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Hillary Clinton’s capture of the Democratic presidential nomination—an historic milestone for women—should not obscure the significant long-term opportunities created by democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s sustained and scorching attack on a “rigged” economy and an increasingly undemocratic political system.
A January 2016 poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa found that 43 percent described themselves as “socialist.” Fully 56 percent of registered Democrats, including 52 percent of Clinton supporters, view socialism favorably according to a recent NY Times/CBS News poll.
These poll results signal the emergence of democratic socialism as a mainstream idea—at least in the Democratic Party.
Until now, democratic socialism as an electoral force had been condemned to the margins by America’s confining rules. America’s political system has, since its inception, systematically favored just two parties, both largely beholden to elites. With this structural bias, advocates of democratic socialism or Ralph Nader-style reform have been torn between a potentially risky vote for committed progressive advocates (think of Bush’s narrow 2000 win) or voting for conventional, complacent Democratic candidates.
But four long decades of economic decline for the majority, a mounting environmental crisis, and imperial misadventures have opened the door for Sanders’ openly democratic socialist candidacy. The appeal of living-wage jobs, tuition-free college, universal health care, and forceful environmental measures are only likely to grow more popular as economic conditions decline.
“All things considered, economic and social pain is likely to deepen and persist,” economist Gar Alperovitz argues in What Then Must We Do? A grim economic picture is intensifying the hunger for a radically different direction for America—manifested in support for both the Sanders and the Trump presidential campaigns.
The demands from within the Democratic Party for improved living standards for working people and fundamental curbs on inequality and corporate power were utterly unthinkable during the pro-corporate administration of Bill Clinton or even that of Barack Obama.
For example, despite some important improvements in health care under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a May Gallup poll shows that nearly 75 percent of Democrats want a Canadian-style single-payer healthcare system. (A solid majority—just under 60 percent—of the broader public wants a single-payer health system, including 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters.)
But exactly what is the future for a democratic, progressive socialism? Where does it go from here?
To some, democratic socialism means simply a commitment to New Deal-style policies long abandoned by many Democratic leaders. For others, socialism means adopting the social-welfare policies of Scandinavia. Gar Alperovitz and his Next System project—which has attracted supporters like Noam Chomsky, Frances Fox Piven, and Barbara Ehrenreich—is advocating for a vision centered around the re-direction of the economy away from profit-maximization.
Bringing this discussion into the Democratic Party could help to bridge the gap between visionary ideas and practical proposals for workable socialist policies. But making real progress will have to mean cutting the Democratic Party’s dependence on big donors. This brings us to the second challenge.
The Democrats’ donor class remains overwhelmingly committed to the financialization of the economy and the “free-trade” deals that have led to the offshoring of jobs to nations like China and Mexico. Democratic officeholders remain cowed by the fear of alienating donors who wield enormous power. Bernie Sanders managed to surmount this system with an impressive base of small donors. But it is improbable that less visible Democratic candidates will be able to launch viable campaigns on $27 contributions.
We need a radically new campaign-finance system.
Under the present system, we witness sordid spectacles like Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida member of Congress, actively working to shield the predatory “payday loan” industry from tighter regulation. That industry has donated $35,000 to her campaigns. Without major reforms of campaign financing, even a full-scale effort to build upon pro-socialist views among rank-and file Democrats could prove fruitless.
Almost all Democratic mayors and governors (and countless legislators) are thoroughly wedded to economic-development “incentives.” According to a 2014 report, local and state governments handed out $110 billion in incentives to corporations, with the majority of the dollars going to the largest and most profitable. Although this form of public expenditure often fails to deliver the promised jobs and wages, these incentives continue to drain public coffers.
Finally, whether or not Clinton wins in November, the emerging progressive, socialist wing will need to win the active and enthusiastic involvement of Hillary supporters. This includes African Americans who were key to her decisive victories in Southern primaries, older women, and people who align with labor, feminist, and LGBT causes. A large share of Clinton supporters would welcome the injection of youthful energy and a strongly progressive program popularized by Sanders.
In the late 1970s socialist leader Michael Harrington tried mightily to build a strong socialist current within the Democratic Party. Ultimately, his efforts were blocked by the Democratic leadership’s dogged embrace of business as usual. But the dire conditions facing ordinary working people, who are or potentially could be Democratic voters, make this moment ripe for a powerful democratic socialist bloc. The Progressive Democrats have been trying to stoke the flames in recent times.
As Harrington would put it, is the Democratic Party willing to seriously explore “the left edge of the possible”?
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.