Erstwhile presidential candidate Bernie Sanders introduced the term “democratic socialism” to many Americans, although a quick review of our history should show that it isn’t a new idea.
“It is not surprising that the United States produced a Socialist Party; it would be astonishing if one had not developed,” begins Leonard B. Rosenberg in his account of the history of the Socialist Party of America. That history is one of failure: the best any socialist candidate for President has ever done was Eugene V. Debs in 1912, when he got 6% of the popular vote in a four-way race. Yet, as Rosenberg notes, it is also a history of triumph. Major components of the socialist program were largely adopted by the two major parties during the 20th century.
Old age pension (we call it Social Security), unemployment insurance, labor rights, an 8-hour workday, public housing, flood control, crop insurance, and agricultural price supports: these are just some of the “socialisms” we put into practice.
Debs (1855-1926), who ran again for President in 1920, from the prison Woodrow Wilson had had him thrown into for opposing U.S. entry into WWI, would have had the last laugh.
But “socialism” remains a dirty word for some Americans, even as they deposit their Social Security checks and have Medicare help pay for their healthcare. Rosenberg asks, as many have, why socialists didn’t gain traction as a political party, as they did in most every other democracy. There are as many answers as there are questioners.
Robert A. Gorman, for one, calls it America’s “compulsive anti-socialism” in his essay on “Michael Harrington’s Proposals for Democratic Socialism in the United States.” Harrington (1928-1989) was perhaps the best-known democratic socialist of the post-WWII era. The most famous of Harrington’s 17 books was his influential study of poverty, The Other America (1962), which helped push the Johnson administration towards setting up Medicare and Medicaid.
Gorman, though, is concerned with Harrington’s last books, in which he attempted to “reconcile the needs of a just community with the needs of free individuals by resurrecting the republican ideal of the citizen.”
For Harrington, this was rooted in Jeffersonian republicanism. He defined socialism as “a principle of empowering people” and wanted to Americanize socialism and socialize America, putting democracy front and center.