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As US midterms approach, 'socialism' no longer a dirty word

Scott Eisen / Getty Images / AFP | Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally to reject Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court on October 1, 2018, in Boston, Massachusetts.

In the US, 'socialism' has long been seen as a dirty word. But now, as they seek to push the Democratic Party further left in the run-up to the midterms, some progressive candidates are no longer afraid to campaign under its banner.


FRANCE 24 correspondent in Washington DC

"Today, I saw something truly terrifying... I saw just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage."

Those were the words of a reporter from the ultra-conservative website Daily Caller, covering a campaign rally by Democratic candidate for the House Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in New York in July this year.

Though the reporter's words drip with skepticism, they are revealing: in a country where capitalism is king and where the word "socialism" has long been associated with the worst aspects of communism and the days of the USSR, the "s-word" is no longer taboo. So much so, that socialist ideals can now be spoken about at political rallies by mainstream Congressional candidates.

A Gallup poll released in August found that, for the first time, Democrats have a better image of socialism than capitalism. A small increase in the number with a positive view of socialism (57 percent in 2018 compared to 53 percent in 2010) was compounded by a slightly larger decrease in the number with a positive view of capitalism (dropping from 53 percent eight years ago to 47 percent today).

This shift has already been in evidence at the ballot box, not least in Ocasio-Cortez's stunning primary victory against the established party favourite Joseph Crowley back in June, catapulting her to star status as the darling of the Democratic left.

A disciple of Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez is openly socialist. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), she supports public healthcare for all, tuition-free higher education and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These are radical policies in a country where the young are often saddled with student debt and health insurance so expensive that many go without it.

Before Sanders, there was Occupy

There have been other surprise successes for leftist candidates at the primaries. In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to the House of Representatives. Tlaib has also been embraced by Sanders and the socialist wing of the Democrats. In Florida, candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, another Sanders disciple, won his primary with a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 (€13) an hour (up from $8.25 currently).

Socialist candidates or those supported by the DSA have also been enjoying success in local elections. They include Julia Salazar in New York, Sara Innamorato in Pennsylvania and Gabriel Acevero in Maryland. In total, 50 DSA-backed candidates were victorious in the primaries.

To some it may appear that this phenomenon started with Sanders and his attention-grabbing but ultimately doomed bid to win the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential vote. Not so, says historian Maurice Isserman, a professor at Hamilton College and himself a member of the DSA.

"The origin can be dated to the 2008 financial crisis," says Isserman. "In many ways, young people in the United States are still feeling the consequences of that crisis: student debt became an increasing problem, the kind of steady, well-paying jobs that previously might have allowed them to pay it off or get into the housing market for the first time are increasingly scarce."

As a consequence, faith in "the durability and the benefits of the capitalist system" was shaken, particularly among the Millennial generation, says Isserman.

"Moreover, 20 years past the fall of the Soviet Union, and the old fears of socialism – that just a step towards communism was a step towards the gulag – have faded for the younger generation."

In the wake of the financial crisis, new social movements sprang up, such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and Black Lives Matter two years later.

"There would have been no Bernie Sanders campaign without Occupy," says Isserman. "Even though Occupy disappeared quickly, its issues, like income inequality, and its slogans – 'the 1 percent versus the 99 percent' – really did change the conversation politically.

"And so suddenly you have this guy walking around, describing himself as a democratic socialist [though not a member of the DSA]. Tens of thousands of people are Googling 'democratic socialism' to see what the heck that is. Because that was not a familiar term for many Americans."

Many of those internet searches led to the curious stumbling upon the website of the DSA, says Isserman, and its membership numbers began to expand dramatically.

Founded in 1982 with around 5,000 to 6,000 members, the DSA had grown little by 2016, according to Isserman.

But today, it has 50,000 members. What's more, this sudden growth has been fuelled mostly by the relatively young.

"Since the 2016 election, the average age has plummeted from around 65 to around 30," says Chris Maisano, a DSA organiser based in New York. "I was usually the youngest person in the room, but now at age 36 I am something of a grey-hair!"

The Trump effect

But if Occupy and Sanders acted as the catalysts for the rehabilitation of socialism in America, there is only one man to thank for it becoming the coherent political movement it is today.

"Bernie primed the US public, particularly younger people who were anxious about their economic situation and their future prospects, for democratic socialism," explains Maisano. "The shock of Trump's election pushed them into political organisation."

That was certainly the case for 28-year-old DSA activist Margaret McLaughlin, from Washington, DC. A Sanders supporter during the presidential primaries, she joined the movement on November 9, 2016 – the day after Trump's election.

"I’ve always considered myself to the left of the establishment Democrats," she says. "But it has only been in the past couple of years that the political binary has been disintegrating. And people in the USA feel that they can call themselves something other than Democrat or Republican."

In the months following Ocasio-Cortez's primary victory, McLaughlin has seen a big rise in membership at her local DSA branch.

"We have taken on about 400 new members since then. We now have about 1,600," she says.

But while this new breed of American socialism has grown out of the Democratic Party and DSA candidates are running under the party's banner in the midterms, it does not always sit easily within it. Some, like McLaughlin, feel uncertain the party will give the movement the space it needs to grow in the future. McLaughlin says that, in the long term, she would like to see the creation of a true "workers' party".

Moderate voters put off?

However, not everyone is in agreement. The DSA is a "big tent" covering a host of different factions, according to Isserman.

"The newer generation in the DSA is by no means united in its political perspective. Some of them have the traditional Harrington perspective, which is to be 'the left of the possible', meaning: 'We should operate within the Democratic Party itself'," he says, referring to the DSA's founder Michael Harrington.

"There are also people who are very uncomfortable with the Democratic Party, they have one foot in, one foot out. They were very turned off by Hillary Clinton and hope eventually to see a third party, an explicitly socialist party."

Maisano also recognises that there are "numerous internal threads" in the DSA, but points out that at its 2016 convention, the organisation defined three key priorities: supporting socialist and progressive candidates in election; working with the unions; and building a national movement for universal health insurance.

Within a population of 325 million Americans, 50,000 social democrats may not be a huge number. But socialist ideals seem to be permeating more and more into the policies of the wider Democratic Party. Leftist policies such as universal health insurance have been adopted by even the moderate wing of the Democrats.

“Diversity helps the party,” Christine Pelosi, a member of the Democratic National Committee who helps the party stay more connected to grass-roots activists, told the New York Times in April. “I welcome their constructive criticism.”

But other Democrats fear that openly socialist candidates, or policies seen as too radical, could put off moderate voters and make winning back power from the Republicans less likely.

The midterms on November 6, therefore, will be something of a testing ground for this new breed of Democrat and could well determine who the party chooses as their candidate – and the platform they stand on – to take on Trump in 2020.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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