The Atlantic, April 5, 2019
DES MOINES—Caroline Schoonover has two immediate goals. One of them is to systematically dismantle capitalism. The other is to finish watching all seven seasons of Vanderpump Rules.
“There are a lot of things that are not funny to me when I’m thinking about the state the world is in, but there is something about Vanderpump Rules,” the 28-year-old told me, referring to the Bravo reality show that revolves around a wealthy British restaurateur and her employees. “It is just purely entertaining for me, in a way that is very low stakes.”
Schoonover, who grew up near Martensdale, Iowa, just south of the state capital, is one of the thousands of Millennials across the country who joined the Democratic Socialists of America after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I met her one evening in mid-March during a visit to Iowa, my home state, right before she led a monthly chapter meeting. Schoonover is tall, blond, and ruddy-cheeked, with a goofy sense of humor that probably comes in handy during her day job teaching children about agriculture at a local museum. She’s finishing up her second year as the co-chair of the Central Iowa DSA, a position she sees as a way “to actually do something instead of being mad and upset every day after Trump became president.”
Iowa is a state that most Americans associate with straw polls and horse-race politics, and whose residents are generally thrilled to soak up the national-media spotlight every four years ahead of the caucuses. It isn’t, in other words, where most people would expect to find participants of a budding movement to overthrow the country’s political and economic system. One popular perception of socialism in America is that it’s a sort of pastime for affluent and cerebral hipsters. A recent article from New York magazine described the DSA as feeling like a “never-ending Brown University reunion,” where “extremely online” people attend mixers and try to date each other.
But Schoonover and the other socialists I met in Iowa are not Upper West Siders from moneyed families, nor are they, for the most part, graduates of elite Ivy League schools. They are very much online, but they aren’t members of the left-wing Twitterati—the well-connected media types who frequent secret happy hours where they are wooed by 2020 presidential contenders. Socialism, to them, is not a trendy niche hobby or an intellectual exercise for the political-theory obsessed.
Instead, the people I spoke with see the DSA as a vehicle for changing their own immediate circumstances. They want to build a movement that transcends individual politicians, whose positions are malleable and whose tenure is temporary. And while most establishment Democrats would like to distance themselves from the label, the trajectory of America’s newly surging socialist movement could ultimately shape the party’s future.
Schoonover’s chapter, which has about 160 members, didn’t exist before 2016—none of Iowa’s DSA groups did. In the more than two years since the presidential election, membership in the organization around the country has grown dramatically—from 6,000 to 56,000—and chapters have formed across the heartland. Iowa now has five throughout the state, and at least two smaller ones being founded. Recent polling shows that a majority of the likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, 56 percent, say they would be happy to vote for a president who leans toward socialism. In February, Axios reported that several of the more moderate presidential candidates are worried about running because of the Democratic electorate’s leftward shift; one unnamed candidate’s own internal polling shows that in Iowa, socialism is viewed more positively than capitalism. ...
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