The Rise of Democratic Socialism in America
With the recent victories in New York of two self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, as well as the rapid rise of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at the national level, socialism has asserted itself on the political stage. While there have been setbacks in the recent elections, Democratic Socialists are making greater inroads into places, such as Texas, than ever before. Furthermore, since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown from around 6,000 members to over 50,000. The question is: what has sparked this newfound interest in Socialism?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist model of Western Europe and the United States has rapidly expanded to all corners of the globe. While there have been frequent critiques of capitalism, the solutions proposed have typically remained within the capitalist framework – that is that the solution lay within the free market. While notable socialist politicians, such as Senator Sanders, do not advocate for the complete redistribution of the means of production, they do advocate for many socialist policies, such as universal healthcare and free public college. Socializing these services, however, is not strictly a feature of socialist systems of government. In the case of healthcare, the United States is very much the odd one out. Single payer as well as other universal systems are largely the norm in developed Western states. Therefore, to describe any specific services as “socialist” is not actually accurate. Certainly, policies can be socially motivated and can be used to make the system more equitable and just, but socialism is not simply looking to make the current system more equitable. Rather, it seeks to completely replace the system with something trulyegalitarian.
Socialism and its sister ideology Communism were born out of the mind of Karl Marx, a German philosopher, whose works The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapitalform the basis for both of these ideologies. Marx proposed a system in which the means of production should be controlled by the laborers themselves, rather than a single person or a small group of elites. In practice, this notion of communal ownership can manifest in various forms depending on what is being produced. For instance, most socialists would agree that health care should be guaranteed by the democratically elected state or federal government. However, with regards to a private company, laborers would be the primary beneficiaries of the product they are producing, whether that be coffee, shoes, or computers. At the end of the day, socialists are not communists because of their desire for a mixed-economy as opposed to the planned economy of communist entities like the Soviet Union. What they do want is a more equally distributed system, one that works for the people.
Over the past century, socialism has been vilified in the United States as a means to increase taxes and limit entrepreneurial innovation. Shaped by Cold War propaganda and the relative experiences of the Soviet Union – the chief “Communist” state of the time – socialism has become associated with totalitarian regimes, the suppression of liberties, and substantial inequality between the ruling class and the common people. For nearly forty-five years, the “evil” Soviet Union and socialism were intrinsically tied in the collective American psyche, but today, most are too young to remember the Cold War, if they had even been alive to see it. As a result, socialism is no longer the taboo it once was. In addition, the 2008 financial crises emphasized the need for a radical change to the American economic system, and the Occupy Wall Street protests were an early indicator of the anti-capitalist movements that were to come. In fact, in a recent YouGov survey only 30% of responders held a favorable view of capitalism, yet 43% held a favorable view of socialism. This leftward trend is even more pronounced amongst young people. A recent University of Chicago survey showed that 61% of millennial democrats held a favorable view of socialism, and in Iowa, democratic socialist, Sanders, won 84% of the democratic youth vote compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 14%. If we expand this to issues which the socialists have been championing, we see even greater enthusiasm. A Reuters’ poll found that on the question of supporting “Medicare for All,” 70% of Americans as well as 52% of Republicans were in favor. With regard to “Free College Tuition,” 60% of Americans and 41% of Republicans approved of the policy. This shows that socialism has begun to shake off the image imposed on it during the Cold War.
Additionally, most socialists would not describe the state-socialism of Stalin and Mao as true socialism. In fact, some of the harshest critiques of those regimes came from socialists like George Orwell, who noted the repressive, totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union in his classics 1984and Animal Farm. Socialist organizations today, including the DSA, denounce these regimes and praise the democratization effort in these post-communist states. Perhaps, this is where most of the confusion about the new wave of socialism arises. In contrast to Mao’s and Stalin’s Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Democratic socialists want to implement socialism through democratic means. This means fighting for changesto the established system, but not for an instant revolution of the system itself. The goal is that a new system will be gradually introduced through the democratic process. The example that many people on the left point to as an example of this “transitional” state between capitalism and socialism is Norway. 30% of Norway’s population is employed by the government, which is about 12% higher than the world average. People are also significantly more satisfied with public services in Norway. Full-time workers spend approximately 37 hours a week at their job, compared to the 49 hours in the US, and 52% of Norwegian workers belong to a labor union, compared to 11% in the US. Furthermore, Norway ranks among the most income-equal states in the world and has one of the highest the standard of living. Despite Norway being a capitalist state, it has managed to minimize the negative by-products of capitalism through a strong state safety net and strict regulations on how businesses treat their employees. But democratic socialism wants to push this even further by establishing a society where all social and economic decisions are made democratically.
Understanding this distinction is crucial for all parties. While it might be useful for democratic socialists to broaden their base to anyone who believes in universal healthcare, they must be careful to not undermine their platform in the long run. Both Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez were able to overcome significant challenges by not compromising on their values. In particular, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Representative Joe Crowley, an extremely powerful democratic incumbent who hadn’t had a primary challenger since 2004., by running on a platform of guaranteeing healthcare, housing, and jobs as rights. Similarly, Salazar toppled a 16-year incumbent by running on a platform of affordable housing and tenants’ rights as well as more radical issues like the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Furthermore, they fueled their campaigns through small donations and grassroot activism. This was key to their victories, despite losing the financial support of corporations. By doing so, they were able to fully tailor their campaigns to the needs of their constituents and garner the begrudging respect of many mainstream politicians around the country.
This particular point helps us understand whythe distinction between progressive capitalism and socialism is so important. There are wide gulfs in the true goals of both, even if they are frequently found fighting on the same side of issues. Comparing the wave of Democratic Socialists, such as Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez, to the views of establishment Democrats, such as Senators Joe Manchin and Jon Tester, these differences become even more noticeable. Any gains for Democratic Socialists within the Democratic Party will ultimately lead to the party having to consider its identity moving forward. Furthermore, if policies like universal healthcare and tuition-free public college are implemented, then the question for both the establishment left and the socialists becomes: what next?