Bernie Sanders is running for President on the Democratic ticket but has repeatedly referred to himself as a “democratic socialist”. Sanders’ candidacy is important because even if he doesn’t become the Democratic Party’s nominee, he would have challenged the post-WWII narrative of anti-communist scaremongering with huge amounts of media, both new and traditional, coverage.
However not only has the United States had a long tradition of left-wing politics, despite what the GOP will have you believe, leftists have been elected to Congress and some US Presidents themselves have entertained or been influenced by one of the words that terrifies the American Right the most- socialism. Although no US President has ever been a socialist, the influence of left-wing ideas has certainly resulted in some presidents being described in modern terms as social democrats.
There is a tradition in the US that dates back to 1898 of socialists running for political office in their local communities and winning. Most of these elected mayors have been members of the Socialist Party of America but there were some who were members of other parties or ran as independents. In total there have been 63 individuals who have run as socialists in some form or another and become elected mayors, which in the grand scheme of things is not often, but the geographical variations show that left-wingers can be elected right across America; as well as traditionally progressive areas like New York and California, there have also been socialist mayors of towns in Utah, Alabama and Arkansas. In terms of time-scale many were elected in the early 20th century before the Red Scare however the election of leftists continued in spite of McCarthy’s propaganda right up to 2006.
As well as locally elected mayors there have also been elected members of the United States Congress who have identified as socialists of one degree or another. Sanders himself has been in either the House of Representatives or the Senate for the last 25 years and is now the longest serving independent senator in US history. Sanders, however, was not the first socialist elected to Congress.
In 1911 Victor L. Berger was elected to the House of Representatives for Wisconsin’s 5th District as a part of the ‘Sewer Socialist’ movement, named because of the perception that members would boast about the excellent public sewer system of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Berger’s victory was not a one-off protest vote as he regained the same seat in 1919, although due to the 1917 Espionage Act, he was barred from being seated in congress, and also won re-election in 1923 until he was voted out in 1929.
Swiftly after Berger’s first election, a fellow Socialist Party of America-member, Meyer London, ran for Congress in 1915 for New York’s 12th District and won. As a Congressman he lobbied against US involvement in WWI and personally met with President Woodrow Wilson to put the case for military isolationism. After loosing his seat in 1918, he was returned to Congress in 1921 for another two years.
Not only have local officials and Congresspeople been elected on a socialist platform but various US Presidents have been influenced by socialist thinkers or ideas, but some have gone one step further and actually adopted socialist principles, albeit in order to reform and maintain capitalism. Darling of the Republican Party Abraham Lincoln was well-known for reading the newspaper the New York Tribute at a time when Karl Marx was the paper’s European correspondent, thus exposing the President to very radical ideas. Such was the impact of left-wing radicalism upon Lincoln that in a 1862 speech Lincoln speaks about class politics and the exploitation of labour, as well as his more famous policy standpoints on the abolition of slavery.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt also publicly spoke with Norman Thomas, who was the Socialist Party’s presidential nominee on six occasions; although Roosevelt certainly was not an anti-capitalist, he, by modern standards, would definitely qualify as a European-style social-democrat and I would argue wouldn’t look out of place in the British Labour Party or the French Socialist Party. John F. Kennedy openly read ‘The Other America’ by Michael Harrington, who years later became chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America; Lyndon B. Johnson was influenced by Harrington’s work that the book is credited with inspiring his ‘War on Poverty’ which saw the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and numerous federal jobs programmes.
It’s not that these four Presidents were socialists, as they are often described as by the American far-right, but they were in some ways influenced by socialist activists or adapted left-wing ideas for a more capitalistic electorate, which would now call social-democratic policies. What is interesting about these four Presidents is that, irrespective of contextual electoral success, these men are all revered as some of the most influential leaders in US history. It could also be argued that the most economically left-wing of the four, FDR was so popular among the American people that after serving two terms, as convention had dictated, Democratic delegates at the 1940 National Convention chanted “We want Roosevelt!”, and he won the nomination with 86% approval, later going on to win the 1940 Presidential election by around 5 million votes; he was also re-elected again in 1944 to become the only US President ever to be elected four times.
What Bernie Sanders’ campaign is doing is reconnecting the American people with ideas that have long been advocated in America but have been whitewashed out of history due to residual anti-communist fervour that was reinvigorated particularly under Ronald Reagan. By running a national campaign Sanders is energising people about an ideology that for over 70 years has been derided as ‘unpatriotic’; with his message being spread all over the United States, and not just in more left-wing parts of the country, socialism as a part of an electoral platform is losing its toxicity. If Sanders wins the nomination, against all the odds, I predict that more and more people on the America Left will come out of the woodwork and run for political office across the US and winning; such a collective shift towards accepting socialist ideas will only snowball the country’s transformation into a more European-style economy.