A few minutes after the first round of the Democratic debate ended Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s campaign fired off a curt response: “Same radical Democrats. Same big government socialist message.”
The s-word — socialist — has rocketed to become the most popular Republican attack line ahead of next year’s elections, and a term that even some of the most liberal Democrats abhor. But what is the future of the growing movement that embraces a part of the label?
That question will take center stage in Atlanta this week as the Democratic Socialists of America, with hundreds of new delegates, gathers at a downtown hotel for the group’s annual convention.
The DSA and its supporters have long been a favorite punching bag for Republicans, though the attacks have taken a sharper edge as Trump and his allies try to turn anti-socialism into an even more potent political weapon in 2020.
But this year democratic socialists are also enjoying a growing movement buoyed by last year’s midterm elections and a leftward tilt among some top 2020 presidential hopefuls who are embracing liberal issues such as Medicare for All and wiping out student debt.
The DSA, founded in 1982, is trying to capitalize on the newfound interest. Membership soared after Trump’s victory, and organizers say they now count 56,000 members nationally and expect as many as 1,000 delegates for the convention in Atlanta, which runs Thursday to Sunday.
There’s a sense of momentum. The organization scored major victories in the 2018 midterms by sending its first two members to Congress — U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — and notching wins in lower-level races.
Its highest-profile members in Georgia include Khalid Kamau, a Black Lives Matters organizer who was elected to the South Fulton City Council shortly after Trump’s inauguration. He plans to welcome the delegates Friday with a message focusing on smashing the “electability complex.”
“It’s an inferiority complex,” Kamau said. “For all of the talk about electability, Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College because she was not electable by that math.”
There’s no avoiding the tension with Georgia Democrats, who stress that even the most liberal of their ranks don’t endorse the policies that define socialism, such as the state ownership of resources and collective control over the means of production. They fear the rift will play into Trump’s hands.
“Democrats aren’t socialist,” said Adrienne White, a vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party who dismissed the event as a “nonstarter” in Georgia. “Socialists simply have no political home and are trying to latch on — and give Republicans political fodder.”
Not surprisingly, GOP groups are happy to stoke the flames. John Burke, who heads a group advocating for Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s re-election, mocked the DSA event as a sign that “socialist Democrats are intent on targeting Georgia to expand their radical movement.”
The delegates are set to discuss political strategy in the run-up to the election, stake out policy positions on 2020 debates and discuss the organization’s March endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist but doesn’t formally align with the DSA.
The speakers have not all been finalized, but organizers said they include Sara Nelson, the leader of a flight attendants union, and Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the Women’s March known for her controversial views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A broader discussion will also spotlight the movement’s future, most significantly whether the organization should adopt a decentralized strategy for growth or build a more defined political apparatus with organizers in the field and a core of leaders calling the shots.
The latter path has the support of Eric Robertson, a Georgia political consultant and former labor union organizer who is a delegate to the convention.
“Each one of these conventions feels like a historic moment now,” said Robertson, who added that he was optimistic the sting of anti-socialist barbs is starting to be “neutralized” in the Trump era.
“There are some people in the Democratic Party who feel defensive about being called a socialist, but I don’t understand why since they’ve been called that since Bill Clinton was in office — and before,” Robertson said. “It’s like old-school Cold War rhetoric.”
‘Disaster at the ballot box’
For Republicans, it’s also a useful battering ram. Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies used the same tactics last year to try to brand Stacey Abrams as an extremist. And Republicans have long tried to make US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the embodiment of all things Democrat.
But this election cycle, Georgia conservatives have one-upped their efforts. Introductory videos for congressional candidates focus on “socialist” adversaries and flick to grainy images of Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib. Speeches at GOP rallies include frequent warnings of socialism creeping across the Atlantic.
“I’m even more fired up to go to Congress to stop their ‘bold ideas’ before they Make America Socialist,” state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican candidate in Georgia’s 7th District, said on social media as Democrats clashed during the CNN debate.
Those bracing attacks come as Sanders and other liberal 2020 hopefuls promote policies that echo the DSA’s priorities, such as the push for a single-payer health insurance system and a more aggressive approach to curbing climate change.
It’s also heightened concerns of more moderate Democrats, who fear expensive proposals to expand the government’s reach will spell doom next year. That tension sharply manifested during the debate Tuesday, which showcased the division between liberals and moderates.
In one exchange, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was pressed on why he had warned that Sanders and his embrace of socialist policies could sink the party. Hickenlooper responded by saying Medicare for All is a “disaster at the ballot box” that would guarantee a second term for Trump.
Then there are the Democrats who are keen to dismiss the anti-socialist line altogether. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., admonished fellow Democrats to “stop worrying about what the Republicans will say.”
“If we embrace a far left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he said. “So let’s just stand up for the right policy and go up there and defend it.”
That’s what some prominent democratic socialists have long urged, and they’re poised to use 2020 to test Democratic anxieties about how far left the field for president can go.
“We have this idea that what we want can’t be what we can have,” said Kamau, the South Fulton councilman. “We’ve got to call out our own insecurities and rethink what we know about candidates we consider unelectable.”
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