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.”
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.
A key problem with these surveys, however, is that it’s still unclear what people think socialism means. Even the national DSA organization doesn’t have a set definition. “We have various definitions,” a spokesperson told me. “We’re a big-tent organization.” Under the DSA umbrella, one can expect to find all types of political philosophies, including Marxists, Leninists, communists, and even libertarian socialists. Socialism is a loaded term, full of history and dripping with stigma, for many Americans; the word hearkens back to Soviet Russia and conjures grim images of street riots and bread lines. That’s an impression Republicans are promoting ahead of the 2020 elections, as “socialist” has become Trump’s new insult of choice for Democrats in recent weeks.
All the members at the meeting had their own reasons for joining the DSA, but most of those reasons were rooted in personal financial struggle: They were drowning in an ocean of student debt, or straining to pay their rent or afford their insurance premiums. David Sterling, who identifies as gender fluid and uses they/them pronouns, works as a cashier in the city’s public-parking division. Sterling, 26, grew up in Iowa City, but has had to move farther out of town to escape the creeping rent. And they weren’t able to afford the cost of tuition at the University of Iowa after graduating from high school. “I’ve dreamed about going to the university in my hometown [for] most of my life,” Sterling said. “How sad is that?”
For the first few hours of my visit to Des Moines, I sat in a folding chair and watched the Central Iowa socialists participate in a refresher course on “bird-dogging,” the hunting-inspired term for assertively eliciting comment from a politician—similar to how reporters interrogate lawmakers in the halls of Congress. The socialists I spoke with aren’t excited, per se, about the 2020 presidential campaign beyond the possibility of defeating Trump, and many don’t plan to caucus, calling the state’s primary system undemocratic. But they are preparing to confront the candidates at events around the state. At the training, chapter members practiced framing and asking succinct questions, rehearsed the art of rapid hand-raising during candidate Q&As, and learned where and how to corner politicians after campaign stops. The chapter recently challenged Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who had considered a presidential bid, about his environmental record during his tour of the state. And they’ve already set their sights on a few other 2020 targets, including Senator Kamala Harris, the California prosecutor turned lawmaker whom Schoonover describes simply as “a cop.”
The DSA members I met are frequent critics of many prominent Democrats, including—and maybe especially—some of the party’s most beloved icons. Former President Barack Obama, for example, is “complicit in American imperialism,” one told me. Ex-Representative Beto O’Rourke and his broad platitudes represent “everything that is wrong with the political systems of power in the United States.”
So it was frustrating for many of them in March when the DSA’s governing body formally voted to endorse Sanders for president. Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, helped open Iowans’ eyes to the political possibilities of the movement with his 2016 campaign, but Schoonover and other members of the Central Iowa chapter still have issues with the senator from Vermont. For example, he hasn’t publicly backed any measures for reparations for black Americans, and he doesn’t support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, a campaign advocating financial separation between the United States and Israel.
But more important, they say, working on behalf of a single candidate will only distract from their efforts to organize tenants and build power in their communities. “We don’t talk about Bernie,” Schoonover explained. “He’s not a factor in our organizing at all.” Most of them would certainly prefer Sanders to other Democrats in the 2020 field, and individual members can volunteer for him on their own time, Schoonover said. “But we’re not a Bernie Sanders fan club just waiting for our chance to finally knock doors for him.”
The DSAers in Iowa really have only one goal ahead of the 2020 presidential election: Move the conversation to the left in the first state that gets to winnow the Democratic field.
This is, of course, the opposite of what many Democratic Party leaders want. Many of them are desperate to distance themselves from any association with socialism, worried that it will scare off the party’s more moderate voters. It’s important, they say, not to mistake the growing popularity of policy ideas that can be described as socialist for the spread of full-blown socialism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, practically leapt to her feet to applaud when the president vowed that America “will never be a socialist country” during his February State of the Union address. And multiple 2020 candidates have rejected the label, including progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who recently called herself “capitalist to my bones.”
When I asked Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, how he would describe the left’s trajectory in his state, he paused. “I hate to use the word socialist,” Price said, suggesting that instead, “there is a more organized effort” to push the government “to help solve the biggest issues facing us right now.” Price further dismissed the idea that the DSA has any particular prominence in Iowa: “There’s been a rise of all sorts of different organized groups that have come up since the 2016 election. DSA is definitely one of them.”
Cathy Glasson, a nurse and the president of SEIU Local 199, was the most progressive candidate in recent history to run in an Iowa gubernatorial election, in 2018. But she doesn’t identify as a democratic socialist, and she doesn’t see Iowa moving in that direction. “I’m not sure it’s socialism we’re seeing,” Glasson told me. It’s just that “there is a tremendous eagerness” in Iowa for “bold, progressive ideas.”
“We are facing, as a city and as a state and country, systemic problems that require solutions all across the board,” Rob Shaw told the Iowa City chapter members before they embarked on their door-knocking mission. “The only way we’re going to do that is if we actually organize a base that can respond to more than one problem.”
“What do these problems stem from?” asked Alex Loehrer, the co-chair, from across the table. “Do you want to say it for the record?”
“Fuck capitalism,” Shaw replied with a smile. The chapter members cheered.