Socialism in American Politics


A specter is haunting America. The specter of socialism.

As an idea, socialism is difficult to pin down. Ask people from different walks of life for their definition, and you’re bound to get very different answers. From socialism’s origins in the 19th century to the establishment of a multitude of socialist nations during the 20th century, the United States has always defined itself as opposed to the leftist ideology. America was founded on capitalism, and has seen it as its duty to defend any threats to this system. But in the 21st century, should socialism still be seen as a threat?

When terms like socialism, populism, democratic socialism and progressivism are thrown around, it can often lead to great confusion. Furthermore, even as socialism’s reputation has changed, the closely intertwined ideas of communism remain unpopular in the States. For the sake of simplicity, socialism will be used as an umbrella term for these collectivist ideas.

Socialism has never truly cemented itself in the United States. Its biggest platform was during the presidential elections of 1912, when Eugene V. Debs received 6% of the vote running on the Socialist Party ticket. Shortly after, the first Red Scare, a period of intensified fear-mongering against leftist ideas, swept the nation. A culture developed that would prevent socialism from finding a foothold in the political landscape.

“One of the things I teach about American political culture is this emphasis on individualism,” said Kathryn Lyons, the US Government and AP Comparative Government teacher at Clayton High School. “Individual rights, and also the individual’s responsibility to take care of yourself and pull yourself by your bootstraps. This idea of individualism often doesn’t connect with this idea of collectivism, where as a society we have to come together to help each other.” She adds that, “Going back to our origins, the government’s involvement in the economy really came down to protection of property rights, and that was about it.”

The US government also instilled a general fear of socialism in the general public in an effort to combat communist influence, conflating the two together both intentionally and by extension. While America fought wars and staged coups to mitigate the spread of communism, they used a variety of techniques to achieve the same goal at home. McCarthyism, coined after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s habit of accusing public figures of being communists, became commonplace, discrediting leftist ideas and politicians. The FBI also carried out attacks against organizations they deemed as threats, most of which were socialist in nature. Known as COINTELPRO, operations could range from invented news fed to the media to assassinations of leading activists.

Today, socialist movements still exist within other countries, as was recently seen in the 2020 Bolivian general election when the Movement to Socialism party won. However, the communist movement that seemed primed for world domination came to an abrupt end in the early 90’s with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Now, only 5 nations still hold the moniker of socialist, leaving socialism a mere shadow of its former global influence. Besides a few nations like Venezuela that stand in opposition to the United States through a form of socialist ideology, an American-led capitalist hegemony covers the globe.

Why then, does socialism never seem to leave the American zeitgeist? Politicians, Republicans in particular, have continued to treat socialism as a leading threat to our country. At the first presidential debate, President Trump accused Biden of entertaining socialist ideas regarding healthcare and climate change. He repeatedly mocked Biden for having “lost the radical left” even when the Democratic nominee denied these claims. This is not the first time Trump has slammed socialist ideas. The president once said America “will never be a socialist country” during a rally, and similar assertions are made in his email newsletter on a daily basis.

These comments have not come out of nowhere. In recent years, the Democratic party has been home to more left-leaning elected officials, the most prominent being Bernie Sanders. A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist and longtime proponent of socialist policies such as Medicare for All, the independent Vermont senator gained national attention when he came in second for the Democratic presidential nominee in both 2016 and 2020. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to be elected to Congress, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She is a part of the Squad, a group of influential progressives including congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, known for penning the Green New Deal. A shift to the left can be seen right here in St Louis, when democratic socialist Cori Bush unexpectedly defeated the more moderate incumbent Lacy Clay in this year’s Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st congressional district.

Socialism has long been a dirty word in American politics. For many years, using it in a non-disparaging context implied an alignment with America’s enemies. Now, the increase in politicians who are not afraid of being labeled has been accompanied by a rise in socialism’s popularity. According to a Gallup poll in 2019, 39% of Americans had a positive view of socialism. This percentage increases to 50% for Millenials and members of Gen Z. (2) 40% of Americans also said they would prefer a socialist system to a capitalist one.(1)While 29% of Americans said they would be comfortable voting for a socialist candidate (6), the number went as high as 70% for millennials. (5) These numbers might surprise those that think the American spirit is incompatible with the notion of socialism.

The popularity of socialism among younger Americans can be attributed to several factors. Most grew up after the Cold War, when the stigma surrounding socialism had greatly diminished. More important, however, is the multitude of pressing issues facing us as a society. Many millennials felt abandoned by the system after the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, our economic woes have not been alleviated. Wealth inequality is at an all time high, with the top 1% owning 15 times as much as the bottom 50%. (12) 52% of young adults live with their parents, more than during the Great Depression. (8) 43.4% of adults aged 19 to 64 are not adequately insured, while many families find it difficult to financially recover from medical procedures. (10)

Societal issues are just as prevalent. Discussions on racial injustice and discrimination have only intensified, especially as the United States continues to become more diverse (12). Discussion of the treatment of individuals based on gender and sexuality has also expanded significantly in the last decade. Meanwhile, the threat of climate change continues to loom, perhaps the most universal and pressing issue of them all.

When society is faced with significant challenges, it tends to turn towards the government and form a collectivist mindset, a mindset that suits socialism. Politicians that represent this viewpoint have been increasingly successful for this very reason. It is no surprise that the generations who will have to bear the brunt of these problems are becoming more socialist, questioning if their concerns can ever be addressed under capitalism. “I started out as a left-leaning democrat. Then I began thinking about who my ideology benefits. I found my beliefs really benefited the corporate structure, which is the root of the problem and needs to be addressed,” said a CHS student who wishes to remain anonymous. “I am a socialist because I believe in achieving equality and people being able to have a decent life.”

The younger, more socialist generations have been the ones leading the recent waves of protests. “Right now people are falling into socialism because of the inequalities, not only around them, but in the news. People are becoming disillusioned with a lot of the things present in society.” the student explains. 70% of Gen Z and 64% of millennials say the government should do more to solve our problems (12), but many are willing to take matters into their own hands. The Black Lives Matter movement has grown into a powerful political force, especially in 2020. Climate change protests have not only swept the US, but the globe. Both address problems that are deeply entrenched in how this country operates. Both are spearheaded by young adults.

Although socialism has never been very successful in national politics, it has always risen in reaction to the tides of destructive and exclusionary ideas. Leaders in the Civil Rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party considered themselves socialist. Many anti-war protests, from Vietnam to Iraq, have been socialist-led. Socialism has played an important role in labor, indigenous, and feminist movements. This tradition continues today, without the backdrop of the Cold War and with modern technology to aid it.

Yet much of the Red Scare propaganda leveled against socialism lasts until today. President Trump is one of the biggest culprits of its perpetuation. “The president has the ability to control the narrative of what socialism is. When the media is so closely following one person, what they say controls the message on that specific topic. Socialism in the economy is an example of that, where you can see the president’s ability to change the narrative around what socialism is and frame it in the negative.” says Lyons. The leader of the free world has spoken against the Black Lives Matter movement, called protestors thugs, and refused to condemn white supremacists at the first presidential debate. Trump has fanned the flames of fear surrounding the Antifa movement, which has a large socialist element, and frames China as a dangerous socialist threat attempting to bring down America. He lumps all his opponents into one nebulous leftist bubble that he can mold as he sees fit. Times may have changed, but scare tactics have not.

In many ways, socialism is still a dirty word. Nearly a third of Americans consider the term “socialist” to be an insult, according to YouGov. Yet, many support some form of socialist policy, such as job guarantees. “We are made to feel that capitalism is our only option, and we need to make the most out of our misery, but it’s actually the opposite of that” the student elaborates “All the possibilities in the world exist outside of capitalism.”

This has led many socialists to wonder if America is ever capable of change. “I think people are realizing that our current system has no morality to appeal to,” says the CHS student, “A state conceived through genocide and slavery cannot change its nature without undergoing a revolution.” The more radical elements of socialism are certainly not mainstream, but with the continual polarization of politics and the rise of more right-wing elements, how things will play out remains to be seen. “Traditionally people have been able to compromise to pass policies,” says Lyons. “We are not necessarily in traditional times. More recently, polarization has been driving policy makers apart, and they are less likely to work together to get things done. We see evidence of this in the stalling of the current aid package in Congress.”

If one thing is true about socialism in American politics, it’s that it is not monolithic, nor does it have a concrete form. It appears in many ways, through strikes, protests, and increasingly, the ballot. Some believe reform is most effective, some think revolution. The common thread is a desire for equality, and a desire for change for the good of all.

Time will tell if socialism will find its place in American politics. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the flaws within our system. With unemployment reaching new heights and a health crisis enveloping the nation, Americans will have to decide on a solution. “We are in a crisis that could lead to a transformation of American political culture. How the next administration deals with it is going to be a deciding factor,” Lyons adds, “Are the American people going to shift more to the collectivist unity approach to solving this great problem that faces all Americans? I would like to hope so.”

Socialism might be seen as a threat by some, but when change is needed, it will always appear. Today, change is needed more than ever. Whether that forces American politics to accept socialism into its fold remains to be seen.