Salt Lake Democratic Socialists see a bump in membership — spurred in part by a socialist candidate in New York City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nancy Barrickman leads a discussion, during a Salt Lake Democratic Socialists meeting at Mestizo Coffee, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018.

In June, a 28-year-old Latina from the Bronx running on a far-left platform of Medicare for everyone, strict gun control and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) beat a 10-term incumbent in the race to become the Democratic candidate for New York City’s 14th Congressional District.

In the process, she spurred a movement more than 2,000 miles away.

The Salt Lake Democratic Socialists of America saw a bump in membership after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. But organizers agree that the momentum they’ve seen in the past two months — swelling now to more than 270 members — coincides with the candidacy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is herself a member of the national chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“I’ve been a socialist for a while, and I was always kind of on the fence about actually joining,” said Nate Emery, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Utah who recently joined the Salt Lake chapter. “And then with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that’s kind of when I decided yeah, I want to be part of this. This organization is the real deal.”

New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listens to a speaker at a fundraiser Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Los Angeles. The 28-year-old startled the party when she defeated 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York City Democratic primary. Ocasio-Cortez is a rising liberal star who is challenging the Democratic Party establishment. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Younger generations seem more disposed to view socialism favorably than older ones. More than half of millennials self-identify as socialists, according to a national Reason-Rupe survey, which found 53 percent of Americans under 30 have a favorable view of the ideology.

It raises the question: What is it about this point in time that is engendering so much support for this movement?

It’s possible that some millennials just don’t understand what socialism is — as some research has found. But, for others, this is a moment characterized by crushing student loan debt, stagnant wages, a lack of affordable housing and growing fear around climate change.

It’s a moment marked by a swelling divide between Republicans and Democrats that’s growing ever wider as voters become increasingly disillusioned with so-called “establishment” politics.

It’s a moment defined by economic uncertainty and anxiety. Most Americans would be unable to cover a $1,000 emergency and turn to crowdsourcing sites to fund their health care.

Looking for an answer to this spectrum of challenges has led many to find a new economic model — one that believes the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.

“Our generation has witnessed what capitalism has done and we don’t like it,” said Matt Kirkegaard, the co-membership coordinator for the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists. “To millennials, it means debt and a climate in crisis. The world is burning around us — we’re watching capital profit off of that.”

But the question of what, if anything, the fledgling organization will do with the momentum around its movement is still up for debate.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt Kirkegaard speaks during a Salt Lake Democratic Socialists meeting at Mestizo Coffee, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018.

‘Building a better society’

Organizers for the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists of America, which has members across the Wasatch Front, forgot to book a reservation for their August meeting in their usual room at Mestizo Coffeehouse on Monday. A drum circle had already taken it by the time they realized it.

That meant the more than 30 assembled people — most of them in their 20s, some members and some considering joining — had to meet in the back of the coffeehouse, where they sat in a circle and strained to hear one another over the sound of the music.

“I’m sorry, what?” Kirkegaard shouted across the room at one point.

The scene was emblematic of a movement trying to get its legs under it. While members have big ideas and issues they want to address, from universal health care to tuition-free college to ending homelessness and unemployment, actually getting organized is another matter.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nancy Barrickman leads a discussion, during a Salt Lake Democratic Socialists meeting at Mestizo Coffee, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018.

“We’ve had this problem in this organization where we have an idea, it’s a really good idea, there’s one or maybe two people that thought of it and then it kind of dies,” Nancy Barrickman, co-chair of the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists, said at the meeting.

That’s why the group is working to revise its bylaws and change its organizational structure, she said, in the hopes that they can get to the work of executing real change in the community.

Barrickman and Kirkegaard, who both joined the socialist group in the months immediately after Trump’s inauguration, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the organization is still figuring out what, exactly, it wants the strategy for that change to look like.

“That is a very good question,” Barrickman said. “We were going to try to define that more as we go.”

So far, the group has endorsed candidates: James Singer in his ongoing race for the 3rd Congressional District and Darin Mann, who lost in the primary, for House District 24

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candidate James Courage Singer speaks at the Democratic convention, Saturday, April 28, 2018.

It’s also supporting Proposition 3, an item on the November ballot that would result in a full expansion of Medicaid in Utah, combined with a 0.15 percent sales tax increase, to close Utah’s coverage gap. And the group recently partnered with Utah Against Police Brutality to endorse a plan to create a democratically elected seven-member board to hold the city’s Police Department accountable.

Members also hope to continue growing their ranks and building a working-class consciousness in Utah, Kirkegaard said.

“I don’t think that there has been a real socialist movement that people can actually touch for a long time in this state, let alone in this country,” he said. “And that’s important for people to see.”

Because many socialists see the spectrum of U.S. problems as stemming from capitalism, an economic system in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, there’s a nearly endless array of issues on the group’s radar. But Kirkegaard said he sees that as creating clarity rather than chaos.

“An anti-capitalism struggle is also an anti-racist struggle, is also a struggle for climate justice, is also a struggle for gender equality,” Kirkegaard said. “All of that is part and parcel of building a better society, and that’s what we really need to do.”

Growth in a ‘traditionally red state’

Where others see Utah’s landscape as an expanse of conservative red, the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists see opportunity.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, an estimated 14,000 Utahns turned out for a rally for socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, at This is the Place Heritage Park, and he packed a second campaign event just a few days later at West High School.

Utah Democratic caucus voters overwhelmingly supported Sanders, who got nearly 80 percent of the party’s delegates. And, the Salt Lake Democratic Socialists point out, the state has one of the lowest voting rates in the nation — leaving open the possibility of swaying undecided or disillusioned voters.

“There’s a lot of disenfranchised people out there who might be very interested in the kinds of things that we’re saying," Barrickman said. “‘Hey, working people deserve dignity.' I think that’s going to resonate with a lot of people out there, even in what has traditionally been a dominant red state.”

Peter Corroon, former chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said he’s not surprised to see a shift toward the left within the party and believes there is potential for growth for the movement within the state.

“The younger population in general is more liberal than older populations, so what I think we’re seeing is the younger population becoming more engaged, which is a good thing," said Corroon, who previously served as Salt Lake County mayor. "With any action there’s a reaction, so with somebody like Donald Trump and the current Republican Party who’s so far out to the right, there’s a natural reaction from the left.”

But one of the likely obstacles to growth both nationally and in Utah is public perceptions of the word “socialism," which many associate with an all-powerful government bureaucracy.

“Anything authoritarian is the antithesis of the socialism, the democratic socialism I believe in,” Kirkegaard said. “Democratic socialism to me is about a liberation of humanity. We are striving to democratize everything.”

Another obstacle the group may face is debate between radical and reformist tactics within the organization itself, which has members from multiple strains of socialism.

“There’s always that push and pull — you know, you’re settling for too little, you’re asking for too much,” Kirkegaard said. “And I think to me the thing just to keep always ahead of me is that will this result in material gains for working people? That’s what I’m concerned about.”

In a sense, Kirkegaard said the organization’s methods are radical. “Our aim is not to reform capitalism,” he said. “Our aim is to end capitalism and build a new society.”

But on the other hand, he said, socialism’s aims aren’t extreme at all.

“Is it radical to demand health care as a human right?” he asked. “Demand education as a human right in the wealthiest society to ever exist? Is it radical to demand a livable future? I don’t think so. It is maybe in our political climate. But if we’re radical in any way, it’s that we want to totally transform society.”