In December 2011, a few weeks after the Occupy Wall Street movement began, the influential GOP pollster Frank Luntz spoke to the Republican Governors Association.“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort,” he said. “I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” Since then, things have gotten worse — or better, depending on which side you’re on.
More than at any time since World War I, Americans are talking about socialism. Conservatives fear it. Liberals question it. Many progressives and radicals embrace it. Why is that word, and its egalitarian vision, enjoying a resurgence in the United States? And does it mean that socialism is on the American horizon?
“We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” President Donald Trump said in his 2019 State of the Union address. “Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” In his address this year, he repeated the theme, claiming that 132 House Democrats “have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system,” and insisting that, ”We will never let socialism destroy American health care.” But there are plenty of signs indicating that Trump might be wrong on many counts, if by “socialism,” he is referring to what the Europeans call “social democracy.”
In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, captured the nation’s attention — and more than thirteen million votes — in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Two years later, voters elected democratic socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit to Congress, while dozens of their counterparts won races for city council, state legislative, school board, and other seats around the country, including six members of the Chicago City Council. Sanders remains a strong contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020, having won the party’s Iowa and Nevada caucuses and New Hampshire primary, while leading other candidates in national polls.
We are now at an important moment when socialist ideas are making a comeback. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 43% of all Americans, and 58% of those between eighteen and thirty-four, believe that socialism would be a “good thing” for the country. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — which long languished with just a few thousand members — now counts more than 60,000 people among its ranks, with over 200 chapters in red and blue states alike. Iowa has the highest density of DSA members per capita. Almost all those new members are millennials or younger, without the Cold War-era hang-ups of their Baby Boomer and Gen X parents.
Ideas that were considered radical only a few years ago, are now widely accepted by the general public and by mainstream Democrats running for office, including Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a Green New Deal, a $15 federal minimum wage, limits on the sale of military-style assault weapons, a wealth tax on the richest Americans, an end to police departments’ racist stop-and-frisk practices, and requirements that big corporations put workers and union members on their boards and provide employees with paid family leave.
Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination for president, these ideas are now baked into our political culture and won’t disappear. Indeed, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin recently penned an op-ed column in the New York Times arguing that Sanders has “already won,” because he’s moved the entire Democratic Party to the left. But winning the war of ideas will be cold comfort if Trump wins re-election.
Predictably, perhaps, President Trump and his allies are stoking fears of a new Red Menace. Some liberal and progressive Democrats worry that Trump’s red-baiting will doom Sanders’s chances to win the White House. Worse, they worry that if Sanders tops the ticket, this will make it harder for Democrats in swing states and Congressional districts to win. They are desperately trying to find a more politically palatable candidate to fly the Democratic banner. As Jonathan Chait argued in New York magazine, “Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity.” In a recent television interview, Democratic operative James Carville sputtered that Democrats would be “losing our damn minds” by nominating Sanders. Republican anti-Trumpers share Carville’s assessment. “Bernie Can’t Win,” wrote David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who has been a persistent critic of Trump. Sanders “is a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril,” wrote Max Boot in the Washington Post. Charlie Sykes, another conservative who hopes a Democrat will defeat Trump proposed, “Time for #NeverBernie?”
To make Sanders’s views more palatable to voters, some Democrats like Paul Krugman and Heather Richardson have argued that he’s not really a socialist but a European-style “social democrat.” Indeed, as Sanders constantly points out, his policy ideas are considered mainstream in many European countries. In fact, for many voters, Sanders’s identity as a democratic socialist may be less important than his policy ideas and his authenticity as a principled politician who represents a return to fairness in government.Paul Waldman of The Washington Post asked, “Is it really a risk for Democrats to nominate a socialist?” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argued in the New York Times, “Don’t Think Sanders Can Win? You Don’t Understand His Campaign.” Matthew Yglesias pointed out in Vox, “Bernie Sanders leads Donald Trump in polls, even when you remind people he’s a socialist.” Russell Berman wrote in The Atlantic about “The Night Socialism Went Mainstream,” after Sanders got the most votes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Many progressives, however, still hope that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — who calls herself a “capitalist to my bones,” but whose policy ideas are not much different from Senator Sanders’s — can resuscitate her campaign. But Sanders has also moved the needle on what it means to be a liberal. Even so-called Democratic “moderates” like Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg embrace ideas about health care, the minimum wage, climate change, and other issues that are to the left of where Barack Obama stood in 2008 and 2012.
For example, consider the recent history of the minimum wage. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama supported raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 by 2011. Pollsters at the time asked voters their views on raising the minimum wage to $9 or $10, and found widespread support, but no national poll inquired about a $15 threshold. It was too drastic an idea. In 2015, the Democrats in Congress made raising the federal wage to $10.10 a centerpiece of their mid-term election efforts. In 2016, Sanders called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15. More cautious, Hillary Clinton called for a $12 federal wage with options for states to go higher.
However, policies that have not yet succeeded at the federal level can be enacted by state and local governments. The Fight for $15 — a movement led by community groups and unions — has won victories across the country. According to the National Employment Law Project, twenty-four states and forty-eight cities and counties will raise their minimum wages sometime in 2020. In thirty-two of those jurisdictions, it will reach or surpass $15 per hour. Activists have also pressured McDonald’s, Walmart, Disney, Bank of America, and other large employers into raising their pay scales. The federal wage remains at $7.25, but a Pew survey conducted in April and May 2019 found that 67% of Americans — including 86% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans — now support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Democratic candidates have followed suit across the board. “There’s no question about it,” Senator Klobuchar recently tweeted, “the federal minimum wage must be increased to $15 an hour.” Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who opposed New York’s “living wage” law) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg also embrace a $15 federal minimum wage with an annual inflation adjustment. Does that make them progressives or moderates? It makes them politicians, tuned in to shifting public opinion, galvanized by grassroots movements. This has always been a dilemma for American radicals and socialists: marginalized by the political establishment, their ideas have pushed liberalism to evolve over time at the potential cost of co-optation.
Throughout the twentieth century, American socialists led movements for women’s suffrage, civil rights, union rights, health care, and labor and consumer protection laws. Some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers embraced socialism, including John Dewey, Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Francis Bellamy (who wrote “The Pledge of Allegiance”), poet Katherine Lee Bates (who penned “American the Beautiful”), W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Frances Perkins, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gloria Steinem. Socialist ideals are embodied in the 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party, Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial platform to “End Poverty in California,” the 1948 Progressive Party platform of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign, and the Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Huron Statement.” Much of what liberals stand for today had its origins in these fundamentally socialist documents.
These activists didn’t always achieve their radical goals, but they helped pass incremental reforms that made America more humane and inclusive. Many of their ideas which were widely considered radical in their day are now commonly accepted as uncontroversial or even unassailable, including the progressive income tax, social security, the eight-hour workday, the direct election of senators, and voting rights for women and African Americans. Eventually, many aspects of socialist platforms were adopted by one of the two major parties, in more moderate versions. Is that a failure or a victory?
It is both, and we can draw an enduring lesson from these struggles. When there’s enough political pressure, the reactionary conservative wing of the establishment tries to beat back progressive movements with repression. Meanwhile, the moderates and liberals within the political establishment use the fear of disorder and radicalism to push through modest versions of the reforms radicals have demanded, in the hopes that this will knock the wind out of the sails of the movement. However, if the movement views these as steppingstones to further reform, then it is not simply co-optation but rather a way to build on victories.
After voters in Milwaukee elected socialists to run the city in 1910, it became the first municipality in the country to adopt a local minimum wage. Beginning with Massachusetts in 1912, a growing number of states followed suit, led by socialist reformer and feminist Florence Kelley. During the Depression, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, a one-time socialist, persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to support a federal minimum wage law. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage of twenty-five cents an hour.
Milwaukee’s Representative Victor Berger, the first socialist member of Congress, sponsored the first bill to create “old age pensions” in 1911. The bill didn’t get very far at the time, but in 1935, President Roosevelt persuaded Congress to enact Social Security during the depths of the Depression. Critics denounced the program as “un-American” and “socialistic,” but today, even Americans who call themselves conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly support Social Security. What had once seemed radical has become common sense.
When friends of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s candidate for president in 1932, expressed delight that FDR was carrying out some of the Socialist platform, Thomas responded that it was being carried out “on a stretcher.” Like Thomas, many radicals — including Sanders’s most ardent followers — view such “co-optation” as failure. However, the success of every radical movement in American history has depended on its “co-optation” by the forces of reform, especially when those victories become steppingstones to further structural reforms. Many radicals and progressives were skeptical about the Affordable Care Act, viewing it as a sellout to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, but it was an important step toward a more progressive health care policy. Every Democratic candidate for president now says that we should build on the ACA. For some, this means adding a public option and reducing drug prices; for others, it means Medicare for All.
The time is ripe for a socialist revival. The Great Recession that began in 2008, with its widespread layoffs and foreclosures, convinced many Americans that our economic system is broken. Now America seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country we want to be. Americans are seeking accountability for the political establishment. They are frustrated by widening inequality, stagnating wages, mounting personal debt, resurgent racism, and the environmental crisis. As a 2020 Pew Research poll shows, they feel powerless and are fed up with the economic and political status quo. Americans have tried Trumpism, and most don’t like it. Nor are many American longing for another version of wishy-washy centrism.
As in the past, ideas once considered radical have become increasingly mainstream. Most Americans don’t consider themselves socialists, but they want to take back the country from corporate titans and their political allies. According to the Pew survey, 82% of Americans, including 91% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans, believe that “big corporations have too much power in our economy.” They want to rein in the power of health insurance companies and banks, the survey discovered. A vast majority (70%) think that “our economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.”
Polls reveal that most Americans think that the government should establish rules requiring corporations to act responsibly towards employees, consumers, and the environment. Banks shouldn’t engage in the kinds of reckless predatory lending that led to the devastating recession. Energy corporations shouldn’t endanger our planet and public health by emitting so much pollution. Companies should make consumer products that are safe. Corporations should pay decent wages, provide safe workplaces, and provide paid leave and vacation time. Drug companies shouldn’t be allowed to charge for prescription medicines more than what people can afford. Housing should be a human right, and all Americans, regardless of income, should have a safe and affordable roof over their heads.
Similarly, the once-radical idea of a wealth tax has gained wide support since Sanders and Warren proposed it as part of their presidential platforms. The majority of all Americans — including 77% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans — approve of a 2% tax on households with a net worth over $50 million.
Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders believe that there’s much we can learn from the Scandinavian countries — societies with more equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider safety net. Despite common claims that socialist protection are anti-business, Forbes ranked Sweden as the second-best country for business, while Holland ranked fourth, Denmark seventh, Finland thirteenth, and Norway fifteenth. The United States — the world’s most hyper-capitalist nation — ranked seventeenth. Even Pete Buttigieg, at the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas, touted Denmark as a more livable society than the United States.
“Socialism is coming all the time,” Victor Berger liked to say, predicting that, “It may be another century or two before it is fully established.” He believed in “step-at-a-time” socialism. A century later, that could be what’s happening now. The past decade saw more grassroots activism than at any time since the Great Depression. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, #MeToo, the Fight for $15, Indivisible, tenants rights movements, campaigns against fossil fuels, and other progressive movements defined the 2010s, and they will shape the future. They’ve all been led by people under forty. Within a generation, they might turn this troubled plutocracy into a social — perhaps even a socialist — democracy.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style, published this month by The New Press.