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Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists Of America Want To Eliminate Inequality And Empower Workers

Heather Kresge
Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America
Members of the Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America participating in the International Women's Strike on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The group has more than tripled in membership since the 2016 election both locally and nationally.

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 likedthe 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.”

Credit Heather Kresge / Democratic Socialists of America
Democratic Socialists of America
Activists and members of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter rally in downtown Pittsburgh for the International Women's Strike on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. A fundamental principle of DSA is the rejection of capitalism.

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 receivedmore 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.

Credit Timothy D. Easley / AP
Sen. Bernie Saners, I-Vt., left, and his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders wave to his supporters following a campaign rally at the Lexington Convention Center on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. The Democratic Socialists of America endorsed Sanders during the presidential election last year.

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.

Credit Heather Kresge / Democratic Socialists of America
Democratic Socialists of America
Pittsburgh Democratic Socialist of American co-chair Arielle Cohen says most decisions made at chapter meetings is made through a vote of the entire group.

“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.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.