March 6, 2020 | Columbus, Ohio
Dear Washington, I expected to find all eyes fixed on the televisions mounted above the bar, alternating expressions of triumph and torture on the spectators’ faces as they clung to every syllable muttered by the candidates on stage. This was, after all, a white-knuckle watershed in the history of the Democratic Socialists of America: After blowout victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, Bernie Sanders could put a chokehold on the presidential nomination by defeating Joe Biden in South Carolina, a reality not lost on members of the DSA Columbus chapter as they assembled inside Rehab Tavern on a damp Tuesday night to watch the pre-primary debate in Charleston.
But when the debate came on—a debate that would change the trajectory of the campaign— nobody in the bar was watching. Having pushed together a few tables in one dingy back corner, the couple of dozen DSA activists seemed content to sip craft beers and trade stories and share laughs. The nearest TV was muted, with a scrolling caption bringing the candidates’ words to life on a 10-second delay, but it hardly mattered: Bernie Sanders could have tackled Mike Bloomberg while singing Lady Gaga without any of the DSA members noticing. It was strange—like sitting near a group of superfans whose team is on the cusp of advancing further than it ever has, but who have no interest in watching the game.
I’m writing you after 72 hours on the ground in Columbus, a college town and capital city whose progressive politics are accented by the reddening hue of the surrounding state. Democrats speak incessantly of retaking the Rust Belt in 2020, yet when they map out the path—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—they don’t even pay lip service to Ohio, the state that was America’s bellwether until it suddenly wasn’t. Donald Trump’s 8-point victory here in 2016, and the demographic realities that enabled it, foretell a future in which Ohio, at least in the short term, is not competitive for the Democratic Party.
And yet, even amid this Trumpian takeover of a state that once stood for stolid, Midwestern moderation, something else is happening, a trend that can be understood as an equal and opposite reaction to the rightward lunge of the Republican Party. Socialism is ascendant among ascendant voters, the youngsters ages 18 to 35, not as a short-term political engine to propel Sanders into the White House but as a long-term restructuring of the American social contract, a way to rebuild cohesive localities and rethink the government’s obligations to its citizenry. You may be under the impression that the hopes and dreams of the red rose crowd are riding on Sanders’ candidacy. You may assume that, after so many of these bleeding hearts sat out the 2016 general election, they’re sufficiently unnerved to rid the nation of Trump this November by any candidate necessary.
If so, you’d be mistaken.
It’s understandable why Ohio is perceived to be placid, politically unoffensive, as dull and tame as its topography. And yet, few places have populist roots that run deeper than they do here. This is a state with a storied past of ideological pioneering, particularly on the left: From the labor strikes that migrated north via Kentucky, to the numerous socialist mayors elected in the early 20th century, to the prominent congressional careers of Dennis Kucinich and Sherrod Brown, Ohio has been a proving ground for progressive fads that later swept the nation.
Enter Bernie Sanders. Although he lost the state’s 2016 primary to Hillary Clinton—thanks to her 43-point advantage among black voters—the senator planted the seeds of a far-left insurrection, one that would be realized only when Clinton lost the presidency to Trump later that year.
“The day I joined DSA was the day after the 2016 election,” KRISTIN PORTER, a 33-year-old paralegal, told me inside Rehab Tavern. “I had never considered myself an organizer, but I was always searching for something, and I didn’t know what it was. Now I do: a politics that is rooted in community and human compassion.”
That word—community—is central to the worldview of the young socialists I met in Columbus, for three reasons. First, it explains their powerful feeling of tribal belonging, a tight bond with like-minded people whose beliefs and experiences reaffirm their own. Second, it molds their approach around the principles inherent to their ideology: shared ownership, shared sacrifice, shared success and shared failure. Third, and most important, it prioritizes their activism from the inside-out: National races are sexy, but neighborhood organizing is essential.
Only after I understood this could I fathom why the debate wasn’t drawing a more engaged audience—and why the DSA members were surprisingly sanguine about the outcome of 2020, even with their standard-bearer closing in on America’s ultimate political prize.
“The DSA has grown 10-fold since Bernie’s campaign in 2016. And it’s going to keep growing regardless of what happens in 2020,” Porter said. “That’s the difference between Obama and Bernie — this isn’t about the success of one person, it’s about the success of a movement. Bernie is building a movement that will be able to take power back. It’s just a matter of time.”
A few feet away, leaning over the bar and casually glancing upward at the TV as they wait for refills of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, SYTHAN POK and HUNTER KAUFFMAN are having a similar conversation.
At first glance, the two men would seem to have nothing in common. Pok, 33, is fiery and animated, describing himself as “left as fuck—so left I want to firebomb the White House, and you can quote me on that.” Kauffman, 21, is polite and cerebral, a recent Navy enlistee who ships off for basic training in a few weeks’ time. But they are bound together by common feelings of alienation from mainstream politics—marginalization, disillusionment, fatigue with the status quo.
Pok grew up “the only brown kid in Utah,” raised by parents who emigrated from Cambodia and left the rest of the family behind. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t, ‘Finish your meal, there are starving kids in Africa.’ It was, ‘Finish your meal, your cousins in Cambodia are starving,’” Pok recalled. “So, I always was mindful of that. But then I would see all this waste, all this inequality, everywhere around me.”
Pok became enamored of Obama in 2008, believing the problems he saw would finally be addressed by the progressive young president. When they weren’t—at least to his satisfaction—Pok became deeply cynical. “Obama’s failures are the reason for where I’m at with my beliefs now,” he said. Today, Pok isn’t putting his faith in a political figure. He supports Sanders but is skeptical that a president, any president, can do much to affect his life. “That’s why I’m here,” he said, motioning toward the DSA allies behind him.
At just 21, Kauffman isn’t old enough to be disillusioned. Or so you’d think. Hailing from a conservative Republican family, Kauffman says it was his decision to come out as queer—and move from the suburbs to the big city of Columbus—that opened his eyes to the injustices plaguing the everyday lives of those around him. “It’s drug legalization, ‘Medicare for All,’ mass transit, affordable housing,” he said. “I listen to people talking about the terrible things Trump has done, at the Supreme Court and the Mexican border and everywhere else, and they think impeachment is going solve all our problems. It’s like, no, that really doesn’t solve any of our problems.”
Kauffman has worked in a warehouse the past two years, driving a forklift and “hating every minute of it.” It was this experience, he said, toiling for peanuts on behalf of a corporate entity that recorded booming profits, that turned him decisively against the capitalist creed. (Pok, raising his beer in the air, agreed: “Can you believe I work for Jeff Bezos? Fuck Jeff Bezos!”)
Having dropped out of college after a year, and with little else on his résumé, Kauffman settled on an unconventional solution to his beef with corporate America: The United States Navy. “Yes, I’ll be a queer socialist in the Navy,” he said. “But you know what? As diverse and divided as this country is, the military should be a reflection of that.”
Kauffman said he’s prepared to proselytize his shipmates—not on behalf of Bernie Sanders, but on behalf of a philosophy that speaks to so many young people like him, even military men and women. “It doesn’t matter whether he wins or not,” Kauffman said of Sanders. “He has put forth these big ideas, exposing them to people who hadn’t heard about them before. And now we need to move them forward.”
“Now is our time,” 20-year-old EVAN SCHMIDT told me. “With Morgan Harper, with the Squad, and yes, with Bernie, it’s our time. I think young people recognize we have an opportunity to redefine progressivism, to redefine collectivist ideals, to redefine socialism in a way that’s distinct from the Soviet Union or China or the eastern bloc. We can build our own movement around socialism and remove the old connotations.”
Inside a small classroom on the campus of Ohio State University, a group of 15 students—the OSU branch of the Young Democratic Socialists of America—had just adjourned its weekly meeting. The proceedings had made Sanders’ candidacy feel like something of an afterthought, just the way Schmidt’s comment had. There was talk of upcoming events and division of duties among members. Half the meeting was spent planning canvassing routes for the week ahead—but that work was being done on behalf of Harper, the young Democratic Socialist candidate running for Congress against an entrenched incumbent in the March 17 primary. Only at the tail end of the gathering did the conversation turn explicitly to Sanders and the 2020 race.
After the meeting—and after Schmidt had explained to me that, in his view, Sanders “can be a bit too compromising, and that’s what’s been holding the Democratic Party back”—I asked one of his fellow YDSA members about the race.
“Bernie is having his moment and people are scared. ‘The commies are coming to get us!’” cried NIKKI VELAMAKANNI, waving her arms in mock panic. “I’m trying to keep my cool about all this, because overconfidence is our enemy right now. But whatever happens with Bernie, we knew this was going to happen before long. Young people are taking over politics. And for young people—especially young people of color—this is the vision they have for America.”
Velamakanni, a sophomore studying neuroscience and pre-law, joined the YDSA after becoming fed up with the complacency of the College Democrats on campus. (She met the Democratic Socialist students at a campus protest of conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, a comical slice of irony for the young Indian immigrant.) “They were just way too accommodating,” she said of the College Democrats. “It’s not like I want to flip over cop cars or anything, but I want to be an activist, you know? I’m angry. I’m angry because the establishment has caused us to lose faith in the system and the people who uphold it.”
An only child, born of an Indian immigrant culture that measure success by material wealth via professional success, Velamakanni came to Ohio State to be a doctor. But what she discovered along the way—“a sense of solidarity, a sense of community”—led her to study law. She hopes to use the degree to empower the powerless, to help replicate the solidarity and community on a bigger scale. But she worries about the implications. “My biggest fear is I’ll disappoint my parents. Everything is so commoditized in America, I’m afraid I won’t be able to support them, to pay them back for everything they’ve done for me,” she said. “And I’m afraid my family back home will think I’m a failure because of it.”
CONNOR MCCULLOCH, a 21-year-old aerospace engineering student, said he could relate. Raised by a single mother who worked 60-hour weeks for Southwest Airlines—and still does—McCulloch feels enormous pressure to make enough money not only to pay off his student loans, but to help his mom retire with security.
“I read about these people who spend decades trying to pay off student loans. What would I do if that were me?” he asked. “That’s why I majored in aerospace, because hopefully it lands a high-paying job. But I’m worried, because it needs to be on the commercial side. I’m not going to build weapons to kill people.”
In addition to canceling student debt, McCulloch cares passionately about Medicare for All and universal childcare. Not long ago, he noted, these ideas were considered fringe. And while he isn’t optimistic about a President Sanders implementing them—“I’m concerned about any Democrat’s ability to pass these things into law”—McCulloch, who has never voted in a presidential election, takes a much longer view.
“People have tried to delegitimize these ideas with the label ‘socialist.’ But it’s not going to work for much longer; it’s like a red-scare tactic that loses its effectiveness over time,” he said. “And there’s also a cognitive dissonance. ‘Socialism’ is a scary word for a lot of Americans, but when you get beyond the word and study the ideas, majorities of people support most of these ideas we’re fighting for.”
If Trump benefited from the binary view Republican voters took 2016—that to stay home was to support Hillary Clinton, the greater of two evils—then the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee could suffer for the opposite reason in 2020.
Certainly, your average Democrat feels an extraordinary urgency to defeat Trump this fall. But Democratic Socialists are, by definition, not your average Democrats. I was shocked at how, in nearly a dozen conversations with DSA-aligned young voters, there was near-uniformity in refusing to back anyone except Sanders as the nominee. Two people said they would definitely vote for Elizabeth Warren, but many more said they definitely would not; one of them said her self-identifying as a capitalist was “disqualifying.” As for the other options—Mike Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and, of course, Joe Biden—the consensus was overwhelming: It’s Bernie or bust. “I held my nose for Hillary in 2016,” Kristin Porter told me at Rehab Tavern. “I’m never holding my nose again.”
It’s a volatile combination, youth and ideological purity, that has young leftists convinced they don’t need to compromise—not with themselves, not with the Democratic establishment, and sure as hell not with the Republican Party. Having come of age in the post-9/11 era, with wars and school shootings and economic hardships the norm, these voters aren’t going to settle for a promised return to normal, because in their eyes, normal was never all that great.
“I was 18 when Obama won, a freshman in college, and it felt like we had changed the world. It felt like we were unstoppable,” said DANI HOWELL, a 29-year-old copywriter in Columbus. “But it became clear that one person wasn’t going to change anything. And then I became apathetic and stopped caring altogether. And the more stuff we found out later—like how it was Obama’s administration that put some of these kids in cages, and the drone strikes he was ordering, and everything else—it’s really frustrating. But I’m also mad at myself. Like, what did I expect?”
I met Howell at the weekly meeting of the Columbus DSA, held in a small reserved room at the public library. The next day, over coffee in a chic district north of downtown, she explained why this presidential campaign does not consume her—or her allies—the way prior ones have.
“We’ve been building this movement to exist outside of electoral politics. This campaign is one fight for us, but the bigger battles for social change will go on regardless of what happens with Bernie,” she said. “That’s why we should focus on local politics anyway. It doesn’t matter who the president is; we need to build local organizations that have a longer-lasting impact than electing one president. To me, these housing ordinance fights in Columbus are just as important as Medicare for All, because it’s an issue we see affecting peoples’ lives here every single day.”
When she and her peers do engage politically, Howell said, it’s from the bottom up. This is so counterintuitive as to seem insane: Even as Sanders, a committed ideologue and the leader of the DSA movement, established himself over the past year as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Howell and her friends in the DSA grew all the more fixated on local projects, including a losing city council race and, more recently, Harper’s long-shot congressional bid.
“To see Bernie winning, it’s nice,” she shrugged. “But it’s not the only thing we’re focused on.”
ALEX STIGLER, the co-chairman of the Columbus DSA, admitted that as a “Bernie Sanders nerd”—having years ago gotten hooked on the senator’s C-SPAN videos—he would not take a loss in the Democratic primary easily. It would be hard, Stigler said, for devotees of the Vermont senator to watch him elevate a new generation of ideas only to lose in consecutive primary contests.
That said, unlike four years ago, Democratic Socialists can feel secure in their future at the end of this campaign no matter the outcome.
“It’s important to recognize Bernie is just one guy—a guy we’d like to be president, but just a guy all the same,” he said. “I mean, we have these meetings, and we talk about Bernie, but the political work is just one element of what we do. We fix broken headlights and taillights for free. We fill food pantries. We try to make more just and more cohesive communities. Bernie was the flint on the stone to spark this fire, but it’s these relationships we’re building, the work we’re doing in these communities, that will endure.”
Stigler added, “So, I’m excited to work for him. But there’s a recognition that we need to prepare for life after Bernie.” He paused, allowing a smile to creep across his face. “And I’ll be just as excited to work on behalf of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she runs for president.”
That’s all for now, Washington. I’ve got to pack my bags for another trip—another opportunity to listen and observe and learn. Keep an eye on your mailbox.
If you’ve got places you think I should visit, people you think I should meet, drop me a line: L2W@politico.com.
Your old friend,