Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail. Photo: PA/Prospect composite

Red States: the rise of American socialism

The Democratic Socialists of America are pulling the party of Clinton and Obama to the left
October 15, 2018

If you asked the muse of American politics to go Homeric on you and sing of the man who caused the Democratic Party to wander in a wilderness of existential terrors and identity crises since 2016, she might mistakenly start a ditty that was only about Donald Trump.

After all, the president has been the focus of massive protests since his election, and his has seemingly been the only name on the lips of Democratic politicians as they campaign to regain control of the House and Senate this year. He is Twitter logorrheic in the face of tragedy and scandal, and his policies are anathema to the values and ideals of the Obama administration, already a golden age in many Democrats’ eyes.

But Trump is not the only figure to have triggered the soul-searching. “People should not underestimate me,” said a crotchety, largely unknown senator from Vermont named Bernie Sanders when he announced his presidential run in April 2015. People did, of course. Hillary Clinton was seen as the party’s sole viable option and Sanders, as CNN put it, was an “unlikely candidate for the Democratic nomination, primarily because he has never been a registered member of the party and calls himself a ‘democratic socialist.’”

Three years ago, that ideology only existed at the margins of American life. History students might have heard of home-grown socialists such as Eugene Debs, but these were figures from a time out of mind, decades before the Cold War. The idea of socialism as a positive force in the world was alien to most Americans. The policies of progressive Democrats since the New Deal might have overlapped with those of social democrats in Europe, but their emphasis was always on the American dream—enabling people to rise up from their class, rather than impelling them to rise up with it.

Post-financial crisis, however, Sanders demonstrated that socialism didn’t have to be so alien anymore. Indeed, he proved it could be an electrifying force in American political life. He packed rallies, first in Iowa and New Hampshire, then around the country. With nothing resembling the connections of Clinton—a former first lady, secretary of state and nearly the Democratic candidate in 2008—and none of her big money donors, Sanders eventually won 23 primaries and caucuses.

Sanders may not have started out with many resources, but he became an overnight celebrity on the strength of his utterly charmless—and thus somehow ultimately charming—harangues about America’s yawning class inequities and a political system made rotten by corporate money. And ever since that night in November 2016, when malcontent rust-belt state voters swung it for Trump, the American left has been haunted by the question as to whether Sanders might have fared better against him.

Since that year, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has grown from 6,000 to 49,000. It is not a party as such—some states make it tough to get on the ballot without a Democratic or Republican affiliation—but instead a political organisation that throws itself behind candidates who might further its ends. In parallel, red roses have begun to appear in Twitter profiles, indicating the user’s level of socialist “wokeness.” The New York Times recently published an online quiz: “Are You A Democratic Socialist?”

In June, a 28-year-old DSA member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won a surprise primary victory over a member of the Democrats’ congressional leadership, stoking national interest in the DSA movement. Ocasio-Cortez’s win in the safely Democratic district in New York led many liberals and conservatives alike to muse that socialism was slowly becoming the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party.

While the electoral gains of DSA-backed candidates have been modest—just 46 democratic socialist candidates won primaries in 2018, largely for America’s vastly numerous state-level offices, with only a smattering in US House and Senate races—the outfit is exerting outsized impact on the direction of left-leaning American political thought.

As the Democratic Party scrambles to find a way to reset after the devastating loss to Trump, the grassroots excitement stirred by democratic socialism and the Sanders agenda suggests one possible way forward. Free university tuition and tax-financed universal healthcare, once shunned as implausible policy ideas in America (if not Europe), have been adapted by a number of the likely 2020 Democratic candidates for president. While many Democrats are not thrilled about it, the DSA has become an incubator for such ideas, shoving more than nudging the party to the left and currying favour with its youngest members. Its growing popularity shows one way that the wind is blowing.


From the fringe to the middle class

The DSA was founded in 1982. Unemployment was high, but Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and there was little appetite for radical agendas and language. The Cold War was reaching a new height; to call a person a “socialist,” most Americans understood, was a smear. It read as a traitorous allegiance to countries with deep aversions to the US—the USSR, Vietnam, and later Venezuela. The idea that any politician could successfully run for office calling themselves a socialist was preposterous for many years—except in the tiny and unusually left-liberal state of Vermont, where Sanders was elected to congress in 1990.

American democratic socialism in general and the DSA in particular were an outgrowth of labour union politics, the feminist, civil rights and Catholic Worker movements, and it was chiefly focused on poverty. It was a focal point of protest against cuts to social programmes like welfare and Medicaid, and for the anti-apartheid movement. With Reagan conservatism dominating the scene, socialists fought for cuts to defence spending, more progressive taxation, and universal health and child care, but gained little traction. And the DSA remained as marginal as ever when—a decade on from its creation—Bill Clinton was elected as a centrist “New Democrat.”

Things only began to change after the 2008 financial crisis. The Obama administration’s bailout of the banks set in motion waves of resentment that grew over the next decade. According to Gallup, in 2006, 49 per cent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks; by 2016 that number had fallen to 27 per cent. While some Americans thought that the heads of the big banks should be punished for the chaos they had wrought, the executives were “too big to jail.” Meanwhile, 8.7m Americans lost their jobs and 10m lost their homes.

Obama made concessions to the anger on the left, like the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which is theoretically tasked with making the banks play fair with borrowers and savers (and the brainchild of liberal darling and now Senator Elizabeth Warren). But anger continued to percolate at the grassroots. Occupy Wall Street was, at heart, a protest against inequality and political corruption. In hindsight, it was an early expression of the democratic socialist wave. But back in 2011, even the Occupy Wall Streeters didn’t wear the mantle of socialism.

When Sanders ran for the presidency, he felt compelled to give a speech defending socialism’s honour—rescuing it from the Cold War bogeymen, and placing it instead in the lineage of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Social Security, the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, “were all described, in one way or another, as ‘socialist,’” in their day Sanders said, but had since become “the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class.” That Wall Street bankers had received bailouts while many Americans lost their homes wasn’t a fluke, he explained, but representative of systemic problems. Sanders’s bet, which proved shrewd, was that if understood in this way, socialism would play well to a generation of younger Americans who had come of age in the shadow of the great recession.

His message of total system breakdown resonated with younger people. In May 2016 a Gallup poll found that while only 35 per cent of Americans overall had a positive view of socialism, 55 per cent of those aged 18-29 thought well of it. The financial crisis, which began with the disintegration of the US mortgage market, destroyed the dream of home ownership for many millennials. The expectation of previous generations that financial security would eventually be on the cards seemed to younger Americans the hollow promise of a capitalist system that had betrayed them.

Changing ideas

I graduated from college eight months after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the first step of a grotesque Rube Goldberg- style machine that would topple the economy and many of our career hopes. Ten years later, my generation’s embrace of socialism little surprises me, nor does the befuddlement of family and friends just a few years older. Many of them were more settled in their lives and careers when the crash happened. The screw-the-system instinct doesn’t come as easily to them, perhaps because it wasn’t mashed into their teenage brains the way it was for so many Millennials.

But it is no longer only the young that are coming around on socialism: in 2018, Gallup found that for the first time since it had started asking the question in 2010, Democratic voters as a whole felt more positively about socialism than they did capitalism. Behind this drift are the DSA policies that have found their way into the national conversation, first through the Sanders campaign and latterly with the media-blitzed campaigns of Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon. A former Sex and the City actress, Nixon launched an unsuccesful high-profile left-wing bid backed by the DSA in the Democratic primary for New York governor, against incumbent Andrew Cuomo.

Democratic socialists have claimed as their own the idea of universal taxpayer-funded healthcare—“single payer” healthcare as it’s known in the US, or “Medicare for all” in Sanders’s phrasing. The Republican response to Obama’s incremental healthcare reforms was to make hysterical noises about the “death panels” that they like to imagine hold the ring in systems like Britain’s NHS. Yet the idea of greater government intervention in the healthcare system has caught fire of late.

A $15 (£11) minimum wage has been another popular policy of the democratic socialist set—though both Clinton and Obama favoured some increase—along with free university tuition. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory helped push into the national spotlight the left’s effort to get rid of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which oversaw the separation of children who entered into the US illegally from their parents. Some of these policies won’t sound that radical to European readers, but they represent a significant departure from the normal American political discourse.

We will soon discover what bearing—if any—the influx of radicalism has on Democratic prospects in the midterms on 6th November. But the fact that a 28-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent became the face of the DSA was notable in a year when Democrats are eager to turn out minority constituencies in an effort to take control of congress from the Republicans. Complicating the analysis will be the contrasting tacks that Democrats in different districts are adopting. Some are standing on centrist platforms that aim to recapture voters who deserted to support Trump. Depending on the region, a Democrat might even run on a pro-gun platform.

But already this year, and looking ahead to 2020, socialist ideas are in evidence. The despair of the liberal base in the face of Trump’s shocking win has meant a greater openness to bold, paradigm-shifting ideas, and a greater enthusiasm for upending the way American institutions are run. (British readers might reflect that the lesser shock of the Conservatives’ unexpected majority in 2015 was enough to persuade Labour members to throw off a whole generation of caution, and embrace Jeremy Corbyn). Further encouraging bold thinking is the reality that the Democrats are out of power, holding neither the House nor Senate nor White House, so there isn’t a need to fixate on the grinding details of policy or budgetary concerns.


Painting in primary colours

Not so long ago—the 2016 primary, in fact—the sorts of ideas now finding favour were deemed ill-conceived by the Democratic establishment. “Anytime someone tells you it’s free, read the fine print,” Clinton said of Sanders’s university tuition plan during the campaign. In her memoir of the 2016 election, What Happened, Clinton continued to complain about Sanders’s policy proposals, writing that he “didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law,” even as she conceded she had under-estimated “the galvanising power of big, simple ideas.” She maintained that “my health care and college plans were more achievable than Bernie’s,” but his “were easier to explain and understand, and that counts for a lot.” As Trump has been showing, there is power in a politics that is painted in primary colours.

Even so, a great deal of tentativeness still surrounds the term “socialist.” The Democratic Party has not, contrary to claims by Fox News, been overrun by Sandinistas. When asked whether democratic socialism was “ascendant” in her party after Ocasio-Cortez’s New York win, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said: “It’s ascendant in that district perhaps. But I don’t accept any characterisation of our party presented by the Republicans. So let me reject that right now. Our party is a big tent, our districts are very different, one from the other.”

The Democratic leadership frets that it would be too much, too soon for its base to embrace democratic socialism. The strategic worry is that at a time when Democrats are, on some measures, at their lowest ebb since 1920—they’ve lost the White House and Congress along with numerous governor’s mansions and statehouses—an association with socialism could be the final turn-off for many American voters. Some Democrats worry that the s-word could be alienating to the people you need to win a presidential election—those being everyone outside the Democratic base.

There are, however, signs of the most ambitious Democrats abandoning some of this caution. The shadow primary for the 2020 presidential election has already begun, and among the Democratic hopefuls, a distinct leftward shift is noticeable. Many of the top contenders—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Warren—signed onto a Sanders single payer bill when it was introduced in the Senate last year. It is inconceivable that it will pass through the current Republican-held Senate, but the bill’s big-name support is telling. Progressive, left, socialist—whatever you want to call the current drift of thought within the Democrats, it is discernible not only in the party’s periphery, but increasingly in its centre.

A new conventional wisdom is emerging. It sees the reason for the Democratic defeat in 2016 as being a blurred identity: Clinton is charged with having projected no message beyond standing against Trump. It didn’t help that Sanders had savaged her for taking speaking fees from Wall Street firms, painting her as the prototypical corporate establishment candidate. Democrats running in the 2018 and 2020 elections are thus projecting more vox populi into their campaigns.

Trump won by pulling some of the same levers that Sanders had during the primaries. Both talked of tearing down a corrupt system. Trump wanted to drain Washington’s “swamp” of lobbyists and corrupt -officials; for his part, Sanders argued that “we must reform a political system in America today which is not only grossly unfair but, in many respects, corrupt.”

Many Democrats running in 2018 have paid attention to how well these anti-establishment, insurgent lines have played. Many of them, whether running as democratic socialists or not, tout the fact that they don’t take funds from the big money “Super PACs,” the equivalent of shell companies in the field of political funding. Sanders made the fact that he relied on small dollar donations a centerpiece of his campaign, a way to prove he was living out his values of combatting the influence of the plutocrats.

Democrats who want to win internecine party battles—and perhaps national elections—in the age of Trump could do a lot worse than co-opt Sanders’s rhetoric about a corporatised political system. The party has been growing steadily more liberal. According to Pew Research, in 2008 41 per cent of Democrats called themselves “moderate” and 33 per cent said they were “liberal.” By 2015, the balance had flipped, with 42 per cent of Democrats calling themselves “liberal” and 38 per cent “moderate.” Hopefuls for 2020 have noticed. Gillibrand, considered a centrist Democrat when she was appointed to Clinton’s vacated New York Senate seat in 2009, this year called to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. So did Warren. Booker and Harris have embraced the idea of a federal jobs guarantee, a policy that shows up on the DSA platform.


“I am capitalist to my bones”

Nobody knows if this leftward shift will work against President Trump in 2020. Not every Democratic hopeful is taking inspiration from the Sanders strategy. Some, like Joe Biden, are banking on winning back the so-called “Obama-Trump voter,” typically imagined to be white and working class: think Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The quirks of the electoral college have made swing voters in such states all the more powerful. Biden and the coterie of Democrats in his centrist-for-2020 lane will make much of their appeal to these less liberal voters.

And while Sanders might yet make a repeat run for the presidency in 2020, none of the other major candidates are likely to wear the mantle of democratic socialist as willingly as he did. Even Warren recently insisted: “I am capitalist to my bones.” There are loud and proud democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez in New York, but the power of DSA within the Democratic universe is still principally in the realm of ideas.

What started as the American left’s inchoate cries of foul following the crisis, has steadily moved—via the agitprop antics of Occupy Wall Street, and then the more concrete structure of the Sanders campaign—into a resurgence of democratic socialist thought. For the moment, socialists remain outside the backrooms of Democratic politics. But they are now standing just outside—opening the window wider and wider to peer in, growing louder and louder with their shouts that the limits of the politically possible are changing.


Left turn: the Democrats learning to talk “socialist”

Cory Booker


Received more Wall Street funding than any other senator during the 2014 election campaign


In February 2018, Booker announced he was no longer accepting “corporate PAC contributions... Our campaign finance system is broken”

Kirsten Gillibrand


In Congress she backed a crack-down on cities that refused to enforce immigration laws


This year she called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency

Elizabeth Warren


Said “single payer” healthcare was “politically unacceptable”


In June 2017, backed it as “the next step”