Naming Our Desire: How Do We Talk About Socialism in America?

Naming Our Desire: How Do We Talk About Socialism in America?

Since Occupy Wall Street in 2011, DSA's membership has more than quadrupled (David Shankbone)

Essays about the prospects of socialism in the United States tend to look for signs of hope, and this makes sense. After all, if you are convinced it can never be, what’s the point in even considering it?

“I write at the end of a right-wing era . . . and on the eve of a new move toward the Left in the West,” Michael Harrington wrote shortly before his death in 1989. Likewise, when the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) released a revised version of its founding document in 1995, the updated statement invoked the belief “that we stand at the beginning of a new political era,” one presenting significant opportunity for progressive change.

These optimistic statements—with their confidence that the horrors of Reaganism might be relegated to the past—can now only be read as cautionary tales. And yet, while we proceed with care, it is not delusional to think that today, even under a President Trump, there are legitimate indications of promise. In the past two years, democratic socialism has been put back on the political map in the United States, gaining a relevance it has not enjoyed in decades.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders garnered more than 13 million votes in his run as an openly socialist presidential candidate, winning contests in twenty-three states, from Hawaii and Nebraska to West Virginia and Maine. Prior to his campaign, such results would have been flatly inconceivable to the nation’s class of professional political observers. Remarkably, a February 2016 poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa found that 43 percent of those surveyed professed they would use the word “socialist” to describe themselves. And as of April 2017, Sanders was polling as the country’s most popular active politician.

Apart from the Sanders run, DSA’s membership has quadrupled since 2015, with most of the growth coming since Trump’s election. This makes the group the largest socialist organization the country has seen since the 1960s. Probably more significant than short-term gains are indications of an ongoing generational shift. A much-cited Pew survey from late 2011 showed that more eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds think positively of socialism than of capitalism, and later polls have shown capitalism meeting with similarly widespread disapproval from this age group.

We should approach such evidence with some wariness: as a native Iowan, I know many good progressives in my home state, but I have never been to a caucus that felt in imminent risk of a socialist takeover. Plus, we cannot presume to know exactly what survey respondents mean when they view socialism more favorably than capitalism. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that a sig...