The specter of democratic socialism is (sort of) upon us. At the very least, candidates communicating the Sanders narrative, and advocating his main policy positions, have become more prevalent and more successful. Democratic Socialists of America membership has skyrocketed. The momentum is undoubtedly with grassroots movements, which reject corporate money and have been shifting the Democrats towards the left, much to the chagrin of the party establishment. These leftists are no longer a pesky little nuisance, but a genuine political force, which cannot be undone via strategists or placated offhand. The democratic socialist response has a new sense of integrity and gravity that the party establishment lack.
Americans still hold elites in Washington in low estimation. Many would be right to question the appearance (or lack thereof) of the Democratic Party’s values or program. Even in the run-up to the midterms in November, it was clear that the Democratic establishment strategy was to not have a strategy. After all, conventional wisdom held that a socialist might do well in the Bronx, but probably not in Kansas. Irrespective of whether this non-strategy works at the polls, parties with coherent narratives have a sustainability and clarity that could help them avoid problems, especially as presidential primary races approach.
At least one strong democratic socialist will run on a blue ticket. This person (or persons) will have the organic momentum that a narrative and a strong grassroots movement bring. It won’t be enough for conventional Democrats to run on trust or responsible leadership. Those platitudes can’t beat a narrative, and they have definitely proven impotent, since a large part of the country has a distrust of establishment politicians, red or blue.
It’s worth defining the democratic socialist platform within the party that has given us Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. One could argue that it is plain and simple European social democratic reformism. More accurate interpretations, however, focus on key contextual circumstances. This strategy involves an admission of failure in responding to the financial crisis, but also a political failure in losing touch with the Democratic base (these are related factors). These movements are democratic in the sense that they are re-engaging the grassroots of the party; they consist of socialists who recognize the inequality to which their own party has contributed. This movement can be seen as providing an inwardly and outwardly reflective analysis—one that has been echoed by some of those who would be now considered part of that failure, as Obama admitted in his Johannesburg speech in July.
The admissions of guilt and the frustration with missed opportunities have created a curiosity: American democratic socialism. This ideology incorporates a ready-made logic: more grassroots presence equals better representation, and better representation equals more egalitarian policies. Corporate capital’s influence on democracy creates inequality, but authentic democracy brings socialism—the ownership of the political system by the people, and not by financial muscle. If everyone accepts that corporate power erodes democracy, as Trump’s example demonstrates, then the answer cannot come from those who have inhabited that kind of politics. Top-down answers cannot be considered authentic. The Democratic Party needs to find a way of welcoming the grassroots vision and working with it. Not to do so would mean a missed opportunity and would be tantamount to electoral and political suicide for the party’s elites. Harnessing grassroots enthusiasm gives the party the potential to be bolder: not just to counter Trump’s temperament, but to provide an alternative to the Republican vision for America as a whole.
It’s no surprise that the growth of enthusiasm surrounding democratic socialism has come at a time when the party is recovering from its shocking loss to Trump in 2016. At the start of the decade, right-wing grassroots groups began to shape the Republican party into the form it currently holds, shifting it further rightward and opening up a vacuum which Trump was able to fill, by appealing to the grassroots. This is what happens when conventional answers and status quo politics fail. The Democrats would be foolish—both ideologically and pragmatically—to take a Clintonian line in the coming electoral battles. Trump had a narrative. Of course, it was an erroneous and dangerous one. But the narrative proved the perfect antidote to Hillary Clinton, the establishment liberal. Sanders also had a narrative, which identified key systemic issues at the center of modern America’s crises: namely inequality and corruption, exploitation of the weak at the hands of the powerful. Political semiotics requires an enemy and Trump’s enemy was the immigrant or the liberal media. For Sanders, it was the unquestioned authority of capitalism over our politics and society.
Bloomberg News will proclaim economic success, with the strong dollar and the rise in GDP, but those statistics don’t reflect the reality for working people in America. The lessons of the crash were not learned, and the working class is still living amid the debris of the 2008 financial crisis. Walter Benjamin wrote that “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” A crisis brings division, as people search for answers.
And it doesn’t necessarily matter how correct the answers are. Even if objective truth were universal, it wouldn’t matter in a democracy—the important thing is who wins. That is, who communicates the vision that gets people to vote and have faith in their candidates. In a crisis, political discourse is seemingly forced to provide narratives that starkly contradict each other. The stakes get higher and, to paraphrase the late British socialist Aneurin Bevan, “those who stay in the middle of the road get run over” (Bevan also declared that “the only hope for mankind is democratic socialism”). An economic crisis can quickly turn into a political crisis, which can in turn often lead to an existential crisis. This is where America could be headed if the 2020 election is contested by a Trumpian candidate from within the GOP.
Nations, America included, go through crises when they are fundamentally changed. The examples of the New Deal and of Reaganite neoliberalism demonstrate that out of a crisis often comes a distinct political path that will last until it has weathered its own final crises and led to a new period in the story of the nation.
The Democrats can’t afford to fail again, as they did in 2016. It would be in the party establishment’s own best interests—if only for reasons of pragmatism alone—to embrace the leftward shift in policy and narrative of many of its engaged members. It faces clear risks if it does not: either the party establishment may get steamrollered by a candidate who unites the leftist tendencies, or a vital and growing part of the party’s membership will become disenchanted with them—an attitude which will possibly cost the Democrats another election.
It is politically useful to have a coherent narrative. There are some indications—such as the limiting of superdelegate power—that the party establishment may be bridge building. Senator Warren’s latest bills on anti-corruption reform and co-determined workplaces may provide a glue to unite policy-driven democrats with narrative-driven ones. Both bills strike at the heart of campaign financing and corruption in politics, as well as at the power of the wealthy. They also empower workers. This is a step in the right direction because these projects reflect the demands of democratic socialists, while also being sustainable and appealing to more center-left democrats, who have seen such policies succeed in Europe. Of course, these aren’t the only issues that should unite democrats. Pro-choice, universal healthcare, and some form of gun control are a few others. But Warren’s proposals address the root of the problem, as far as the American political system goes.
Democratic socialist candidates live by an anti-corruption stance. If the party is going to be united in the coming years, it needs to bridge the gap between the new left and the center left. If either wing of the party attempts to purge or sidestep the other, the outcome could mirror Trump’s current position within the Republican party. The establishment wings of both parties aren’t going away anytime soon, so the current goal should be to move them towards a place from whence they can address the demands of their memberships. A Warren presidential campaign—or, at least, a coherent strategy that turns a story into a policy platform—could go some way to making the Democrats more inspiring and putting them in a position to win, while also offering the American people a kind of political revolution.