By Chris McGreal
At 18, Olivia Katbi was answering the phones and emails in a Republican state senator’s office in Ohio. Then the legislator threw his weight behind a particularly contentious anti-abortion law. “I realised that the party I’m working for is evil. After that I identified as a Democrat but I wasn’t really happy with their policies either,” said Katbi, now 25.
Back then, she couldn’t articulate her reservations about President Barack Obama. There were the drone strikes, and the limitations of his healthcare reforms. But mostly it was a frustrating sense he wasn’t serving her interests so much as those of a monied elite. So in the 2012 presidential election, Katbi voted for Jill Stein, the Green party candidate. But that didn’t change the world.
It was only last year, when Bernie Sanders made his run under the banner of democratic socialism, that it all started to fall into place.
“My politics were to the left of the Democratic party but I didn’t realise there was an entire ideology, an entire movement that was there. It had never occurred to me,” said Katbi. “Bernie was my introduction to the concept of democratic socialism. It’s not like I associated it with the cold war. It was a new concept to me completely. That was the case for a lot of millennials, which is why the movement has grown so much.”
Katbi, who works at an organization helping to settle immigrants and refugees in Portland, Oregon, became “socialist curious”. She joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a rapidly growing big-tent movement that has drawn in former communists and fired up millennials. The DSA is now the largest socialist organization in the US as surging membership, which has quadrupled since the election to around 25,000, has breathed new life into a once dormant group. New branches have sprung up, from Montana to Texas and New York. Earlier this month, hundreds of delegates gathered in Chicago for the only DSA convention in years to attract attention.
Part of its membership veers toward Scandavian-style social democracy of universal healthcare and welfare nets. Others embrace more traditional socialism of large-scale public ownership. But the label has been taken up by other millennials who do not identify with any particular political institution. They come at it through protest movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter, fueled by frustration at the Democratic party’s failure to take seriously the deepening disillusionment with capitalism, income inequality and the corporate capture of the US government.
With that has come debate not only about pay, housing and proposals for universal basic income, but a reappraisal of the role of the government in people’s lives in favor of greater state intervention.
According to recent polling, a majority of Americans adults under the age of 30 now reject capitalism, although that does not translate into automatic support for socialism. For Katbi, though, the path is clear. Six months after the election, she is leaving Sanders behind. “I really don’t like saying that Bernie was my gateway to socialism, just because I feel like I’m more left than him now, and I also think there’s a very bizarre cult of personality around Bernie,” she said.
Ask what socialism is, and Katbi looks to the campaign by the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in this year’s British election.
“I really liked Labour’s succinct tagline: for the many, not the few. That’s a great summary of what socialism is. It’s democratic control of the society we live in. That includes universal healthcare. Universal education. Public housing. Public control of energy resources. State ownership of banks. That’s what I understand socialism to be when I heard Bernie Sanders introduce it,” she said.
Labour’s manifesto caught the attention of young leftwing activists in the US because, in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign platform, it laid out a clear set of ideas they could identify with. Some in the DSA are also finding common cause with Momentum, the leftwing British grassroots organisation formed in 2015 to back Corbyn which in turn has drawn inspiration from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
“The people I’m friends with who don’t identify as socialist are definitely supportive of certain socialist policies, like single-payer healthcare,” said Katbi. “Everyone has student loan debt and everyone’s rents are exorbitant and everyone’s paying like $300-a-month premiums for Obamacare. It’s common sense for people my age.”
The alarm created at the prospect of millions of people losing their coverage while millions more see their health insurance premiums surge has pushed the new breed of democratic socialists to embrace universal healthcare as the gateway issue to bring large numbers of Americans, including a lot of Trump voters, around to the idea that government regulation can work for them.
Americans who came of age during the cold war saw socialism being characterized as the close cousin of Soviet communism, and state-run healthcare as a first step to the gulags. There are still those attempting to keep the old scare stories alive.
It was the old cold war warriors who helped detoxify socialism for younger Americans when the Tea Party and Fox News painted Obama – a president who recapitalised the banks without saving the homes of families in foreclosure – as a socialist for his relatively modest changes to the healthcare system.
Then came Sanders.
“With the Bernie phenomenon, suddenly you’re able to utter the S-word in public,” said Nick Caleb, 35, a long time leftwing activist who joined the DSA shortly after the election, as membership of its Portland branch surged.
Caleb said that even before Sanders ran, the Occupy Wall Street movement had prompted a scrutiny of capitalism. “Occupy Wall Street happened and there was a broader debate about what capitalism was, and we started to highlight the pieces of it that were most awful. So there was an articulation of what capitalism was, and then it meant someone had to define what socialism means, and we sort of left that space open,” he said.
At the heart of the ideas flooding into that space is a debate about the role of the state after decades of conservatives painting government as oppressive and a burden keeping good Americans down.
The campaign over healthcare, the anger sparked by the rapaciousness of big banks bailed out by the taxpayer, and a belief that only the state has the strength to reverse deepening inequality is breathing new life into the old idea that the government is there to control capitalism, rather than capitalism controlling the government.
If that takes hold among a wider group of millennials, it will represent a seismic shift in the way many Americans think about the pre-eminent role of the state and capitalism in their lives.
To an older generation of leftwing activists, that sounds a lot like the New Deal – President Franklin Roosevelt’s bold attempt to remake the American economic system and rein in the forces of capitalism in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs to millions made unemployed by economic collapse, was at one time the single largest employer in the country. A raft of legislation addressed pay, working conditions and housing. Roosevelt also introduced banking regulation that stayed in place until the 1990s. Roosevelt saw the reforms as laying the foundations for the kind of social democratic society the US helped build in western Europe after the second world war.
“Young people who say that they’re socialists, or look favourably on socialism, they’re thinking about a kind of New Deal government or democracy against markets,” said Frances Fox Piven, coauthor of a widely debated radical plan in the 1960s to alleviate poverty and create a basic income, and more recently the targetof a vilification campaign by Fox News.
“What the New Deal represented was government efforts to regulate an unbridled capitalism and to supplement the distribution of income under markets with government programs.”
Piven, a City University of New York professor, sees a shift in thinking among some younger Americans reflecting a time before politicians conflated democracy with the free market and government with private business.
“The New Deal is the clearest and boldest period in the wake of real collapse in capitalist markets. You could just call it economic democracy,” she said. “What they got right was the imperative of regulating the economy. That development was cut short by the second world war and the urgency with which the government turned to big business to cooperate in the war effort and gave a lot of licence to big business. It stopped the New Deal in its tracks.”
After that came the red scare, McCarthyism and the rise of global corporations. Still, President Lyndon B Johnson built on the New Deal’s legacy in the 1960s with his “war on poverty” and “great society” programs expanding welfare, greatly reducing the number of people living in poverty, and establishing Medicaid and Medicare – America’s system of public health insurance for the very poor and the elderly.
Then came Reagan revolution and the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism.
The New Deal still lingers in the American consciousness. Not so the once bouyant Socialist Party of America, long faded from popular memory. A century ago, socialists were routinely elected to public office in the US and the party’s presidential candidate drew close to a million votes in the 1912 and 1920 elections.
There are few socialists elected to public office in the US today. The most prominent is Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative party, who won a seat on Seattle’s city council in 2013 and drove through an increase in the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. She was re-elected two years ago promising a tax on the rich in a state with no income tax. In July, the city council unanimously passed a 2.25% city tax on people earning more than $250,000 a year, although there will be no windfall from the Amazon and Microsoft billionaires who live outside its boundaries.
Sawant has few illusions about why the measure passed. She describes the Democratic party majority on the council as beholden to corporate interests whose hand was forced by the popular mood. Sawant also suspects that other council members are counting on the courts to strike down the new tax. But that the vote happened at all is evidence of the political shift under way.
Sawant is a Marxist who wants to see industry taken into public ownership or worker cooperatives. But she recognises that there’s a long way to go before Americans are ready for that. Still, she sees opportunity in what she calls an “amazing change in the consciousness of America”.
“We are in a fundamentally new period. The Occupy movement really took people by surprise. They realized there was something different going on here. The younger generation of America was not going to be another docile generation waiting for their little piece of the American dream, partly because that little piece of the American dream wasn’t going to come to them because of the crisis capitalism is in,” she said.
“I, for one, am elated, actually elated, at the starting point where people are angry at corporate politics, angry at neo-liberalism, angry at austerity. This is a massive cauldron and this is historic.”
One challenge for the new breed of social democrats and socialists is to find the vehicle to electoral success. In the UK, the Labour party is the official opposition, with socialist antecedents Corbyn is attempting to revive. Today’s American socialists are split on whether to revive a New Deal-style Democratic party or forge a new organisation. The DSA has for now decided against becoming a political party.
A recently elected member of Chicago city council, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, argued that the Democratic party offered a path to single-payer healthcare and $15-an-hour minimum wage because so many people vote for it as a default. But Caleb is sceptical. He thought for a short while that the Democrats might learn the lessons of Sanders’ campaign and Clinton’s defeat to back away from neoliberalism.
“I was somewhat hopeful after the election that the Democrats would get the memo but it’s obvious the party’s not going to change. They’ll make minor concessions but they’re tied to Silicon Valley. They had a chance to make an abrupt change and they haven’t done it,” he said. “They can’t think of anything but a market solution with tax credits and things like that. The Democratic party couldn’t even reconstitute a platform like the New Deal.”
Piven, meanwhile, said the two party system smothered real debate about the issues most people care about. She said protest movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter – as well as the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration and the mass protests over the Muslim ban – forced issues on to the political agenda.
One of the bigger obstacles to broadening support for real socialism in America may not be so much specific policies – although there will be a lot of people doubtful about the DSA’s proposals to abolish police forces and prisons – so much as perceptions of who is now a socialist.
“I want to dispel the reputation of socialism that it’s a bunch of white men talking about theory,” said Katbi. “People are hesitant to join because they’re like, is it a bunch of Bernie bros? The implication is it’s a bunch of white men yelling about Marx. It’s not.”
The “brocialist” label has given added impetus to a drive for more diversity. “In DSA we’ve been very intentional about building a movement that is diverse,” said Katbi. “Amplifying the voices of women and people of color and people who have previously been oppressed. Everything we do, we do it with that in mind.”
That has created its own tensions amid debate about how much focus should be put on class. “Every day you see debates around what should be emphasized,” said Caleb. “Is it a class discussion? Is it an identity discussion?”
Attempts to paint millennials as beholden to identity politics is more than unfair given the Clinton campaign’s assumption that young women like Katbi would automatically vote for a female presidential candidate who claimed she was going to blast through the glass ceiling. Instead, Katbi’s support went to an old white man on the basis of his ideas.
Still, Piven sees lessons in the legacy of the civil rights movement. “There’s a certain amount of discrediting of the identity politics developments that have seemed to dominate the left over the last few decades, but maybe these developments were in a way necessary,” she said. “How could there have been a black civil rights movement without identity politics? Blacks were so disparaged, so dehumanized by American political culture that you had to first have a ‘black is beautiful’ cultural and intellectual and political current. I think the same thing is true of the women’s movement. But if we stay just with identity politics then we can’t grapple with the class forces that are producing the system of stratification and oppression in the United States.”
That means winning over the large numbers of low-income working people who voted for Trump, a task complicated by the sense that the left is dominated by identity politics.
“We won’t be able to build a mass movement for any of the social democratic reforms, let alone for a fundamental shift toward socialism, if we don’t create an opening for those many people who voted for Trump,” said Sawant. “It is extremely important for the left in America to build movements that accomplish a dual task. One is never compromise on the question of oppression – but at the same time reaching the vast majority of working people on a class basis.”
Sawant is not alone in thinking that the entry point is healthcare. She points to packed town hall meetings Sanders has had in West Virginia since the election.
“Who are these people? White people who have been beaten down with entrenched intergenerational poverty and who are desperately looking for a solution. Sanders reached out to them by talking about healthcare, living wages, the need to tax Wall Street and billionaires who have wrought such havoc on their lives. I didn’t see any resistance from those people. I didn’t see anybody saying it was black people or gay people who are responsible for their misery,” she said.
“It would be a fatal mistake not to recognise that there is a whole mass of white working-class people in America who can be won over.”
Katbi recognises that’s a task made even more challenging by Americans’ famed individualism. “There’s a lot of polarisation. I know of people my age who are ardent Trump supporters who are very about individualism, about libertarianism, to an extent. But I think when you really start to think about these things, it’s clear that’s just selfishness and socialism is about the collective good versus hoarding it all for yourself,” she said.