Democratic Socialism in America

On November 6, 2018, the USA will vote in the mid-term elections. All 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and a third of the 100 seats in the United States Senate will be contested. Also, 39 state and territorial governorships as well as numerous other state and local elections will be contested. Kalevi Sorsa Foundation invited Oxford scholar Samuel Miller McDonald to analyze the underlying currents in the US political scene, especially the rise of democratic socialism.


The rise of the left?

Rising inequality, increased wealth concentration, and declining living standards have caused turmoil in the American political scene. Voters are searching for solutions from the far left and far right. Three major factors—entrenched power, the alignment of the political center and center-left, and climate change—are likely to determine whether American socialism or American fascism will win out. The 2018 mid-term elections and their preceding primaries could indicate which way the tide is turning.

In the United States, grassroots leftist groups like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have seen a rapid increase in membership. The nation’s largest socialist group, DSA’s dues paying member numbers have risen from around 6,500 in 2012 to more than 50,000 today. Membership surged after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (independent) rose to national attention during the 2016 presidential primary and grew again with the election of Donald Trump. Another major spike came with the decisive victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a contentious primary election in New York City. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are self-described democratic socialists with ambitious progressive policies at the heart of their platforms and a robust grassroots network supporting them. A recent Gallup poll found that 47% of Democrats view capitalism positively, down from 56% in 2016, while, 57% of Democrats now view socialism positively, little changed from 2010.

While union membership remains at an all-time low, the number of unionized employees rose in 2017 and labor issues have begun to gain a more central place in public discourse. New leftist magazines, like Current Affairs and Jacobin, are popping up, while older ones like In These Times are seeing circulation numbers increase. Leftist shows like The Young Turks and Redacted Tonight, and online communities on Twitter and Reddit, are finding enthusiastic new fans.

On the electoral front, democratic socialist candidates are challenging establishment Democrats in primaries across the country. In this election season, at least 48 democratic socialists have won their primaries. Vox reports an unprecedented number of self-identified progressive candidates are running for office: ”280 nonincumbents in House primaries in the 31 states that have held primaries so far, up from a mere 60 in 2014.” Challenges from left-leaning candidates and work by leftist activists have helped push the Democratic party as a whole toward more progressive platforms.

The underlying reasons

The main reason for this rise in socialism is clear. Many Americans are dissatisfied with the nation’s politics and economy. The United States’ federal government and economy are increasingly oligarchic. As Gilens and Page found in their landmark study, when elite interests clash with popular interests, elites usually win. This is the definition of an oligarchic government: one that rules in the interest of a small minority of wealthy and powerful individuals to the exclusion of the interests of the majority. On the economic front virtually every industry has consolidated, such that between two and four companies control a majority of market share of all major industries, including airline, automotive, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, beverage, personal computing, and aluminum and steel. Six companies control 90% of media in the US.

As a result of these developments, Americans are poorer, die younger, are less healthy, lonelier, have seen a startling slide in life expectancy, enjoy less security and stability, and fear a more precarious future. Wages have stagnated for most Americans. Debt in all areas has increased. Student debt accounts for 828% more household debt than it did in 1999, which saddles an entire generation with dramatically lower capital and purchasing power, on top of already stagnant wages and fewer well-paid jobs.

In the political sphere Americans have watched the government grow ever more collusive with large corporate and wealthy interests, acting on behalf of elite donors while voter suppression efforts are increasing. With examples of rampant conflicts of interest in the president’s administration, with Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United vs FEC allowing virtually unlimited political spending, and with elections dominated by “super PACs,[i]” corruption is out in the open.

The environment, after enjoying some notable improvement in the 1970s, has begun to collapse in several vital areas, with natural resource stocks depleting, air quality declining and causing chronic health problems, wild spaces contracting, and climate disruption destabilizing every region of the country.

Jobs are worse. A low unemployment rate conceals the true disaster that is the US labor market, as virtually all of the jobs added under Obama’s administration were temporary or part-time, making them inherently more precarious than the jobs they replaced. Managers are increasingly draconian, with new technologies like Amazon’s infamous arm tracking bands threatening to flood the job market and conditions of abuse have been documented. Healthcare has become less accessible for many as job hours have been widely cut to part-time allowing employers to avoid providing care. High employment is only a good thing if the jobs are good. Finally, Americans suffer in an epidemic of loneliness, with interpersonal alienation exacerbating other social and political challenges now facing the country.

Discontent arising from these conditions has manifested on the fringes of the political spectrum. The Tea Party and, more recently, a smattering of white nationalist groups represent the populist wing of the right, while DSA, Justice Democrats, and other groups represent the populist left. They have responded to these crises in very different ways, blaming different antagonists, and advocating for diametrically opposed policies. Whereas the left has focused most of its ire on the wealthy, the right has turned its fury against the poor and immigrants. Populist right-wing groups have seen more success in infiltrating the establishment Republican Party, at least partly because party elites have found them to be as amenable to sustaining oligarchic conditions as the mainstream. Leftist populists, meanwhile, have found more resistance from the establishment wing of their party and more hostility from mainstream media commentators, finding difficulty in breaking through established gatekeepers. An explicit example of this was demonstrated in the 2016 primary elections in which the Republicans’ populist candidate won the primary while the Democrats’ populist candidate was routed.

What history can teach us

This is not the first time the US has been notably unequal. The soil that allows an oligarchic government and oligopolistic market to flourish is economic inequality: that is, extreme wealth concentration. The conditions of oligarchy and extreme economic inequality feedback on one another. The last time inequality was as astronomic as it is now was just before the Great Depression. From around the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, Americans responded to inequality with an array of redistributive, progressive policies. The Progressive Era was the first major response to American oligarchy. Lasting from about 1890 to 1920, the political movements of this era ushered in the nation’s first income tax, aggressive antitrust laws, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, the precursor to the FDA, elections for Senators, and created the National Park system.

It did not entirely dislodge the laissez-faire economic paradigm that ruled, nor alone succeed in building a more democratic government. But with the onset of the Great Depression and collapse of the financial system, classical economics was thoroughly debunked and replaced with a new social democratic paradigm most famously associated with the work of John Maynard Keynes. During this period, the era of the New Deal and subsequent policies saw workers’ rights expand, the creation of the modern work week, saw the passage of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, high progressive income taxes and the nation’s most important environmental laws, and the foundations of the modern welfare state, like Social Security and Medicare. These policies forged the country’s middle class. It is the erosion of this class, the hoarding of once-broadly distributed wealth into a few moguls’ hands, that has fueled the discontent on both left and right.

The concentration of wealth of the early- to mid-20th century led to global economic collapses and world wars. Nations responded in different ways to these economic and political crises. Germany responded to the global economic crisis with fascism. Italy did the same. The US responded with social democracy. Today, there is no guarantee that the US will again respond with leftist policies. There are plenty of reasons to believe that, in this populist battle, the fascism of the right could triumph.

Three factors determining the future

There are three major factors that will determine whether American fascism or American socialism will win out. First is the entrenched power. Republicans and establishment Democrats have built a political infrastructure that is very difficult for leftist insurgents to infiltrate. So far, American fascists have found navigating this infrastructure far easier, with a larger array of mainstream media outlets supporting their messages and with more electoral victories among their insurgents (Donald Trump being the prime example).

Republicans have gerrymandered voting districts, disenfranchised minority and other traditionally Democratic voters, packed courts, and captured state legislatures, making it difficult for Democrats to win elections. Money still significantly influences elections and the very wealthy are legally capable of infusing campaigns with billions of dollars. The right is richer than the left in part because it advocates for the interests of the rich most ruthlessly. The mainstream media, meanwhile, is owned by a handful of very wealthy individuals sympathetic to status quo, right-leaning ideology, as is the extensive and well-funded alternative right-wing media. Republicans have grown increasingly comfortable using force and fiat to impose their platforms, with flagrant disregard for the rule of law, as recent Supreme Court hearings attest. When a nominee can commit several counts of potential perjury during a Senate hearing and face no legal repercussions but instead achieve confirmation, the rule of law cannot be said to apply. Whether socialists will be able to overcome these institutional barriers is uncertain. The 2018 midterm elections provide one test.

The second factor determining the success of democratic socialism is how centrists, center-left pundits, and establishment Democrat politicians decide to interact with it. In prewar Germany, centrists eventually sided with fascists and aided in the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, ultimately casting the decisive votes in granting him autocratic powers. There is no guarantee American centrists or center-left elites will choose the left over the right. In fact, with the way many have responded to challengers like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, there is good reason to believe the center-left will continue moving to the right.

This election season

The midterm primaries, too, have provided a significant test for left-leaning candidates. Their success in challenging establishment incumbents has been mixed, leaving open the question of whether they can shift Democratic politics in the long-term. Ocasio-Cortez won her primary against an establishment candidate in New York’s 14th congressional district; Cynthia Nixon lost her primary in the New York gubernatorial election, as did Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary election. So far, self-identified progressive candidates are winning primaries slightly less frequently than establishment candidates, but are also running up against inertia, institutional biases, and generally less experience. There’s good reason to believe their success rates will increase with time as those obstacles erode.

While Ocasio-Cortez’s general election may not be a strong indicator of whether democratic socialists can expand their electoral power, other elections may. Florida’s gubernatorial election is one race to watch, as is Zak Ringelstein in Maine running for US Senate. A dues-paying member of DSA, Ringelstein won his primary but will face a Republican in November, as well as the Independent incumbent, with as-yet uncertain prospects for victory. Democratic socialist Rashida Tlaib of Michigan also won her primary. She is running for a US House seat and, if she wins, she’ll not only add another socialist to Congress but will be the first Muslim woman to serve in that role. Bernie Sanders’s “Our Revolution” PAC has also endorsed a slew of candidates running throughout the country. The leaders of the Democratic Party will either need to be replaced or decide to fully accept a more progressive agenda if the far left is to gain substantial formal power.

Changes in (political) climate

The third and most unpredictable factor in whether socialism can continue its ascendance is climate disruption. Whether Americans will respond to increasing climate emergencies by turning left or right remains an open question. There is already evidence that, around the world, the impacts of climate change are fueling the rise of fascist leaders. In Italy, climate-driven migration has helped stoke xenophobic attacks against immigrants, which has been supported by the Northern League, Italy’s fascist party.

The response to refugees in Germany and Scandinavia has been similarly tinged with an ethnofascist bent, with Germany seeing the first far-right party in over half a century entering parliament and far-right parties across the Nordics gaining power. Under the regime currently ruling the US federal government, refugees arriving in the US are being put into concentration camps along the southwest border and the president frequently uses language popular among ethnonationalist groups, recently referring to himself as “a nationalist.” The number of people fleeing climate emergencies will inevitably increase, with some estimates putting the number of displaced people at 1 billion by mid-century.

The number of people within the US being displaced will reach the tens of millions, with one study suggesting sea level rise alone could displace 13 million Americans this century. That’s two and half times the population of Finland, and only accounts for one climate-related impact. It does not consider drought and desertification, increasing temperatures that will make large swaths of the country uninhabitable, snowpack loss, increasingly intense hurricanes and wildfires, and other impacts that will inevitably displace many millions more.

As more people move, and as extreme weather events continue to destroy infrastructure and destabilize social and political orders, Americans will have to decide how they will respond to these cataclysms. Will they respond by putting children in cages, closing borders, accelerating ecological collapse, and handing power to wealthy dictators? Will they respond by spreading wealth broadly to make more people more resilient to disaster, rebuild an affluent middle-class capable of bringing people in from the storm, opening borders to other people seeking refuge, and by doing everything possible to stem further climate collapse? That remains an open question. How Americans answer that question will, to a great extent, determine whether democratic socialism becomes a passing trend or an enduring future.


Samuel Miller McDonald

Born and raised in Northern Michigan, Samuel Miller McDonald is a writer and doctoral candidate in political geography and energy transition at University of Oxford. His writing can be found here. His tweets here.


[i] Political action committee (PAC) is an organization that pools campaign contributions from members and donates those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. So called Super PACs (officially ”independent-expenditure only committees”) may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, where spending has limits, but SuperPACs can engage in unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns. Unlike traditional PACs, they can raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size.


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