Philly's democratic socialists on the rise, thanks to Trump

Natalie Midiri Philly DSA co-chair speaks at the Church of the Advocate at 18th & Diamond. Philly's Democratic Socialists have seen a big spike in numbers over the last year because of the election. Saturday February 26, 2017.

Communal goals are great, collective ideals inspiring, but the Democratic Socialists of America are finding that nothing unifies the people quite like a common enemy.

At a recent meeting of the Philadelphia chapter of the DSA in North Philly, 130 people sat in chairs on a church’s basketball court taking in a Saturday matinee on the subject.

“How many of you joined DSA since Trump got elected?” asked Chris Maisano, a steering committee member for the New York chapter of the DSA.

Nearly 100 hands rose.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders brought democratic socialism into the spotlight last year and malaise over Hillary Clinton’s campaign nudged many left-leaning voters closer to the “S-word.”

Trump’s victory, though, jolted thousands into joining.

“It wouldn’t say it was worth it that Donald Trump got elected, but we’ve gained something like 2,000 members,” Maisano told the crowd.

The DSA is a non-profit organization, not a political party, with a central belief, according to its web site, that “the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.”

“However, we do consider ourselves to be a "pre-party" organization, building the infrastructure we will need for a democratic socialist labor party in the long term,” said Natalie Midri, co-chair of Philly DSA.

Midiri said the “democratic" in DSA is meant to distinguish it from a USSR-type of socialism. The DSA cites Canada’s national health care system and France’s universal childcare as examples to strive for.

In January of 2015, the DSA counted 6,000 members nationally and today the organization is up to 18,000. Philly’s DSA grew from 150 to 400 in the same period. The city’s chapter includes all of Pennsylvania and South Jersey but could lose members, technically, because new chapters are popping up over the bridge and out west in Reading and Pittsburgh.

“My wife and I just moved to Harrisburg this past week and so we’re going to start a chapter there,” Guy Gibeau, 27, told a small circle of members a courtyard of the Church of the Advocate on 18th and Diamond Streets.

Bill Rosenberg, professor of political science at Drexel University, said it’s too soon to know whether the DSA, founded in 1982, will have the same impact as other movements, including the Tea Party and supporters of former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

“The Tea Party largely made the Republican party unmanageable for John Boehner,” Rosenberg said. “They had a profound effect on the landscape and today you don’t hear about them at all.”

Rosenberg said DSA and Sanders supporters did influence the campaign.

“They moved the party into a more progressive direction and the Democratic party needs to recognize that they need that energy,” he said.

New DSA member Alex Braden, a lawyer and father from the Graduate Hospital area, voted for Clinton with “zero hesitation and zero enthusiasm.” He resisted getting involved with political organizations in the past but said complaining about Trump on Facebook wouldn’t cut it.

“There needs to be a direct response,” said Braden, 38. “I’m concerned for the future I envisioned for my daughter.”

On the other end, Philadelphia’s Republican Party has seen 1,765 voter registrations since the election, per the city commissioners’ office. The total number of registered Republicans has dropped since the primaries, Philly GOP spokesman Albert Eisenberg said, but the party “feels” up, he added. 

The Democrats have added 9,158 new voters in the city since Trump won. There’s no way to know how many of those new Democrats would add “socialist’ to the mix, but new DSA member Sean Jin said the party needs to be prepared to welcome them.

“I hope more people get involved,” Jin said in the church. “They need to be ready for the long haul.”

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