Hope in a Dark Era: In the Face of Barbarism, Thousands Turn to Democratic Socialism
In his book The American Left and Some British Comparisons, published in 1971, the renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith sought to analyze the persistent shortcomings of the Democratic Party. The stakes, he believed, were quite high, as the collapse of the New Deal order seemed imminent.
Almost fifty years later, Galbraith's study makes for striking reading. Take, for example, the following observation.
"Everything considered," Galbraith wrote, "if the test of the success of a party is the quality and number of its office holders, the Democrats are not doing well."
One can find similarly apt passages throughout, like Galbraith's lament that Democratic Party had carelessly abandoned its commitment to progressive change and had "become a defender of the status quo." But the most prescient pages of the book are those in which Galbraith — who was hardly a radical — offered his recommendations for the Democratic Party of the future.
Condemning the extent to which the prevailing economic order privileged corporate profits over all else, Galbraith urged Democrats to chart a new path. No longer, he argued, could those negatively affected by soaring income inequality and stagnant wages "be told that the system works."
Instead, "The Democratic Party must henceforth use the word socialism. It describes what is needed."
But Democrats ultimately chose to sprint in precisely the opposite direction: Far from embracing socialism, they doubled down on capitalism.
In the years following the publication of Galbraith's short volume, a wave of advocates of a "Third Way" rose to prominence, promising private sector growth and an end to "the era of big government." Bill Clinton emerged as the movement's torchbearer, calling forth a "New Covenant" that would revitalize the economy and move the Democratic Party beyond the traditional strictures of "tax-and-spend liberalism."
Though he never put it in such frank terms, Clinton's goal was to shove the Democratic Party to the right, to pick up the burgeoning professional class and the business interests that had long bankrolled the Republican juggernaut.
The results of the so-called New Democrats' hold on power were nicely summarized in a 1994 New York Times editorial, which observed that "Instead of fighting to dismantle Washington's big money system, President Clinton has helped his party become its biggest beneficiary. Pledges to clean up the nation's campaign financing procedures notwithstanding, Mr. Clinton has expended more time and energy courting well-to-do donors at fancy private receptions than prodding Congress to enact serious political reform."
Though Galbraith was cautiously optimistic that the Democratic Party could, in time, become genuinely progressive — that it could reclaim power from "the great corporations" and affirm an ambitious economic and social agenda — he also understood the consequences of failure.
"If the Democratic Party does not render this function," he wrote, "it has no purpose at all. The play will pass to those that do espouse solutions, or in frustration espouse violence as a substitute."
In 2016, the cumulative failures of the Democratic establishment finally came to a head.
Displaying both the arrogance that comes with a sense of inevitability and sheer incompetence, the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton failed to foreclose the possibility that a blustering reality television star — running on a platform of open bigotry and calls to violence — could ascend to the White House.
But it turns out that it can, after all, happen here.
The Clinton campaign's uninspired, status quo-affirming economic agenda — made even less credible by her frequent and shameless galas, replete with shady influence peddlers and superstars — enabled Donald Trump, a billionaire wage thief, to position himself as an economic populist. Trump railed against the bosses in ways that Clinton would not; he rallied union workers and former Obama voters by promising to be their "voice," by vowing to stand up to those who promised change but, in the end, delivered more of the same.
As reality settles — and as President-elect Donald Trump stocks his cabinet with horrifying right-wingers — people are casting about for alternatives; many share the view of Slate's Jim Newell who, writing after the election results were reported, argued, "The Democratic Party establishment has beclowned itself and is finished."
Perhaps the most viable alternative, then, is to take Galbraith's advice, to turn toward socialism. "It describes what is needed."
Inspired by the compelling argument that Bernie Sanders — with his robust economic and social agenda bent on reversing the trend toward greater inequality — would have handily defeated Donald Trump had he emerged victorious from the Democratic primary, and driven by a sense of urgency sparked by the prospect of at least four years of a Trump presidency, thousands have joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the wake of the election.
"I was planning to sign up for DSA on Election Day no matter what; I joined before the results started coming in," Margaret McLaughlin, a local government employee based in Washington, D.C., told me. "The results helped push a few friends and family members to join as well. It had a catalytic effect."
Catalytic, indeed: One prominent organizer noted that "the amount of people we've registered today alone" — Election Day — "has shattered our monthly new member record." In total, DSA has registered nearly 3,000 new members since the election, pushing the organization over 10,000 members.
DSA, founded in 1982, is the largest and fastest-growing socialist organization in the United States. Its goal is "to build a radical and effective openly democratic socialist presence at the grassroots," Maria Svart, DSA's National Director, said at the Socialist Caucus, which took place during the Democratic National Convention.
As I wrote in September, DSA has benefited greatly from Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign; the appeal of democratic socialism has been particularly notable among young people seeking alternatives to a political establishment that has been captured by organized wealth — and thus has become, in many cases, actively hostile to the interests of the working class.
"The world is rapidly changing and I see the Democratic establishment as a rusty machine that is trying desperately to stay the same while only paying lip service to new voices with the rhetoric of 'inclusion' and 'equality,'" McLaughlin told me. "If it doesn't change to represent the real economic wants and needs of — not just young people, but people struggling all across the U.S. — then it will continue to lose relevance in the coming years and eventually die out. DSA's platform is actually addressing those concerns."
Like other left-wing organizations, DSA is often faced with what the historians Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps call the dilemma of "margin and mainstream" — the choice, sometimes overlapping, between working outside of traditional power structures and attempting to change them from the inside.
Such strategic questions are, however, secondary to solidarity, particularly in the era of "global Trumpism."
DSA's tent is quite broad: Ideologically, the organization is not rigidly doctrinaire. Rather, it emphasizes core principles.
"At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end," DSA's website declares. "As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people."
As such, DSA has expressed solidarity with the tireless water protectors at Standing Rock and the workers protesting for better wages nationwide; it has denounced austerity, both at home and abroad; and it has called on "progressives across the United States to join together in a broad coalition against the rising tide of racist and nativist politics in the United States."
In the recent squabbles over the roles of identity politics and economic populism, democratic socialists argue that it is possible to do both: To put forward an agenda that doesn't compromise on social justice or economic justice.
"We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo," the organization's official statement of values and goals reads. "We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships."
As polling data and the successes of the Sanders campaign have indicated, many others share these values; they simply need a vehicle through which they can effectively express them.
"DSA is growing because more and more activists on the Left are finding a political home. It is growing because it is an organization that says liberalism is tired and worn out, and more and more people are coming to that conclusion," Kim Jones, the co-chair of DSA's Twin Cities chapter, told me. "DSA is different from liberalism in that liberalism never challenged corporate power and the one percent, which is the only path to strengthening American democracy, fairness, and justice. Democratic liberalism never acknowledged that capitalism is the problem."
And as Jacobin's Connor Kilpatrick has noted, Democrats' "rhetorical embrace of social liberalism alongside a staunch rejection of populist class politics" has rendered them unable to provoke sufficient enthusiasm at the grassroots. They have, instead, opted to vie for the professionals, for the technocrats, for the so-called "moderate Republicans" — most of whom reject the agenda that is necessary to combat soaring income inequality, systemic racism, and climate change.
This failed strategy, and this failed ideology, paved the way for Trump.
There is little hope that anything good will come of this — that, somehow, the horrors of Trumpism will hasten the coming revolution or heighten capitalism's contradictions, or anything of the sort.
Rather, the prevailing view is that Trump will bring about much worth fighting against; his presidency, in combination with Republican control of Congress, places at immediate risk the most vulnerable members of our society, and is an extraordinary threat to organized labor and the environment. As Sam Kriss has noted, "We need a radical left so there can be any kind of fight at all." But an effective opposition must emphasize, also, that there is much worth fighting for — a positive agenda to be pursued.
There is, says Simone Morgen, a member of DSA's National Political Committee, a "felt need to counter the divisiveness and racism that the Trump campaign stirred up as well as a need to work for a more fair and inclusive economic system than the neoliberal structure promised. DSA's core values of support for a multi-racial, socially just and inclusive future are a natural fit for people trying to resist some of [Trump's] exclusionary ideas."
For new DSA members, Trump's victory falls neatly within the framework of the famous dictum: "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism."
"If you read a lot of the responses from people about why they are coming to DSA, you see a real anxiety about many governments, now including our own, turning toward populist authoritarianism due to the economic policies of neoliberalism that put capital ahead of labor and the working class," says Stefan, a new member who told me he is looking to set up a chapter in Pittsburgh.
"I think lots of people know that financial capitalism can't deliver what it promises, especially when it comes to jobs, and they're especially fed up with neoliberalism and being told that the the private sector will solve our problems and if it doesn't, it's our fault as individuals," says Leo Gertner, who recently joined DSA's D.C. chapter. "For a long time we've been told there's no alternative, that this is the best we can do, but clearly there are alternatives — one of these is fascism and another is democratic socialism."
At present, it is difficult to justify even the most cautious optimism. But if one looks hard enough, and in the right places, one will find that people are turning not to despair, but to mass politics.
People are joining the fight against the corporate plunderers on the plains of North Dakota; people are marching in the streets, risking arrest, to voice their opposition to right-wing demagoguery; people are organizing and striking for better wages; and people are joining organizations that offer left alternatives to the stale corporate centrism of the Democratic Party.
"Lots of us have begun to realize that we need to build the foundations for a larger movement ten, twenty years from now and stop waiting around for a miracle," says Leo Gertner. "DSA is doing the hard work to accomplish that."
It is clear that to effectively combat society's most pressing ills — climate change and endless war, soaring inequality and crippling poverty, fascism and bigotry — we need a radical imagination, and radical action. In the face of barbarism, we need socialism; in the face of authoritarians, we need grassroots movements; in the face of corporate power, we need unions; and in the face of inequality and division, we need solidarity.
"The very fact that people are coming to DSA as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump shows that they know that DSA is the place to be in forming the resistance," Kim Jones told me. "It gives me hope, as we enter a dark era. And hope gives life."