Why Socialism is on the rise –and why Americans shouldn’t hold their breath


Ruth Donagher

Over the past three decades, the political landscape of the United States has become increasingly polarized. On the right, a new faction of alt-right conservatives brings social unrest. On the left, a new wing of Democrats draws inspiration from Democratic Socialism. One of the current frontrunners in the Democratic primary elections, Senator Bernie Sanders, self-identifies as a socialist, and prominent members in Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez champion similar ideals. Besides the obvious star power of these socialist politicians, it can be hard to understand what makes the idea so easy to sell to young Americans.

Why should a political ideology long demonized in American culture suddenly gain traction? Socialism in the United States is becoming more widely accepted once again, making a resurgence as issues such as climate change and income inequality are exacerbated by powerful corporations. 

While the current wave of left-wing Democrats may appear to be bringing with them an influx of new European ideology, the Socialist Party gained traction in the United States long before today’s movement. Socialism in its earliest form can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic, which outlined the ideal communal society. Socialism as a political movement took root in Europe in the 19th century, popularized most famously by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. In the United States, socialism reached the height of its popularity during the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. 

In 1912, Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party polled at 6% of the popular vote: higher than modern-day third parties like the Libertarian and Green parties could dream of. The success of Debs’s movement was due in part to the terrible working conditions and lack of labor laws in late 19th-century America. Powerful businesses with no restrictions led to rampant government corruption and a society in which the rich prospered and the poor only continued to become poorer.

It is this Socialist Party that today’s Democratic Socialists look back to for inspiration. Left-wing Democrats point to the successes of other countries, many in Europe, that have implemented socialized healthcare and college payment plans, reigning in big business in the process. Germany is an especially compelling success story. Communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany reunited in 1990, bridging ideological rifts and rebuilding the eastern half of the nation by implementing some socialist principles within a largely capitalist system.

Still, many Americans are wary of socialism, using it more as a dirty word than as a descriptor of an ideology. Throughout history, programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were derided as part of a “socialist” agenda. American society has always been based on the idea of individualism, making the notion of any kind of communal economic system contrary to what we think our government should do. 

The Red Scare of 1917 is what ended Debs’s party, and the Cold War only exacerbated the conflict of ideology in America. The House Un-American Activities Committee, established in 1938, went after dozens of alleged “communists” who were deemed too influential to the American people, blacklisting artists like Langston Hughes and Leonard Bernstein. It is safe to say that while the government of the United States has guaranteed its citizens freedom of speech in many instances, the expression of socialist ideology seems to be an exception to the rule.

Yet Americans are right to be afraid. Their wariness is entirely justified. We hear the word “socialist” most often as part of an acronym, like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the National Socialist German Workers Party. Regimes bearing the name “socialist” have taken millions of innocent lives. Many Americans who live here today fled from communist regimes in Cuba, China, and Eastern Europe. China, the most influential socialist country in the world, is currently home to an extremely powerful central government with a poor human rights record and virtually no freedom of expression; not to mention workers’ rights aren’t any better there than in the rest of the world. For immigrants from these countries, nothing about the idea of socialism is appealing, and it would be naive and irresponsible to say Americans have no reason to be afraid.

But the word “socialist” on its own does not mean any of these things. Socialism, as defined by Oxford, is a political ideology which advocates that the means of production and exchange be regulated by the community as a whole. Just as many terrible regimes have appropriated the word “democratic” in order to win over the trust of the people, the word “socialist” has lent itself to oppressive governments who seek to draw in the support of the average citizen, only to abuse their power later on. When one researches the party platform of Democratic Socialists of America, it becomes clear that these regimes are not what inspires today’s movement.

According to the DSA party platform, one key aspect of Democratic Socialist ideology is incorporating certain principles of socialism through the legislative processes of a democratic, capitalist society. This puts Democratic Socialists in direct dichotomy with Marx, who asserted that an overthrow of the current government was necessary to redistribute wealth to the people. While both Communism and Democratic Socialism advocate for a stronger central government, Communists would argue that this power should be used to prevent insurrections and take control of the corporate sector, while Democratic Socialists would argue that this power should be limited and used to regulate, not destroy, powerful corporations.

Climate change is reaching a critical point. The income gap in America is greater than ever before. College debt is skyrocketing with no signs of slowing down. The American people are  becoming more and more exasperated with the government in general, pulling apart to more extreme wings of their respective parties. Democratic Socialists in America argue that in a country in which politics remains inexorably tied to money, the best way to truly give power to the people is by taking an economic approach.

But Americans shouldn’t hold their breath. In a country with a history of Red Scares and founding principles of rugged individuality, a Democratic Socialist revamp of government leadership could be light-years away. The United States is so vast and so diverse that a self-described Socialist presidential candidate may prove too idealistic to win over a majority of voters. Radical change can only come if a large number of Americans agree that they want to make a difference, and it seems that Americans are agreeing less now than ever before.