Democratic Socialism in the United States

A few weeks back, The Oxford Eagle ran a guest column by Michael Henry entitled “Socialism Plus Ignorance“. My colleague, Marcos Mendoza, and I wrote and submitted a response for consideration. To the best of our knowledge, the newspaper decided not to run our response. So we are making public what we sent to The Eagle in the hopes that others will read, share, and discuss.

What kind of society do we hope to build and bequeath to our children? One of the most exciting developments of recent years is growing skepticism about business-as-usual politics and economics. Having weathered four decades of free-market globalization and the massive expansion of social inequality, the American public has begun to search for new perspectives consistent with our longstanding beliefs in republican democracy.

In a recent column, Michael Henry discusses the electoral victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party primary of New York’s 14th Congressional District (“Socialism Plus Ignorance”, August 1st, 2018). Henry uses this opening as a chance to demonstrate his (willful?) ignorance of Ocasio-Cortez’s political identity as a democratic socialist. Enormous ideological differences remain between democratic socialism, authoritarian socialism, fascism, and totalitarianism. However, Henry tries his best to lump all of these together into one menacing boogeyman.

In terms of raw numbers, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are still quite small: less than 50,000 members. However, democratic socialism has garnered significant media attention due to the surprising success of Senator Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, national polling shows growing support for socialism and socialist policies, and declining support for capitalism and austerity measures, particularly among Americans ages 18 to 30.

So what is democratic socialism? Democratic socialism is a political tradition that depends upon liberal democracy: the respect for individual and human rights, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and divided government. It has nothing to do with autocracy, tyranny, or dictatorship – anyone who suggests otherwise is grossly misinformed. Democratic socialists believe that liberal democracies work best when they protect freedom and create a society based on the inherent equality of all. Democratic socialists seek to enact public policies that ensure equality of opportunity, constrain inequalities, and enable upward mobility.

Democratic socialists also embrace a suite of social rights that provide people with free or subsidized childcare, parental leave, education, healthcare, and social security, while also protecting the environment. Some of these social rights already exist in the United States in limited form. Democratic socialists want to enshrine these rights in the Constitution and fund them through a progressive taxation scheme targeting the wealthy and the powerful.

Finally, democratic socialists are deeply skeptical of unrestrained, free-market capitalism, which puts the interests of the few above the plans and security of the many. This critique of capitalism points to the massive divergence in wealth and income between the elite class and the vast majority of Americans who struggle to provide for their families. This critique recognizes that there is a fundamental social struggle occurring within America between a privileged minority and an exploited majority that includes people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. Democratic socialists take a populist perspective in seeking to break the stranglehold of the oligarchy while working to democratize the economy. Democratic socialists believe that our current Gilded Age 2.0 is deeply corrosive to the values of our republic.

Advocating a program of radical democracy, DSA chapters have helped organize campaigns that tie the above tenets to local conditions. Most efforts focus on labor solidarity and support for the social safety net. Nationally, DSA supports Medicare for All, strong unions, and expanding representation in electoral politics at the local, state, and federal levels. DSA chapters work to create strong coalitions with other progressive groups and social movement organizations because they see this as key to building the political capacity of the working-class.

Across the country, DSA chapters are organizing local campaigns centered on affordable housing, support for public education, providing a true living wage, criminal justice reform, and ending racial discrimination, to name a few. In Memphis, the local DSA chapter has endorsed ‘Fight for $15’ and the Poor People’s Campaign, which among other things seeks to end poverty, racism, and environmental destruction. The DSA chapter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi has pushed hard to protect the rights of immigrants and others, and to end local law enforcement’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These activities and others are not rooted in a vision for an “all-encompassing bureaucracy” that stifles individual freedom, as Michael Henry claimed. Rather, they are rooted in creating a truly democratic society where the interests of the least well off are fairly represented. In 2015, the median net worth of members of Congress was more than $1.1 million, or twelve times the net worth of the median US household that same year. It should come as no surprise that Congress often supports legislation that protects their own financial well-being, while cutting funding from programs that help those most in need.

Finally, the emergence of DSA as a political force in the twenty-first century is a direct consequence of the failings of our current political and economic structure. While Michael Henry claims capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system, the facts tell a different story. Since 2009, the richest one percent have captured 95 percent of all income growth; and the concentration of wealth among the richest one percent is the highest it has been since 1930. While Michael Henry admonishes the European model, the truth is that wealth inequality in the United States surpassed Europe’s in the mid-twentieth century and shows no signs of slowing down. The attention and success of the current DSA movement strongly suggests that many Americans, especially younger ones and those from working-class backgrounds, are hungry for a progressive social and economic agenda that is not beholden to corporate and elite interests. Who knows, perhaps growing concerns over the lack of affordable housing, prevalence of poverty wages, and concentration of political power among our town’s ‘old money’ will lead to the emergence of Oxford’s own DSA chapter?

Marcos Mendoza is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mississippi, and author of The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2018).

James M. Thomas (JT) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi, and coauthor of Are Racists Crazy? (NYU Press, 2016).

Professors Mendoza and Thomas co-teach a seminar entitled, “Empire and Revolution”, where they and their students examine colonialism and postcolonialism, and subjugation and resistance, through the lens of political theory.


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