‘The socialists are back, and they are pissed’: American socialism in the age of Trump

In the wake of surprise primary victory of New York democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, what future does socialism have in the United States, and what role can it play in opposing the Trump administration?

“WOMEN LIKE ME aren’t supposed to run for office,” observed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, shortly before becoming one of the best-known names in American politics. Few argued the point. The 28-year-old former bartender from the Bronx turned insurgent primary candidate for New York’s fourteenth Congressional district was not, according to the dominant mindset of the Democratic party, a viable prospect.

For a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who ran on a platform of Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee and the abolition of the notoriously brutal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) force, to prevail over an establishment-backed, corporate-funded opponent – Joe Crowley, until recently tipped as the next House Speaker, who outspent her campaign by roughly 10 to one - was almost precisely the kind of scenario many pundits and party insiders had confidently dismissed as impossible, until it was actually happening in front on them. As a result, the shock of Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory on 26 June still reverberates, and she has not been the only one to suggest that its impact may extend far beyond the NY-14.

At a time of “deep midnight and darkness” in national politics, her victory signalled to fellow left-wing underdog candidates – and to America’s burgeoning socialist movement – that campaigns such as theirs could beat both the odds and the conventional wisdom; that the policies they espoused could find purchase, even in a nation notoriously wary of what one interview euphemistically described to Ocasio-Cortez as “the S-word”.

"You have given this country hope,” Ocasio-Cortez told her cheering supporters on the euphoric night of her victory. “You have given this country proof that when you knock on your neighbour's door, when you come to them with love, when you let them know that no matter your stance, you are there for them — that we can make change.”

The phenomenon of Ocasio-Cortez has also cast almost unprecedented public attention onto the DSA. Since its founding in 1982, the DSA’s status as one of the United States’ largest socialist organisations – not generally a crowded field - usually went unremarked upon outside of left-wing circles. However, the victory of their New York candidate served as the first concrete consequence of the group’s explosion in prominence and membership since the 2016 election.

The roots of this surge go deeper into the recent history of American radicalism. John Leavitt, a writer, cartoonist and a dues-paying member of the Bronx/Uptown Manhattan chapter of the DSA, tells CommonSpace: “I come from a working class, single mother family. We were, like most people, too busy trying not to die to be political or actively engaged. I remained kind of caddishly uninterested in politics until Occupy happened at my friend’s front door in ‘08.

“People forget, before Occupy you couldn’t say ‘economic inequality’ on TV and be taken seriously. The economic crash rubble is all around us and suddenly there’s this vaguely defined group of people offering changes and alternatives. Occupy, for all its incoherence and chaos, was a clear cry of ‘Enough.’”

“It became clear to me that a lot of powerful people didn’t really care about winning - they’d rather lose as centrists than win by letting leftists steer the direction of their party.” Journalist Emily Bartlett Hines

Emily Bartlett Hines, a DSA member and contributor to the leftist periodical Current Affairs, campaigned for Bernie Sanders during his battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but also traces her progressive beliefs to a pre-Bernie era: “I was involved in protesting the Iraq war, campaigning for Obama, and then later in Occupy. Like many progressive Democrats I was always disappointed that the Democrats kept pushing centrist policies and behaving as though they could win elections by running as Republican-lite.”

The reaction that the Sanders campaign elicited from mainstream political figures, says Hines, was “eye-opening”: “The enthusiasm around the Bernie campaign showed that these policies could win, but people who were supposedly progressive kept insisting he was unelectable, only Hillary could beat Trump, etc. So, it became clear to me that a lot of powerful people didn’t really care about winning - they’d rather lose as centrists than win by letting leftists steer the direction of their party.”

The Sanders campaign “normalised the idea that ‘socialist’ is a legitimate political identity”.

Despite these earlier influences, Trump’s victory was a deciding factor for both Leavitt and Hines. 

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“A lot of us were in shock,” Leavitt says. “A lot of us thought there would have to be a kind of loophole to get out of this. Everything felt fake. More of my friends were talking about the DSA and more of my activist friends from Occupy were getting involved - they were serious and they were pissed.

“A lot of my favourite art and stories are from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and you think about ‘What would I do if I lived back then?’ And it hit me, I am - and this is the test.”

Alex Press, a journalist and associate editor at the leading American socialist magazine Jacobin, joined the DSA about a year ago, after moving to New York from Boston.

“After Trump’s election, the [DSA] began to change dramatically. It became the vehicle where layers of people who identified with the Sanders campaign - as well as a significant number of longtime socialist organisers, many of whom I knew either for their work in the labour movement, social movements, or as writers - went.

“A lot of my favourite art and stories are from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and you think about ‘What would I do if I lived back then?’ And it hit me, I am - and this is the test.” Writer and cartoonist John Leavitt

“So, as a socialist who had remained a bit of a free agent for five or so years, I watched as some of my closest comrades continued to build a once somewhat-moribund organisation into a site of political power and for educating young people who were starving for a socialist education...That’s why I joined.”

As opposed to many other historical socialist organisations in the US, the DSA is not a political party – it exists to advance the American socialist Left both in and outside of the Democratic Party, which has allowed it to tackle a wide range of campaign activities beyond the realm of conventional party politics. Other than this key difference, “it’s the only one with any numbers,” Leavitt says.

“I think the appeal of the DSA is the same as when it was founded: a large tent multi-tendency political organization with the goal of moving the country further left. I like to say the DSA is where the social democrats can break bread with the anarchists. The focus on actually doing things and not being totally abstract is what appeals to me. The focus on how do we effectively bring more power to the workers and more restrictions on capital?  How do we undo the historic injustices created by capitalism? The centering of labour politics alongside intersectionality is a huge part of why I’ve only gotten more involved.”

The recent achievements of the DSA, both in effective activism and in reintroducing socialist ideas into the American mainstream, should not be underestimated, Press argues: “Over the past year, DSA has shown itself to be a force to be reckoned with in terms of organisational capacity, political influence, and even cultural reach. Whether in terms of electoral successes, its role in union organising and strike activities, or in reintroducing a militant, internationalist class politics to the US political discourse, DSA is playing a significant role in strengthening working-class power right now.

“More people joined in the day after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her election than had joined on the day of Trump’s election, which had previously been the record for a day with the most DSA signups - what we called ‘the Trump bump’.” Jacobin associate editor Alex Press

“More people joined in the day after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her election than had joined on the day of Trump’s election, which had previously been the record for a day with the most DSA signups - what we called ‘the Trump bump’. So, last I checked, we have 45,000 members.”

From anti-ICE protests to depriving administration officials of a safe-space for dinner, the DSA has naturally taken a leading role in much of the high-profile opposition to Trump, supplanting much of the self-proclaimed #Resistance of traditional liberalism in the process.

To Hines, a socialist presence in anti-Trump activism is not only desirable, but essential: “Some form of socialism is the only political ideology right now that can provide an antidote to the rising tide of fascism. You can’t defeat Trumpism with wimpy ‘incremental’ policies and promises to be civil, but there is a potential to do so by offering an alternative vision of how the world could be.

“Elected Democrats who claim to ‘resist’ aren’t actually resisting anything, so that makes it all the more important for grassroots organisations to find successful ways to oppose this administration.

Reactions from within the Democratic establishment to ideas which not so long ago could be safely mocked, ignored or condemned have been mixed, to say the least. Some – including some unlikely centrist commentators and politicians, who had little positive to say about democratic socialism in 2016 – have attempted to clumsily hitch their wagon to Ocasio-Cortez’s newfound celebrity, while others – most prominently Nancy Pelosi – have rushed to dismiss her victory as a random and insignificant outlier.

In the opinion of Leavitt, such centrists and non-socialist liberals are chasing something which no longer exists, if it ever did: “There’s no such thing as a centre anymore, and the idea of swing voters is a myth made up in 1992 to justify Bill Clinton taking the most Republican stance possible. It’s pick-a-side time. 

“Some form of socialism is the only political ideology right now that can provide an antidote to the rising tide of fascism. You can’t defeat Trumpism with wimpy ‘incremental’ policies and promises to be civil.” Journalist Emily Bartlett Hines

“No one listens to Nancy Pelosi who isn’t being paid to. The situation of the Democratic Party is similar to that of a rank and file union revolt against management. This is good and should be encouraged.  Repeated studies have shown the baseline American public opinion is much more left than politicians think - and it’s that way because politicians and party leaders are more beholden to their big money donors than the public.”

While the world may be fascinated by the apparent rise of a socialist movement in what is often portrayed as the most anti-socialist nation on Earth, that spotlight may not last forever, as Press acknowledges: “While DSA has benefited from outsized media attention, there’s no shortcut for building roots in the working class, which will take serious campaigns at the local level, coordinated nationally and benefitting from the incredible resources we have in our membership - whose talents it’s really hard to overstate. That means most specifically, gaining a real presence within the US labour movement.”

Despite the excitement inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’s expected journey to Congress in 2019, Leavitt suggests that the DSA’s approach must remain both broad and local, focused on the many moving parts that comprise a successful campaign organisation: “We must use every instrument in our orchestra. Thanks to our growth, we can run multiple campaigns and multiple kinds of campaigns at the same time. People have to feel that the DSA has their back, either in elections, food pantries, unionising, strike support, community garden cleanup, policy-making, whatever.

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“We have to not just rebuild the left but also rebuild the idea of community. I want people to say: ‘Well, when I needed more groceries, the socialists were there’ or ‘when I needed fresh diapers, the socialists were there’ or ‘when we organised against our boss, the socialists were there.’ People don’t vote in this country ‘cause they don’t think it matters. I want to show them it matters by displaying a new way of how society can run that isn’t based around profit and exploitation.”

The DSA’s growing popularity among the young and disaffected, reflecting the oft-touted research that those who came of age in the aftermath of 2008 are disdainful towards capitalism and increasingly open to the idea of socialism, has caused some predictably amusing hysteria amongst the self-appointed guardians of the American status quo, be they liberal or conservative. Yet it is worth remembering that the wider world, usually so confident in its perception of the US, didn’t see this coming either.

In this extraordinary and unforeseen moment, international observers pondering how opposition to the Trump administration can be built and practiced should perhaps note the example of the DSA, which has rallied against the nightmarish reality of their political present not only with passion, but with effectiveness. So what can a small country, home to its own fulsome radicalism and preparing for a visit from the most powerful idiot in the world, learn from American socialism?

“For the DSA, figures like Sanders inspired the grassroots. Unfortunately, there is no such figure in the SNP that could perform the same role.” SNP activist Rory Steel

Rory Steel, an SNP activist and an organiser for the Catalan Defence Committee Scotland, recognises there are some things the Scottish Left can learn from the DSA’s success, while also acknowledging that national circumstances present different challenges.

“One crucial lesson any campaign group should learn from the DSA is the necessity to be organised, to be active, and to keep going. This has been a strong ethic in the SNP itself,” Steel says.

“For the DSA, figures like Sanders inspired the grassroots. Unfortunately, there is no such figure in the SNP that could perform the same role with most of the membership behind the leadership – sometimes unconditionally.

“But, the DSA is now beginning to get its own people, such as Ocasio-Cortez, into positions of power. This is advancing the DSA’s long game. These things take time. Any such bid however has to be backed by the grassroots.

“However, there is a difference in circumstance between the DSA and socialists in the SNP. Scotland and the rest of the UK is going through a time of extreme constitutional upheaval and SNP members share the common aim of independence creating unity. But unity can only be stretched so far before ideological differences can begin to show.”

Socialists do not, as yet, stand poised to seize power in the United States, and no one is pretending otherwise, least of all American socialists. Even if they did, it would be reasonable to assume that it would only be the beginning of their troubles – oligarchies tend not to go down without a fight. Yet the gap between the dreams of an American socialist movement – the abolition of profit, prisons and borders - and those of their increasingly desperate liberal contemporaries is narrowing at an astonishing pace.

“Make no mistake,” says Leavitt; “the socialists are back - and they are pissed.”

Picture courtesy of the Working Families Party