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The Economist, August 30, 2018
Shivering the chains
Socialism in America
The increasing popularity of socialism is more about stiffening
Democrats’ spines than revolution
BOZEMAN, MONTANA is the birthplace of Ryan Zinke, the federal secretary
of the interior, and the home of Steve Daines, Montana’s Republican
junior senator, and Greg Gianforte, the state’s reporter-thumping
Republican congressman. But the public-comments part of Bozeman’s city
commission meeting on August 20th was dominated entirely by socialists.
They did not sing the Internationale, or demand public ownership of the
means of production. Instead, the ten members of the Bozeman Democratic
Socialists of America (DSA) thanked the commission for raising city
workers’ minimum wage to $13 an hour, and urged them to raise it to $15
over the next two years.
Republicans are using such people to stoke outrage. Newt Gingrich,
eternally eager to pitch any disagreement as an eschatological conflict,
warns that socialists are “demons” whom the Democrats are “unleashing to
win elections”. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member likely to win
election to Congress in November, has joined Nancy Pelosi in the right’s
bogeyman pantheon (a Republican mailing called her “mini-Maduro”,
referring to Nicolás Maduro, the tyranical president of Venezuela).
Looking past the label, however, American socialists are more
progressive Democrats than Castros in waiting—and their rise poses more
of a challenge to the Democratic Party than to capitalism.
Still, socialism is having a moment in America unlike any since,
perhaps, 1912, when Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate, won 6% of the
popular vote. Between the DSA’s founding in 1982 and the election of
2016, its membership hovered at a relatively constant 6,000—the same
people, says Maurice Isserman, a professor at Hamilton College and
charter DSA member, “just getting greyer”. Since President Donald
Trump’s election, however, its membership has risen more than eightfold,
and may soon exceed 50,000 (see chart). DSA members have lost nearly all
of the primaries they have contested, but two will almost certainly be
elected to the next Congress: Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, from
Detroit. A recent Gallup poll showed that 57% of Democrats have positive
views about socialism.
But the poll never defined “socialism”, so precisely what people were
expressing support for remains unclear. For decades, the cold war
defined it, at least for most Americans. They were capitalist and free,
while socialism was a step removed, at best, from Soviet communism.
Americans under 30 have no memory of the cold war. To them, socialism
may be little more than a slur they have heard Republicans hurl at
Democrats—particularly Barack Obama. They may well have reckoned that if
supporting universal health care, more money for public education and
policies to combat climate change are all socialist, then they are happy
to be socialist too.
During Mr Obama’s presidency, political energy came from the Republican
Party’s right flank; under Mr Trump’s it comes from the Democrats’ left.
The centre of American politics is having trouble holding. Jessie Kline,
the 24-year-old vice-chairman of Bozeman’s socialists, worked for
mainstream Democrats, but joined the DSA because “nobody wanted to talk
about the underlying cause of why people are poor…The establishment
treats politics as a career. Morality and ethics never came into it.”
Still, America is not about to undergo a socialist revolution. It is too
ideologically diverse and fractious; individualism is wired too deeply
into the country’s political culture. Maria Svart, the DSA’s national
director, says that her group “doesn’t see capitalism as compatible with
freedom or justice or democracy”, but good luck winning elections with
that slogan (indeed, candidates endorsed by Democratic Party organs have
won far more primaries than those endorsed by Our Revolution, which grew
out of Bernie Sanders’s campaign). In any event, democratic socialism is
not revolutionary communism. Sara Innamorato, a DSA member who won her
primary in May and will probably represent a heavily Democratic district
of south-western Pennsylvania in the state legislature, says that
“capitalism isn’t working…but I don’t think that capitalism and
socialism are necessarily opposites. There are good lessons to be gained
Even the platform of Bernie Sanders, the socialist who gave Hillary
Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 Democratic primaries, left
capitalism fundamentally intact, calling instead for a broader and more
redistributive social safety-net. His supporters seem enamoured of
Nordic-style social-welfare policies. But those countries are not
socialist; they are free-market economies with high rates of taxation
that finance generous public services. Indeed, the “socialist” part of
those countries that Mr Sanders’s fans like would be unaffordable
without the dynamic capitalist part they dislike.
Perhaps the surest sign that American socialists are not revolutionaries
is their willingness to work within the two-party system. Ms Innamorato
and Summer Lee, another DSA-endorsed candidate for the Pennsylvania
legislature, as well as Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Tlaib, are all
Democrats, as is Mr Sanders, for practical purposes (he is an
independent but caucuses with Senate Democrats). Mr Sanders and Ms
Ocasio-Cortez have campaigned for other Democrats. Mr Isserman contends
that DSA members “are not utopian, and we certainly don’t believe in
Bolshevik-style revolution”. He approvingly cites Michael Harrington,
the DSA’s founder, who said that the group should represent “the left
wing of the possible”.
In that role, they are succeeding wildly. On August 28th Andrew Gillum,
wielding an endorsement from Mr Sanders, pulled off a surprise victory
in the Democratic primary race for governor in Florida—a state that has
long preferred bland, centrist Democrats. Mr Gillum wants to see
universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, a more compassionate
immigration policy, corporate-tax hikes to fund public education,
stricter gun-control laws and the legalisation of marijuana. Most of
these positions were lefty pipe-dreams a decade ago. Today they are de
rigueur for Democrats with presidential ambitions.
Some have gone further: Mr Sanders, as well as Cory Booker and Kirsten
Gillebrand, senators from New Jersey and New York, respectively, have
made favourable noises about a federal jobs guarantee. Mr Gillum thinks
Mr Trump should be impeached. Such proposals are dead in the water, for
now: Republicans control Congress and the White House. But that is not
the point. These are political statements designed to signal support for
a bold, activist government and an unwillingness to triangulate, or
compromise with the voters who put Mr Trump in the White House.
Still, the DSA’s apparent influence on the party makes some nervous. One
longtime strategist frets that the distinction between democratic and
Soviet-style socialism is “fairly fine for most voters, and it comes
with a lot of baggage”. Over the next couple of years, through debates
that Democrats must hope will prove robust but not fracturing, the party
will work out whether and how to carry that baggage.
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