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In other industrialized countries, movement towards a democratic form of socialism has been strong enough to win national elections. So why hasn’t socialism ever become a powerful force in American politics? There are lots of reasons, as well as younger generations who align with socialist ideals that may bring the necessary gusto. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports.
It was more than a century ago in 1912 when Eugene V. Debs won more than 900,000 votes as the Socialist candidate for President, six percent of the total, about what longtime Congressman John Anderson won in 1980 as an independent candidate. In the early 1910s, socialists were winning elections in cities and towns across the country. Dozens of mayors from Schenectady, New York to Milwaukee to Berkeley. Two were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. But in the 100 years since Debs' run for President, the socialist movement had withered as a significant American political force until Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
"We need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation."
In every other industrialized country, the "movement" towards a democratic form of socialism has been strong enough to win national elections. Britain's Labor Party took power in 1945 and nationalized several key industries. A socialist was elected President of France in 1981. "Social Democrats" who support stronger roles for workers and a major role for government without state control of industries governed Scandinavian countries for much of the last half of the 20th century and were often part of coalition governments in Germany. So why hasn't a Democratic Socialist movement ever become a powerful force in American politics? There are lots of reasons.
"The army joins the people. With incredible swiftness, the Czar's regime falls."
The Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917 split the socialist movement in America between those who favored a democratic path and those who supported violent revolution. And when American socialists opposed U.S. entry into World War I, the backlash was intense. Socialist newspapers and magazines were shut down; elected officials were expelled from legislatures. And in 1919 and 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of raids in which thousands were arrested, detained, or deported.
Unlike European movements, where organized labor was a key component of socialist parties, American labor unions were much more narrowly focused on wages and working conditions. That meant american socialism lacked the money and manpower to be a powerful political force.
And when the Great Depression of the 30's made "radical" politics attractive, at least some socialist ideas were adopted by the Democratic Party. Labor union rights and social security under FDR's "New Deal" helped pave the way for federal assistance to other programs a generation later.
"The new bill expands the 30 year old Social Security Program to provide hospital care, nursing home care for those over 65."
These programs aren't called "socialism", except by opponents. But in fact, Medicare signed into law under Lyndon Johnson is essentially "socialized medicine" for the elderly.
And another reason why socialism never gained traction, this country was born in revolt against government; state power has always been looked on with skepticism. And unlike Europe, this is a "continental' nation. Its sheer size offered those discontented or dispossessed a way to make a fresh start; to "light out for the territories" as Huck Finn put it. It's a nation where the individual, not the collective, is celebrated.
"And so they joined the stream of family life in the suburbs."
And in the years after World War II, economic growth and widespread prosperity meant a level of comfort for working and middle class Americans that dimmed the lure of socialism. But the Great Recession left millions of Americans with diminished net worth. Average wages have remained stagnant. Inequality has soared to levels not seen since the 1920s. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former campaigner for Bernie Sanders, surprised many with her congressional primary run last month. Not only did she unseat a top Democrat, but she ran as a "Democratic Socialist". And while few candidates this fall are likely to embrace the socialist label, the enthusiasm among many Democrats for universal health care, free college tuition, and government-guaranteed jobs suggests that ideas once considered too radical, too "socialistic," may be making their way to the mainstream.
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Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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