The Rise of Socialism
By Kaila Philo
As young people, we talk a lot about a very specific strain of politics: race, gender, and sexuality, which makeup “identity politics”. Social justice is often the gateway to a political education, considering it’s the sphere that seems to affect us the most personally. However, it isn’t—at least, identity politics are not the only kind that relate so directly to our wellbeing. Economic justice should be just as prioritized in our discourse, and lately it has been. Ever since Hillary lost the election, there’s been an influx of articles, op-eds, and essays on the stark socioeconomic divide that may have led to a Trump administration. And while it’d be myopic to claim that this dystopic nightmare was born from just racism or just xenophobia or just sexism or just the class divide or just corruption within the Democratic Party, rather than an unholy amalgamation of all these factors, it’s dangerous to underplay the extent to which economics played a role throughout 2016—and, frankly, our entire lives.
If you’re like me, you’ve noticed an anti-capitalist wave waft through social media in the past year. You also may have asked what socialism even was and why it was popping up all of a sudden. That isn’t an easy question at the moment; while there is a single definition of socialism—a political theory that advocates that the means of production should be owned by the community as a whole—there are many different kinds of socialism defined by what it’s done, what it can do, and who it serves best. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on contemporary socialism’s influence in America through one political party, and why it’s rising the way it is.
Ever since the election, there's been articles galore dissecting how involved the white working-class was in Trump’s base. Suddenly there existed two poles: the white working-class and the coastal elites. Pundits assumed populism was driven by white folks throughout the Rust Belt and the Appalachians, and the rest of us were simply “clueless”. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy began flying off the shelves as liberals everywhere sought answers into this netherworld far beyond their purview. To be fair, this is a valid assertion: American media all through 2016 either centered racial strife or the election’s constant, overbearing theatrics. It was easy to forget that poor people existed in a sea of videos about white folks touching our hair.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates debunks in “The First White President,” Trump’s base was not derived mostly of this specific socioeconomic group, though it was bolstered by it. Analysts seem to focus so heavily on the white working-class because it’s touted as the base Clinton neglected during her campaign. A few days after the election, Stephanie Coontz penned an article on this phenomenon, pointing out that rural counties that once voted for Obama switched their loyalties to Trump this time around. “As a recent CNN poll shows, white working-class and rural voters without a college degree are not the poorest Americans, but they are the most pessimistic about their futures,” she writes. “In stark contrast to blacks and Hispanics without a college education, most don’t believe they would be better off if they had earned a four-year college degree. Clinton’s promise of free college didn’t resonate with them.” Coontz cites her failure to acknowledge the “working class” or job security as deterrents for rural voters, many of whom had lost work through automation, outsourcing, or any other form of cheap labor. Before Trump, there was the Tea Party movement as far back as 2008. According to Charlie Post, the Great Recession sparked a populist movement within the Republican base.
“Faced with declining living standards and the possibilities of downward social mobility into the working class, the Tea Party and later the Trump campaign put forward a distinctively populist political and economic agenda. The new middle class right now wanted the wholesale deportation of undocumented immigrants, threatening the supply of cheap and vulnerable labor workers that capitalists in agriculture, large-scale construction, garment, and other industries depend upon.” Charlie Post, “We got Trumped”
The recession also inspired Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless movement in which thousands of activists, artists, students, et al camped out in Zucotti Park of Manhattan’s financial district for about one month and 29 days. According to journalist Nathan Schneider, t was organized by a handful of organizations including (but not limited to) Anonymous, Adbusters, US Day of Rage, and the NYC General Assembly. The movement’s motives were a bit unclear, but centered around a cause Bernie Sanders championed throughout the 2016 election: disrupting the economic chasm between the 99% and the 1%. A lot of good has since come out of Occupy, however: It inspired the Fight for 15 movement to raise minimum wage, an anti-fracking movement that helped establish bans on the dangerous drilling process, and woke millions of Americans up to just how much money influenced politics.
It’s been made clear over the past few years—especially during, and especially after, the 2016 election—that people were disgruntled. They’d grown tired of being forced to work overtime constantly on minimum wage just to pay bills, or accruing thousands of dollars in debt for an education, or losing their jobs altogether when trying to unionize for better pay and working conditions, or the myth of meritocracy. Most importantly, they’d grown tired of the top 1% of of American families earning 25 times as much as the bottom 99%.
Thus came the rise of a few American far-left parties: Party for Socialism and Liberation, International Workers of the World, and, most prominently, Democratic Socialists of America. These decades-old organizations are exhibiting steady rises to power and visibility since Trump was elected, as many left-leaning organizations have. I will be focusing mostly on DSA, seeing as several socialist-Democrat candidates won seats in the 2017 elections.
According to their website, the Democratic Socialists of America is currently the largest socialist organization in America. It was established in 1982 after the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement merged. While they’d maintained a steady membership throughout the years, their numbers skyrocketed after the Trump win; on November 17th, 2016, they announced they’d gained 10,000 members, and by the following September, they boasted 100,000 and counting. A lot of this had to do with their position on the political spectrum: farther-left than the Democratic Party, moderately left compared to the Marxist-Leninist Party of Socialism and Liberation. They routinely criticize the Democratic establishment for being elitist, short-sighted, condescending, and wholesale corrupt at times, and they advocate for reform rather than revolution, declaring their aims as decreasing money’s influence on politics, empowering workers and the working-class, and fighting for racial, sexual, and gender equality. A lot of their advancement into the mainstream was cultural: Soon, DSA members had formed their own subculture on Twitter, and a DSA-sponsored comedic podcast called Chapo Trap House gained great success for those looking for non-intimidating takes on politics.
It’s clear from their recent onslaught of victories that Americans are slowly but surely adhering to the socialist message, thanks to years of grassroots activism providing us with the vocabulary to critique the failing economy. However, like with Trump’s presidency, this is only the beginning. Can the socialist parties capitalize on their momentum? Only time and hard work can tell.