The Spectre Haunting North America? A Democratic Socialist Moment in the Era of Trump


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the U.S. Presidency for the Republican Party (GOP) with a minority 45% of the popular vote. One year later, elections were again held in several states and localities. In what many news outlets and  analysts are calling a repudiation of “Trumpism” and the GOP, Democratic Party candidates made significant gains in several states, including Virginia and Washington (Cillizza 2017; Hayden 2017). Amidst this “blue wave” was an interesting, and very different sort, of red undercurrent (Bradner 2017).[1]

This particular trend found candidates affiliated with and endorsed by socialist parties and organizations winning elections throughout the country. While one should not overgeneralize these victories, or suppose they constitute an impending critical mass, it is equally important not to dismiss them. There is nothing inevitable about a movement toward socialism. However, I argue in this essay that the failures of neoliberal capitalism—persistent poverty (Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar 2017, p. 12), widening inequality (Hardoon 2017, p. 2) and catastrophic ecological degradation (Klein 2014)—coupled with the current reactionary turn in American politics necessitate strong counter-organizing. As the November 2017 election suggested, appealing to the socialist tradition can be an effective strategy in today’s electoral politics. It can also offer a normative foundation and inspiration for progressive change.

I first identify three central features of a socialist political economy and how that form of social organization differs from the variant of capitalism now dominant in the United States. Thereafter, I consider in greater detail socialists’ electoral victories on November 7, 2017. In the essay’s final section, I explore the plurality of public support for a socialist alternative. I argue this portion of the citizenry could be mobilized to launch a mass anti-capitalist political party as a counter-balance to the hegemonic neoliberalism of both the Democratic and Republican parties. I close by arguing this political moment could also be pushed to reclaim the history of socialism in America as a resource for resisting right-wing ideologies and officials.

Outlining a 21st Century Democratic Socialism

I begin by sketching what I mean by socialism and contrast that description with capitalism. I describe each approach’s view of political economy as well as its normative and ethical content concerning human social relations. There is no single accepted definition of either concept; a wide variety of historical and contemporary institutions have called themselves socialist or capitalist. Therefore, it is more accurate to speak of multiple socialisms and capitalisms (R. D. Wolff and Resnick 2012, p. 311). For example, the socialism I describe would in no way resemble the political economic arrangements in the now defunct Soviet Union. It is important to stress that the key attributes I identify below constitute a spectrum of ideas and traditions.

First, a central normative principle in a socialist political economy is the organization of human activities on the basis of cooperation rather than competition. Capitalism, particularly its neoliberal variant, assumes that human beings pursuing their self-interests and competing will most efficiently secure a range of benefits for each individual and society at large (W. Brown 2015, p. 36; Harvey 2005, p. 65). In contrast, socialism rejects this “invisible hand” argument, instead contending that people working together for a common goal will produce greater benefits for individuals and society (Jahan and Mahmud 2015; Nichols 2015, p. 136). In this tradition, living in community implies a voluntary and cooperative venture in which individuals share responsibility for each other (King Jr. 1986, p. 122).

This conception of socialism is also predicated on the idea that a healthy and just society insures the material well-being of all of its members (Wilde 1915). In such a society, the production of clothes or food would be organized to provide an equitable distribution of those necessities to all of its members, rather than driven by a private profit motive as in a capitalist political economy (Jahan and Mahmud 2015). In the words of poet and author Oscar Wilde, this sort of socialism would entail “converting private property into public wealth” (1915, p. 6). This distribution would likely occur by means of a mixture of decentralized planning within and among households, firms and localities and by means of at least some market transactions.[2]

Finally, this distribution would be accomplished through collective and democratic ownership of property. This could mean, for example, public ownership and control of energy resources such as mineral deposits, wind turbines or solar farms. It could also result in collective arrangements whereby firms are owned and controlled not by individual capitalists or boards of directors, but by everyone who works there. Such organizations go by different names, including worker-self-directed enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives.[3] Individual cooperatives could then form federations also linked democratically (Hahnel 2009; R. Wolff 2012). Likely, a socialist political economy in the 21st century would contain a mix of these arrangements.[4]

Because socialism as I outline it here is founded upon cooperation, equality and democracy, it stands in stark contrast not only to capitalism, but also to the xenophobic and racist politics embraced and practiced by President Trump and today’s Republican Party (Bobo 2017; J. A. Brown 2016; Edge 2010). A 21st century socialism would be radically egalitarian and therefore rooted in, for example, anti-racist, anti-ableist and feminist politics. This vision of socialism would also necessarily begin to move beyond exclusionary political borders as they are currently imagined and enacted. As a result, it represents a genuine potential alternative to the insular, ethno-nationalist politics that have recently moved from the fringes of U.S. political culture to the mainstream.

No society has ever fully realized either this idealized socialist vision or a similarly idealized view of capitalism. Despite the fact that socialist praxis has a long history in the United States, it is outside the mainstream spectrum of U.S. political beliefs today (Nichols 2015). Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican Parties accept the basic contours of a neoliberal form of capitalism.[5] While individual elected officials may hold alternate views, the parties as a whole have signed on to the neoliberal consensus of deregulation, privatization, competition and profit-maximization as guiding virtues for a majority of societal institutions in recent years (Harvey 2005). However, as I explore in the next section, despite this hegemonic approach to political economy, alternative socialist platforms have proven to be effective electorally.

Socialists Show Up in Meeting Halls and at the Polls

Socialist thought and organizing is deeply engrained in the United States. Well-known figures in the American cultural and political pantheon, including W. E. B. DuBois (Streator 1947), Helen Keller (Cohen 2015), Woodie Guthrie and Martin Luther King Jr., (Sustar 2016; Sturm 1990), advocated for a social and economic system that would eliminate the poverty and inequality endemic to capitalism’s “liberty to work or to starve” (Marcuse 2007, p. 4).[6] However, for most of the 20th century, socialist traditions were forced out of the realm of acceptable political discussion in the United States. The U.S. ideological and proxy military wars against the Soviet Union led to multiple periods of political repression against American socialists and conflation of any form of socialism with Soviet style communist authoritarianism (Zinn 1998, pp. 166–74).

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election brought socialism back into the national public discourse. Bernie Sanders, a long-time independent United States Senator from Vermont, sought the Democratic Party presidential nomination while identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Sanders articulated a vison of socialism as political and economic democracy and justice (Kruse 2015; Sanders 2017). Although he failed to obtain the Party’s nomination, Sanders garnered more than 13 million votes during the primary process (“Presidential Primaries” 2016). After its formal efforts ended, the Sanders campaign reinvented itself as a progressive political action committee called Our Revolution. Moreover, many citizens have continued to call on Sanders to lead a new (third) “People’s Party” as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties (Zipp 2017).[7]
Existing organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), also saw renewed interest following the 2016 election. DSA membership, for example, rose from around 8,000 in late 2016 to 30,000 by November 2017 (Guan 2017). DSA is not a political party, but instead calls itself the largest socialist organization in the U.S. building a “mass, multi-racial democratic socialist movement” (“What Is DSA?” 2017). The organization and its 120 local chapters endorse and canvas for candidates, organize protests in support of refugees and universal healthcare (Roman 2017; Krieg 2017) and perform community activities, such as holding brake light repair clinics (Deane 2017).[8]

DSA enjoyed significant success on election day 2017 in the United States. The organization has reported that its members competed in 25 elections in 13 different states, many on Democratic Party tickets. According to Jacobin, 56% of DSA members running for office won their elections on November 7, 2017, compared with only 20% in the previous election cycle (Marcetic 2017). Fifteen new DSA members were elected in 2017, bringing the total now holding elected office to 35 individuals nation-wide (“2017 Election” 2017). Put differently, the recent election saw a 75% increase in the number of DSA endorsed or dues paying members occupying elected political offices in the U.S.[9]

Socialist Alternative (SA), an electoral party founded in the 1980s, saw its membership rise 30% in 2017 as well (Strickland 2017). SA had earlier successfully elected Kshama Sawant to the Seattle, Washington City Council in 2013. At the time of Sawant’s inauguration in January 2014, she was the first socialist elected to a city-wide office in 97 years (Ibid.). In the November 2017 Minneapolis, Minnesota city council race, SA candidate Ginger Jentzen received the largest number of donations of any political candidate in that contest and in city history (Mullen 2017). Minneapolis employs a ranked choice voting system, and Jentzen received the highest number of first choice votes, but ultimately lost to the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) candidate due to second choice votes (“Results – Minneapolis” 2017).

These victories and close races represent the culmination of hard work and organizing on the part of DSA, SA and other like-minded organizations. While I do not want to claim too much on the basis of these outcomes, it is clearly possible today in the U.S. to identify as a socialist, garner votes and win elections. In the final section I argue that the appeal of such ideas to a sizable segment of the nation’s population provides potential to build an anti-capitalist electoral movement capable of resisting the rightward shift in American politics.

Toward the Future: Mobilizing A Democratic Socialist Moment

The elections on November 7, 2017 indicate that there are cracks, if only small ones, in the wall of a politics of TINA, or “There Is No Alternative,” and the overriding neoliberal public philosophy in the United States. Despite the hegemonic acceptance of that perspective by both dominant U.S. political parties, the socialist alternative has seeped through. There are reasons to be hopeful that it is possible to resist what Freire  called a neoliberal fatalism informed by an ethic that declares it a virtue to generate profits for a minority at the expense of the majority (2005, p. 25).

Many Americans reject a capitalism that valorizes a reality in which “those who cannot compete, die” and are open to socialist alternatives (Ibid.). A 2016 YouGov poll, for example, found that, overall, 29% of respondents had a favorable view of socialism and self-identified Democrats in the poll were equally as favorable to socialism as they were to capitalism (42% for each). Interestingly, those aged 18-29 who responded to the survey rated socialism (43%) more favorably than capitalism (32%) (Rampell 2016). A 2016 Gallup poll found that 35% of respondents indicated a favorable attitude toward socialism (Newport 2016). And in a June 2017 poll of registered Democrats, slightly more respondents (35%) answered that they would hypothetically like to see a socialist as party leader versus a capitalist (31%) (Marcin 2017).

These consistent pluralities represent millions of Americans who could be mobilized to vote for a strong socialist campaign and platform. Such an electoral force could be organized by existing socialist parties or by a new political party. A left-labor party is one potential avenue by which this turn could be accomplished. In October 2017, for example, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, representing more than 12 million members, resolved at its annual convention to explore the viability of independent third party politics (“Resolution 48” 2017). There are multiple potential avenues by which to press for a robust anti-capitalist alternative and those who advocate for democratic socialism would do well to continue to exploit this moment.[10]

Finally, any intellectual hegemony or imaginary that prevents people from critically reflecting on the institutions that govern their lives is dangerous. This was true of Soviet-style communism and it is true of neoliberal capitalism. This moment might also represent an opportunity to write the history of socialism in America back into discussions and debates about how U.S. society, politics and economy should operate. At a time when white supremacists and xenophobia have emerged from the shadows, it is crucial to mobilize the intellectual resources to push back these reactionary ideologies and to envision a better future for everyone in the United States regardless of race, class or immigration status.

The socialist tradition offers such a possibility. I close with the words of democratic socialism advocate Martin Luther King Jr., who argued in 1966 that in order to build a freer and more just world it was essential to cultivate a “divine discontent” and refuse to accept as normal or necessary racism, religious bigotry, militarism and economic conditions that “take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few” (King Jr. 1966).[11] This call to reject existing capitalist logic and reactionary ideologies is where a socialism for the 21st century should begin.


[1] In recent years, red has been associated with the conservative, capitalist Republican Party in the U.S. It has traditionally represented socialist parties and movements (Bump 2016).

[2] For example, in such a system one might buy a sandwich at a worker-owned and controlled restaurant while on the way to a community meeting in which members decide how much electricity to produce and allocate.

[3] Approximately 256 such organizations currently exist in the U.S. and typically operate on a one-person, one-vote system rather than a per share vote system as in capitalist corporations (“US Worker Cooperatives” 2015).

[4] Moreover, this would not necessarily entail complete abolition of private property. Individuals might continue to own the clothes they wear privately, but the power grid and auto plants would be democratically owned and controlled.

[5] In early 2017, for example, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked a nuanced question about whether the Democratic party should move to the left to appeal to younger voters who are now more favorable to socialism. Her initial response was to laugh and say, “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is” (Seipel 2017). More recently, millionaire Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck told an interviewer on NBC he was so worried Democrats were moving too far to the left that he was considering quitting the party. He went on to say that he personally told party leadership that he would “cut your money off” if they attempted to move left (Lynch 2017).

[6] Guthrie’s popular, and often misunderstood, song “This Land is Your Land” is not an ode to the beauty or greatness of the United States but rather a biting critique of the sentimentality and patriotism of “God Bless America” (Spitzer 2012). Later verses in the song directly criticize private property and the hunger and poverty Guthrie had seen traveling the country (Guthrie 2017).

[7] Other progressive organizations such as the Women’s March on Washington were also catalyzed in the wake of the 2016 election. While the Women’s March is not explicitly a socialist organization, it lists as inspirations many women who were or are including: Ella Baker, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis (“Guiding Vision” 2017). One of its co-chairs, Linda Sarsour, is a DSA member as well (Sarti and Steinkopf-Frank 2017).

[8] The organization considers its brake light repair program a combination of mutual aid and direct action (“Brake Lights & Socialism” 2017). These activities are undertaken to provide a service to community members and to reduce police interactions and prevent the often-heavy fines levied for non-functioning lights.

[9] Several close defeats point in interesting directions as well. DSA-endorsed Jabari Brisport ran on Green and Socialist ballot lines receiving the most votes of any third party candidate (29%) against a Democratic incumbent for the 35th district seat on the New York City Council (Whitford 2017; “General Election” 2017). Several months before the November elections, self-identified socialist and NYC DSA-endorsed Khadeer El-Yateem came in second in a close primary with 31% of the vote against the eventual Democratic victor of NYC district 43’s city council seat (Max 2017; Stahl 2017).

[10] Recent Greek politics offer an interesting example. Greece’s coalition of left parties Syriza went from 4% of the vote in 2004 to controlling the Greek government in 2014 (Nardelli 2015). The Greek electoral system is different than the U.S.; however, the point is that such possibilities are open if they can be exploited.

[11] King’s words echo five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for U.S. President Eugene V. Debs who in 1918 succinctly articulated a socialist critique of capitalism arguing: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune… while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence” (Debs 2001).


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Jake Keyel is a Doctoral Candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, international ethics and the connections between state violence and displacement, and deepening democratic practices. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University. Jake is currently a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.



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