In Full Bloom: The Rise of Democratic Socialism
By Kaitlin Musante
Deafening silence pounded in Leah Ma’s ears as she looked across the cracked wood tabletop at her parents. Mouths agape and eyes swirling in disbelief, they stared back at her. Ma had just revealed a deadly secret––in a decade compounded by red scares and post-war patriotism, she was a democratic socialist.
Over fifty years later on a chilly November evening, the now 74-year-old Ma sat on her couch in southern Illinois, squished next to her husband as they watched the 2018 midterm elections results pour in. Cheering as fellow democratic socialists pulled ahead in the polls, Ma said she finally felt the acceptance she had hoped for for so long.
“I am ecstatically happy that people are finally coming to realize that we badly need to change this system,” Ma said. “More people are seeing that this is not the way even a capitalist country is supposed to be run, and they are seeing European or democratic socialism as their only way to change things. I’ve waited almost 60 years for the rest of the country to agree with me, and boy has it been a long wait.”
Ma said she first began doubting the capitalist ideals she had been brought up with after her fourth-grade teacher showed her a photo of Russian children with eyes mirroring her own, allowing her to realize they were normal kids just like her.
“They had always painted the Russians, even children, as being monsters,” Ma said. “Seeing them in this new light shocked me to my core. I began to wonder what else our government might be lying about.”
This newfound understanding, along with the social isolation spawned by her tiny Midwestern town, led her to question the country’s current setup and notice the economic disparities around her, Ma said. A full-blown socialist by age 16, Ma said she often felt isolated and misjudged for her beliefs.
“Americans didn’t realize that socialism and communism are not the same thing,” Ma said. “Even my parents would call me a communist. I know that idea has been tried and failed. They didn’t understand what makes socialism different, and the parts of it that would make people happier, help them lead more stress-free lives and reduce crime across the board.”
While Ma might have felt ostracized by the strong anti-socialist sentiments of her era, she said she has recently found herself surrounded by a new generation more open and accepting to its ideals. Socialism’s popularity has skyrocketed throughout the nation since President Donald Trump’s election, especially among millennials, according to NPR.
A 2016 Gallup poll found that 55 percent of voters aged 18-29 said they had a positive view of socialism, while 57 percent supported capitalism, and the membership for the Democratic Socialists of America has increased sevenfold since 2015, expanding from around 6,000 members to 43,000 as of early July.
Barnard University professor of political science Sheri Berman attributed this rise to the increasing inequality and declining social mobility stemming from the 2008 financial crash.
“A lot of young people are feeling much more at risk and much more uncertainty than folks their age would have felt a generation ago,” Berman said. “They are graduating with huge amounts of debt, and they’re not sure what kinds of jobs they are going to get. Therefore, for a lot of young people, socialism is an attractive alternative to capitalism because they understand that, on some level, the system is not quite working as well as it has in the past and as well as they would like it to. They want the same opportunities that their parents had, and socialism is how they feel they can get to them.”
For Andrew Swetland, a 33-year-old dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the appeal of democratic socialism lay within its message for change. Originally a politically unmotivated Democrat, Swetland said a 2015 speech from politician and Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders about the need for Americans to take accountability for problems in their country inspired him to shift his platform.
“Hearing that changed my lifelong paradigm of feeling generally hopeless about government and politics ever helping normal people,” Swetland said. “It sank in for me that all we need to do to create change is replace enough politicians and shift public opinion enough that they finally get the message, very much like what we millennials did when it came to achieving marriage equality. I already believed in several parts of the democratic socialist platform. The Bernie campaign just kind of stitched it all together for me in a cohesive picture.”
Since then, Swetland has thrown himself into the movement, serving as an organizer on the first Sanders campaign, phone banking for New York Congresswoman and Democratic-Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and visiting the state capitol to lobby for single-payer healthcare. As someone who was once apprehensive about the idea of government, Swetland said that the democratic socialist movement has ignited a fire within him and encouraged him to stand up for his political beliefs.
“We’re all motivated by the task of lifting up millions of working-class people out of poverty,” Swetland said “That’s our north star. We all share solidarity around that idea. We’re not involved for political careerism or to immediately sell out to corporate lobbyists. We reject that type of politics. It’s about millions of people standing up together to demand a better deal.”
Socialism’s only other entry onto the American political scene in the early 20th century was motivated by similar ideals, Berman said. The country was at the height of its shift from an agricultural economy to an industrialized one. Consequently, working and living conditions were abysmal, Berman said, which inspired citizens to look toward a different system.
“Socialism was a reflection of, consequence of and symptom of a system that was pretty raw and unregulated,” Berman said. “I think we have something like that today––a capitalist system that is causing a lot of dislocation, making a lot of people worried about the future, getting rid of a lot of occupations and changing where wealth is in this country.”
Once the Great Depression hit, however, support decreased for this socialist group, and by the time Americans had stopped suffering enough to rejoin the cause, anti-communist and anti-socialist messages had infected the media, political scientist and Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor Jodi Dean said.
“These negative messages were pushed by the U.S. government, pushed by hysterical newspapers and pushed by big capitalists, and it’s because the capitalist order was afraid of the power of workers,” Dean said. “They want to demonize systems like socialism and communism because they want to demonize the idea that workers can control their own lives.”
This stigma has stifled socialism’s success for years, Chapman University Professor in Critical Studies Peter McLaren said.
“When you define yourself as a Marxist, it’s an uphill battle, even as a Christian Marxist like me, just because of the common interpretations behind these words,” McLaren said. “For years, when people have heard the name Karl Marx, they’ve just shuddered, and they do so largely because of the kind of propaganda that has existed in the media. It’s closed people off.”
The death of the Soviet Union allowed Americans to overcome these stigmas and finally see the reality of capitalist exploitation, Dean said.
“There’s now a generation of people who have grown up not hearing anti-communism and anti-socialism media all the time,” Dean said. “They’ve grown up under a situation where they see the declining expectations that they can have under capitalist life and where the reality of the deprivations of the capitalist systems pushes through former ideology. When you tell people all the time that they are having the perfect life and they still can recognize that they are $80,000 in debt, they’ll never own a house and they can’t pay their rent, they aren’t going to buy into the ideology anymore.”
The new generation of support has also led to a shift in ideological focus, McLaren said. Ecosocialism, which aims to examine socialism in terms of its effect on environmental issues like global warming, sustainability and GMOs, has arisen largely due to millennial influences and attracted a new demographic, McLaren said.
“Wherever I go speak, if I use old-fashioned terms like forces of production or relations of production, a lot of people are turned off to the idea of socialism,” McLaren said. “When you put the argument in more environmental terms, however, it’s much more appealing to people and that’s all thanks to young socialists.”
McLaren has also spurred left-wing millennials to follow socialism by highlighting the flaws behind Trump’s racial biases and hateful rhetoric, he said.
“Capitalism has brutalized people,” McLaren said. “99 percent of people are undergoing struggles, including white people. Instead of pointing fingers at immigrants or pointing fingers at Latinos or African Americans, the white majority should be trying to analyze how capitalism is exploiting everyone. The struggle to build a viable and democratic alternative to capitalism could and should bring us together.”
It is the current lack of such a system, however, that leads Berman to doubt socialism’s capacity for long-term success, she said.
“There is a nod to moving the economy away from capitalism, but since nobody really advocates moving towards a Soviet-style communism, what moving away from capitalism would actually mean is extremely unclear and unlikely to be popular among a big sector of the population,” Berman said. “A place where the government controls all means of production is never going to be democratic. While an idea could work in theory, without a practical solution, the ideals won’t survive.”
Berman also expressed concern with the murkiness of democratic socialism’s definition. While most members agree that it is loosely a system to the left of the current democratic party, which hopes for an expanded welfare state and increased social policy, the specifics beyond that are unclear and candidates often contradict each other, Berman said.
“When you ask young people if they support democratic socialism, you get a relatively high number saying yes,” Berman said. “But then, if you ask them what they mean, they are all over the place. They really have no agreed upon consensus, reflecting both American history and the fact that folks in the political sphere who call themselves democratic socialists don’t have a lot of similarities.”
Despite these issues, Swetland said he continues to have faith in the future of democratic socialism.
“People are hanging on by their fingernails,” Swetland said. “If one thing goes wrong––a car accident, an illness, a lost job––they could lose everything. As long as these conditions persist, democratic socialism will rise in response.”