The slow rise of social democracy in the US

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization.”

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Until Bernie Sanders ran during the Democratic primaries in 2016, the progressive left in the United States was effectively on the fringes of U.S. politics, as it had been for decades. Rather than offering new ideas to deal with rising inequality, the party’s donor-centric strategy has been a mixture of neo-liberal identity politics and incrementalism at best, with voters told to pull the lever for the lesser of two evils in election after election to avoid Republican dominance.

Despite Sanders’ loss to an establishment candidate after what many of his supporters viewed as a corrupted primary process, and despite calls for voters to line up behind corporatist Democrats, Republicans took even more power in 2016 and now control both houses of the U.S. Congress, the presidency and 33 state houses. For almost two years, these politicians have used these offices to reward their funders through tax cuts that clearly favor the wealthy and shredded regulations, often with the complicity of their supposed Democratic rivals.

Sanders, who has his faults, especially in terms of an almost non-existent foreign policy, deserves credit for popularizing the ideas championed by northern European style social democracy on one of the world’s biggest platforms: a U.S. presidential campaign. This, along with earlier mass democratic movements like Occupy Wall Street, seem to have opened up a space in American politics for broadly socialist ideas that were unthinkable just a decade ago.

Now, in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, a surprising number of candidates who call themselves democratic socialists and advance progressive policies have met with some success, especially at the local level, in primaries that aren’t often covered by mainstream media.

By far the most famous of these candidates on the national stage is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who seems likely to win election to the U.S. Congress in New York’s 14th district, but there are many others that have won primaries in the weeks since, including Rashida Tlaib, who will run unopposed for Michigan’s 13th district congressional seat, Christine Hallquist, the Democratic nominee for governor of Vermont and Andrew Gillum, who came from far behind to win the party’s nomination for Governor of Florida.

The corporate media, which wasn’t sure how to deal with Ocasio-Cortez’s surprising win, has tried to downplay progressive victories across the country in the lead up to the midterms. This chorus of voices has been so consistent in trying to downplay progressive successes that some voters can be forgiven for thinking that Ocasio Cortez was an unrepeatable flash in the pan.

What this growing progressive left movement isn’t, is a left-wing ‘Tea Party’, a lazy comparison made so often in the media that it’s already become a cliche. While the Tea Party was in some ways a reaction by conservative leaning Americans to the bank bailouts of 2008, it was, at the very least, quickly co-opted by the Koch brothers and other ‘libertarian’ oligarchs to push the Republican Party even further to the right.

Emphasizing policies like Medicare for all, even if much of the media dismisses them as impractical and expensive, has been a priority for Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and many other candidates running as Justice Democrats or with the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the two main insurgent organizations fielding progressive candidates and challenging establishment Democrats in this election cycle.

One of the questions that faces many of these groups, especially the growing DSA, is whether to allocate resources to create electoral victories, often running under the banner of the Democratic Party, or to focus on grassroots organizing around issues that really matter to members like workers’ and tenants’ rights. With the ascension of Ocasio Cortez they appear to have decided to concentrate on the former.

The problem with this, as pointed out recently by Arun Gupta of Counterpunch, is that this strategy will put people like her closer to elites without many allies and could ‘mediate’ her message.

Healthcare as a human right and the fear of ‘socialism’

Having a single payer healthcare system like the one we have here in Canada has become common sense for many younger Americans, who look around the world and see many countries where this is taken for granted. As many millennials reach the age when they begin to think about having a family, the cost of a normal pregnancy in the United States is almost $33,000, a terrible financial burden on top of the often ridiculous amounts of student debt many of them are already struggling with.

When grilled about the cost of Medicare for All by newsreader Dana Bash on CNN after his surprise win in Florida, Gillum offered an interesting solution in terms of scaling up to lower the costs of a single payer health plan at the state level, explaining that he would try to create a confederation with other large states like New York and California to make the transition more affordable.

That universal health care is growing in popularity in the United States is undeniable, as a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, 59% of Americans, regardless of age or political affiliation, would like to see such a system put in place.

When arguments about cost are shown to be exaggerated or untrue, critics then claim that these kinds of social programs are ‘socialist’ and that Americans will never vote for them.

This may have been true in the past, but a recent Gallup poll showed that 57% of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism. Even more striking is the shift in their view of capitalism: only 47% of them view it positively, an almost 10% downward shift in opinion from a 2016 survey.

In terms of young people, who made up 27% of the eligible electorate in 2016, a number that will only grow in the years ahead,  the change is even more startling, with only 45% of 18 to 29 year olds having a positive view of capitalism, a major decline from the 68% who held a favorable view of it in 2010.

While the media always brings up Venezuela as their main example of ‘socialism’ in order to discredit a long tradition with many competing points of view, aside from social programs introduced since the turn of the century, the country’s economy is still capitalist in the larger sense. As reported by The Canary, Venezuela’s problems stem from an over-reliance on oil over a long period of time, as well as sanctions imposed on the country to try and change its government, not these popular programs that have reduced the suffering of the country’s poor majority.

It should also be noted, as reported by the source cited above, that Venezuela, a very poor and unequal country, instituted universal healthcare under the previous government of Hugo Chavez, something that the United States, for all its immense wealth, has not been able to do.

Leaving aside the question of a third party challenge to the United States’ political duopoly, in this writer’s opinion currently a non-starter, especially against the backdrop of a Donald Trump presidency, the American left seems to have concluded that the best possible strategy is to change the Democratic Party from within.

Aside from the real concerns about co-option expressed by Arun Gupta and others, this will obviously take time, and will suffer setbacks, especially if Democratic bigwigs are able to continue corrupting the democratic process within the party itself. This is why it’s important to moderate expectations and be prepared for this growing movement to be under constant attack when it isn’t being solemnly interred by media and establishment politicians in both major U.S. political parties.

It’s important to push the policy proposals and stated values of this wave of social democrats on every platform available, as the Democratic establishment has proven time and again that it isn’t up to the task of fighting for the rights of working people. A growing American left, reaching out in solidarity to the poor and working people in their own country and throughout the world, could, to steal a phrase, make America great again.

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