It started with the near collapse of the economy in 2008-09 when millions lost their homes and jobs and started questioning the status quo. Discussion about it picked up again with the Occupy Wall Street movement as young people realised the future they faced — low-wage jobs, endless student debt — was anything but bright. Then, it emerged more fully into the open with the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016. Now, as it looks like the independent senator might actually win the Democratic nomination, it’s a topic that everyone seems to be talking about: Socialism.
These last few years, the United States has been living through what’s been described as a “socialist moment.” In the post-Cold War days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when global capitalism reigned triumphant, the idea socialism seemed all but dead. But the self-declared “democratic socialist” from Vermont — along with hundreds of other progressive lawmakers, grassroots candidates, and movements across the country — has changed all that.
Big reforms like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and student loan cancellation are presented as part of a “democratic socialist” agenda. They’ve become the ideas shaping the 2020 election. And a lot of people like what they hear. Millions are giving consideration to the idea of socialism, which for decades seemed a relic of the past, a political dead-end.
For many, of course, it’s still a no-go; not everyone is excited about the socialist moment. The Wall Street think tank crowd speculates Sanders and socialism will kill the Democratic Party. News reporters at corporate-owned outlets face suspension from their jobs if they admit to having socialist leanings. Right-wing propaganda raises the specter of communism and constantly slaps Soviet-style imagery on Sanders. And of course, President Trump and his boosters have resurrected the boogeyman of radicalism, attempting to attach the socialist label on anyone who opposes them.
Despite all the panic and dire warnings, however, one recent poll found that 76% of Democratic Party voters would be willing to cast a ballot for a socialist for president. Throw in Republicans and independents and you still get 45% who say they’re not bothered by the socialist label. Whether or not Sanders wins the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency, a lot of the policy ideas his campaign has pushed are here to stay. That’s no surprise, really, as most of them — like health care for all and fighting climate change — were around long before he ran for president.
But will Americans’ curiosity about the concept of socialism outlive this “socialist moment”?
Bill Bailey, a longshoreman from New Jersey who went to Spain to fight fascists in the 1930s, once said, “The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing people who don’t know the difference between communism and rheumatism.” Mass perceptions of socialism in the US today might not be quite that confused, but they’re probably not far off.
The stereotype used to be that socialism simply equated to government ownership of everything. In the eyes of many recent converts to the “democratic socialist” cause and among its detractors today, socialism is often described, essentially, as just bigger government. Big government health care. Big government bank regulation. Big government carbon pricing. Big government gun control. When asked to define his vision of socialism, for instance, Sanders himself often pivots to the social democratic societies of northern Europe, where high taxes and extensive regulation are the norm.
It is undoubtedly true that in the fight against corporate domination of US politics and the economy and politics, the “public” in public health care or public education will mean more government intervention. But intervention of what kind? And a government of what type? It was “government”, after all, which brought us school privatisation, corporate welfare subsidies, tax cuts for the super wealthy, unregulated subprime mortgage markets, voter suppression, and more. All these were the results of government that catered to business interests.
If our national interest in socialism is to survive and thrive, then socialism has to mean more than big government. It has to address the question of what government should look like, who will control it, and how widely power is shared. It has to be about the democratisation of power and the end of big money’s control over policy decisions.
But it also has to be about more than just government. The socialist moment presents the opportunity to deepen the discussion about what socialism in the US could be. Sanders brought us the slogan of the “political revolution,” but what about the economic and social revolution?
The notion of socialism as popular, working class participation and power has not been prominent enough in conversations on the topic these last few years. Can our neighborhoods, schools, police departments, and workplaces be more democratically run? What if more of us, together, decided the direction of our towns, states, and country — and not just every few years at election time, but all the time?
What if workers had not only a say but the controlling say in the way companies operate? What if more services and goods — from housing to hospitals — were centered on the needs of the many instead of the profits of the few?
These are questions that all go beyond the 2020 elections, but they are things worth thinking about now. The immediate task, of course, remains the defeat of Trump, because the outcome of this year’s vote will determine just how much future battles will be fought from a defensive position.
It will take a huge movement to defeat Trump, a movement spanning the left and the center. That movement can’t just fold up and go home if Trump is beaten in November, though. Trump might be a manifestation of all that’s wrong with the system, but he’s only one aspect of it. The scare tactics of “liberal” billionaires who try to convince us that only another rich man can beat the rich man in the White House is the other side of the corporate class’s response to the Sanders surge and America’s socialist moment.
That’s why socialism can’t just be about winning this or that election. It has to be about building and sustaining a broad democratic movement that can fight for change in all areas of US life long after Trump and Sanders are both gone from the political scene. While we’re doing door-knocking and talking with co-workers, friends, and family from now to November and after, these are things we can be discussing.
Don’t let the (socialist) moment pass us by.
The writer is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.