Illustration by Riki Blanco

Red Tide Rising

What if the only way to make America great again is to embrace historically-feared socialism?

Last October, President Trump wrote a USA Today op-ed in which he argued that Democrats have become “radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela. If Democrats win control of Congress, we will come dangerously closer to socialism in America.” Well, Democrats won the House and fell short in the Senate. So what happens if they conjure a clean sweep in 2020? Should we fear economic collapse at the hands of socialists in Democratic pantsuits?

It’s worth asking, because at this moment all across America tens of thousands of socialists are working to take the reins of government—and when they run, they campaign largely as Democrats. The way Trump and the GOP spin it, socialism breeds economic doom. But what drives the new American socialist hustle is the counterintuitive idea, rooted in economic theory and hard data, that socialist policies could actually grow the economy. According to the numbers, if we really wanna MAGA, the smart move would be to embrace a political model America learned to loathe long ago.

The Democratic Socialists of America, the most visible socialist organization in the country, launched in 1982 as a coalition of Marxist holdouts who had weathered the red scare of the 1950s—when Communist Party members were tracked by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, interrogated by Senator Joseph McCarthy, fired from jobs and blacklisted in Hollywood—and younger activists who emerged from the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. The DSA had 6,000 charter members but had been in the shadows for more than 30 years.

Then Bernie happened.

The only democratic socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders promised Medicare for all, free college tuition and a $15 minimum wage, and he stoked his 2016 campaign with the rage of those fed up with playing a rich man’s rigged game. Federal Reserve data show that the top 10 percent of Americans in 2016 owned 77 percent of the country’s wealth (the top one percent owned 38.5 percent), while 40 percent of Americans would have to sell something to cover a $400 emergency expense. According to Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the child poverty rate in the U.S. is more than 20 percent. To Sanders and his followers, none of that adds up.
At her first DSA meeting, in the summer of 2016, she saw only 25 people. Then 50. The first gathering after Trump won, she recalls seeing 500.
Bianca Cunningham, a young African American labor organizer, was one of those followers. Cunningham, now 33, wasn’t particularly political until she graduated from college and took a retail job at Verizon Wireless in Brooklyn, where she heard about and experienced sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. She contacted the Communication Workers of America, seeking support, and went on to unionize seven Brooklyn Verizon stores. The CWA was deeply involved with Occupy Wall Street and was one of the few unions to endorse Sanders. Early in his candidacy, Sanders appeared alongside Cunningham in front of a Verizon store.

“After he lost,” Cunningham says, “we thought, Are we gonna let this momentum die or build off of this? So we ducked under the existing DSA umbrella. That was the beginning.” The DSA had been involved with the Sanders campaign since 2015, so it was a natural fit. Cunningham remembers that at her first DSA meeting, in the summer of 2016, she saw only 25 people. Then 50. The first gathering after Trump won, she recalls seeing 500. This so-called Trump bump happened in chapters across the country.

Meanwhile, a handful of former Bernie campaign staffers formed an organization called Brand New Congress, with a mission to elect a range of congressional candidates under a common platform inspired by Sanders’s campaign. They hoped to raise enough money to run more than 400 candidates—“regular people like us,” says executive director Isra Allison, “teachers, engineers, scientists”—and wound up with 31 in the 2018 primaries. BNC is not affiliated with the DSA, but its breakout star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a former Bernie staffer and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, came out of the revitalized New York City DSA.
Ocasio-Cortez is not alone. Card-carrying DSA member Rashida Tlaib was elected to represent Detroit in Congress. And before either of them made headlines, the DSA’s Lee Carter, a Marine Corps veteran, was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates from a Republican district.

Point to just about any relevant political scrum of 2018 and the DSA was there. That West Virginia teachers’ strike that resulted in a five percent salary bump was sparked by DSA affiliates in the state. When the family-separation crisis was white-hot, it was Metro D.C. DSA members who tracked down Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and shamed her out of a Mexican restaurant. DSA members were in a Senate office on Capitol Hill during the Kavanaugh protests.

According to a recent BuzzFeed poll, 48 percent of millennial Democrats and 23 percent of millennial Republicans identify as democratic socialists. “We have no recollection of the Cold War,” Cunningham says. “We didn’t live through the red scare. We don’t have these stigmas in our mind.” There are now 52,000 active DSA members and counting.

Trump and the GOP don’t like their policies because they’ll demand higher taxes on the rich—a four to 12 percent hike, according to Baker. In the Republicans’ preferred free market model, economic growth comes only from business investment, not government. That’s why they passed the nearly 40 percent corporate tax cut that sent the deficit soaring.
They want to put money back into the hands of everyday people and let it circulate.
As much as Republicans enjoy watching cash trickle down, the engine of any economy is not corporate investment but aggregate demand—the day-to-day spending on goods and services. Socialist economist Richard Wolff calls the policies that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez seek “trickle-up economics.” They want to put money back into the hands of everyday people and let it circulate. Consider this: Venezuela doesn’t have an elaborate social safety net; Norway does. There, 80 percent of the country is middle income (compared with America’s 52 percent), and the economy is thriving.

We’ve even tried it here before. After the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, compelled by organized labor and a fierce, pre-blacklist Communist Party, pushed a New Deal through Congress, establishing Social Security, a minimum wage and a jobs program. And we taxed the rich to pay for it. The 1944 GI Bill helped working-class veterans attend college for free. What happened next was a wholesale redistribution of wealth and 30 years of sustained growth that the majority of Americans shared. The New Deal built the modern middle class. It hatched the American dream.

You might have heard of those days, the ones so many are nostalgic for. You know, back when America was “great.”

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