American sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset spent years trying to figure out why the United States was the only industrialized country that did not create a significant socialist movement or party. It’s a complicated subject, but Lipset was able to unpack it by comparing America to its nation-state cousins, Canada and Australia. Both are parliamentary monarchies where strong unions and deferential attitudes toward authority cultivated powerful socialist movements, policies, and parties.
Traditional socialism has been a non-starter in America. In 1912, the Socialist Party of America peaked, with its Presidential candidate Eugene Debs garnering 6 percent of the popular vote. But the party faded because its leaders advocated a takeover by government of the economy, opposed entry to World War I, were pro-immigration, strictly urban, and lost out to anti-state or even anarchical unions for worker loyalties.
The country flirted again with socialism after the collapse of 1929. But what ensued was the New Deal which was a crisis management scheme that granted an activist role to the state, and was not socialism. This hybrid gave rise to social security, infrastructure projects, and eventually other interventionist programs that supported Americans or employed them. After World War II, Washington introduced more social safety net interventions such as the GI Bill, major infrastructure projects, then Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
Lipset posited that America rejected outright socialism because it was not aligned with America’s three principal tenets: equality or egalitarianism, equality of opportunity, and social equality. “Many years ago there was an American socialist intellectual named Leon Sampson, who wrote a book in which he was dealing with this question of why the socialists were weak in America,” said Lipset in a PBS interview. “And his answer, in part, was that the socialists were weak because America was socialist. Now, he didn’t mean it was socialist economically, but he meant it was socialist socially… that what socialists thought they would get in a socialist society—a society of equality—Americans already thought they had. And so, when socialists came along and said, ‘You should change your system so we can get more equality,’ they couldn’t appeal to people who thought they were living in an [egalitarian] society. . . .Again, it’s a society with obviously enormous inequality on the economic side, but not on the social side.”
In other words, fertile ground for socialism existed in societies where both social class distinctions and economic inequality existed.
But the collapse of 2008 provided the seeds and justification for another socialistic surge led by Bernie Sanders in 2016 and, ironically, exploited by Donald Trump. His guru, Steve Bannon, explained why.
“You know why the deplorables are angry?” he said. “They’re rational human beings. We took away the risk for the wealthy. Look, you have socialism in this country for the very wealthy and for the very poor. And you have a brutal form of Darwinian capitalism for everybody else. You’re one paycheck away from oblivion. Do you think the founders of this country. . . .do you think that’s what they wanted to have in the 21st century? Dude, this is #[email protected]+ed up.”
Lipset’s insights provide a nuanced roadmap for the current political climate and the lead up to the 2020 election for Democrats, notably Bernie Sanders. Clearly, President Donald Trump is going to frame the next contest as a battle between capitalism and socialism. His first salvo was on Feb. 5, during his State of the Union address, when he jarringly stated that “America will never become a socialist country. America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”
This was aimed at Sanders who, in 2016, branded himself as a “socialist”, an historically tone-deaf label in the American context. He has since softened this to “democratic socialist”, but would have been well-advised to scrap the “s” word, as have Canadians and Australians, who call their democratic socialist parties the New Democratic Party and the Australian labor Party respectfully. Rebranding, as Sanders has paid partial lip service to, is important as Trump launches the next battle of the brands.
Trump’s strategy is to frighten the Democratic Party away from Sanders by billing him as a “red”, but this will fail. The Clintons and their cronies are no longer there to sabotage Sanders. When asked whether the Democratic establishment would “put their finger on the scales again” against his nomination, Sanders responded candidly: “I think the process will be fair. Clinton had 500 super delegates lined up, it was dumb and unfair, but this has changed.”
Sanders is ahead of the pack again with a manifesto about inequality that is getting more airtime than ever. He also has an even richer target this time: Trump’s track record and tax giveaway to the richest people and corporations in the country. “This is a tax bill written and pushed by Trump, who told the American people that the tax bill would not benefit the wealthy, when 83 percent of the benefits went to the top 1 percent,” he told the Fox News audience.
Sanders hammers away with his talking points: Three American families are richer than the 160 million in the bottom half of the population; and the richest man in America, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, pays no taxes while many people work two or three jobs just to pay the bills. But it is nuanced. Rich people and capitalism are not evil, but the tax system is grossly unjust. Trade is not evil, but bad trade deals are. Immigrants are not evil, but borders must be protected.
“I am urging Congress to vote down the new NAFTA deal. I voted against the first NAFTA deal, against China trade relations and other disastrous trade agreements, passed by Democrats and Republicans written by multinational corporations. American workers should not have to compete against desperate people around the world making $2 to $3 an hour. I believe in trade policy that works for working families and not just for the large corporations,” he declared.
As for the border crisis, “we need more border security, who doesn’t agree with that? But what we need is comprehensive immigration reform,” Sanders said at a speech in Iowa. “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So, that is not my position.”
He’s also tempered his idealism with a fiscal plan. His signature policies—free post-secondary tuition, Medicare for all, and enhanced Social Security—will be paid for by diverting Trump’s tax giveaway, he says. Tuition can be paid for with a Wall Street speculation tax; Medicare will be paid for by diverting user premium and co-payments to taxes; and Social Security hikes are affordable by increasing taxes on those with incomes of $250,000 or more. “We have a way to pay for everything we propose,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Sanders has the President worried and leads the Democrats in raising money and polls against Trump. According to recent major results, Sanders would trounce the President in 2020.
Sanders is redefining a 21st–century version of “socialism” to Americans. Whether he wins or not, the country’s first left-of-center revolution is underway following an unprecedented giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, the hollowing out of America’s heartland, and entrenched poverty. “What is democratic socialism?”explains Sanders. “It’s creating a government and economy and society that works for all rather than just the top 1 percent.”