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Democratic Socialism is Having a Moment: Will it be the Revolution Sen. Sanders Envisions?

Corey Torpie
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset a 10-term establishment Democrat in New York last week. While her district doesn’t necessarily mirror that of Iowa’s districts, a 2016 Des Moines Register/Bloomberg News Iowa Poll found that 43 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers consider themselves socialists.

Credit Emily Woodbury
Laura Rodriguez, Quad Cities DSA chair

On this edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer explores what Democratic Socialism means today and why it has an appeal at this particular time in U.S. history.

Lisa Lai is the co-founder and treasurer of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, Heart of Iowa.

She was very active in the Sanders campaign and in fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She says she felt the need to push for more radical, leftist politics in Ames.

“I’m the daughter of immigrants,” she says. “I grew up seeing firsthand all the different ways I was disadvantaged, because of being poor, being a minority, and being an immigrant. I grew up on food stamps and Medicaid, arguably socialist programs, so I’m a living testament to how working class people can be elevated when we collectively decide to invest in the dignity and humanity of all people.”

Laura Rodriguez, chair of Quad Cities DSA, became active in her DSA chapter after the 2016 presidential election. She is most motivated by the national drive for Medicare for all, housing and tenant issues, and addressing inequality overall.

“Let’s talk about taxing the rich. I mean, how little do they really contribute, and how much do they exploit their workers and the communities in which they operate?” says Rodriguez. “It blows me away when people defend the tax incentives and the low tax rates for the rich and their corporations. How can one man contribute one billion times more than his worker? When somebody is a billionaire, whose work was it that made him that billionaire, and what resources did he use that were public to operate his business?”

While the Democrat Socialists of America are certainly experiencing a moment, Dordt College political analyst Jeff Taylor is skeptical that the Democratic Party will embrace the movement with open arms.

“You saw a little bit of this with the dismissive attitude that Nancy Pelosi had toward the Ocasio-Cortez win in the primary,” says Taylor. “She didn’t really see this as something that was going to change the party or be a ripple effect of some kind of revolution.”

The Quad Cities DSA chapter currently has about 30-40 members and their executive board members are 28-years-old on average. It's much of the same for Lai's DSA chapter in Ames.

Lai says that while Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign brought Democratic Socialism to the forefront, the election of President Donald Trump has had an impact on DSA recruitment.

“We have had an incredible amount of growth in reaction to Donald Trump. Our national organization Democratic Socialists of America is now at 40,000 members nationwide, and two years ago it was around 5,000.” 

Mike Zmolek, lecturer and historian at the University of Iowa, also joins this conversation.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River