At 18, Olivia Katbi was answering the phones and emails in a Republican state senator’s office in Ohio. Then the legislator threw his weight behind a particularly contentious anti-abortion law. “I realised that the party I’m working for is evil. After that I identified as a Democrat but I wasn’t really happy with their policies either,” said Katbi, now 25.
Back then, she couldn’t articulate her reservations about President Barack Obama. There were the drone strikes, and the limitations of his healthcare reforms. But mostly it was a frustrating sense he wasn’t serving her interests so much as those of a monied elite. So in the 2012 presidential election, Katbi voted for Jill Stein, the Green party candidate. But that didn’t change the world.
It was only last year, when Bernie Sanders made his run under the banner of democratic socialism, that it all started to fall into place.
“My politics were to the left of the Democratic party but I didn’t realise there was an entire ideology, an entire movement that was there. It had never occurred to me,” said Katbi. “Bernie was my introduction to the concept of democratic socialism. It’s not like I associated it with the cold war. It was a new concept to me completely. That was the case for a lot of millennials, which is why the movement has grown so much.”
Katbi, who works at an organization helping to settle immigrants and refugees in Portland, Oregon, became “socialist curious”. She joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a rapidly growing big-tent movement that has drawn in former communists and fired up millennials. The DSA is now the largest socialist organization in the US as surging membership, which has quadrupled since the election to around 25,000, has breathed new life into a once dormant group. New branches have sprung up, from Montana to Texas and New York. Earlier this month, hundreds of delegates gathered in Chicago for the only DSA convention in years to attract attention.