Tabitha Spence writes: The American electoral field is witnessing a leftward shift not seen in at least the past four decades. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for president on the Democratic Party ticket sent shock waves throughout the country, as he openly identified as a (*gasp*) socialist, opening up possibilities for the American Left that had been hitherto foreclosed. [This article was first published in the Daily Times in Pakistan.]
To understand the resurgence of the American Left, one needs to look to the country’s largest socialist organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which is rapidly growing. The group’s membership has ballooned from a paltry 5,000 members in November of 2016 to nearly 50,000 members today. Last year, fifteen members of the Democratic Socialists of America won seats in local elections in thirteen different states, in addition to the 20 members already holding elected office nationwide. This year, dozens of DSA members are contesting in the midterm elections, some of whom have already cleared the Democratic primaries and will be facing Republican opponents in November.
The successful victory in the Democratic primaries for congressional seat of a New York district by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is indicative of this trend. The 28-year-old waitress from the Bronx led a remarkable grassroots campaign to unseat 20-year incumbent Jim Crowley, a seasoned congressman with the backing of corporate donors and the political elite within the Democratic Party. A similar campaign is being run in Delaware, where Air Force veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris is challenging sitting Democratic Senator Tom Carper, known for serving the special corporate and military interests that have bankrolled his campaigns over the past fourteen years.
Given the Cold War nostalgia regarding socialism that continues to haunt the narratives of history in public school curricula and the framing of politics by the mainstream media, this is an unprecedented turn of events. Personally speaking, growing up in central Texas and rural Nebraska I had never heard the idea of ‘socialism’ being invoked in a positive light, as it was widely considered to be a dirty word associated with authoritarianism, famine and gulags. Yet a month ago while visiting my family in Texas I became a proud, card-carrying member of the DSA, and many of my family members (the Trump supporters as well as Hillary supporters) are engaging in discussions and debates about democratic socialist policies in a serious way. How did this incredible reversal of possibilities unfold?
First, we have to take stock of the context that made it possible for people to even consider democratic alternatives to the entrenched neoliberal regime that constitutes American domestic and foreign policy. The impacts of the financial crisis of 2008 characterise the most important reality undergirding the socio-political sphere. While Barack Obama became the candidate of change struggling families put their hopes in for two presidential terms, he was unable to deliver the much needed support required by millions. Instead,the banks were bailed out and the incomes of CEOs continued growing exponentially, while ordinary people were still suffering from unemployment, social cuts and the growing homelessness problem.This backdrop gave rise to increasing mistrust in the political establishment on both sides of the political aisle, and a craving for a genuine alternative approach to dealing with the problems faced by the masses.
This crisis set the scene for narcissistic political outsider, Donald J Trump, to capitalise on the pain people were feeling by generously offering himself as a savior for working families. His claim was that the primary reason for the struggles Americans were facing was a foreign element, which was undercutting and stealing from hardworking Americans. Rather than promoting policies that would grant solidarity and support to already marginalised groups, he has intensified the vilification of ethnic and religious minorities, promoting border walls, Muslim bans, and enforcing inhumane family separations and deportations. Meanwhile, Trump is using his Presidency to continue the neoliberal onslaught of deregulation and tax breaks for corporations and the rich, while further privatisating the public sector and reducing funding for healthcare and education.
The same political, social and economic landscape that yielded Trump’s xenophobic, isolationist, and megalomaniac administration also produced movements for social justice including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Yet, these simmering struggles lacked political or electoral expression, as the mainstream democrats refused to align themselves with these campaigns. By providing a much needed structural analysis,Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign located the crisis where it lies, in an unjust economic and undemocratic political system that reproduces inequality across class, ethnicity, and gender.
Focusing on addressing the day-to-day concerns of the vast majority of Americans, Bernie advocated progressive policies that had been largely dismissed by the Democratic Party establishment as unaffordable and unrealistic. Today, DSA candidates are carrying that mantle forward, with an unapologetic goal of fighting for socialist aims including guaranteed jobs with living wages, debt-free access to healthcare,education, and housing, a plan for rapid climate action, criminal justice reform, and keeping corporate money out of politics. Moreover, rather than simply discussing selected policies, a national debate has opened up about the systemic nature of capitalism and its role in widening inequality in society.
In the world of increasing polarisation, we find ourselves at a crossroads in the US as well as the rest of the world. This moment is ripe with possibilities. Trump offers a path toward more hate, walls, violence and misery for a growing underclass of people. The progressives chart a path toward a more just, equitable, humane and sustainable world. No place in the world is immune from the choices that have to be made.At a time when the wealthiest country in the world has failed to meet the basic needs of its own population, the central premise of the Western development model is seriously in question. After a long night of unquestioned corporate power and an entrenched political establishment, the possibility for an alternative to capitalism is back on the horizon.
[Tabitha Spence is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Lahore School of Economics and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement. First Published in Daily Times, Lahore, 21 August 2018.]