For a growing number of Americans, socialism is OK
You wouldn’t expect democratic socialists to hit the brakes when it comes to social justice.
But in late February members of Inland Empire Democratic Socialists of America learned how to fix brake lights so they could offer that bit of auto repair service, for free, at an upcoming community event. Working tail lights, they reasoned, would mean fewer police traffic stops and, possibly, fewer fatal outcomes for people of color.
Auto repair is just one part of the chapter’s public outreach about an ideology that, increasingly, is finding a more receptive public audience. Polling shows more Americans, especially Democrats, view socialism more favorably than capitalism, even if they have sometimes wildly different ideas of what socialism is.
“It just doesn’t have the same stigma,” Kimberley Coles, a political anthropologist at the University of Redlands, said of the word “socialism.”
“It doesn’t mean there won’t be … rhetoric and seeing what sticks in terms of the insults.”
A Gallup poll from last summer found that for the first time in 10 years, Democrats had a more positive view of socialism (57 percent) than they did of capitalism (45 percent). That shift among Democrats drove down the overall view of capitalism.
“A majority of Americans have retained a positive view of capitalism over the past eight years, but this year’s 56% positive rating is by four points the lowest recorded since 2010,” Gallup reported. “Americans’ positive views of socialism have varied only between 35% and 39%, with (2018’s) reading of 37% right at the trend average.”
Gallup also found that among young people (ages 18 to 29) capitalism had slipped from 68 percent approval in 2010 to 45 percent approval last year.
Gallup isn’t the only pollster seeing that trend.
Thirty-one percent of Democrats in a YouGov poll from last August said they would be “comfortable” with a socialist presidential candidate, compared to just 8 percent for Republicans.
The same YouGov poll found 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of capitalism, down from 52 percent in 2015. Americans age 18 through 29 are likelier to see the word “socialist” as a compliment while Americans age 65 and older are more likely to consider it an insult, although the 65-and-up group views socialism more favorably now (25 percent) than in 2015 (15 percent), according to YouGov.
Capitalism’s polling dip — and the corresponding rise in approval for the label “socialism” — coincides with ballot box gains by politicians who are connected with the political party Democratic Socialists of America.
Running as Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in 2018 became the first Democratic Socialists of America members to win congressional seats. Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders’ stronger-than-expected 2016 presidential campaign fueled an effort to turn the Democratic Party leftward, a trend that’s continued with Ocasio-Cortez’s celebrity status.
Nationally, Democratic Socialists of America had just 5,000 members prior to November 2016, but passed the 40,000-member mark following Ocasio-Cortez’s upset in New York’s June 2018 primary, according to published reports.
The party’s Southern California connections include chapters in the Inland Empire, Orange County and Los Angeles. “Our chapter is continuing to grow and evolve from its humble roots,” the Inland chapter collectively wrote in response to emailed questions. “Fresh faces appear at every monthly member meeting.”
It’s not just about faces and personalities, either.
Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a Green New Deal, along with proposals from many candidates for universal health care, higher taxes on the rich and other socialist-favored ideas, figure to loom over the crowded race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
It’s also already become a rallying cry — perhaps even the central theme — of Republican election efforts.
During last month’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump drew applause from supporters when he invoked socialism as a pejorative.
“We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he said before declaring that “America will never be a socialist country.”
Fears of socialism “could become the kind of rhetorical touchstone of (President Trump’s 2020) campaign that sounding the alarm about ‘criminal illegal aliens’ was in 2016,” The New York Times reported.
“Socialism is the greatest vulnerability by far that the House Democrats have,” Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the Times.
Socialism replaced Hillary Clinton as the main villain at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which featured a “bread line” mocking Ocasio-Cortez.
“They want to take away your hamburgers,” former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka warned conference-goers. “This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved.”
What is socialism?
Americans fight not only over whether socialism is good or bad, but over what it means. Seventeen percent defined socialism as “government ownership of the means of production,” that was about half the number of Americans who used that definition of socialism in 1949, Gallup reported last October.
“Americans today are most likely to define socialism as connoting equality for everyone, while others understand the term as meaning the provision of benefits and social services, a modified form of communism, or a conception of socialism as people being social and getting along with one another About a quarter of Americans were not able to give an answer.”
The Democratic Socialists of America is “a ‘big tent’ organization,” the Inland chapter said. “Members may embrace a variety of tactics, theoretical frameworks, and emphases, but ultimately work toward a classless society undergirded by an economy in which production and the fruits of production are shared by all.”
To fight what the chapter sees as misconceptions – socialism is “inherently totalitarian” or a “mere matter of welfare state programs,” for example – members stress that socialism is organized from the bottom-up, outside of government, and that socialism emphasizes freedom, including “the ability of working people to resist the private tyranny of the firm and its owners,” the chapter said.
Socialism made Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, not the other way around, the chapter said. “Their ideas were popular because the moment was right for a socialist alternative, after a major recession, stagnant wages, and widespread discontent with the status quo.
“Our chapter as a whole is sympathetic to Bernie/AOC, but we seek also to hold them accountable to their promises, and members may find that their views do not completely overlap with theirs. This being said, among elected officials, their reform agenda is the closest in spirit to our movement …”
Besides fixing brake lights, the Inland chapter, which estimates it has 30 to 40 active members, also stumps for Medicare-for-all at events like Riverside’s monthly Public Arts Walk. It also hosts movie screenings with discussions afterward – “Sorry to Bother You” was a recent feature – and members have traveled to Mexico to help migrants at the border.
“A new idea”
Coles and Harold Clarke, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, think socialism’s surging popularity, especially among millennials, is rooted in recent history.
“Socialism’s kind of a new idea for them and it’s detached from a lot of the economics and brutal politics of the past,” Clarke said.
Millennials “aren’t shaped by Cold War politics, much less attachment to political parties,” Coles said. “They’re interested in a la carte political ideas, rather than being labeled as Republicans or socialist.”
They also grew up during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, when capitalism’s flaws “were highlighted in political rhetoric,” Coles added. “Socialism has historically always offered a critique of capitalism and highlighted the inequality of economic and political power.”
The Trump backlash also might be a factor. “With his hotel empire, numerous side businesses, and history of shortchanging employees and contractors, current President Donald Trump perhaps encapsulates capitalism at its worst … ,” Eillie Anzilotti wrote in an article about the Gallup poll results for Fast Company magazine.
She added that Trump alone likely doesn’t explain the drop in capitalism’s popularity, especially among young people. “Since the 1970s, wages (adjusted for inflation) have barely risen, while (the) cost of living has skyrocketed across the U.S. Meanwhile, the top 1% of earners in America … has captured 85% of income growth that’s occurred since 2009.”
The uptick in socialism’s popularity could be a lasting trend, Coles said.
“I feel that these millennial voters are … more interested in learning from others (and are more) cosmopolitan in being willing to take ideas from lots of places,” she said. “It seems that people are interested in new ideas and socialism is offering one set of solutions.”