DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Socialism has been seen as a dirty word in American politics for a long time. But that is changing. In one 2016 poll, a third of young Americans said they supported socialism. Last month, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America won a high-profile congressional primary. And as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, the group is growing fast.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And what's your name?
JOE CERNELLI: Oh, I'm Joe. I'm the co-chair.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: A group of Socialists walks into a West Virginia bar. It's a Saturday evening in early July, and 13 people have shown up at a brewery outside of Rivesville for a meetup of the north central West Virginia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Everyone here has their own stories for how they came to socialism. For chapter co-founder Kelley Rose, religion played a part.
KELLEY ROSE: Possibly, my mother would want to debate me on this. But I think if anybody was ever a socialist, it was Jesus.
KURTZLEBEN: And so less than a year-and-a-half ago, Rose helped start this chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, making it a part of the DSA's explosive growth nationwide. Membership has grown sevenfold since 2015, from around 6,000 then to 43,000 as of July of this year. And the group has gained new prominence with New York Democrat and DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent congressional primary win.
MAURICE ISSERMAN: This is the most important moment in DSA's its history.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College and also a charter member of the DSA.
ISSERMAN: The economic downturn of 2008, which turned the millennial generation in a significant way to the left, made them much more open to the idea of socialism.
KURTZLEBEN: On top of that, Isserman says, movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street acquainted young Americans with organizing, making them more open to a group like the DSA with its ambitious agenda. At the Rivesville meetup, member Joe Cernelli explained his vision.
CERNELLI: I think we just need to realize that the end goal is ultimately, like, social control of the means of production, you know? We don't just want to improve capitalism. We will ultimately want to get rid of it.
KURTZLEBEN: That's not just his idea. The DSA views capitalism as an oppressive system. In the DSA's ideal economy, some sectors - like health care and utilities - would be government-controlled. Other businesses would be worker-owned, as DSA National Director Maria Svart explains it.
MARIA SVART: Let's say you were negotiating at a bargaining table with workers in a bakery. And the workers said, look - we want more than a quarter of the bread; we want half of the bread. The Socialists would say - actually, we want the bakery (laughter). We want to control it all for all of our benefit.
KURTZLEBEN: The country and the attitudes of most American voters are pretty far from this vision, so the DSA is willing to pursue policies that fall short of its ultimate goals. Health care is one example. The group backs "Medicare-for-all," a system of government-administered health insurance. But the group would prefer a system where the government employs the doctors themselves. The most prominent champion of "Medicare-for-all" is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But while Sanders considers himself a Democratic Socialist, he is not a DSA member. And he doesn't fully align with the group.
SVART: We see Bernie Sanders as an ally, but we want to go further.
KURTZLEBEN: While the DSA has its stated goals, there is no orthodoxy members have to follow. In fact, the group encourages members to disagree on some of these tenets. Electorally, the group's influence will be modest in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, is the DSA's only nationally endorsed candidate thus far to have won a congressional primary. Ideologically the size of the group's influence remains to be seen. Ocasio-Cortez championed the idea of eliminating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and some Democratic lawmakers have picked it up. That could be one growing sign of DSA clout.
MO ELLEITHEE: I think some of this is the swinging of the pendulum.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Mo Elleithee, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. He recognizes that the post-2016 Democratic Party has been moving left on policies like "Medicare-for-all" and job guarantees. But Elleithee says that's not evidence that Socialists caused the shift among Democrats.
ELLEITHEE: Maybe that's actually a really important distinction. There's a progressive wing of the party that I think is having an impact and is helping to frame the debate.
KURTZLEBEN: For several reasons, potential costs, for example, and just the radical changes involved, DSA ideas are often criticized as economically and politically unrealistic. Jonathan Williams understands that. He's a first-grade teacher who showed up to the brewery to check out his local DSA chapter for the first time. After seeing Hillary Clinton lose in 2016, he explains, he rethought his more moderate politics.
JONATHAN WILLIAMS: That Clintonian view of politics, I did find appealing for quite some time. Then it took seeing it crushed rather decisively to realize that maybe that wasn't working. And rather than telling myself that good things are impossible, it's not doing any harm to swing for the fences.
KURTZLEBEN: For a voter who thinks the Democratic Party is balking too much, swinging for the fences just seems like the best option.
Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "OF THE WRIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.