Two books on the nature of democratic socialism in America today
Edited by Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreier and Micahel Kazin
What exactly do Americans mean when they talk about "democratic socialism"? Is it something contemporary, radical and different, as its supporters claim, or is it an heirloom from the mantelpiece of history, dusted down and burnished with progressive social ideas and environmental policy? Or is it simply a rebranding of European social democracy?
Two recently published books on this matter fail to decide. The editors of We Own the Future: Democratic socialism - American style note early on that the book offers no "authoritative definition" of the phenomenon; many of the contributors don't even subscribe to the label. Meanwhile, Garrett Griffin, the co-founder of the Kansas City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, shies away from using the term at all in the title of his book, Why America Needs Socialism.
A brief overview of the two books does, however, find some commonalities. These are, first, that the US has a long history of socialist thought; second, that it once had very high taxation and grand redistributive policies; third, that socialism for America's millennials has shed its Cold War connotations; and, fourth, that there is broad support among the public for ideas like Medicare For All and greater wealth distribution - in essence, the pledges made by Bernie Sanders during his recent presidential campaign.
The sense a reader gets from both books, which were written well before Sanders's campaign ended, is that his proposals did not go far enough - though more radicalism hardly seems to be what Democratic voters currently want. To make their points, the authors offer a laundry list of proposals, from Swiss-style referendums and direct democracy in the workplace to complaints that Medicare for All needs to be more far-reaching. As to how these aims might be achieved, Griffin frequently evokes "revolution", the meaning of which seems to oscillate here between a major recalibration of the political system (through Gandhian peaceful means) and simply more strikes, agitation and occupy movements. Perhaps it means both, but the author fails to say in which circumstances each method would be preferable.
What today's democratic socialism really seems to be is a speculative search for a future America, rather than a coherent, fully formed ideology. This possibly explains why the authors spend so much time either digging back through American history for periods when socialist-style policies were sacrosanct, such as after the New Deal, or to celebrate the various historic American activists and writers who thought socialism a good idea. (Griffin's work explicitly draws on Martin Luther King.) What this heritage seems to affirm is that democratic socialism in America isn't simply a European import. After all, in Europe in the twentieth century the term was used by the moderate wings of the left to distance themselves from more radical elements, while in the US today it signals the left's most radical flank.
The authors constantly remind us that a democratic socialist was on the cusp of achieving real political power in the US, and an essay in We Own the Future refers to a 2019 Gallup poll that found 43 per cent of Americans "believe socialism would be a good thing for the country". But it remains unclear whether the American public has a unified sense of what contemporary socialism means. The twentieth-century Tory politician Quintin Hogg defined Conservatism as "not so much a philosophy as an attitude". This may be a good way of describing democratic socialism in America today. When expressed to claim difference from socialist, social democrat, Democratic or liberal traditions, it seems to be gesturing towards something more urbane and progressive, as well as younger and perhaps utopian.
David Hutt is a columnist for the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times, covering European and Asian politics, and European-Asian relations