- Eric Santomauro-Stenzel
Interview with Leadership of Hamilton’s new Young Democratic Socialists of America
The author is a member of the chapter and a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. One of the interviewees requested last names be withheld out of concern for how employers can legally discriminate against socialists.
Last semester, a group of students in all class years founded a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) on campus, the youth wing of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I sat down with some members of the club’s first elected Steering Committee to ask about their vision for democratic socialism at Hamilton. This included Vesa (she/her) is a sophomore, one of two Co-Chairs, and from Long Island, NY. Matthew (he/him) is a junior, the Secretary-Treasurer, and from Boston, MA. Ethan (he/him) is a first-year, the At-Large Steward, and from Pennsylvania. Hamilton YDSA’s email is email@example.com, the Instagram is @hamilton.ydsa, and this semester the organization meets Tuesdays at 7 PM in KJ 201.
What previous experience do you have in socialist politics?
Vesa: I got more involved in politics in general, more general left democratic politics starting in late middle school, early high school, and then I was considering democratic socialism towards the end of high school. Socialism still has a very negative connotation that is mentioned throughout the high school curriculum. And even [when] I was into politics that sort of took me a while to really get open to [democratic socialist] viewpoints. But from there I got more involved, because I have always cared a lot about society, just where it's going, and improving it for everyone, ensuring that there is a fair and just society for everyone. So there's volunteering for some progressive candidates, trying to find ways to offer my aid on campus and I think YDSA is going to be my history with this.
Matthew: Well, I think I had no more experience in politics than being someone who's, I guess you could say, very much interested in the civic well-being of my state, my town, my country, and my college campus. I have been interested in politics for a while doing Model UN, which is pretty fun to see a lot of different viewpoints. And I think I really started the course, understanding more of a left wing side of politics. This might be true for a lot of people, during 2015, the beginning of the presidential elections. It kind of opened a lot of people's eyes towards social democracy and the place of leftist thinking in America as a whole.
Ethan: In 2016, I wasn't paying attention to everything. But in the aftermath of that, that got me into more left wing politics and really thinking about all these issues that you see in the world around you. But this is a way to understand why these problems exist, and why the current systems are failing to solve them. And granted, I'm an undergraduate, so I'm trying to better understand the world around me and fight to make the changes that I want to see in the world. I volunteered a little bit with some candidates, I worked a little bit with a local DSA chapter in high school, but I've not had that much experience overall with the actual political sphere.
What inspires you to do this work? What’s your personal connection to this struggle?
Vesa: For me, I looked into myself and tried to figure out okay, what about me actually sort of motivates me emotionally to get involved with politics in the community? I do think part of it is just this instinct, a broader sense of fairness that's been with me even since I was younger, and I have broadened it to more community and local involvement. And it's also just caring for people as humans. We're social animals. We don't want to see people suffer, we want them to flourish, and I feel like the current system inhibits that flourishing to a great degree and it's structured to treat people unequally and to promote that sense of struggle in communities that don't deserve it. So in that sense, that's what makes me motivated whenever I see that on the news, or whenever I see it in everyday life, I do get that feeling of wanting to do something. I don't just want to sit with my emotions, but actually do something through YDSA or any other opportunities to really make some tangible difference, and actually see the effect of my actions and see people improving and flourishing and becoming better as a result.
Matthew: I think for me, having traveled through the post-industrial Northeast Corridor, I get that understanding quite early on that the way that we've been conducting our business as a nation for the last 30 or so years, with the neoliberal idea of global economy with no tariffs and little regard for the status of home, a sense of heartland, is that we're kind of hollowing out this country from the middle. It's unsustainable, both environmentally and socio-economically, to continue on as we are without any course corrections. So I feel it's imperative that we redistribute some of our attention over to making sure that these vast swaths of America that have been left to sit and fallow are getting the attention that they need.
Ethan: For me, there's all these issues, and I feel like I have to do something. I couldn't live with this. I couldn't just ignore them. I guess I have to play the part of broader struggle, and pick up the torch for the next generation, calling on these heroes of the past, like Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., all those heroes fighting for equality and justice. Someone has to carry on that torch, continue the fight that even if it's not now, that tomorrow, there will be a better day.
Why DSA as opposed to any other left organization? What niche does YDSA fill on campus and in the area, and in what relationship to other existing groups?
Vesa: For YDSA specifically we do feel that it's one of the largest organizations, and the one that as a result, has the most resources and can have the most pragmatic, tangible effect on the community. That's important, because we don't just want to focus on ideology but also the actual impact. So obviously, the niche is a more political one, more left-leaning ideas. We do have the Hamilton Democrats, however, that isn't very specific, it's very broad. We do believe that they do have an important presence on campus and different functions. But in terms of where we fit more specifically, and where we focus more, we're not just focusing on electoral politics, we're focused on union issues, labor issues, how we can support other groups on campus that also are related to that same theme and value of equality and justice. In the future [we'll be] reaching out to other communities that also struggle from labor exploitation or other forms of oppression and suffer from the system. So in that sense, we're in a build-up phase where we're not just focusing on the political, but we're focused on general promotion of our principles and other tangible action outside of just electoral politics.
Ethan: I think the need that YDSA would fill is different than others. Hamilton Dems [would] say "Oh, the way to fix the country's problem is elect more Democrats" and the Rosary Club would go "Oh, you know, we need more tradcaths [traditional Catholics] in power to fix our country." I think democratic socialism says that these systems are working as intended to create enormous profits for the big corporations and the banks at the cost of normal people, and that institutions can be fought, they can be beaten. We have to beat them to win this more just, equitable society that we're striving for. Why DSA? It's kind of like a united front organization; it's not dogmatic for a specific ideology. It's through a very broad group of people, less focused on sectarianism and infighting, that we can fight our mutual enemies instead of each other.
Vesa: Right? That is a good point. Ideological divisions, especially at this point, are completely useless. You don't have a mass movement. We're open to everyone even if you're not that open to socialism yet.
Many students, especially at a place like Hamilton, will be apprehensive about joining an organization that is openly committed to anti-capitalism and socialism. What do you say to liberal and progressive students who think capitalism has its flaws, but aren’t so sure about making the ideological jump to an organization like DSA?
Matthew: I think it's the understanding that you have this conception of capitalism, as it is in America, as kind of universal, like capitalism is just the way having an economy works, [as if] it's something natural, rather than something that's developed relatively recently in history. I think for those who would describe themselves as liberal or progressive or just apolitical that the appeal of YDSA is that we are very much a horizontal-thinking organization where we feel we're against capitalism because we think that capitalism, a small moneyed group of people controlling the economy, is inefficient and isn't really moral either. So what we're saying is the best way to avoid this kind of adversarial relationship between labor and capital, between the little people and the big people, is the fact that the people on the bottom, the working and middle class, need much more voice in how they conduct their lives. We aspire to a lot of democracy in our election season, but for most of the year, and most of that four year cycle, people are going to work. And they're going to work in places where they don't really have much say about what goes on at workplaces. A large part of what we advocate for is democracy in the workplace. It strengthens the dignity of working Americans, and allows themselves to discover the appeals of collective bargaining: advocating for their own safety and well being.
Vesa: I want to encourage other people to look at the power structures. The current system that we have puts all the people with capital in power, which makes it extremely difficult for policies and actions that benefit lower and middle class to get passed because ultimately, down the road, politics and policy are everything. There's also our other example of environmental issues, how it's incredibly, incredibly difficult to hold corporations and wealthier nations accountable for their environmental destruction because they have so much power and wealth. Who's there to work against them? The power structure is set up in such a way that they won't be losing power. Just ask yourself, how can you make such a huge difference if they won't let go?
You’ve had a couple months now of preparation for this new YDSA chapter. What does the rest of this semester look like? Where are you hoping the organization, and socialism on campus in general, will be by May?
Vesa: We have a lot planned so far. We're planning on doing a labor mixer event, inviting different people with experience with labor unions and similar options to have a broad panel and speak about experiences. That will serve as not only educating the YDSA members on what action they can take and how to make a difference, but also letting the rest of the campus know what issues do exist, and if they want to get involved how to do so. We're planning a May Day event in May. We're also planning a field trip to John Brown's grave to educate ourselves on that history. We're in a recruitment phase right now. We do want to focus a lot on what members want as well. So where our club will go from there depends what they want to focus on and what they feel is important because we believe in democratic socialism. We don't want to impose our own vision of what we want the club to be on our members.
Matthew: I also think that we're seeing a lot of [underclassmen] being part of our club. And that's a very good thing, because we don't just want to be a one-and-done kind of club where we appear for a semester, our leadership or our core audience graduates, and it's gone. I think that the most important thing that we want to get towards by the end of May is establishing ourselves as a student institution here on campus, and, most importantly, as a place where you can feel comfortable. People want to go to our meetings, they feel like they would get something out of them besides just airing their general grievances. We want to foster a sense of greater community here and let people know that if you feel that something is wrong, here on campus, in your states, in your country, in the world, that you can definitely have a healthy and good place to share that and find the people here on campus that might not totally agree with you, but very much agree that something should be done to better people in the world.
This isn’t the first time a YDSA chapter has been formed on campus. The most recent one started in 2014 and shut down not much later. How will you set up structures for a more enduring organization?
Vesa: We're meeting very frequently, every week. We alternate more discussion-based meetings with more organized meetings working on a specific topic. This is formulated based on what our members want. We are putting in a very structured way of operating a club where we always have something going. We are also trying to get more involved with the on-campus labor unions. Creating strong ties to existing campus movements will strengthen our club. We also have it on our minds to collaborate with other organizations that share that same theme, like maybe the Black and Latinx Student Union or the Gender & Sexuality Union. We do have a similar philosophy of promoting equality in society. We're still planning things and figuring out where we are and what we want to do.
Ethan: What we're hoping to do for this semester is try to build that group of people that will build the inertia to sustain the club, getting at least a couple of regular members. If you're interested, come! Being a regular, just being there, helps keep the club going. It was so nice to see we had a pretty decent turnout for our first meeting. It was so nice to see that many people interested in the DSA. I think this club has real potential. We can build a big mass movement on campus to fight for the changes that we want to see both on our campus, our communities, ultimately, across our country and in the world.
What excites you most about left politics on campus right now?
Matthew: In great opposition to how the current mainstream political discussion has had with a great degree of polarization, vitriol even, I think we've seen a lot of people here on campus if not interested in YDSA, they are at the very least recognizing it as a valid form of political expression. Here on campus, we are perhaps a bit liberal or left-leaning overall. But we also have many other people here. We have a lot of support here, a lot of people appreciate our presence here on campus. Even if they don't participate in the club directly, it's very much this kind of bellwether for how people view the organization, and corporate bounds of power that we're currently seeing here on campus.
Vesa: For me, much more simply, it's just even perceiving what people are interested in because we had good turnout. And as we said, to move sustainably is important to us. That energy in the beginning we've seen is really inspiring to me. That's what gets me excited. Everyone around wants to do something.
Ethan: The chance to build solidarity and community, definitely a group of people that believe in the same ideals as you, that are willing to fight alongside you to help make those changes to realize those ideals is a very inspiring thought. To see the crowd of people gathered, to learn from each other, and fight alongside each other to make those changes that you want to see in the world. Just electrifying.
Corrections (2/15/22): The blurb at the top of the interview incorrectly listed Matthew's pronouns. They have been corrected to he/him. The blurb also incorrectly stated that YDSA meets on Tuesdays at 7:30 PM. This has been corrected to Tuesdays at 7 PM.