In February 2011, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Madison and occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol. In demonstrations modeled after those which took Egypt by storm, activists protested a proposed bill by Governor Scott Walker which would curtail the collective bargaining rights of state and municipal employees. Although the Wisconsin protestors rallied in defense of workers’ rights, however, most would shudder at being labeled “socialist.” Indeed, since the dissolution of the Socialist Party of America in the 1950s, socialist political parties have achieved little success. In part, electoral failure owes to institutional biases against third parties, a fragmented working class, and a lingering stigma against leftism. Yet, despite the lack of an American socialist movement, socialists continue to work within the existing political system and still shape the progressive movement.
During the late 19th century, socialism arrived in America. In the early 20th century, political parties like the Socialist Party of America and leaders like Eugene Debs gained recognition and established strong connections with labor unions. Harvard Kennedy School professor Alex Keyssar notes that as late as the 1920s “there was a socialist political presence, and there were a lot of socialists in the labor movement.” However, the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s and Cold War tensions contributed to a widespread distrust of socialism. Even today, Americans use the term “socialist” as a pejorative label for union organizers or leftist politicians.
Today there exist fifteen registered political parties with explicit socialist platforms, ranging from the Socialist Party USA to the Democratic Socialists of America. These parties have achieved little success in political campaigns, which Keyssar attributes to “a number of institutional features of American political life that hinder third parties.” Procedural laws like ballot access rules, single-member districts, and anti-fusion laws discourage leftist parties from running candidates, either for fear of stealing votes from Democrats or by impeding them from getting on the ballot altogether. Johanna Brenner, professor emerita of sociology at Portland State University, maintains that America has marginalized leftist parties. If the U.S. implemented instant runoff voting, a system in which voters can rank candidates, Brenner states, “Then the Green party…and the alternative left parties would do better.”
There are some success stories in American socialism. Certain socialists, most notably Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist senator from Vermont, have won political office. Meanwhile, the New York Working Families Party remains a powerful force in state politics, with a platform highlighting socialist issues including wages, public-option health care, and affordable housing. Crucially, the WFP utilizes fusion voting to endorse candidates also running on major party ballot lines, which allows voters to express their support for the smaller party’s platform without “throwing away” their votes.
Defining the Electorate
Beyond the political system, however, socialist parties face an unenthusiastic constituency. Although the effects of increasing income inequality would seem to encourage stronger support for socialist parties, such has not been the case. Harvard Kennedy School professor Felipe Campante told the HPR, “Poor people vote Democratic, that’s a fact. But it’s not clear that inequality leads to greater redistribution in practice.” As Campante argues, the influence of money in the political system often means that greater inequality has no net effect on wealth redistribution.
Further, changing demographics of the American poor have led to less socialist representation. Keyssar believes that race remains a factor in voting preferences, stating, “One of the central facts about the working class in the U.S. is that it has always been fragmented.” Although the working class has tended to vote Democratic through the 20th century, divergences tend to fall around racial or ethnic lines. Likewise, although they may sympathize with socialist parties, lack of knowledge, confidence, or citizenship impedes immigrants’ political participation. Today, Campante says, “the poor have become relatively disenfranchised because more of them are immigrants.” This combination of institutional difficulties and a fragmented electorate makes it nearly impossible for socialist political candidates to win public office.
“For the good of the working class!”
Since socialists retain very little political representation, activists seek other ways to organize for workers’ rights. Leslie Cagan, the former national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, says no true “socialist movement” exists in America today. However, Cagan asserts that there are still organizations and, more importantly, many individuals who are socialist activists. Brenner agrees, explaining, “There are a number of groups…that socialists look to for interesting ideas or work with. But is it a movement? Not at all.” According to Cagan, the lack of organization and power stems from “a very long history of anti-socialist, anti-communist, anti-left of any sort, campaign.” She contends, “Powerful sectors of American life have waged very strong anti-left-wing campaigns, not just rhetorical campaigns.”
Nonetheless, socialists advance their cause by bringing their worldviews into other progressive campaigns. Cagan explains that socialists “are often the backbone of everything from…social justice at home… to the struggle for health care.” Indeed, building coalitions between leftist groups may be the only hope for socialists to accomplish political change. Joshua Koritz, a member of the Boston Socialist Alternative, does just that. Koritz is part of Reform HUCTW, a radical branch of Harvard’s clerical workers’ union. He says that although the socialist alternative has the ultimate goal of establishing a worker-controlled government, the socialist movement itself is of secondary importance. Koritz states, “The primary concern is the good of the working class. Our goal is to be part of that. We’re seeing it in Wisconsin. We’re seeing it in budget protests.” The socialist alternative is small, then, but it works with other groups to gain influence beyond its numbers.
The future of American socialism could be in political parties, the work of individual activists, union mobilization, or protests like those that shook the Egyptian political structure. Cagan, however, does not foresee major changes in the near future. She comments, “Socialists that are grounded in reality understand that we are in a contract defined and shaped by the right wing… When and how do we begin to move beyond that? I don’t know the answer to that.”
Regardless, Brenner thinks that America will experience a true paradigm shift in the coming years. “People are going to be pushed to the wall,” she says. “The left needs to find better ways to unite our struggles and have more of a presence.” Ultimately, their numbers may not constitute a movement, but while they organize, American socialists are determined to advocate for their beliefs through political organization and grassroots operations.
Sandra Korn ‘14 is a Contributing Writer