The idea of socialism is undergoing something of a revival in the United States today. In a Galllup poll last year, 57% of Democrats reported that they had a favorable view of socialism, compared to just 47% with a favorable view of capitalism. Eight years ago Democrats were split 53/53 in their preferences between the two isms. Though the question wasn’t asked, I’m sure that 40 years ago capitalism would have been favored overwhelmingly. The country’s leading socialist organization, Democratic Socialists of America, now has over 50,000 mostly youngish members, up from just 6,500 in 2012. Symptomatic of the times, The New Republic has devoted more than half of its current issue to “The Socialist Moment.”
The socialist revival undoubtedly owes much to Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. It got a further boost from the even more surprising election to Congress of the avowed socialist (and DSA member) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. From a more fundamental and long-term perspective, the socialist revival surely reflects an increasing disenchantment with actually existing capitalism, a sense on the part of many of our citizens, especially younger ones, that they aren’t getting their fair share of the benefits of an increasingly unequal society.
Dozens of DSA-endorsed candidates were elected to state and local offices around the country in 2018. Other dozens were defeated, but it looks like the Democratic Party could be acquiring a small but consistent socialist wing. You don’t have to be a socialist to see this as a positive development. American society today has reached levels of economic inequality and corporate concentration not seen since the early 20th century. Our capitalism does need drastic reform, and that will come only with the election to pubic office, especially at the national level, of Democrats who are willing to engage with socialist (or socialistic) ideas. Socialists will never dominate the Democratic Party–they’ll never come close–but more power to them!
Of course, Republicans will do their best to use socialism as a scare word: Trump has already signaled his intentions with his warning/assurance that America will never be a socialist country, as if Democrats would put us on the road to Venezuela. I don’t think Democrats need to be intimidated. They have the credible and true rejoinder that Republicans have always assailed major advances in public policy—including, notably, Social Security and Medicare—as “socialist.” I think that Republicans probably only helped the cause of socialism by constantly accusing Obama of socialist (or Marxist, or communist) tendencies.
But if socialism isn’t the scare word that it used to be, neither is it the wildly popular rallying cry that its partisans would like it to become. Another recent Gallup poll reported that only 47% of Americans said they would be willing to vote for a socialist for president. That compares to 96% who say they would willingly vote for a black, 76% for a gay, and 66% for a Muslim. Even godless atheists, at 60%, enjoy a higher approval level than socialists. These numbers, I think, should be sufficient to discourage Bernie Sanders fans. Sanders’s policy positions aren’t socialist in the old sense of advocating public ownership of the means of production. (Maybe that’s what he has in the back of his mind, but that’s not his public stance.) Sanders could advocate for the same policy agenda without calling himself a socialist, but his embrace of that label constitutes a critical political weakness. A ceiling of 47% public support is not a promising basis for a campaign for the presidency. Which brings me back to my current favorite Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren. Warren is hardly less radical than Sanders, but she shamelessly calls herself a capitalist. I think that’s the way to go.