_ As the presidential debate comes to Ohio, the students in a local
chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America are defining
their political identity. _
Daija Kidd, a junior, is co-chair of Ohio State University’s
chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America., Andrew Spear
for The New York Times
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Tuesday night’s Democratic debate approached,
members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Ohio
State University tried to figure out where to focus their energy.
At a meeting on campus last week designed to set their goals for the
year, they talked about labor organizing, volunteering for Morgan
Harper’s congressional campaign
[[link removed]] and
hosting a town hall-style event focused on climate change.
“It’s all related, even though they look like separate issues, ”
said Daija Kidd, an African-American studies and sociology double
major and co-chair of the Y.D.S.A. chapter, as she tried to get the
other members to think about new campaigns for the year.“We have
these very specific events that we go to, like the climate strike,”
she said. “But I want to do something that is ongoing, because that
is the purpose of democratic socialists. I don’t want us to finish
doing one big thing and have that be it — I want to keep it chugging
The group’s effort to take on an aggressive and expansive agenda
reflects the enormous energy on the far left heading into the 2020
election, and part of the appeal of democratic socialism in this
cycle: setting an array of big goals to help deepen a movement that
goes beyond one-off protest events and marches.
For many young, progressive Americans, democratic socialism is a far
better representation of their ambitions of far-reaching structural
change across the economy and society than the agenda of the
Democratic Party, which they see as overly influenced by corporate
interests, big-money donors and moderate traditionalists.
The attempt at Ohio State to define objectives also comes as the
Democratic presidential contenders are locked in a battle over what
direction the party should take in order to win in 2020. That dynamic
will be on display Tuesday night less than 15 miles from O.S.U., when
the candidates gather for the fourth primary debate at Otterbein
University in Westerville.
Two top candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders,
have successfully pushed the primary conversation
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the left. The D.S.A. saw drastic growth in its membership when Mr.
Sanders, himself a democratic socialist, ran for president in 2016,
and there are now nearly 60,000 members
[[link removed]] across
the country. (Ms. Warren, who has pulled ahead of Mr. Sanders in
polling and is a leading candidate for the nomination, backs many of
the same progressive priorities as Mr. Sanders, but has also said she
is “a capitalist to my bones.”)
The national leaders of the Young Democratic Socialists of America
have seized on Mr. Sanders’s momentum with younger voters to expand
their group’s membership, too, growing from 25 registered chapters
in 2016 to 84 in 2019, according to a Y.D.S.A organizer. Chapters have
begun to spring up at high schools, as well.
The chapter at O.S.U. was small for the past two years, with only 10
or 11 active members. Still, the group managed to create a campus
campaign around Fight for $15, an effort to raise the minimum wage
of university staff members to $15 an hour. They won that battle in
Now, each meeting draws 40 to 50 members, each one with a different
reason for joining and something unique to fight for.
For many of them, Mr. Sanders was their introduction to the left. They
see the D.S.A. as more than just a vehicle to advance the rights of
workers — it is also a home for progressive policies and issues that
they don’t see being addressed by the major political parties in a
way they agree with.
“I don’t think they’re totally abandoning capitalism per se, but
certainly they’re more likely to embrace policies tied to what we
characterize as socialism,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of the
political science department at Washington College in Chestertown,
Md., who is working on a book about the political engagement of
Generation Z. “They’re interested in free college tuition or in
expanding health care.”
The group used to have about 10 members, but 40 to 50 now regularly
attend meetings.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
As they grew up in the wake of a recession and watched the effects of
climate change unfold, the Black Lives Matter movement form and gay
marriage be legalized, the students were often just a click away from
finding the next progressive policy to support.
Nathan Webster, a second-year electrical engineering major at Ohio
State, learned about the Democratic Socialists of America through
protests in his hometown, Painesville, Ohio, aimed at abolishing
Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I come from a largely Latino town — some of my friends lost their
parents to Border Patrol,” Mr. Webster said.
“Near the end of high school, I realized what politics were and
where I fall on the political spectrum,” he added. “Originally I
told myself, ‘O.K., I’m a Democrat,’ because I didn’t know any
better. I didn’t know that there was something that could be more
For Ricky Vehar, an environmental engineering major, coming out as
gay and then coming out as trans moved her closer to the Young
Democratic Socialists of America.
“From my background, you wouldn’t really expect me to become super
left. I grew up in a middle-class family, in a good suburb,” she
said, adding that watching “the discrimination that those
communities face not just because they’re gay or trans, but because
the system incentivizes discrimination against them, moved me toward
James Fisher, a second-year student and a co-chair of the O.S.U.
chapter, joined the group for similar reasons: they support giving
trans teenagers and adults better access to health care through
Medicare for All.
“Medicare for All can benefit the trans community in their ability
to get good health care, and that’s something that a lot of trans
people struggle with,” Mx. Fisher said. “It’s embedded in the
language of Medicare for All, that there’s no exclusionary measures
James Fisher, a sophomore and co-chair of the Y.D.S.A. chapter, on
Ohio State’s campus in Columbus.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York
Others joined the Y.D.S.A. because they saw the benefits of
nationalized health care firsthand. During a yearlong program in
England, Johnny Amundson got very sick and was hospitalized for a
month. His program enrolled him in the National Health Service, and he
ended up paying just $200 in medical fees, he said.
“I saw that there’s a difference between being able to have
insurance, which my family has, and being able to have health care,”
Mr. Amundson said. He is now a fourth-year journalism and Russian
double major at Ohio State, and he was one of the first members of the
university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter.
Nikki Velamakanni, a political science major, joined Y.D.S.A. when
she realized that she didn’t want to join the College Democrats
chapter on campus because of the stigma around it.
“It’s known to be more centrist, it’s known to be more
compromise-y,” Ms. Velamakanni said. “Whereas the left is more,
‘We stand for this and we’re going to fight for it.’”
Dr. Deckman attributes the rise of the Y.D.S.A. to the changing
perceptions that younger voters and soon-to-be voters have about
government and democratic socialism, and the idea that younger people
tend to be more liberal with each passing generation.
“They’re more willing to have a bigger role for government to play
in our lives,” she said. “This younger generation is growing up
seeing what deregulation is doing to the Earth, is doing to their
ability to afford college, among other things. I think that’s why
they’re finding democratic socialist ideas appealing.”
Some of their parents were introduced to socialism during the Cold
War, giving the word an entirely different meaning.
“Older Americans who lived during the Cold War, they link socialism
strongly to communism. So there’s this idea that if we raise
socialism, our freedoms, especially religion, are going to be
compromised,” Dr. Deckman said. “And I don’t think that sort of
baggage matters to younger Americans.”
Evan Schmidt, a sophomore, became familiar with democratic socialism
as he grew up in Vermont.CreditAndrew Spear for The New York Times
For Evan Schmidt, a second-year economics major, “socialism is a
word only. It doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation to any
sort of regime or empire, which allows for that reconstruction around
He grew up in Manchester, Vt., where the idea of democratic socialism
was less taboo thanks to Mr. Sanders. When he moved away, out of what
he describes as a “sheltered neighborhood,” he had his first
experiences with people who grew up with less than he did.
It ignited his passion for democratizing the workplace and helping
others to achieve the same class mobility his family enjoyed. He
joined the Young Democratic Socialists of America, he said, because he
thinks “it’s what the Democratic Party should be.”