Once, in college, I joined a socialist organization.
I was new to politics and the Democrats and Republicans bored me. Armed revolution? Much more sexy.
One afternoon, I came across a group of activists from the International Socialist Organization leafleting in the downtown area.
"Join the struggle for justice and liberation!" they shouted.
"OK!" I shouted back.
I mean, when you're saddled with thousands of dollars of college debt and your belly is only half full (of Ramen noodles no less), socialism looks pretty damn good. Free education! Free health care! Free Ramen!
Over the next few months, I went to meetings, attended protests and peddled the Socialist Worker newspaper. The latter really perplexed me: Here I was proclaiming to the brainwashed masses that capitalism was wrong while simultaneously trying to sell them a newspaper for a dollar.
I didn't last long as a socialist.
Of course, I didn't tell this story when I visited the Socialist Party of Tampa Bay's monthly meeting at the Sacred Grounds Coffeehouse in Tampa. No need to start an argument, I figured. I just sat down, briefly introduced myself and met the members. All two of them.
Paul and Mark, both 36, joined the Socialist Party about 10 years ago. Paul, a pierced and goateed seminary student, has identified with socialist policies ever since the 1988 presidential election between the elder Bush and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
"I remember thinking, 'This looks like some sort of sham," he tells me. "I already knew the capitalist parties were two versions of the same thing. No matter who wins, everyone else loses."
Mark, a portly Web designer, became a socialist while attending Florida State University.
"People ask why I am a socialist," he explains. "Every problem I see, I feel socialism can help or is the solution."
The Socialist Party of Tampa Bay — not to be confused with the Socialist Workers Party, the St. Petersburg-based African People's Socialist Party or the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement — has been active in the Tampa Bay area since the early '90s. Activists with the group have led antiwar marches, supported the Immokalee workers and left a whole lot of propaganda at area coffeeshops.
Normally, the Socialist Party meetings at Sacred Grounds cover business like protests and socialist picnics. But, tonight, Mark and Paul want to discuss the socialist running for the U.S. presidency. No, not Barack Obama, the one the Republicans want you to think is a socialist; the actual Socialist Party presidential candidate, Brian Moore, an HMO director from Spring Hill.
Do you support a 30-hour work week? Want the troops to come home immediately? Gay, lesbian and transgender rights? How about free cable and Internet access? Socialists like Moore do, too. They just have to get elected first.
Socialists make up a tiny portion of the registered voters in Tampa Bay — about 189 spread across four counties and three parties. But they've enjoyed a slight uptick in voter registration since 2000. Florida socialists attribute that to improved ballot access that actually lists their candidate on ballots instead of relying on write-in votes. Moore, who has run for U.S. Congress three other times, could push their registration numbers even higher.
"We couldn't ask for a better time right now," Moore says by phone. "The economy is teetering and crashing. Everywhere you look the system is being exposed for what it is."
Since last year, Moore, 65, has crisscrossed the country attempting to get on the ballot in a handful of states. Even with a shoestring budget, he's already succeeded in eight states.
But that doesn't make it any easier for socialists like Mark and Paul. They requested their names not be used for fear of reprisals from their employers.
"I don't need that," Mark says. "If you're an employee and you're part of the Green Party, that's probably OK. But a Socialist Party member? That's pretty radical, man."
"We would like to be considered a little more mainstream than we are," adds Paul. "We're not as 'out there' as people think. It's not totalitarian communism. We're not Leninists. We're not Maoists. We're not Marxists. We're not all hammer and sickle or whatever."
But socialists still get no respect from newspaper editors, election officials or even fellow leftists who charge that candidates like Moore are "spoilers."
"There's more than two opinions," Mark counters. "For a country that wants to have so many choices for everything else, it's sad we don't have more presidential choices."
Paul fidgets in his chair.
"Even if my vote was the one that tilted the balance, I don't care," Paul says. "I'm going to vote for who I want. It's the Republicans and Democrats who spoil it for everyone else. It's because of them no one has 100 percent access to universal health care."
Of course, socialists know they won't win the presidency (though at least one former socialist, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is a U.S. senator). But that's not the point, they say.
"We usually do it as more of an educational tool," Mark says. "I don't see socialism coming with a candidate, but I do believe in the ballot."
The night wears on, and I decide to let Mark and Paul catch up (the old friends haven't seen each other all summer). But before I leave, they hand me some pamphlets and a newspaper, The Socialist Woman.
For more information on the Socialist Party of Tampa Bay, visit sptampabay.org.