Who are the Democratic Socialists of America?

Interview with DSA member Annie Levin

Trump and Biden, the anti-racist struggles, the pandemic, Bernie Sanders and the parliamentary experience of the socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, and internationalism from the point of view of the U.S. democratic socialists

By Alessio Arena
Translated by the author. Reprinted with permission from the Italian original in La Città Futura.

Chi sono i Socialisti Democratici d’America? Intervista ad Annie Levin

The crisis that has been affecting the United States for over a decade now is visibly transforming the relationship of Americans with political participation. During the last decade, the 50 states have been crossed by an uninterrupted series of mass movements and conflictual explosions. A new generation of activists has imposed itself as a factor of renewal with which even the ruling classes of the main imperialist power are now forced to reckon.

The left political force that has been most able to intercept the growing desire for radical change in American society is undoubtedly the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA is an organization of the socialist and anti-capitalist left whose ranks include interpreters of practically all the historical trends in which the Marxist galaxy is articulated, but above all many young people whose commitment is gradually giving shape to an original profile of American democratic socialism. Born in 1982 from the confluence of different experiences of the socialist left, today they can count on an organized base in vertiginous growth and on a large number of institutional representatives at all levels, elected in the ranks of the Democratic Party. The names of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, members of the DSA elected at the National Congress in the mid-term elections of November 2018, have gained a strong international fame.

In the belief that the evolution of the socialist and anti-capitalist left in the U.S. is one of the most important factors for the revival of the prospect of an alternative society in the West and beyond, we asked Annie Levin some questions. A New York City DSA activist, Annie was at the forefront of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for democratic primaries and is involved in the organization’s work in several areas. The interview we are proposing, one of the first direct opportunities for dialogue between the Italian class left and U.S. democratic socialism, offers the opportunity to get an idea of the sensitivity, objectives, perspectives and contradictions that open up in front of a force on the evolution of which much depends on the future of class struggle in the U.S.

In the belief that the evolution of the socialist and anti-capitalist left in the U.S. is one of the most important factors for the revival of the prospect of an alternative society in the West and beyond, we asked Annie Levin some questions.

Alessio Arena: The catastrophic response to the health crisis by the Trump administration has provided dramatic new evidence of the cruelty of the classist regime in the United States. In your opinion, what were the roots and motivations for Trump’s choices?

Annie Levin: I think that Trump is motivated by the greed of his class. He is a New York City landlord and real estate developer, as was his father before him. Trump, as a capitalist icon, has been a fixture in American life since the 1980s. If you’re from New York City, then you very much recognize him as a type. He sounds uneducated and uncultured and he is a little bit proud of how stupid and boorish he is, but he nevertheless has this incredibly privileged background. His brusque facade and narcissism, combined with his class background, has fashioned him into a formidable political fighter for the Republican Party. In an age of sundowning political leaders, Trump manages to appear to still be fighting. He’s sundowning like the rest of the political establishment, but appearance is all. His base of Make America Great Again fascists come out in force for him. He also gives cover to the neoconservatives who are now, during the pandemic, doing to the entire country what they had already accomplished in Iraq and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: using a catastrophe to strip the place for parts. 

AA: The DSA have always been active in the “Medicare for All” campaign, for free and universal public health care, whose reasons have been dramatically confirmed by the pandemic. Are you seeing an increase in organization and participation around these issues?

AL: Universal programs like Medicare for All are very popular in the United States and are being organized around on the local level. In many states, anyone who wants to run for elected office as a progressive or democratic socialist must now pledge that they will fight for universal healthcare. In New York, DSA is one of many organizations organizing around the New York Health Act, which would be our state-wide version of Medicare for All. 

AA: As coronavirus infections spread, a new wave of social and antiracist protests exploded in the U.S., particularly after the police murder of George Floyd. How have these protests changed the balance of power and impacted on the maturation of the political consciousness of Americans?

AL: I think that many more people, especially young African Americans, have become politically active as a result of these protests. However, these protests did not fundamentally shift the balance of power. They only showed just how brutal and fascistic the Trump regime is capable of being. Many liberal middle-class Americans believe that once Trump is voted out things will return to “normal.” They believe a Biden presidency will get rid of all the bad things (the virus, the protests, the unemployment) and don’t realize how structurally ingrained these things have become. The movement is growing, however, as more and more people consider political action a regular and necessary part of life. It has yet to be seen how that will impact the balance of power in this country. 

AA: One year ago, the mass campaign in support of Bernie Sanders’s nomination for the Democratic Primary began with a massive rally in New York City. It was felt that the outbreak of the pandemic somehow helped the democratic establishment to undermine that campaign, bringing it to an untimely end. What is your balance of that experience and your involvement in it?

AL: I was deeply involved in the Bernie campaign. I traveled to many early primary states to canvass for him. I also phonebanked and was beginning to organize around the campaign for the New York primary when Bernie dropped out of the race. The pandemic certainly did bring the campaign to an untimely end. The DNC insisted on holding in-person voting at the height of the pandemic. People contracted the virus and died as a result of these in-person primaries. It was like they were holding the American people hostage. Bernie was forced to drop out of the race as a result. I believe this was intentional on the part of the DNC. 

AA: With the conclusion of the primaries, the DSA immediately announced their refusal to endorse the democratic Biden-Harris ticket. What line are you taking with regard to the presidential elections?

AL. Many of us are going to be phonebanking for socialist candidates in the next few months and in doing so taking the opportunity to encourage people to vote for Biden. The Biden campaign appears to be doing very little on-the-ground work while Trump has a vast ground game as well as an enthusiastic base. I am concerned that this country will not be able to weather a second Trump term and I am worried that Biden is not doing enough to win the election. I do not think socialist organizations should endorse politicians like Joe Biden, however as an individual I will be doing everything in my power to ensure that he wins.  

Neo-fascism is driven by many of the same factors on both sides of the Atlantic, and the anti-fascist movement must therefore be international to have an impact.

AA: In 2018 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both members of the DSA, were elected to the House of Representatives. Both have acquired a strong international visibility. What is your evaluation of their first two years in Congress? Do you think that with the upcoming elections the number of DSA members elected to Congress will increase?

AL: I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib have had an overall positive educative effect on American public consciousness. They show what American socialism can look like and they help us tremendously in the media. The “squad” are gradually shifting the balance of power in congress and allowing liberals cover to move very slightly to the left. Come November, we may well have two new DSA-endorsed congressional representatives: Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. 

AA: Considering the events that marked 2020 at the international level, the United States are more than ever the biggest destabilizing element of the international order. What is your position on this?

AL: I agree that the U.S. is, as ever, the biggest destabilizing element globally. Only when the United States packs up its imperial war machine and dismantles its empire, and first of all NATO, will the world return to anything resembling stability. 

AA: A few weeks ago, Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser and ideologist of the American extreme right, was arrested. Bannon is very active in Europe, and particularly in Italy, in supporting xenophobic or neo-fascist far-right parties such as Lega e Fratelli d’Italia. Is it necessary to build a new shared anti-fascism between America and Europe?

AL: Bannon in the U.S. represents a part of the grift that Donald Trump’s campaign apparatus inflicted on American voters in 2016. His brand of reactionary politics is very media driven, much like Trump’s. Supporting Italian xenophobic and fascist parties is very much in line with American neo-fascism, which aims to shock bourgeois liberals while simultaneously pursuing a far-right-wing policy agenda. He has since fallen from favor in the Trump administration. His disempowerment is symbolized by his recent arrest for money laundering and mail fraud. In this context, I think a shared anti-fascism is necessary. Neo-fascism is driven by many of the same factors on both sides of the Atlantic, and the anti-fascist movement must therefore be international to have an impact.

Socialism isn’t socialism unless it is international. I believe that in every part of the world, we who fight for socialism should help each other whenever the opportunity arises.

AA: In recent years, DSA has experienced a phase of exponential growth. Today, yours is one of the largest organizations of the socialist and anti-capitalist left active in the Western world. What is the reason for your success? How are you organizing this impressive new leverage of socialist activists?

AL: Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign galvanized the left and brought it together for the first time in decades in the U.S. The DSA was able to leverage the enthusiasm over the Bernie campaign and it has grown exponentially in the last four years. We keep growing through our electoral work and our local communities of organizers. We are continuously taking in new members and mobilizing them in our campaigns, training a new generation or organizers, and gradually giving them the ideological tools that they need to understand the world through a socialist lens. Our current goal is to expand the membership to 100K members by November.

AA: Today more than ever, internationalism is a decisive. What kind of internationalist action is DSA taking? In particular, what characteristics should the internationalist interaction between those who fight for socialism on both sides of the Atlantic have?

AL: I think that socialism isn’t socialism unless it is international. I believe that in every part of the world, we who fight for socialism should help each other whenever the opportunity arises. Outside of the International Committee, one group in DSA that has been active in encouraging internationalism is our socialist music collective, Sing in Solidarity. Through sharing music this group educates the membership on international struggles and works in coalition with international organizations. Most recently, Sing in Solidarity, having built a relationship with UK’s Momentum, performed at the World Transformed, a UK-based left-wing political education festival. Sing in Solidarity has also worked in coalition with New York–based Latin American activists and has a strong international online following.