BOZEMAN, MONTANA is the birthplace of Ryan Zinke, the federal secretary of the interior, and the home of Steve Daines, Montana’s Republican junior senator, and Greg Gianforte, the state’s reporter-thumping Republican congressman. But the public-comments part of Bozeman’s city commission meeting on August 20th was dominated entirely by socialists. They did not sing the Internationale, or demand public ownership of the means of production. Instead, the ten members of the Bozeman Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) thanked the commission for raising city workers’ minimum wage to $13 an hour, and urged them to raise it to $15 over the next two years.
Republicans are using such people to stoke outrage. Newt Gingrich, eternally eager to pitch any disagreement as an eschatological conflict, warns that socialists are ‘demons” whom the Democrats are “unleashing to win elections”. Alexandria Ocasi-Cortez, a DSA member likely to win election to Congress in November, has joined Nancy Pelosi in the right’s bogeyman pantheon (a Republican mailing called her “mini-Maduro”, referring to Nicolas Maduro, the tyrannical president of Venezuela). Looking past the label, however, American socialists are more progressive Democrats than Castros in waiting — and their rise poses more of a challenge to the Democratic Party than to capitalism.
Still, socialism is having a moment in America unlike any since, perhaps, 1912, when Eugene Debs, the socialist candidate, won 6% of the popular vote. Between the DSA’s founding in 1982 and the election of 2016, its membership hovered at a relatively constant 6,000 — the same people, says Maurie Isserman, a professor at Hamilton College and charter DSA member, “just getting greyer”. Since President Donald Trump’s election, however, its membership has risen more than eight-fold, and may soon exceed 50,000 (see chart). DSA members have lost nearly all of the primaries they have contested, but two will almost certainly be elected to the next congress: Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, from Detroit. A recent Gallup poll showed that 67% of Democrats have positive views about socialism.
But the poll never defined “socialism”, so precisely what people were expressing support for remains unclear. For decades, the cold war defined it, at least for most Americans. They were capitalist and free, while socialism was a step removed, at best, from Soviet communism. Americans under 30 have no memory of the cold war. To them, socialism may be little more than a slur they have heard Republicans hurl at Democrats — particularly Barack Obama. They may well have reckoned that if supporting universal health care, more money for public education and policies to combat climate change are all socialist, then they are happy to be socialist too.
During Mr Obama’s presidency, political energy came from the Republican Party’s right flank; under Mr Trump’s it comes from the Democrats’ left. The center of American politics is having trouble holding. Jessie Kline, the 24-year -old vice-chairman of Bozeman’s socialists, worked for mainstream Democrats, but joined the DSA because “nobody wanted to talk about the underlying cause of why people are poor…The establishment treats politics as a career. Morality and ethics never came into it.”
Still, America is not about to undergo a socialist revolution. It is too ideologically diverse and fractious; individualism is wired too deeply into the country’s political culture. Maria Svart, the DSA’s national director, says that her group “doesn’t see capitalism as compatible with freedom or justice or democracy”, but good luck wining elections with that slogan (indeed, candidates endorsed by Democratic Party organs have won far more primaries than those endorsed by Our Revolution, which grew out of Bernie Sanders’s campaign.) In any event, democratic socialism is not revolutionary communism. Sara Innamorato, a DSA member who won her primary in May and will probably represent a heavily Democratic district of south-western Pennsylvania in the state legislature, says that “capitalism isn’t working…but I don’t think that capitalism and socialism are necessarily opposites. There are good lessons to be gained from both.”
Even the platform of Bernie Sanders, the socialist who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 Democratic primaries, left capitalism fundamentally intact, calling instead for a broader and more redistributive social safety-net. His supporters seem enamored of Nordic-style social-welfare policies. But those countries are not socialist; they are free-market economies with high rates of taxation that finance generous public services. Indeed, the “socialist” part of those countries that Mr Sanders’s fans like would be unaffordable without the dynamic capitalist part they dislike.
Perhaps the surest sign that American socialists are not revolutionaries is their willingness to work within the two-party system. Ms Innamorato and Summer Lee, another DSA-endorsed candidate for the Pennsylvania legislature, as well as Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Tlaib, are all Democrats, as is Mr Sanders, for practical purposes (he is an independent but caucuses with Senate Democrats). Mr Sanders and Ms Ocasio-Cortez have campaigned for other Democrats. Mr Isserman contends that DSA members “are not utopian, and we certainly don’t believe in Bolshevik-style revolution”. He approvingly cites Michael Harrington, the DSA’s founder, who said that the group should represent “the left wing of the possible”.
In that role, they are succeeding wildly. On August 28th Andrew Gillum, wielding an endorsement from Mr Sanders, pulled off a surprise victory in the Democratic primary race for governor in Florida — a state that has long preferred bland, centrist Democrats. Mr Gillum wants to see universal health care, a 15$ minimum wage, a more compassionate immigration policy, corporate-tax hikes to fund public education, stricter gun-control laws and the legalization of marijuana. Most of these positions were lefty pipe-dreams a decade ago. Today they are de rigueur for Democrats with presidential ambitions.
Some have gone further: Mr Sanders, as well as Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillebrand, senators from New Jersey and New York, respectively, have made favorable noises about a federal jobs guarantee. Mr Gillum thinks Mr Trump should be impeached. Such proposals are dead in the water, for now: Republicans control Congress and the White House. But that is not the point. These are political statements designed to signal support for a bold, activist government and an unwillingness to triangulate, or compromise with the voters who put Mr Trump in the White House.
Still, the DSA’s apparent influence on the party makes some nervous. One longtime strategist frets that the distinction between democratic and Soviet-style socialism is “fairly fine for most voters, and it comes with a lot of baggage”. Over the next couple of years, through debates that Democrats must hope will prove robust but not fracturing, the party will work out whether and how to carry that baggage.
This article appeared in the United States Section of the print edition under the headline “Shivering the chains”
By the Economist Magazine September 1st edition