This is an old rhetorical move, not a serious piece of contemporary political analysis. As the Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman, the author of a new book on free enterprise, has pointed out, Republicans have termed whatever the Democrats have wanted as “socialism” and whomever they choose to run as a “socialist” regularly since the New Deal. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis: all socialists.
“The key is the binary framing, freedom or free enterprise on one side, and any modification of that is deemed socialism on the other,” Glickman told me. “If you mess with with free enterprise, you will ultimately get through the slippery-slope process to what they posit as socialism. And socialism is more often a code word for New Deal liberalism and its descendants than actual socialism.”
Indeed, the country’s binary politics elide much of the nuance that exists on the left in other countries. Democrats have moved toward what is elsewhere often called “social democracy,” meaning a mixed economy with a robust welfare state. “It’s a term that’s common in Europe that’s never taken off here,” explains Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown and a longtime activist on the left. “That’s what Bernie Sanders is. Certainly, he’d be right at home in the Labour Party in Britain.” Further to the left lies democratic socialism, which supports social ownership of the economy itself.
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But these separations are not clean; the lines between social democrats and democratic socialists and progressives and New Deal Democrats are drawn and erased and redrawn over and over again. Making the whole thing more confusing is the fact that Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, not a proponent of social democracy. Making it even more confusing is the fact that the country’s most popular and influential socialist organization—the DSA’s membership has swelled to nearly 60,000, from just a few thousand a few years ago—endorses Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama and Sanders.
The decision is tactical, Kazin says, and serves to expand the DSA’s influence and the influence of socialist ideas. “Given we have a zero-sum political system and given the fact that the two parties are quite ideologically opposed now, I think a third party on the left would be suicide,” he told me. “It would just help Republicans, as Jill Stein did in 2016.”
Members of Socialist Action, the SPUSA, and other third parties see it differently, arguing that the Democratic Party is irredeemably compromised and that voters deserve true alternatives. “Nothing ever changes without independent mass struggle—independent of the two parties, which both represent, fundamentally, the interests of the rich,” Moorehead told me. “We can’t have a kinder, gentler capitalism.”
The socialists’ campaigns and socialist parties might not be popular. But that idea surely is, as evidenced by Sanders’s success, the populist drift of all the Democratic candidates, and the popularity of proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Come 2020, there won’t be a socialist in the White House. But there might be some socialism.