I never thought I would live to see a democratic socialist become one of the leading candidates to govern the most powerful nation in history. I confess my choice for this honor would have been someone other than a rather humorless guy with a heart condition who is pushing eighty. But no dream comes true without some concessions to reality.
That would be even more true if any socialist who comes after Bernie Sanders were actually elected president. Like any politician in a country as large and diverse—in every way—as the United States, such a leftist would have to build a coalition including millions of people who did not support them in the primaries and are at least mildly apprehensive about what they would do as president. Past socialist luminaries did not face this problem. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran what were essentially campaigns of public education, designed to build a constituency for a future day of triumph brought about, they hoped, by a labor insurgency of massive size and militancy. Their party comrades never had the opportunity to run any state or a city larger than Milwaukee.
But a socialist president would have to navigate with great skill between the rocks of utopia and the shoals of compromise. They would have to acknowledge, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did this year, that a robust public option would be an excellent transition to Medicare for All. The president would have to emphasize the most attractive parts of the Green New Deal, like high-speed rail lines and cheaper, renewable energy, while slapping down notions of banning air travel or throwing oil executives in jail. And the diplomat-in-chief would have to come up with a foreign policy that downplays the use of arms while explaining how to reduce, but not dismantle, the national security leviathan on which an alarming number of workers and businesses depend. The Danish model of environmentally responsible social democracy is certainly worth emulating. But the annual military budget of that little nation comes to about four billion dollars, which isn’t much more than what the U.S. Navy spends on a single new submarine.
Above all, a democratic socialist in the White House would have to show ordinary Americans who have long been skeptical of “big government” that those who run the state will not just promise to serve their interests but can do so effectively. A socialist administration would have to keep persuading them more by the policies it enacts than by the ideology it speaks. Otherwise, many voters, whipped up by the corporate elite and the ferocious right, would oppose risking their tax money for a larger federal presence in their lives. In dreams begin responsibilities.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.