Scheer Intelligence: For Many Young People, Socialism Is As American As Apple Pie
Above image: By Mr. Fish.
Bernie Sanders may never make it to the White House, but, just when we need them most, socialists like “Bigger than Bernie” co-author Megan Day have picked up his torch.
In the devastating aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, many young Americans who felt betrayed by capitalism were introduced to socialism by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. Meagan Day, a staff writer for the popular left-wing magazine Jacobin and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), serves as an example of how the Vermont senator radicalized a generation with a platform that called for policies like Medicare for All and tuition-free college. Day credits Sanders with her decision to choose socialism when she felt the time came to “pick a side” in American politics and has since been working to understand how the socialist resurgence the Democratic candidate inspired can grow without him in the White House.
That’s largely why, along with Micah Uetricht, the 31-year-old journalist chose to write “Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism,” a book she discusses with host Robert Scheer on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”
“Micah and I decided to write this book because we understood that something very significant was happening in the Bernie moment,” Day tells Scheer, “which is that forces were amassing on the left that had great potential, but that there was not really a roadmap for what to do with that potential after the Bernie moment was over.
“Of course it was difficult,” she adds, “because we didn’t actually know what was going to happen [with the 2020 Democratic primaries]. We had to write a book that would actually be relatively useful if Bernie Sanders won or lost.”
Scheer adds a historical context to the discussion on socialism and democratic socialism, noting that after the Great Depression, the terms were used quite a bit by politicians and others before they were demonized during the Cold War. The podcast host remarks on how Sanders’ decision to identify as a democratic socialist is what establishment Democrats and mainstream media most used to vilify him. And yet, unbeknownst to the Vermont senator and his critics, not long after it became clear Sanders would not be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, the coronavirus pandemic seemed to prove his ideas were not only sensible, but utterly essential to America’s survival.
“Oddly enough we seem to be at a moment now where,” says Scheer, “quite aside from Bernie Sanders, but because of this incredible collapse of the conceits of American capitalism, and the inability of our medical system in particular–not because of a lack of heroism from medical workers, but the way it’s constructed, the for-profit industry–turned out to be perhaps the least prepared in the world of all of the different systems to deal with this.
“And suddenly Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of Medicare for All, I would think to most people in this country would seem like a no-brainer. So hasn’t the mood radically shifted the objective conditions in your direction?” he asks Day.
“I think so,” responds the “Bigger than Bernie” co-author. “There are new opportunities for organizing, and the half-decade of Bernie Sanders helped put us on better footing to organize toward [his] short-term platform and toward a longer-term vision of a world in which people are not subordinated to profit.
“One phrase that I like to use is that Bernie Sanders lost, but he didn’t fail,” she adds. “Because his goal was not merely to win the presidency. Obviously we would have liked, we would have all liked for him to win the presidency; that would have been extremely useful in terms of building toward our long-term goals. But he didn’t fail, in the sense that he didn’t actually fail to contribute in a meaningful way to building a movement that could actually usher in a political revolution.”
That political revolution, pandemic or not, has already seen considerable gains. Day points to several DSA members and affiliates who are not only running for elected office, but winning seats across the country. The most famous democratic socialist who came out of the Sanders resurgence is of course Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but, according to Day, beyond the New York representative, there are many others who actually came out directly from DSA. While the left-wing organization has been around for quite some time, the Jacobin writer argues it was “reborn” in 2016 and one its main aims is already materializing.
“What passes for progressive in United States politics is actually pretty far to the right,” says Day. “So DSA’s role is to actually yank politics to the left in the United States. That’s one of its primary purposes. And that means that it is going to always be perceived as too radical. It’s going to be perceived as, you know, extremist or unrealistic. And I think that that’s because people simply aren’t used to having a political bloc that unapologetically demands things like a universal right to shelter, a universal right to a home, right? Or that demands that people have health care because it is a basic human right.”
Listen to the full discussion between Day and Scheer as they discuss the roots of American socialism as well as its promising future in the new material reality being reshaped by the medical and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and a reinvigorated class struggle against a system that oppresses the majority of Americans, especially those who are Black and brown.
You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Meagan Day, who has along with Micah Uetricht–I’m sure I’m mangling his name, and you’ll correct me–has written a really interesting book called Bigger than Bernie. And these people both are connected with the Jacobin magazine; for those of you who don’t know much about history, the Jacobin movement, it was a club movement, began in Paris in the revolution in 1789. It was a democratic club, but it was–some people have described it, I picked up one dictionary definition, “the most radical,” and what’d they say, something else provocative–of the French Revolution. And then they were associated with Robespierre, and during the period from 1793-4 they had a reputation of being quite severe in their judgments of other people. We can discuss that.
But it, Jacobin, has emerged as really one of the more interesting publications on the left. And they are absolutely fearless in examining this word that we haven’t used much in our vocabulary, of socialism. And they were given a great audience, in a sense, because of the attacks on Bernie Sanders, who has admitted to being a democratic socialist. So that’s one reason why I wanted to interview you, because I want to know where this movement goes from here. And the title of your book is Bigger than Bernie, and the subtitle is How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism. And it’s published by a very good publisher, Verso; it has a long history in England of publishing, New Left Books.
And so let us take this explosive word of socialism. And let me throw it back to your magazine. When people generally talk about democratic socialism, they talk about a less violent notion of it. And they usually think of the social democratic parties of Western Europe; they think of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, for instance. Sometimes they even refer to the Labour Party. So what is the connection between Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism and the Jacobin movement, going back to the French Revolution?
MD: Well, I should say that, you know, Jacobin was started before my time. And it’s my understanding–I joined the magazine in 2017–that when it was started in 2011, it was actually initially meant to, the name was initially meant to be more of a winking reference to The Black Jacobins. That’s a book written by C. L. R. James, and it’s about the radicals of the Haitian Revolution. So I mean, obviously, people are going to connect it to the French radicals. And I think that that’s intentional as well; my understanding is that it’s supposed to be a somewhat provocative title.
But in any case, the reality is that I joined in 2017 after having joined the Democratic Socialists of America in 2016, which I did because I had been personally activated and radicalized by the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Now, it’s not like I wasn’t paying attention to politics at all prior to Bernie Sanders running, and it’s also not like I didn’t even know what, for example, socialism was. I understood what capitalism was, I understood that there was an alternative that was frequently referred to as socialism, and that it had a long and complicated history, and that it also had potentially a promising future. But what had never happened is that I had never asked myself the question: Are you a socialist? That had never occurred to me, to even ask myself that question. Because as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t primarily a political actor.
And when Bernie Sanders ran for president, starting in 2015, really picking up steam in 2016, the invective and the vitriol was very extreme. And the intensity with which the Democratic Party establishment appeared to want to squash the insurgent energy of a movement that, from what I could tell, was dedicated primarily to decommodifying health insurance and ensuring that we had tuition-free public college, was quite startling. And it caused me to then pose that question to myself. The question being, essentially: Which side are you on? It seemed suddenly that there were sides, and one had to choose a side. And I answered that question by joining the Democratic Socialists of America. I did this along with tens of thousands of other people. DSA had about 5,000 members when Bernie Sanders first announced that he was running for president; by mid to late 2018 it had 50-something thousand members. It’s now up to 60-something thousand members.
We had 10,000 people join DSA between March of this year and right now, which is May of this year, because a similar process occurred. People paid attention to Bernie Sanders’ second presidential campaign. They saw how panicked his, what we might call social democratic short-term agenda made the Democratic Party establishment, made the capitalist class, appeared to make the mainstream media. And they realized that actually there was–well, to put it in terms that Bernie Sanders himself has used, there was a class war happening, and that they ought to choose a side.
So now our ranks are swelling in the Democratic Socialists of America, and readership of Jacobin is growing. You know, I came in as part of the first wave of DSA members in 2016; I started writing for Jacobin in 2017. And now our readership continues to grow, as more and more people start self-identifying as socialists, start being curious about the history of socialism, about theories of social change that align with socialist values and a socialist political vision for the future. And hopefully, there will be more people who will be joining us down the line. Of course, Bernie Sanders won’t be running again, so we’ll have to possibly change up our tactics.
RS: So let me put this in some historical perspective. And you are now 31, so you’re really talking about coming into the Bernie Sanders movement when you were, what, 25, 26?
MD: Yeah, that’s about right.
RS: Yeah. And where did you grow up?
MD: I grew up in San Antonio, Texas.
RS: Ah. And did you go to school there, and so forth?
MD: I mean, no, I went to college at Oberlin College. Yeah. I mean, I don’t–if this is the direction that you’re actually going to push it–and I certainly don’t mind talking about my background, which is a background that is not consistent, I think, with everybody’s in DSA. I grew up in actually a relatively wealthy household, not in a working-class household. My opinion on that is that, you know, from personal experience, I can say that one can actually get quite a crash course, quite an education in stark inequality, in that kind of environment as well. And so I went to Oberlin College, which of course is a liberal arts school; it’s an extremely expensive liberal arts school, but it’s also one with a long history of radical politics and social and political justice. And you know, I got interested in leftism while I was at Oberlin, but as far as I knew, nobody was interested in talking about socialism. And actually, nobody was really interested in talking about class, frankly. So it took until after Occupy Wall Street to really start, those wheels to really start turning in my mind.
RS: Right. And I think that’s what’s happened to a lot of people. And by the way, I was saying when I was chatting with you before, when I go to any of these demonstrations–like Occupy here in Los Angeles, or more recently after Trump’s victories, and all these different marches–it seems to me the Democratic Socialists of America have the most interesting, rational, well-thought-out program. And so I’m not, you know, suggesting this is some wild thing to do. It’s just that I’m comparing it to my own youth. I grew up in New York, in the Bronx. And when Bernie Sanders–little bit older than Bernie, but when he grew up in Brooklyn, the word socialism was really a quite conventional group you could belong to. Because most of the labor movement, indeed probably most of the elected officials on the New York City Council, would have considered themselves as socialists of one kind or another. And in fact most of the labor leaders in America had a connection with it. The word socialism only became really negative because of repression of the labor movement, repression of the ideas going, you know, back 100 years, but certainly coming out of the Depression. And it’s relevant now because we may be entering a new depression; we’re certainly in very deep economic trouble. And that’s really what I want to talk about.
Coming out of the Great Depression–I was born in 1936–socialists of one stripe or another, I would say, would define the majority in a place like New York City, certainly among working people. And the democratic socialists, who went on to be the major political parties in Western Europe, probably defined most of what was progressive politics. So oddly enough we seem to be at a moment now where, quite aside from Bernie Sanders, but because of this incredible collapse of the conceits of American capitalism, and the inability of our medical system in particular–not because of a lack of heroism from medical workers, but the way it’s constructed, the for-profit industry–turned out to be perhaps the least prepared in the world of all of the different systems to deal with this. And suddenly Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of Medicare-for-all, I would think to most people in this country would seem like a no-brainer. Now, we’re actually even having a Republican president who, while he doesn’t entertain support of a guaranteed annual income, certainly is willing–and a vast 94% of the elected officials in Congress supported giving everyone on unemployment an extra $600 a week, you know, without blaming them for once for being unemployed.
So the reason I wanted to talk to you, and the reason I found your book, Bigger than Bernie, is that the socialism message, democratic socialism–which Biden and the others tried and the mass media, including MSNBC, tried to hang around Bernie’s neck and strangle him with it and make him irrelevant–it now seems to me the most relevant framework for considering our obligation to people in this society. Everybody needs health care. Anybody gets the virus. I know I’m sounding a little bit like Bernie, but anybody gets the virus, everybody’s in danger. You don’t care whether, you know, what skin color, you don’t care whether–you don’t want them to worry about paying for it. So hasn’t the mood shifted radically the objective conditions in your direction?
MD: I think so. I think the following. Bernie Sanders was not primarily interested in becoming president. Bernie Sanders wanted to become president because he thought that it would be a useful component of having what he calls a political revolution. But he certainly didn’t think that his own victory in clinching the presidency was going to be the, you know, the end of that political revolution. On the contrary, it was going to be the beginning; it was going to be the beginning of the hard stuff, so to speak. So in that sense, even though Bernie Sanders did not win the presidency, I actually think it’s important to ask whether or not his two campaigns–I would consider it in some ways a single campaign, you know, a sort of half-decade of Bernie Sanders–whether that actually contributed to our prospects for having a political revolution without him in the White House.
I think the answer is indisputably yes, because it put socialism back on the map. It put certain platform demands, which we might call social democratic instead of socialist per se, but which do point to a future beyond the one of neoliberal capitalism which we’re currently inhabiting–he put those on the map. They’re extremely popular, you’re right; I mean, Medicare-for-all is favored by a majority of people in the country, and some polls have it being favored by a majority of Republicans, not just Democrats. Because it just seems to make sense. The reason, to my mind, that Joe Biden won is primarily that the mainstream media was extremely aggressive in portraying Bernie Sanders as unelectable against Donald Trump. And the Democratic Party’s voter base is so panicked about Trump that they just kind of swallowed that message, hook line and sinker, and voted for Biden even though they actually preferred, for example, things like Medicare-for-all and tuition-free college and a Green New Deal, which is Bernie’s platform, not Biden’s platform. The exit polls are actually pretty clear on this, it’s pretty startling.
So, yes, the mood is shifting. There are new opportunities for organizing, and Bernie Sanders–the half-decade of Bernie Sanders helped put us on better footing to organize toward that short-term platform and toward a longer-term vision of a world in which people are not subordinated to profit. One phrase that I like to use is that Bernie Sanders lost, but he didn’t fail. Because his goal was not merely to win the presidency. Obviously we would have liked, we would have all liked for him to win the presidency; that would have been extremely useful in terms of building toward our long-term goals. But he didn’t fail, in the sense that he didn’t actually, you know, fail to contribute in a meaningful way to building a movement that could actually usher in a political revolution.
As for the mood around his demands, I will say this, it did seem at the very beginning of the pandemic like people were very quick–people who had been extraordinarily hostile to Bernie Sanders and his program were very quick to suggest implementing short-term or emergency versions of his program, leading me to ask the question, if it’s–you know, if it’s not good enough for coronavirus, why is it good enough for cancer, for example, you know? Speaking of the health care system in particular. Or, you know, if we don’t want people to go without, you know, pay that can tide them over in times of difficulty during coronavirus, then what makes it–is it really morally or intellectually defensible for us to allow people to go without aid when they are cash-strapped when we’re not having a pandemic, right?
So I think those questions are starting to arise, and I think that it might be leading to more popularity for Bernie’s program. But we also have another problem, which is that people also, when they’re experiencing a crisis, it does lead to an agitational energy on the one hand, but it can also lead on the other hand to a desire for security and comfort and a return to, quote unquote, “normalcy.” We know normal wasn’t good enough, we know that our society was deeply unequal prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but I worry that moderates are going to be able to take advantage of this by saying, you know, vote for us and everything will just, quote unquote, “go back to normal.” So we’ll see which one wins out.
RS: Well, let me make a prediction that the moderates–so-called; there’s nothing moderate about wanting the people to be without health care or job security, or a way of paying their rent. They’ve taken a title that is not justified. I mean, yes, the Jacobins in France wanted to, were pretty aggressive getting rid of the royal regime, the king, but there was nothing moderate about the king or the emperor or anybody in the world. So I don’t like the label “moderate”; what I would consider it is basically sellout. And I’m being journalistic in using that, it’s not just judgmental. It’s a strategy on the part of the Democratic Party leadership, that if you can just cozy up to Wall Street and to more enlightened philanthropists, and you know, some of the better Silicon Valley people, and have them fund you on the same level that they used to fund the Republicans, that you can advance a progressive agenda.
And what is so interesting about your use of the word socialism, and Bernie Sanders’ argument, is why hasn’t that worked? We’ve trusted these so-called moderates. And Bernie raises the question, why do we have such a high level of child poverty? Why do we have such a poorly prepared population for any kind of medical–and all the things you point out, even in normal times, even without the virus, people are not getting health care. So I would argue that this moderate label doesn’t work; I would say the label should really be opportunistic. That you can, as the Democrats did under Clinton, give Wall Street what it wants in the way of no restraints on their greed, and reverse all of the sensible things that Franklin Roosevelt endorsed, and that somehow they’ll do the right thing.
But what we see is they didn’t do the right thing. They didn’t do it with the last bailout, and clearly they’re not even doing it now, when they have an opportunity. Even here in Los Angeles, where you have moved, the City Council hasn’t even put a prohibition on evictions or foreclosures–or the state government, for that matter, in this deep blue state. Something that in past times of economic trouble, say going back to the Great Depression, that was a no-brainer. So in terms of your local work with the Democratic Socialists of America, are they raising these issues? And what do these so-called progressive Democrats on the City Council and Board of Supervisors say about evictions, or guaranteeing income, or free medical care in this time of crisis?
MD: Well, I think that you’re pointing to something really critical, which is that what passes for progressive in United States politics is actually pretty far to the right. Considering that it’s responding to the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which itself is quite far to the right, because the mainstream of the Democratic Party is responding to the Republican Party, which itself is very far to the right. So the Republicans are setting the tone for the entire political spectrum, and it’s all been dragged to the right in the United States.
And so what DSA’s role, I think, is, is to actually yank politics to the left in the United States. That’s one of its primary purposes. And that means that it is going to always be perceived as too radical. It’s going to be perceived as, you know, extremist or unrealistic. And I think that that’s because people simply aren’t used to having a political bloc that unapologetically demands things like a universal right to shelter, a universal right to a home, right? Or that demands that people have health care because it is a basic human right. And these are the things that DSA advocates, and a lot of the progressives who are, you know, currently occupying positions of power, and who consider themselves to the left–and they are to the left of the Democratic mainstream–even they are more likely to compromise on these questions. Because they’re simply used to working in an environment where the [Republicans] are setting the tone and the Democrats are responding to it, and they are responding to the mainstream Democrats, right. So it’s important to have DSA as a new political bloc, establishing a new political pull much further to the left. Now, I also want to go back to this question of socialism, democratic socialism, and social democracy. Because it is a complicated question, but I’ll give you a sense of how I see it. Because I think it’s actually, it’s an important aspect of the book that Micah and I wrote, and I think it’s an important aspect of Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
RS: By the way, also tell us about the structure of your book, which is quite interesting. And build into your answer–you can take all the rest of the time if you want, but tell us what’s in the book and why we should read it, as well.
MD: Sure. OK, so when Bernie Sanders first came on the scene, there were people on the socialist left who had been socialists for a long time, who took one look at the guy and said he may call himself a socialist, but that’s not socialism. I mean, look, the guy wants Medicare-for-all–that’s not even the nationalization of all of health care. That’s not even, like, an American equivalent of the NHS. This is just like a reform; it may be an ambitious reform, it may be hard to win, but it’s not socialism per se.
I can certainly understand why people would say that. Typically, what Bernie Sanders is proposing is often referred to as social democracy, which means, you know, a mix of capitalism and socialism with a very, very strong socialistic element. So a very strong labor movement, very strong worker protections, higher wages, strong welfare state, high progressive taxation, and so on. And yes, that is what Bernie Sanders is proposing the United States start to look more like in the near future. And so when people say that’s not socialism, that’s social democracy–I understand where they’re getting that impulse.
At the same time, I think that it’s possible for Bernie Sanders to himself be a socialist, which is to say someone who believes that if you continue to live under capitalism, and allow people to exploit each other through the very structure of the economic system, then you will always have a violation of human rights, a continuous violation of human rights. Capitalism itself is a violation of human rights, because it is predicated on, as Karl Marx would say, the appropriation of surplus labor value from workers. Which is to say, stealing the value that workers create through their work, stealing it as profit, and that’s how people become wealthy. And that is the engine of capitalism. And so we ought to replace capitalism with a system of collective ownership down the line.
Now, the question is, how on earth would you get yourself there? How would you get yourself from where we are now, to a system predicated on collective ownership that is egalitarian and democratic and preserves the rights of all individuals to live free and happy lives? You would need to set people into motion in what’s called class struggle. You would need to invite people into a movement that actually fights for reforms. Reforms are actually very important; reforms are not counterpoised to revolution. Reforms are how you get people to join together and develop institutions, and develop skills, and develop confidence to be able to fight for more and more ambitious things down the line.
So, you know, certainly revolutionary socialists of the past have actually understood this perfectly well. This is–if you are familiar with revolutionary socialism, you’ll recognize the name Rosa Luxemburg. She’s often held aloft as the perfect example of a revolutionary socialist. Well, in her essay “Reform and Revolution” she, you know, talks about the perils of reformism, which means simply hoping to stack reforms on top of one another until you have a more bearable society. And she says, no, we’re not going to do that. We do need a total revolution, right? At the same time, why would we abstain from fighting for short-term reforms? That’s a terrible idea; saying, you know, I’m not going to fight for that because that’s not actual, that’s not pure, unfettered socialism. That’s not the kind of socialism I have in my mind, and therefore I’m not going to fight for it–well, you’re just simply abstaining from class struggle in that case.
And so this is my view on what Bernie Sanders has actually done, is he’s given us an agenda of reforms that we can unite people–they’re popular, they’re necessary, they speak to the real needs of the vast majority of people in this country. And they give us an opportunity to unite people in class struggle, which is something that’s so critical if what we actually want to do is build our forces enough that we can actually break through in a revolutionary manner, and actually one day replace capitalism with socialism itself.
So this is why I sort of reject the dichotomy of people being like, well, is he a socialist or is he a social democrat? Or, what does democratic socialism mean? Does it mean, you know, real socialism, or just Scandinavian social democracy? No, I think democratic socialism actually means fighting for socialism, and fighting to preserve democracy and expand democracy through socialism. Democratic socialism, in case people are wondering, actually, is not a term that means halfway to socialism. And it doesn’t mean nicer, gentler socialism. It’s a term that actually just is intended to differentiate our contemporary movement from the 20th century authoritarian socialism of Stalin and Mao.
RS: So tell me, what–I’m trying to inspire people to read your book, and I got it by the way for $2, the e-version, on Verso. I don’t know if that was the bargain rate, pre-pub or whatever, but anybody who wants to read this book, you go to Verso, or I guess you could go to Amazon too, but you can go to Verso, the publisher. You can get the print, hardcover copy, you can get the e-copy or whatever, it’s quite reasonable. But tell us why you wrote the book, you and your partner. And what does it basically state, briefly, and what does it urge you to do?
MD: Right, so Micah and I decided to write this book because we understood that something very significant was happening in the Bernie moment, which is that forces were amassing on the left that had great potential, but that there was not really a roadmap for what to do with that potential after the Bernie moment was over. So Micah and I decided to sit down and write this book, and of course it was difficult, because we didn’t actually know what was going to happen. We had to write a book that would actually be relatively useful if Bernie Sanders won or lost. We sort of assumed he would–I mean, if we had to pick, we would have assumed that he would lose, because you know, he had the forces of the entire capitalist class and political establishment aligned against him. But we tried to leave it open and make it capacious enough to be useful in any scenario, which meant that it actually forced us to really boil it down to what we think are some of the guiding principles for the emergent socialist left in the coming years.
And the main arguments that we make are that the left cannot abandon electoral politics, even though it’s quite difficult; there’s no question about that. And it’s got plenty of pitfalls, too, but you need to engage on that terrain of struggle, because otherwise you’re simply abstaining from what most people think of when they think of politics, and you’re also ceding a very important site of class struggle to the capitalist class itself. You’re vacating it, right? So it’s important for the socialist left to engage in electoral politics, but we have some guidelines for what we think that looks like. We call our theory of how the socialist left should engage in elections “class-struggle elections,” and we have several criteria for what we think that consists of, which we lay out in the book. And we also give some examples of Democratic Socialists of America chapters in particular, because we think that’s probably the most promising site of emergent socialist activity in the United States right now.
RS: And you have people in Congress already, who you–
MD: We do.
RS: –mention in the book, who have managed to get elected. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the role models there?
MD: Well, I think that–well, let me put it this way. DSA when it first–it was reborn in 2016; it’s existed for quite a while, but a totally brand new organization–so you might as well say that DSA in its current iteration started in 2016. And when it did, people would come along who seemed like they had relatively–they had, like, aligned political views, and then DSA would endorse them. And those are the DSA candidates who are currently in Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What’s really exciting is that in the intervening years, DSA has actually been able to produce its own political leaders from its own ranks. And those people tend to have even more of a relationship to DSA, even more of a sense of accountability to the organization, and it’s starting to develop a real political identity in the electoral sphere.
So, yes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and various other representatives who’ve already been elected are incredible role models. But what’s even more exciting is what’s happening now. For example, in New York City, five DSA members–no, sorry, six DSA members are currently running on a slate. They’re aiming, five of them are trying to go to Albany to the state legislature, and one is trying to go to Congress to join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You could look it up, it’s the New York City DSA slate. And a lot of these are homegrown DSA activists who have finally, you know, developed the skills and the confidence and the political vision to be able to run for office. And this is extremely thrilling. And the fact that they’re running on a slate together is a sign of the maturation of the group. So I think that’s really exciting. And we try to, in the book, we try to give examples of successful electoral campaigns.
Now, I want to stop, I want to quickly move on and say, because I don’t want this to get lost, that that is just the beginning of the book. The electoral stuff is an important argument, but that’s not the whole argument of the book. About halfway through the book, we then pivot to building movements outside of elections, which are absolutely critical. We focus on social movements; in particular, we focus on the labor movement, which we think is the most important site for socialists to be investing our energy as we gear up for the post-Bernie moment and try to take advantage of the fact that we have renewed left and renewed working-class energy in this country.
So we have a particular orientation toward the labor movement, which we call the rank-and-file strategy. The idea is to build a layer of radicals, to rebuild a layer of radicals in the rank-and-file of the labor movement. Not just people who work for unions, not just leaders, but people who work, you know, in their workplaces and are trusted by their co-workers because they work among them. That link has been severed. In the middle of the 20th century, radicals were purged from the labor movement; this was a part of the second Red Scare. And the labor movement has never really recovered from that. And so it’s our view that building back in that layer of radicals on the rank-and-file level in the labor movement is absolutely critical to taking advantage of and maximizing the opportunities that we now have at our disposal.
RS: Let me just–we’re going to run out of time, but I just want to point out, it’s quite true that the movement you’re connected with, Democratic Socialists of America, is basically a youth-driven movement, or at least it seems to me that way when I see them at rallies and so forth. But America has a long history of socialism. It’s as American as apple pie, and most of the things that people identify with as being civilized in America–including the end of slavery and segregation, the development of safe working conditions, started of course in other countries, in England and Germany and elsewhere. But the whole idea of not having child labor, of people being able to have a decent living, of getting Social Security, of having some medical coverage–all of these came out of a long history of struggle. And you had people like Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, who was so important to the March on Washington in the Civil Rights Movement. You could go down–obviously Debs, who ran for president and was jailed for his ideas at the time of the First World War. And so it’s interesting because you have, you know, even what they used to call Reagan Republicans, you know, working-class people who because of identity politics or jingoism or chauvinism got disoriented. But the reason they had those good jobs in auto and elsewhere, good union jobs, was because the people, like the roofers and others who formed those unions, considered themselves democratic socialist.
So this is not a new invention. It’s not a new idea. And by the way, worldwide, if we bring it back to the pandemic, one reason that Germany, for example, has done better than any other country in Europe in handling the pandemic is that Germany has a strong labor union history. And the Social Democratic Party in Germany, which has held power during many years when they put in these sensible measures, they trace themselves to that tradition. That’s why the National Health System in England now, even the New York Times last week admitted is a great success in this pandemic. So most of what even conservative people in this country, working people, might think is, you know, obviously a good thing–they don’t want to get rid of Social Security, they don’t want to get rid of minimum wage, they don’t want to get rid of all these things–they came out, basically, of a democratic socialist movement in this country.
MD: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to trouble the simple dichotomy between on the one hand, you know, real, hardcore, full socialism, and on the other hand some, like, weaker, sort of softer, gentler social democracy. I actually think that it’s not that you can have one or you can have the other. On the contrary, I think that if we look around the world at what we consider to be social democracies, or what are essentially capitalist countries with very strong socialistic elements, the truth of the matter is that most of those were won through class struggle. And the movements that engaged in that struggle were often led by people who identified as socialists, who were part of organized socialist movements, and who were fighting for an actual socialist future.
And so the social democracies that we’ve seen–the successful social democracies, including in Scandinavia, for example, and in Western Europe, that are actually able to withstand this pandemic much, much better than in the United States–they have very strong socialist, working-class political traditions. And I think that with Bernie Sanders, what we saw was the beginning–or I shouldn’t say the beginning, because you’re right, there’s a very long history of American radicalism. But I would say the resurgence of an American class-struggle, social democratic movement–that is, it has, would appear to be somewhat modest social democratic aims, but it’s mobilizing people to fight for those aims in a way that points to something much more ambitious, something far beyond them. Hopefully one day, eventually something that we might be able to actually call socialism. So I hope that people will take the time to pick up the book. We explain these ideas and many more, including what to do about the Democratic Party in the book, what we think we should do, in any case. So yeah, thank you so much for having me on.
RS: Yep. And the book is called–thank you for being here. And the book is called Bigger than Bernie. It’s not a put-down to Bernie, it’s a big celebration. But it makes the point that his great contribution is the very thing he was attacked for by the Democratic Party and the mass media, for the use of the word, or the phrase, “democratic socialism.” I’ve been talking to Meagan Day, who is the co-author of this book. It’s terrific, check it out with Verso, it’s a great British publisher, and you can just go online and check it out and read it. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producer is Joshua Scheer. The producer at KCRW is Christopher Ho. Natasha Hakimi Zapata did the introduction. And with Joshua Scheer’s leadership, we’ll be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.