Opinion | The New Socialists - The New York Times
Throughout most of American history, the idea of socialism has been a hopeless, often vaguely defined dream. So distant were its prospects at midcentury that the best definition Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, editors of the socialist periodical Dissent, could come up with in 1954 was this: “Socialism is the name of our desire.”
That may be changing. Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party, which the political analyst Kevin Phillips once called the “second-most enthusiastic capitalist party” in the world. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people.
What explains this irruption? And what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about “socialism”?
Another part of the story is less accidental. Since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.
Liberals, of course, argue that they are merely using market-friendly tools like tax cuts and deregulation to achieve things like equitable growth, expanded health care and social justice — the same ends they always have pursued. For decades, left-leaning voters have gone along with that answer, even if they didn’t like the results, for lack of an alternative.
It took Mr. Sanders to convince them that if tax credits and insurance exchanges are the best liberals have to offer to men and women struggling to make stagnating wages pay for bills that skyrocket and debt that never dissipates, maybe socialism is worth a try.
Like the great transformative presidents, today’s socialist candidates reach beyond the parties to target a malignant social form: for Abraham Lincoln, it was the slavocracy; for Franklin Roosevelt, it was the economic royalists. The great realigners understood that any transformation of society requires a confrontation not just with the opposition but also with the political economy that underpins both parties. That’s why realigners so often opt for a language that neither party speaks. For Lincoln in the 1850s, confronting the Whigs and the Democrats, that language was free labor. For leftists in the 2010s, confronting the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s socialism.
To critics in the mainstream and further to the left, that language can seem slippery. With their talk of Medicare for All or increasing the minimum wage, these socialist candidates sound like New Deal or Great Society liberals. There’s not much discussion, yet, of classic socialist tenets like worker control or collective ownership of the means of production.
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