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Could socialism be in the cards for the United States? Recall Senator John Edwards’s joke from 2008, “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” 

Socialism has become more familiar to Americans, thanks to the politician who has done more than anyone to render obsolete its traditional meaning. That would be Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Sanders has always insisted on identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Until quite recently he was the only one in Congress. But between 2018 and 2020, he was joined by four representatives—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Cori Bush (MO-1), and Jamaal Bowman (NY-16)—all identified with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) but elected as Democrats.

Because Republicans are prone to stigmatize almost any Democratic program or politician as socialist, it can sometimes be easy to forget that this small but vocal minority embraces that description. Yet these representatives—collectively known as “The Squad”—also downplay distinctions between their own program and historically liberal Democratic policies. In a June 2019 speech at George Washington University, Sanders portrayed socialism as a mirror of past policies: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

The message? Socialism is familiar. Your grandfather voted for it.

Although Sanders speaks frequently about wealth inequality, missing from his model is any talk of socialism’s history, such as “nationalizing the means of production,” a traditional centerpiece for any socialist program. Sanders praises European social democracies, especially Scandinavian ones, but rules out Soviet economic models. 

Instead, Sanders and his allies place socialism in the American political tradition. As Ocasio-Cortez explained in a 2021 interview, before she identified as a socialist she had “given up” on electoral politics: DSA’s “translation [of conversation] to action” showed her that it could matter to run for office. For Cori Bush, socialism defied the reality that “if you are a big donor, if you are a big corporation, then you have a seat and everyone else is not as important.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Bush underline that the growing popularity of Sanders-style socialism is concentrated among the young. The average age of a DSA member is now 33, in contrast to an American electorate that is aging and more moderate. 

Socialism also speaks to a younger generation’s economic precarity in a way that orthodox Democratic party policies do not. For decades, their economic prospects have been radically different from those that favored the baby boom generation. Most prominently, the price of a ticket to the professions enabled by a college education, and then perhaps graduate school, has risen precipitously, resulting in a student loan burden that now surpasses what Americans owe on their credit cards. Black Americans owe almost twice as much as their white counterparts.

This debt burden alters young people’s lives in ways that are less familiar to older Democrats. It forces them to delay having children. It delays home ownership, still the most feasible way to establish economic security and build wealth. A second way of creating economic security was the employer-sponsored pension, but those are disappearing too: only 37 percent of American workers participate in such a plan. The forecasts of doom for Social Security and Medicare, largely spurious, also instill uncertainty about the future.

The burden of student loan debt (unlike other debt, still collectable after bankruptcy or death) is also exacerbated by the long-standing stagnation of wages.  But the crisis can also be existential for some. For Black and brown people, economic precarity is accompanied by a heightened awareness of mortal danger from law enforcement and an almost universal access to firearms. And then, there is the prospect of the planet becoming unlivable in the not-so-distant future.

Ironically, the politician most sensitive to the younger generation’s plight has been elder baby boomer Bernie Sanders. He may not have understood the U.S. electorate writ large, and he certainly failed to win over older African American voters, but he understood the young. Sanders’s two presidential campaigns inspired a new generation of socialists to enter mainstream politics—not just “The Squad” but also socialists who competed and won in local elections.

This brings us back to DSA, and its current problematic relationship to socialist politicians and their voters. The tens of thousands who attended Sanders’s rallies in 2016 and 2020 had to have fueled a parallel surge in the growth of DSA from a tiny group in the 1980s to one that boasts over 90,000 members today. By virtue of its name and founding auspices, DSA owns the valuable “democratic socialist” brand that has blossomed under Sanders and his allies.

Yet although DSA members are enthusiastic campaign volunteers and even candidates, DSA regards the Democratic Party with suspicion. Notably, of course, their most prominent successes—the Squad—have all run as Democrats. Sanders is an Independent, but a Democrat in all but name. He has collaborated at the highest Congressional levels with the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and campaigned energetically for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. 

By contrast, DSA leaders are preoccupied with how the Left ought to leave the Democratic Party.

In other words, DSA has drifted away from its own most likely constituency—the young, who need action and forms of relief that only Congress, in its messy, compromising way, can deliver. By contrast, DSA’s notion of politics is to determine the correct progressive objective, such as Medicare for All, or the $15 minimum wage, and denounce all intermediate steps to those goals as rotten, sell-out compromises. If, for example, you settle for an expansion of Medicare to include dental and vision benefits, as Sanders advocated in the “Build Back Better” legislation, you are unworthy of socialist support. 

These differences occasionally erupt in serious, internal breaches. The current such imbroglio, although not the first, is over Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s break from DSA’s position on Israel. Bowman is a bona fide DSA member who, upon his electoral victory, aligned himself with The Squad. Allied with the liberal Zionist “J Street” organization, Bowman replaced Rep. Eliot Engel, one of Israel’s staunchest Democratic defenders in Congress. He is also one of the hardy few in Congress who criticizes Israeli policies. 

Bowman, however, strayed from DSA’s position on Israel. He met with right-wing Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett and voted for U.S. government funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome,” which defends the country from rocket attacks. (AOC voted “present” instead of no.) 

As a result, resolutions were proposed in several DSA chapters to expel Bowman from the organization. After due consideration, DSA’s National Political Committee issued a statement opposing any move to censure or expel Bowman. Other voices in DSA were more forthright in rejecting the idea, including its “North Star Caucus.” (I am a member of, but do not speak for, the caucus.)

Bowman was not, in the end, expelled. But this attempt to impose collective ideological discipline was inconsistent with Bowman’s role as a member of Congress who represents the voters in his district, not DSA. Imposing a specific program is also inconsistent with DSA’s heterogeneous activities, which span a variety of local projects, only one of which is campaigning for politicians like Bowman. No member is compelled to do anything of which he or she disapproves. A local chapter may decide that any DSA–approved cause should be its focus.

In this respect, the “Big Tent” founding ethos of DSA survives.

Is a narrow group steering DSA into such sectarian positions? I think not. 

Organizational policies are still decided democratically, by sometimes painstaking procedure. In my view, DSA policies remain an organic reflection of the radical dissent tradition, and of small “d” democratic politics. 

But this situation also indicates the strengths and weaknesses of DSA as a political body functioning in a democracy. On the one hand, DSA encourages a variety of decentralized activities, in keeping with its attentiveness to diverse, local interests. There is an outlet for any passion that might motivate a recruit. 

On the other hand, the decentralization precludes any unified national campaign that might be at odds with the preferences of any faction within DSA. Most important, its ideological litmus tests tend to isolate the organization from the efforts of Sanders and his allies.

Insofar as socialism may be thriving in the United States, it is not obvious that the credit will go to DSA. 

Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer living in the wilds of Virginia. He has worked at the Government Accountability Office and the Economic Policy Institute.