by Nyla Booras
It wasn’t too long ago when most Americans would’ve turned up their nose to the tainted term, “socialism.” Yet today, the democratic socialist ideologies of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the likes, are on the rise in their popularity, especially among the younger millennial generation who are growing to make up a sizable bulk of the electorate.
The straying away from capitalist support in America may seem like temporary dissent, and a natural aspect of a free market system, particularly among those who fill in the lower socioeconomic ranks. But this isn’t necessarily true. A movement among the far left has been ignited, garnered support, and only appears to be growing. That begs a question that wouldn’t have even been uttered a couple of decades ago – can socialism survive in America? Could it even be implemented at all?
First, we must make an important distinction between socialism and democratic socialism, the latter of which appears to be growing in popularity here in America, especially among those who fall on the left of the political spectrum.
Socialism has a strong, negative connotation of an authoritarian government controlling every aspect of the economy. While there is ongoing academic debate regarding a definition of socialism, it is geneally agreed that the term refers to a state-controlled economy where the state owns the means of production (factories, firms, etc.) and has the role of distributing wealth among its people.
Democratic socialism, on the other hand, does not hold the belief that government should control all aspects of the economy. Instead, democratic socialists are more focused on what to do with wealth that the economy produces. The ideology attempts to have the best of both worlds; extracting the benefits that come with private ownership, and redistributing that wealth equally, with focus on doing so through social programs.
Proponents of democratic socialism advocate for government to play an active role in providing it’s citizens’ most basic needs to ensure everyone has an equal chance for success. Democratic socialists here in America then heavily urge the implementation of free education, health care for all, and affordable, if not outright guaranteed, housing.
This is the ideology being urged by Senator Sanders in his 2020 campaign agenda, as well as by Representative Ocasio-Cortez right here in NYC. And to the shock of many, both of these individuals are attracting devout support. But should we really be so surprised?
A decade ago, 80% of Americans agreed that a free market system is the best for the economy. Today, that number is only 60%. That’s less than the approval rate in China, where, as we know, capitalism is nowhere near being the foundation of society as it is here.
Another recent poll found only 42% of millennials supported capitalism. Additionally, a majority of millennials said (likely to their grandparents’ dismay) they’d rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.
These statements may be bewildering for the older, baby boomer generation of Americans, who came of age during a time where socialism was arguably the biggest threat to the nation, or at least perceived as such, and openly condemning the system deemed destined for failure was the norm. Many have expressed outrage at support over something our nation once fought hard against, and see the millennial generation as entitled leftists, not wanting to put in the hard work that is believed to bring success in a capitalist economy.
However that is far from the truth. The emergence of profound support for democratic socialism among the millennial generation, as well as a considerable portion of Democrats in general, coincides with the greatest gap in income inequality our nation has ever seen, that seems to keep growing. Add to that the fact that this generation has really only seen the worst of capitalism with the Great Recession of 2007-2008, and all the corporate scandals that came with it; it would be more surprising if they didn’t turn their attention to another economic system.
Economic insecurity is widespread today, with more than 4 in 10 Americans struggling to afford the most basic needs of housing, health care and food. At the same time, the wealthiest among us have only gotten richer. Here in the U.S., three men have more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. It is statistics like these that make the U.S. the only major developed nation with such extreme disparities in wealth.
As a result of these disparities, and of the success of democratic socialist nations such as those of Scandinavia in terms of happiness, human development, and overall well-being, it is no wonder that our beliefs towards how the economy should be conducted are evolving. These young voters are envisioning a future for our country that embraces economic equality – something that they’ve seen as significantly lacking, and it has resonated with them.
Too few positive experiences and portrayals of capitalism have led them to align with the agendas of Sanders, AOC, and the likes, and doing so isn’t radical. This is a group of citizens who collectively carry trillions of dollars in student loan debt – of course they’re going to support free, or debt-free, education. They are a group bearing the burden of the highest rent, and all around, most expensive housing prices ever – it’s inevitable that they’d support affordable housing policies.
So support for democratic socialism among millennials and the left is rooted in their bearing the blunt of the negative effects of capitalism. Effects that have amplified in intensity during the age of globalization, where the rich have gotten richer, and the poor, poorer, as wealth becomes more concentrated in the hands of those who don’t need it, and who quite honestly having done much to work for it. The exploitation of labor is alive and well today, and it is through the continuous use of cheaper & cheaper labor that big corporations grow their profits, which seldom trickle down to the workers who made, said profits possible.
The message of democratic socialism on paper is in fact a very American one, rooted in our country’s historical battle for economic equality among organized labor. It is the urging for a minimum, living wage, accessible healthcare & education no matter your income, because these are rights deriving from political equality, and it is a system that looks to hold big corporations accountable, and limit the influence they have in government when they become all-powerful establishments.
Thus the movement for aspects of socialism to be introduced into our economy has been a long time coming and is receiving more coverage today as a legitimate grievance among the economically insecure, as well as everyday citizens who are simply concerned with the disparate inequality that continues to deepen. The number of people identifying with the movement is evident in the grassroots support Senator Sanders garnered in 2016, and has revived with his announcement of a second run for the presidency.
The magnitude of support for democratic socialist practices is evident right here in NYC where Representative Ocasio-Cortex unexpectedly unseated the Democrat incumbent before her in the primary, and continues to make headlines every week with her so-called “radical socialist agenda.” But just how radical are policies prioritizing affordable education & healthcare, the environment, and putting a halt to growing income inequality?
These are messages that most Americans can stand behind, objectively, but it is the implementation of such policies that makes many skeptical of those advocating for them. The whole system of governance here in the U.S. is founded on a political culture that fears the concentration of power, with much hesitation towards anything that may resemble tyrannical rule. Even beyond that, American culture is extremely individualistic, with citizens cherishing their liberties dearly.
With that being said, without a major cultural shift, not only in what citizens of this country prioritize, but also in what fundamental values American citizens believe have the utmost importance, far left economic policies will not make their way into the mainstream. And because such a seismic cultural transformation towards more collectivist values would take generations to occur, if it occurred at all, we may never see the implementing of these policies.
However, we will continue to see them emerge especially in times of economic insecurity and largely disparate income inequality. Nonetheless, there are still measures that can be taken, and practices adopted, that seek to reduce the severe disadvantages that we’ve seen capitalism producing in the most recent decades.
Efforts can, and should, be made to reduce the income gap, make sure big corporations are facing sufficient regulation that has public interest as it’s main concern, and to provide accessible healthcare and education. The notion that by doing so, we have steered off course into the disastrous storm that is socialism is an extreme misperception.
On the contrary, in doing so, we would finally be aligning the esteemed American value of equality to encompass economic equality, which is crucial to the political equality it has only represented thus far. After all, how can we be considered politically equal, as we should, if economic inequality is too great, presenting some with opportunities, and others with severe, unwarranted setbacks?
Simple – we cannot.