Has socialism’s time come?
“If the United States ever gets a major radical movement, it will be closer to anarchism than to socialism,” wrote the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset in 1990.
But how accurate is this pronouncement, really? Lipset is partly right, of course. Americans have historically claimed to reject socialism and statism, and have always idealized individualism. But ideals and claims are not always on the same plane as reality.
In truth, Americans have shunned socialism when they see it as benefiting others, but have accepted government redistribution and socialism when it benefitted them directly. Many of today’s staunchest opponents of “socialism” and “redistribution” were beneficiaries of socialist policies, in fact: the GI Bill, government-subsidized housing, low-interest small business loans, Social Security benefits — these are all programs that could rightly be called socialistic, and yet are extremely popular.
But even more importantly, attitudes are changing. In a recent poll, nearly half of Americans said they would consider voting for a socialist candidate. The numbers are even higher among young people.
And of course, there is the rise of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who is the only self-described democratic socialist presidential candidate and the first socialist to be elected to the U.S. Senate — and who is drawing large crowds and energizing voters.
What is behind this shift? It is clear that people are fed up with growing inequality, bought elections and crony capitalism. We live in a country where the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans control nearly half of the country’s wealth, where income remains stagnant and where close to $10 billion may be spent this election cycle.
Furthermore, many have recognized socialism already exists; it’s just that it’s mostly socialism for the rich. In fact, the conditions described above are a direct result of economic policies that have favored the wealthiest Americans, says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.
None of this means that our next president will be a socialist. Bernie Sanders lacks the name recognition, the political machinery and, above all, the money to be successful in this election. But his message is resonating with the American people, and may ultimately begin a conversation about the future of our democracy.
Maybe Lipset is right, and we’ll never have a socialist movement in America. But maybe he’s wrong, and there is one already underway, driven by younger people who are predicted to be less wealthy than their parents, and who in future election cycles may define our political culture.
As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in history, I hesitate to venture into the future. But if the past has shown us anything, it’s that movements arise when social conditions are no longer tenable, when people are so fed up and so battered they can no longer stand the status quo.