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Democratic socialism derangement syndrome? Why hysteria about the rise of the progressive left misses the mark

Election pearl-clutching is often related to fears that socialism endangers the wealth and power of America's elites.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a campaign stop for Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed in Detroit, on July 28, 2018.Paul Sancya / AP file

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory in New York earlier this summer, pundits warned of a socialist takeover. The front page of the New York Post put the city on “Red Alert,” cheekily depicting the likely incoming congresswoman in bright red lipstick.

Following the primary elections on August 7 — where leftist challengers Abdul El-Sayed and Kaniela Ing lost their bids — just as many outlets declared socialism dead on arrival. Then on August 14, a string of progressive insurgents — including Ilhan Omar, Jahana Hayes, Randy Bryce and Christine Hallquist — clinched victories, leading to a new round of media takes announcing the “resurgence” of left politics.

The reality is the progressive left hasn't gone anywhere. Indeed, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been ticking upward since long before all these elections, exploding by 800 percent since 2015. According to DSA’s national office, the group now counts nearly 50,000 members in all 50 states — most of them millennials. And as our September cover story at In These Times magazine explains, they don’t look to be going away anytime soon.

More than a few pearls have been clutched as a result. Former FBI director James Comey warns Democrats not to “lose your minds and rush to the socialist left.” A recent story at Vox argues Americans aren’t “ready for the bill” posed by democratic socialist policies. At the New York Times, Bret Stephens says embracing democratic socialism is “Dem Doom.” And at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf says it actually “threatens minorities.”

This hysteria reveals a fundamental misunderstanding among media pundits and political elites about why the DSA is experiencing such explosive growth. Whether suggesting democratic socialism is just for white men, that its policies are too radical for most Americans, that it will bankrupt the country, that it’s a dangerous foreign concept, or that it will spell disaster for the Democratic Party, these critics consistently seem to miss the mark. In reality, such claims often betray the fact that the rise of socialism materially endangers their current positions of both wealth and power.

Having lived through the worst financial crisis in a generation and a pitiless job market while facing mounting student debt and the looming threat of climate havoc, millennials — on the cusp of becoming the country’s largest bloc of eligible voters — have grown disillusioned with capitalism and, according to a 2016 YouGov survey, now view socialism more favorably.

This hunger for a more egalitarian political system is translating into support for a constellation of left-wing ideas, real electoral gains and the rapid growth of the DSA as a vehicle advancing these policies and candidates.

For our In These Times story, we talked to dozens of DSA organizers who explain that the group’s commitment to grassroots organizing is key to its rise. Many of these organizers are people of color avidly fighting for democratic socialism — including policies like ending cash bail and abolishing ICE. They also know that the redistribution of wealth is key to advancing racial justice, as inequality falls largely along racial lines.

Americans overall think redistributing wealth is a pretty good idea. According to a 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll, over 75 percent of adults believe the rich should pay more in taxes. An Economist/YouGov poll taken the same year concluded Medicare for All, a cornerstone of the renewed socialist movement, is supported by 60 percent of Americans. Making college tuition free is supported by 63 percent of registered voters, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, while Civis Analytics found that 52 percent of respondents backed a federal jobs guarantee. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour? A Pew poll shows 52 percent are behind it. And when it comes to getting corporate money out of politics, an Ipsos poll finds 57 percent of Americans are on board.

Image: Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,  and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together after a rally on July 20, 2018, in Wichita, KansasJaime Green / The Wichita Eagle via AP

And though opponents harp on about the costs of implementing such social programs, the United States actually has more than enough wealth to invest in them — that it’s not already doing so is a matter of misplaced priorities.

Congress recently passed a massive $717 billion defense bill to fund ongoing wars, and with last year’s tax plan, Republicans spent $1.5 trillion to allow corporations and the super rich to hoard more money. At the same time, even a study funded by the right-wing Koch brothers finds that Medicare for All could save Americans $2 trillion over our current system.

Some media analysts have even attempted to disparage DSA by linking it to authoritarian regimes. But ultimately, no amount of red-baiting can change the fact that socialism is a proud — if forgotten — American tradition. From the founding of Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America at the turn of the 20th century, to the “sewer socialists” who governed Milwaukee for nearly 60 years, to democratic socialist civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., and now members of Congress like Bernie Sanders, socialism has been a running thread throughout American history.

And if socialists are bleeding into today’s Democratic Party, as some pundits have warned, it’s for the party’s own good. Democrats’ top brass can’t claim that the tepid centrist agenda they’re pushing is pragmatic when it’s really resulted in the near-decimation of the party. Over the course of the Obama administration, Democrats lost over 1,000 seats up and down the ballot.

Unsurprisingly, more and more Democrats are starting to get on board with democratic socialism: A new Gallup poll shows Democrats now view socialism more positively than capitalism — for the first time in the poll’s history.

The DSA is advancing a political alternative that makes sense even without studying Karl Marx. What if no one had to choose between going into massive debt and getting life-saving medical care, or an education? What if instead of stringing together rent with two or three jobs you could work one that put food on the table, with plenty of time left to spend with friends and family? What if your housing wasn’t determined by the market, but guaranteed as a right?

These aren’t radical visions — in fact, they’re the norm in countries around the world. Democrats simply haven’t been ambitious enough to put them on the table.

Luckily, a new crop of insurgent candidates is.

On August 7, DSA member Rashida Tlaib won her Michigan Congressional primary running on a federal jobs guarantee, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Another democratic socialist, 30-year-old Sarah Smith, moved on to the general election for Washington’s 9th Congressional District. They join other recently nominated and elected democratic socialists such as Summer Lee in Pittsburgh, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in Chicago and Lee Carter in Virginia. Altogether, there are now nearly 50 DSA-endorsed politicians nominated or elected to office across the country.

Democratic socialism offers a world to work toward that looks a hell of a lot better than the one we’ve been handed — and a moral roadmap for how to get there.

Establishment politicians and media elites are hostile to socialism because it threatens their interests — and because they don’t understand our current political moment. But socialism is in the spotlight precisely because there’s a growing movement behind it. While anger toward capitalism is nothing new, the DSA has found a way to mobilize that outrage into organizing — and winning elections.

Democratic socialism offers a world to work toward that looks a hell of a lot better than the one we’ve been handed — and a moral roadmap for how to get there. We can expect a lot more Americans to get on board.

Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based writer covering climate and American politics, and a regular contributor to In These Times. She is the co-editor, with Michael Kazin and Peter Dreier, of a forthcoming anthology about democratic socialism in the United States.

Miles Kampf-Lassin is a web editor at In These Times and member of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Alternet and the Chicago Reader.