FOR DECADES, DEMOCRATIC socialism was an old man's ideology. Its adherents were aging hippies, old-time union organizers, and folks who fondly remembered the pre-'60s left. As recently as 2013, the average member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was 68 years old. Even today, the ideology's best-known spokesperson, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is 77.
But Sanders is suddenly an outlier. Today, most DSAers are young: The average member is 33. The ideology's second-best-known spokesperson, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), is just 29. And the DSA's ranks have grown larger as well as younger. Socialist gatherings buzz with youthful energy, and they are taking place all over the country.
This movement is flexing its political muscles, having helped elect a number of candidates to office--most famously Ocasio-Cortez, who has quickly become a prominent voice in Congress. The DSAhas every intention of shifting the "Overton window" of American politics far to the left. And if we're not careful, it might succeed.
DESPITE HIS OWN advanced age--and even though he's not a member of the group himself--Sanders is by far the person most responsible for bringing this wave of young people into the DSA. His groundbreaking 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination helped spread socialist ideas to a generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Bernie Sanders is who introduced me to socialism," says Alex Pellitteri, co-chair of New York City's chapter of the DSA's youth arm, the Young Democratic Socialists of America. "I was a Democrat, I was a liberal, but I had never really crossed that line to socialism."
Essentially, Sanders has done for democratic socialism what Ron Paul did for libertarianism in the late '00s: make it an exciting, cool, radical alternative to the mainstream parties' staid orthodoxies. Just as Paul challenged other Republicans' commitment to waging increasingly unpopular wars, Sanders slammed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton for her Wall Street ties, her hawkish foreign policy, and her general lack of left-wing bona fides. Clinton won the nomination, but Sanders put up a much better fight than expected--a testament to the popular appeal of the ideas he was proposing.
Those ideas included a single-payer health insurance system, free tuition for all college students, a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, and a more progressive tax system that confiscates wealth from the richest 1 percent and...