spheres of your life,” he explains. It means that “all of your material concerns would be met.”

In case you were wondering, the socialists at tonight’s happy hour don’t think any of this is unrealistic. “We’re in an age where we can easily provide for everyone on the planet,” Low says. “Oh,” he adds with a smile, “hopefully, we get rid of nations, too.”

Socialists may not be seizing the means of production in the United States anytime soon, but the chances they’ll drastically change the nation’s political system may not be as improbable as you think. The Philadelphia chapter of the DSA has increased by more than 500 percent overnight, going from 100 people in early 2016 to more than 600 today. That mirrors the explosion of the national DSA, which grew from an organization of 5,000 to nearly 30,000 in the past year. Members range from out-and-out Marxists to anarchist-communists to lefties who want a Scandinavian-style government. “When they write the history books and we’ve won,” Griebling says, “they’ll say this was the turning point.”

In a strange way, socialists have President Donald Trump to thank for their upswing: The vast majority of the Philly DSA’s new members didn’t sign up in the midst of the Bernie Sanders campaign, but joined instead in the wake of Trump’s election. “There were a lot of what we call ‘November 9th babies,’” says Griebling.

Any pundit who predicted a few years ago that socialism would rise from the dead in America would have been laughed out of a job. But today, Sanders is the most popular politician in the nation, and 51 percent of American voters support the Vermont senator’s “Medicare-for-All” proposal. Many of the Democratic Party’s likely 2020 candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have sponsored Sanders’s bill. And socialists have suddenly become a force in pop culture: The socialist quarterly Jacobin is getting more subscriptions than ever, the irreverently left-wing Chapo Trap House grosses $1 million annually on Patreon, and Twitter users with red roses in their handles are seemingly everywhere.

Perhaps most significantly, there seems to be room for groups like DSA to grow: According to a Harvard University poll, 51 percent of millennials don’t support capitalism. A smaller percentage of Gen Xers, though still a plurality, are skeptical of the free-market system. The only age group to decisively embrace capitalism is the 50-plus demographic.

The long-term effects of this, whatever they are, could have a real impact on Philadelphia. The city is home to several leaders in the burgeoning left-wing movement, including Sanders alums, head honchos at the DSA, and writers for Jacobin. Socialist meetings in Philly that used to draw a measly four or five people are suddenly being swarmed by more than 100. A DSA branch for Bucks and Montgomery counties has popped up in the past year, as have as chapters in Centre County and Pittsburgh. (The latter saw two of its endorsed candidates win in November.) Youth chapters have opened up at Arcadia and Penn State.

So why, exactly, are so many young people in Philadelphia — and throughout America, for that matter — warming up to an ideology that was long taboo? And can socialists actually leverage happy-hour meetings in Fishtown and canvassing sessions in University City to drag the country to the left?

Spencer Potts was 10 years old when his dad was laid off.

His father made good money — union money — as a truck driver. Then, without any warning, the Great Recession washed away his livelihood. “Things were really tight,” says Potts. The fact that his family had to live off his mom’s hairdresser wages for years changed how he saw the world. So did his dad’s reaction to it all: “It was really tough, especially on him.”

Potts remembers how hopeful his father was when Barack Obama won the 2008 election, and how disappointed he became when little changed for him afterward: “Everyone said, ‘Obama will fix this.’ But then he bailed out the bankers.”

Potts, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Arcadia University, is sitting at a picnic table on campus. He has shaggy brown hair, and a binder covered with stickers that proclaim things like “There Is Power in a Union” and “Good Night Alt-Right.” When I ask why he’s a democratic socialist, he tells me that groups like the DSA “fight for people similar to my family.” Last fall, after Trump was elected, Potts decided to start a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists at his college. He recruited other students by “just going on Facebook and searching for which friends liked Bernie Sanders,” he laughs.

Almost every local socialist I interviewed had a story like Potts’s. Philly DSA co-chair Scott Jenkins, who is 25, says his family was “decisively proletarianized” during the economic downturn. (For any non-Marxists following along, that means they fell down a rung on the class ladder.) Natalie Midiri, an elected member of the national DSA’s political committee who lives in South Philly, graduated from college in 2013 “without any clear job prospects, like most people at that time.” Her mom was laid off during the recession, too. Melissa Naschek, a 23-year-old co-chair of the Philly DSA, found employment after school but can barely stay afloat: “Suddenly everything is just harder — keeping track of my money, constantly stressing about whether I can pay my bills.”

The majority of the Philly DSA’s members, according to Midiri, “have graduated in the last 10 or 15 years or so and are just really, really struggling.” Some can’t afford to have families, she says. Others don’t have health insurance. And few, if any, believe that Democrats have anything to offer them: “They have to represent their donors’ interests,” says Potts, “and their donors are the same people who laid off my father.”

The generation that came of age during the Great Depression changed forever in ways that are now familiar to us all: Long after the stock market roared back, they still feared banks and hid money in their mattresses. Some even became communists; another time socialism was hot was in the 1930s.

The peculiar habits of millennials are already developing: They’re buying fewer cars, starting families later, and investing less in stocks than other generations. The media often attribute these traits to the generation’s liberal outlook instead of to economic stresses, though.

Will millennials continue shunning capitalism, or is this just a phase? Older members of the age group lived through the relatively prosperous 1990s as children but haven’t known anything but the recession and lackluster recovery since. Some of the youngest millennials, meanwhile, have an even more black-and-white perspective: Kids like Potts can barely remember a healthy economy. To many people his age, capitalism’s success stories sound like fairy tales.

Dustin Guastella is different from most socialists in this city. The 26-year-old Jacobin writer was a conservative once upon a time.

Drinking coffee in the basement of Bella Vista’s Chapterhouse Cafe, where socialists meet regularly to discuss articles in his magazine, Guastella tells me he grew up in the Poconos. He was raised by working-class Reagan Democrats who believed that labor unions and high taxes were the root of most problems in the nation. He says the core of his parents’ conservatism, though, was powered by class rage: The little guy was being screwed over by liberal elites in coastal cities and universities.

As a student at Temple University, Guastella decided to take a course on Marxism “with the full intention of refuting all that liberal nonsense.” But he found himself won over by some of the left-wing arguments he read in class — “especially the idea that workers are in a position of constant war with their employers.” He joined the DSA soon after.

Although he’s a rare breed in Philadelphia, Guastella insists that there are lots of socialists with his background in other parts of the state. “I actually think it’s much easier to win working-class conservatives over to socialism than to win liberals over,” he says. “The anguish and anger that I had, just as much as my father, was easily translated to a socialist politics.” But, Guastella says, where the “bogeyman” in his father’s ideology was the college-educated elite, his is capitalism.

Guastella’s story underscores that any number of different factors may be fueling the resurgence in socialism. Perhaps he’s right, and some new Marxists have converted from the modern-day Republican Party, whose leader canonizes the American worker, bashes free trade, and delights in offending bourgeois sensibilities. Another theory is that socialism’s revival is a backlash against Tea Party politics: Many DSA members argue that universal social programs, such as Medicare-for-All, would be harder for small-government Republicans to kill than more moderate measures like Obamacare.

Or maybe, as others believe, it’s all a reaction to the Democratic Party’s coziness with Wall Street: Would this many kids be calling each other “comrade” if more than one top banker had gone to prison for the financial meltdown?

Guastella thinks there’s another, more straightforward factor at work: “It’s undoubtedly true that social media played a huge role in this,” he says, noting the ease with which like-minded lefties can find each other on Facebook and Twitter. He also points out that millennials are the first generation in decades that hasn’t lived under the specter of the Cold War: “They don’t remember all this propaganda about the Soviet Union and communism and how evil it was.”

But just because millennials don’t remember the horrors of Stalinism doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. So how do Philly’s socialists live with that reality? “The DSA is in a good position because we have never had a sympathetic view of Stalin,” says Guastella. “Even during the Cold War, [we] were very critical of the Soviet Union.” Potts, meanwhile, says, “We just need to learn from the mistakes.”

There may be a more profound explanation for why some city millennials have made such a sharp left turn. When Philly socialists talk about their lives, they often sound betrayed, and not just by their bosses or the Democratic Party. They seem to feel that something much bigger has failed them — something that Americans are practically told is their birthright.

“During the recession, my parents were supposed to be hitting their stride,” Potts says. “My dad was supposed to be going through a midlife crisis, not a jobs crisis, you know?”

“I started thinking, like, why is it the case that it’s so hard to get a job?” Guastella says. “I’ve done everything right. My folks have done everything right. But things just keep getting worse.”

Many of the socialists I talked to seemed to once believe — really, truly believe — in the American Dream. And now they no longer do. Perhaps when you take a generation of idealists, tell them they’ll get a house and a car if they do everything they’re told, and then fail to make good on that promise, it’s inevitable that some of them will end up being Marxists.

On a Saturday in September, about 50 young socialists huddle inside the Calvary Church in West Philly. Some of them have never done anything like this before. Others are pros at it.

They’re not here to worship; they’re preparing to knock on people’s doors in hopes of ginning up support for Sanders’s Medicare-for-All plan. They separate into small groups and brainstorm how to react to different scenarios they may encounter on the street. What if someone doesn’t want to pay more taxes to fund government health care? “Most working people’s taxes will not go above what they already pay for health care,” one man suggests they say. And if a resident points out that many poor people already get health insurance from the federal government? “You could say, ‘Yeah, but a lot of people aren’t covered right now. And they rack up these big bills,’” prompts another.

When the activists finally go outside after their hour-long practice session, they get almost none of the pushback they’ve dutifully prepared for. The first woman Guastella and Naschek accost signs their petition, no questions asked. Another person who answers the door asks the duo how to join DSA. A few doors down, an older lady pulls them inside her rowhome to talk about how “this country is too rich to be so poor.” One man says he’d “invite them in for beers” if he wasn’t so busy.

“How did you hear about Medicare-for-All?” Guastella asks him.

“It only pops up on my Facebook feed every day!” he says.

In the left-wing bubble that is Cedar Park, introducing yourself as a “democratic socialist” apparently isn’t a problem.

The Philly DSA is expecting to canvass for single-payer health care in several other neighborhoods over the next few months, possibly including conservative areas in Northeast Philly where they’ll actually risk having doors closed on them. Naschek says the group will send all the petitions it amasses to U.S. Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who hasn’t sponsored Sanders’s legislation.

That’s just the beginning of their plans to tug Casey to the left. Guastella says he’d love for a Berniecrat to challenge the senator in the Democratic primary. And remember the town halls last spring where liberals shamed members of Congress over Trumpcare? Naschek wants to flip the script on Democrats and shout in the faces of those who aren’t backing Medicare-for-All. “Casey is up for reelection, so we can make him look pretty bad,” she says. “Honestly, he is the perfect Democrat to go after because he’s totally a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the party. He takes all this money from insurance companies.”

Of course, many Democrats think people like Naschek represent everything that’s wrong with socialists: Attacking Casey from the left in 2018, they argue, might as well be a donation to Republicans. Naschek dismisses such criticism: “I don’t owe the party anything,” she says.

The bad reputation that socialists have among some Democratic voters may be a challenge for them, though, particularly in an era in which some are actually running for office. (And yes, there are whispers the DSA could endorse a candidate for City Council by 2023.) But on this breezy day in West Philly, where practically every rowhome sympathizes with self-described socialists, such conflict seems very far away.

I ask Naschek and Guastella if they believe Medicare-for-All will actually eventually pass.

“It’s going to take a long time,” Naschek admits.

And socialism itself? Could it really happen here? In America?

“I think in our lifetimes, we could have a socialist labor party that displaces the Democrats,” Guastella says.

Laugh if you want about how idealistic and naïve you think these young people are, but they could end up having a big impact by pushing centrist politicians further left. The Tea Party only had 67,000 members on the books in 2010, but it won 47 seats in the House of Representatives that fall. Capitalism-snubbing millennials will make up more and more of the electorate in the years ahead, and they may very well continue to live under a lagging economy: By 2019, the country’s GDP is expected to have rebounded less than it did than in the 12 years after the Great Depression.

“It’s really hard to predict,” says Guastella. “I think there are episodic breaks that can make huge changes. We saw that with Sanders, and I think we’ll see that again in the future. Socialism can happen in the blink of an eye.”

Published as “Power: The Kids Are All Red” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.