What’s next for Democratic Socialists?
Synopsis: We discuss Senator Sanders’ influence on pushing democratic socialism into the political landscape, along with the barriers and factors that can impede or accelerate the progress of democratic socialism in US politics.
Sen-Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has suspended his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election. Sanders ran on a progressive platform that consisted of a single payer health care system, free college tuition, increase in the federal minimum wage to $15/ hr and increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Now, that former Vice President Joe Biden is set to take on President Donald Trump in the general election this November. Where does this leave the movement of progressive/democratic socialist ideals that have grown in popularity?
There is no doubt that Senator Sanders’ run for the 2016 and 2020 Democratic nominations has pushed the conversation within the Democratic Party away from neoliberalism. Furthermore, his primary runs have been partially credited for inspiring more progressives, women and minorities to run for office in the 2018 midterms and yielding more progressive candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary. Sanders’ willingness to identify as a democratic socialist was used to vilify him as a communist, a socialist, anti-capitalist, a Fidel Castro apologist – one individual even expressed fear that they would be “executed in Central Park” under a Sanders' presidency. Despite the United States’ support of numerous ‘socialist’ programs such as: social security, Medicare/Medicaid, unemployment insurance, $2 trillion bailouts and the support given to military members and their families.
The silver lining for democratic socialists and progressives is that this does not appear to be the end of Sanders in politics, as he filed to seek re-election to the senate in 2024. This, coupled with the rise of self-proclaimed democratic socialists such as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), will only help ‘socialism’ become more mainstream. Furthermore, the Biden 2020 platform does appear to be further left than the Obama 2008 platform. However, campaign promises are utopian ideals that will face fierce resistance, be watered down to get passed, or simply left to rot on the senate majority leader's desk.
Besides the overt “Red Scare” tactics - what stands in the way of democratic socialists pushing further into the mainstream?
President Trump’s re-election? Moderate Democrats and neoliberals will decry any leftward shift as too far, and attribute a loss to this shift. Sanders and company will be blamed for dividing the party and causing low voter turnout - this is why we have seen the mass consolidation (e.g. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Andrew Yang, etc.) behind Biden. Furthermore, consecutive losses by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden will require a restructuring of the Democratic Party, this could result in a stronger embrace of neoliberalism, which could be bad news for democratic socialists.
A Biden election? A Biden win in 2020 could potentially hinder the movement - as it could be argued any further left is too much of a liability. A key question is: In absence of the movement, would Biden run on such a relatively progressive platform?
A leader/numbers? Bernie will be aged 83 at the time of the 2024 general election. Sen. Elizabeth Warrens’ (D-MA, age 70) pull back in support for Medicare for All and non-endorsement of Sanders after Super Tuesday suggests she is unlikely to take the reins of the movement. Despite this, at one time Sen. Warrens’ platform was basically indistinguishable from Sanders’, Biden has adopted some of Warrens’ platform and a potential Biden-Warren ticket should be viewed as progress. “The Squad”, headed by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (age 30), and includes, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN; age 37), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI; age 43) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA; age 46), who all have advocated for more progressive agendas – will be championing the movement for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, more is better - more elected federal, state, and local politicians with progressive ideals with diverse backgrounds would push the party further.
Cost/Benefit of democratic socialism? It’s doubtful anyone in their right mind would turn down free health care, or free tuition - if it were actually free. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch; thus, tax revenue is the only viable option to fund these programs. Despite a plethora of evidence demonstrating democratic socialism yields a better overall quality of life in countries including Denmark, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Finland, Norway and New Zealand compared to the United States, it will be a hard sell to America's cultural preference for an idealistic capitalist society, despite the very real brutalities.
What will help push democratic socialism further into the mainstream?
President Trump re-election? No doubt the 2016 election of Donald Trump contributed to a more diverse political field alongside the emergence of progressive values, likely due to his rhetoric towards race and immigration as well as his policies dealing with immigration, tax cuts, cuts to social programs and attempts to disassemble the affordable care act (ACA). A re-election would likely push progressive values further into the mainstream. Furthermore, as previously discussed, a re-election bid would likely prompt a restructuring of the Democratic Party if faced with consecutive losses by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, which could be good news.
A Biden election? Based on Biden’s campaign platform, his election would be a step further left for the Democratic party than most would have fathomed possible. For example, Biden's plan offers a public health option for those who do not have insurance or want a better plan than their current one. Although not the revolution Sanders’ hoped for, any progress is better than nothing.
Growing income inequality? Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show income inequality has increased from 1979 to 2016. Where the income gains of the top 1% of the population have increased 226%; the next 19% increased 79%; middle 60%, increased 47% and bottom 20%, increased 85% - this is after taxes and redistribution of wealth. Furthermore, since the great recession in 2008, the wealthiest families are the only groups to have increased their net worth. We are projected to see this trend continue into 2021. This is obviously bad news for most Americans, but will likely result pro Democratic Socialist sentiment on economic grounds. Lastly, younger generations reduced levels of wealth and property compared to previous generations could push younger voters to embrace democratic socialism.
Recessions? The great recession led to greater income inequality, which sparked the “Occupy Wall Street”, and consequently increased anti-capitalist sentiment. This sentiment was further fuelled by Congress’ bailout the very people responsible for the economic downturn. Although the current recession is no-one's “fault” per se, the current bailout will again largely benefit investors and the financial sector in lieu of the average Americans’ pay stub. Had the U.S. nationalised the payroll like Denmark and the U.K. governments, they could have used the $2 Trillion to fund the payroll for the entire US population for ~3 months. Hindsight will likely look unfavourably upon the manner in which this stimulus plan was carried out, and the slim $1,200 payment will, to the majority of Americans (which many perceive as a bribe or distraction tactic), will become another catalyst in turning people towards democratic socialism.
Recent polling yielded more favourable views of capitalism vs socialism (57 vs. 28%, respectively). However, the overarching limitation of this poll and others like this, is selection bias- democratic socialism and the option for a mixed economy (which probably best characterizes the U.S. economy) are often omitted from surveys. This could be likened to asking people if they prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream and ignoring people's preference for chocolate/vanilla twist or strawberry or lemon. Differentiating between these societal structures is an important exercise and would likely curb polarization between the capitalists collecting social security checks and the socialists relying on the free market for their 401k growth.
Sen Sanders’ has forever changed the political landscape. His ‘socialist’ ideals have become more mainstream and, based on the campaign platform (can't emphasize that enough) of the presumptive democratic nominee, we may elect the furthest left president in the last 40 years.
Nick Jamnick is a co-founder of and a main contributor to Arctic Medium.