It is difficult to question that American leftism is enjoying prominence unparalleled in recent years. No longer is left-wing politics viewed as a vote-splitting sideshow, represented by third-party figures such as Ralph Nader or Jill Stein. Much of the Democratic Party, inspired by its activist base and the 2016 primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, has come to accept many ideas previously seen as extreme, with mainstream Democratic candidates such as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris moving to endorse universal healthcare (officially at least) and back the Green New Deal, which seeks to massively reduce carbon emissions as well as transform the US economy towards environmental sustainability. While some party leaders still criticise these policies – Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed them as ‘exuberances’ in a recent interview – they have nevertheless become necessary positions for a ‘progressive’ Democrat to hold if they wish to be taken seriously by activists. While early polls show Sanders performing more poorly in a multi-candidate 2020 primary, his unabashedly left-wing platform secured 43% of the primary vote in 2016 – a sign that the party establishment underestimated the support for leftist ideas. More recently, American socialism claimed a notable scalp, with No.4 House Democrat Joe Crowley unseated by Alexandria ‘AOC’ Ocasio-Cortez, who has since become a social media star and darling of the Democratic base, as well as a bête noire for the Republican right.
However, it is also clear that several obstacles still impede the left in the United States. To paraphrase Karl Polanyi, the American left is presently experiencing a ‘double movement’, with extensive column inches and countless Twitter rows dedicated to both its increasing influence in Democratic Party politics and its shortcomings as the opportunity to unseat President Donald Trump draws closer. Indeed, the recent entry of former Vice President Joe Biden to the race has been interpreted as a serious blow against the left. While Biden has taken support from all candidates in recent polls, his rise does seem to have come particularly at the expense of Sanders, the standard-bearer for socialism in the Democratic field.
Tensions between the centre-left, broadly liberal party establishment on the one hand and the emerging democratic socialist movement on the other are, as it stands, generally resolved in favour of the former. The establishment controls the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic National Committee, and associated campaigning arms. In a clear sign of resistance to an increasingly confident left embodied by organisations like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently introduced a rule restricting the funding of primary challenges to incumbents, in a move evidently aimed at preventing further victories for AOC-style insurgents against moderate Democrats. Furthermore, the Republican Party, keen to maintain its grip on national power, is increasingly using socialism as a stick with which to beat the Democratic Party, with President Trump receiving applause from parts of the Democratic caucus when he declared that ‘America will never become a socialist country’. Continued conservative control of the U.S Senate and Supreme Court also means that any left-wing legislation would be vulnerable both to the Senate filibuster and because of the likelihood that a Supreme Court led by John Roberts, abetted by Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, would strike down policies such as universal healthcare or a federal jobs guarantee.
As such, even if the American left were to overcome the institutional impediments that keep it out of power, it is hard to imagine a President Bernie Sanders, for example, delivering a left-wing agenda that would survive beyond his term in office, if it was enacted at all. The danger here is that, much as every Democrat who achieves public notability seems to decide to run for President rather than any more attainable role, the American left will focus on achieving national office, rather than on building the base necessary for long-term policy success.
Ironically, the model to follow for this success is that of the Tea Party. It may seem odd that a reactionary, paleoconservative movement should be the exemplar for socialist success, but from 2010 onwards the Tea Party movement enjoyed considerable success in pushing the Republican Party to the right on policy, electing like-minded representatives, and ensuring that conservative power has remained entrenched even as Democrats regain seats lost during the Obama era. How did they do this? A heavy focus on the local, in particular the state level. During the Obama administration, Democrats were decimated in state legislatures, losing over 1000 seats, with only 14 states under full Democratic control (legislature and governor), and 18 with Democratic-controlled state legislatures since the 2018 midterm elections. Previously safe blue states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin have fallen to Republican legislative control in recent years, later swinging to Trump in the 2016 general election, while reliably red states have become one-party bastions, policy laboratories for the right, pushing the boundaries of what can be enacted at a wider level.
As tempting as it may be to view Republican policy as the product of one or two diseased minds in the Heritage Foundation, much of the present Trump administration agenda has already been tested at the state level. Mistreatment of transgender individuals? The infamous North Carolina ‘bathroom bill’, which lost Governor Pat McCrory his job. Coercive anti-union legislation? Look at the ‘right-to-work’ laws in Kentucky, Missouri, and more recently Michigan and Wisconsin. Various social conservative restrictions on abortion and the rights of women more generally? Look at Georgia’s six-week ‘heartbeat’ bill, and the blanket Alabama ban on abortion that has attracted widespread global attention. Radical reductions in tax rates and public services, combined with massive upwards redistribution of income? Just observe the Sam Brownback experiment in Kansas, which admittedly resulted in a Democratic fightback in 2018. The point is a simple one: what was once local experimentation has become national policy, reproduced to a greater or lesser extent at the federal level. Policies that would be seen as unfathomably extreme in previous decades are now the stated aim of one of America’s two main parties.
The American left must look to respond by building similar redoubts at the local level, starting in some of the safest Democratic states. We have candidates such as the DSA’s Julia Salazar unseating the conservative Independent Democratic Caucus in New York, ushering in a state legislature supportive of legalised marijuana, a more redistributive tax system, and automatic voter legislation, which has forced moderate Governor Andrew Cuomo to accept a number of progressive ideas. In Colorado, a new Democratic supermajority backed by a progressive governor has enjoyed its most ‘transformative’ legislative session in years, according to Steve Fenberg, the Majority Leader. This laundry list of left-wing legislation includes: increased funding for schools; reform of school disciplinary processes; a state-backed health insurance plan; a cap on drug prices; reform of income postings to reduce gender wage inequality; an increased minimum wage; a reduction of drug-based criminal sentences, and a more lenient parole system, among hundreds of other policies that could be signed into law by Governor Jared Polis this year. Given that Colorado is generally considered a swing state, the scale of the transformation thanks to progressive wins at the state level is remarkable, and a model for others.
Similarly, five of the aldermen on the Chicago City Council are members of the DSA, seeking to use the permanent Democratic majority on the council to enact more radical policies at the municipal level. This is not a new concept – Socialists have run cities in the past, with Bernie Sanders a popular mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, and Frank Zeidler running Milwaukee as an unabashed socialist throughout the 1950s, instituting major infrastructure projects and turning the city into the largest in Wisconsin. But the recent collapse of Democrats at the local and state level presents a unique opportunity for the left to step in and rebuild their influence, effectively unchallenged.
Nor has this progress been limited to deep blue states. Texas recently elected a socialist as a Houston-area judge, replacing a hard-right Republican. Franklin Bynum has sought to reduce the rate of convictions for petty crime, phase out cash bail, and reform a justice system that, in his words, views citizens as ‘just the raw material to be chewed up’. Bynum was joined by three other DSA-backed candidates across Texas’s judicial and education systems, demonstrating the potential for a left-wing revival even in territory long conceded to the Republicans. Outside of Texas, Missourans voted by 67-33% to strike down the state’s right-to-work legislation in August of last year, even as they proceeded to replace a moderate Democratic Senator with a Republican in November. It was joked that Democrats should cease running candidates, and instead just run the concept of ‘pro-labor policies’, but the point remains: ‘red states’, even those whose electorates are committed to social conservatism and remain reliably Republican at the national level, nevertheless contain many low-income voters who support the socialist basics of better wages, a greater say in how their business is run, and the human right to healthcare. It may be that, if these ideas are to succeed, they must not be referred to as ‘socialist’ – a recent Monmouth poll showed that 57% of voters agreed that socialism was ‘incompatible with American values’. However, the same poll showed 58% support for a universal healthcare system, while 59% of voters earlier backed Ocasio-Cortez’s much-mocked call for a 70% tax on income over $10m. Despite the enduring stigma surrounding the concept of socialism, there is a rich vein of support for the American left to mine if they can be tactically clever in how they deploy their ideas.
At the local level, Democrats and progressives have little left to lose. They are tiny minorities in red states, entrenched supermajorities in blue states, and are often hindered by gerrymandering in states they should control. However, by appealing to the latent reservoir of support for left-leaning policies amongst a majority of Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, the left can both rebuild Democratic fortunes and future-proof their own, by making themselves into the only game in town. If the left can remove long-standing moderates in the blue states, and secure populist victories in the red, it can begin to push its agenda further and further up the chain, until some form of social democracy – even socialism – is able to become accepted in nationwide politics, thanks to its ongoing appeal at the local level. While the establishment concentrates on unseating Trump, just as the Republican establishment did to Barack Obama, the potential is there for the left to win real victories for working people across America, and demonstrate a true alternative to the reactionary conservatism that dominates so much of America’s politics.