From left to right: Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Wichita.
explainer / power

America Can Never Sort Out Whether ‘Socialism’ Is Marginal or Rising

For more than a century, we’ve managed to think socialism is both a dead letter and the wave of the future — at the same time.
“Can you donate $5 NOW to defeat the socialist uprising?” a Republican congressional candidate tweeted in late June — just after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified democratic socialist, won a New York congressional primary. Numerically speaking, the socialist “uprising” remains small: one safe-seat Democratic primary, a presidential-primary near miss by Bernie Sanders, a handful of local races around the country and a total membership of about 40,000 for the Democratic Socialists of America. What it all means, though, is a different matter. American politics may speak in the language of statistics and projections, but when it comes to the question of socialism, hard numbers have never counted for much. A lot can be a little, and a little can be a lot, and either one may or may not be a sign of more in the future.

In 1906, for instance, the German scholar Werner Sombart published a classic essay asking, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” One answer he identified was workers’ access to “roast beef and apple pie,” consumer luxuries that led them to reject European-style class politics. But another response is that there was, at the time, actually quite a lot more socialism in the United States than Sombart let on, particularly in the Midwest. In 1912, 6 percent of the presidential vote went to the socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, setting off predictions of, well, a socialist uprising.

A strange logic has always surrounded this topic in the United States: Both interpretations — that socialism is a dead letter and that it is the wave of the future — can exist side by side. At the end of the Cold War, we heard that socialism was at last forever vanquished, but in 2009 Newsweek declared that “We Are All Socialists Now.” By 2016, Sanders’s presidential campaign was reviving talk of a “revolution” in the making, as if nobody remembered that we had already been socialists for seven years.

Some of this revolution is said to be occurring outside the electoral sphere, where trends can be hard to measure. Polls suggest that almost half of millennials have a favorable impression of socialism, though surveys rarely delve into the details. After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Merriam-Webster reported a surge in look-ups for “socialism” — which could be evidence of a significant surge in sympathy and interest, or just a reminder that many people in 2018 remain unsure what “socialism” really means
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