A Democratic Socialist Campaign? It’s About Time

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect

A Democratic Socialist Campaign? It’s About Time

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is the first such effort by a democratic socialist since Norman Thomas waged the last of his six such campaigns on the Socialist Party ticket in 1948.

It’s about time.

Historically, the role of the two great American socialist standard-bearers Eugene Debs and Thomas, and such socialist members of Congress as Meyer London and Ronald Dellums, was to advance ideas that their progressive compatriots were sometimes able to enact — partially — years or decades later, or that later were transformed into common sense. Running for president in 1904, Debs campaigned for the eight-hour workday, social insurance and women’s suffrage. Representing New York’s Lower East Side in Congress during the 1910s, London introduced legislation to create paid maternity leave, something Congress still has yet to get around to. In 1942, Thomas was virtually the only prominent American to publicly oppose the internment of Japanese Americans.

What distinguished the socialists from their contemporaries during the Progressive era and the New Deal was their belief that capitalism was inherently unjust and unsustainable. But the very reforms pushed through by European socialists and their American socialist, progressive and liberal counterparts created a more social capitalism — a capitalism with unions, social insurance and prohibitions on speculation — that was to prove remarkably sustainable for a time. In the years after World War II, the socialist parties of Europe and American socialist intellectuals such as Michael Harrington no longer advocated nationalizing the means of production. They advocated, rather, for an expanded social rights agenda — free medical care, for instance — and civil rights. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. — respectively, the architect, the organizer and the visionary of the 1963 March on Washington — were democratic socialists.

But the more egalitarian U.S. economy of the postwar decades has given way to a far grimmer one today, in which new jobs pay poverty wages and and just two art auctions at Christie’s this week can entice the rich to part with more than $1.3 billion. Debs would find much of today’s United States disorientingly familiar. Young Americans, who may have heard their nation once had a middle-class majority but have never experienced it themselves, may have no clear idea what socialism is, but they have a grimly accurate read on contemporary capitalism. A Pew poll showed that while 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive view of capitalism, 47 percent had a negative view — and when asked about socialism, 49 percent saw it positively and 43 percent negatively.

Enter, stage left, Sen. Sanders. The independent from Vermont is not likely, putting it mildly, to displace Hillary Clinton as the Democratic front-runner, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as the leader of U.S. liberalism, but in the best tradition of Debs and Thomas, he is advancing ideas that Democrats, Clinton included, may in time embrace. Sanders calls for Medicare for all and free higher education to be financed with higher taxes on the rich. Like Debs and Thomas, who won their highest votes in elections in which the tide was running left (for Debs, 1912, in which the victor was Woodrow Wilson; for Thomas, 1932, in which the victor was Franklin D. Roosevelt), Sanders is running while Democrats are again moving left in response to the deep dysfunctions of U.S. capitalism. In the past few weeks, leading Democratic think tanks have proposed establishing a public option for health care, national funding for state universities and higher Social Security benefits — policies distinctly more progressive than last year’s standard Democratic fare. Democratic city councils are raising the minimum wage and requiring paid sick days.

Much of what Sanders champions is a slightly more social democratic version of the newly populist liberalism. He can make an even more helpful contribution by offering proposals to change our economic institutions in ways that re-socialize capitalism — rolling back the power that major shareholders wield over corporations, creating labor rights for workers in the gig economy, making businesses more answerable to their workers and consumers.

Combining his avowed socialism with his gruff grandpa manner, Sanders brings to today’s politics an authenticity otherwise in short supply. At best, his role, like that of Debs and Thomas, may prove to be prophetic. “I am not the champion of lost causes,” Thomas insisted, “but the champion of causes not yet won.”

***

This has been reposted from The Washington Post.

Harold Meyerson also is political editor and columnist for the L.A. Weekly, the nation’s largest metropolitan weekly, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post.. In 2009, Atlantic Monthly named Mr. Meyerson one of 50 Most Influential Columnists. He is the author of Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?, a biography of Broadway lyricist Yip Harburg. From 1991 through 1995, Meyerson hosted the weekly show “Real Politics” on radio station KCRW, the Los Angeles area’s leading NPR affiliate. He is a frequent guest on television and radio talk shows.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Harold Meyerson

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.

 

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work