American political history has been punctuated by presidential elections that cemented decisive changes, reflecting larger trends that were later, and often at the time, seen as “inevitable.” In 1860, the South had long been the richest and most powerful section of the country, but the North was clearly growing faster. The election of Lincoln shocked the country into civil war, not because he was a crazy radical, but because he confirmed what everyone with eyes could see was already happening. In 1896, politics was driven by agrarian radicalism and the demand for the free coinage of silver, even though industrial America was clearly destined to prevail. McKinley defeated Bryan decisively, and the great revolt was over. In the 1920’s urban America was obviously overtaking rural, and the rural interests were so desperate to hold onto power that, for the only time in history, Congress was never reapportioned to take account of the 1920 census. Although the Great Depression probably made the election of 1932 and the long Democratic hegemony inevitable, it was also the first that reflected the demographic changes since 1910.
This year could be similar. Everyone with eyes, on both ends of the political spectrum, can see that traditional white Christian America is giving way to a new, diverse one. White Christians are already a minority, and a declining one at that. Trump’s main base of hard-core support rests on those who refuse to go down without a fight. Their current extremism — this cannot be said often enough — is proof of their weakness. We on the left who are focusing this year on defeat of the Trump campaign, including the DSA, too often see that goal as a tragic necessity. Phrases such as “hold our noses” and especially “lesser of two evils” dominate conversations. But I would argue that we should welcome a Democratic victory in 2016 as a major step toward our long-term goals.
We don’t often talk about full-fledged socialism, as a goal we might actually reach. The largest single reason, I suspect, is that we have simply armored ourselves against disappointment. The old model of total government ownership and central control didn’t work out so well and by now has lost all credibility. We also have an unfortunate history of “blueprinting,” coming up with elaborate models that bear no relation to political reality. (“Balanced job complexes,” anyone?) So we mostly leave full socialism off for the dreamy future and concentrate on an immediate action program “informed” by socialistic ideals.
Because we don’t think too deeply about achieving socialism, too many socialists don’t imagine any politics more subtle than voting for a left political party, electing a left government, and putting through a coherent and systematic left program. They see the immediate problem entirely in terms of creating a left-wing third party to be a vehicle for that scenario. This dream is also haunted by echoes of old Marxist notions about political parties representing particular classes, leaving the “capitalist” parties to wither away with their defeated class.
But that’s not how political democracy works, of course. Political parties build diverse bases by diluting their ideas — basically reducing them to all but meaningless slogans — and striving to be all things to all people, hoping to deliver enough tangible benefits to enough constituencies to maintain majority support. Ideological or principled parties need not apply. (The Republicans have come close to creating one in recent years, and it is destroying them.) Barring the establishment of a parliamentary system, which no one is working on, there can normally be only two real political parties — center-right and center-left — and neither ever enjoys a monopoly of power. The President is always within spitting distance of the center. Even structural reforms which might be put through, such as fusion or instant runoffs, really serve mainly to put pressure on the two “real” parties.
When we in the DSA resolved to seek socialism by working within the mainstream political system — this was less a matter of conviction than a recognition that everything else had failed — we, in effect, agreed to accept as “socialism” something in the range of outcomes that can be produced by that system. We would have to submit to regular re-evaluations at the ballot box, and the only legislation we can ever get through will have gone through the meat-grinder of political compromise. Through that process we will have to build an activist, social-democratic state one program and initiative at a time. Economic democratization — what makes it full socialism — will be built by a mixture of public and private initiatives, creating new self-managed enterprises and imposing social control from within existing ones.
We will have to build socialism in an environment in which the left will never have the power to enact policies without having to compromise them with the center right. It simply can’t happen. But that’s not really a bad thing. If socialism is to exist as a sustainable system, it will have to rest on a broad political consensus, extending right across the political spectrum and encompassing the center right as well as the left. Otherwise it will be perpetually contested, never more than one wave election away from being decimated. But that broad consensus is not as inconceivable as it may at first seem.
The center right can live with an activist state and has, repeatedly, all over the democratic world; anyone whose Marxist ideology tells them that this is impossible has ignored the history of the last century. The “scorched-earth” opposition to government which has characterized Republican politics over the last few years is actually an anomaly. The center right can also accept some forms of economic restructuring. Theresa May, the new Tory PM in Britain, apparently favors German-style co-determination, which has, of course, been maintained in Germany, under a variety of governments. The abortive Employee-Ownership Act of 1999 — something we should look forward to reintroducing — had sponsors from among both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. We call social ownership the “solidarity economy” and see it as a way to give working people control over their own lives; the center right will call it the “ownership society” and see it as a way to integrate the working class into the established order. They may even see what we call “socialism” as merely the next phase of capitalism. Let them.
So how does this year’s election fit into this process? Hopefully there will be Democratic blow-out, which can be used to consolidate a period of structural Democratic control. The first order of business will be to shore up political democracy by restoring voting rights and, if possible, banning partisan gerrymandering. There is a new majority rising in this country, and it deserves to rule. This is in the institutional interests of the Democratic Party, and it is already on the table.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have painted themselves into a corner. With every election cycle, the electorate is less white and less backward-looking. Until the Republicans can disentangle themselves from their white-nationalist base, communities of color will continue bloc-voting for the Democrats, and until they can reject the politics of sexual reaction, they will lose heavily among women and young people. Many, maybe most, of the white nationalists will never come around and will go to their graves seething with resentment and hatred. If some fragments of the Trump coalition really do resort to “Second Amendment solutions,” their final defeat will come all the faster. Some of the white working-class elements in that coalition, however, will come over — especially if there is a vibrant labor movement ready to receive them. The right-wing extremism we have seen in recent years will be a one-way ticket to Loserville. The Republicans will be back — or if they’re not, someone else will take their place — but only after they have accommodated themselves to the new reality.
If the Democratic Party can achieve several election cycles of dominance, there will be room to make headstarts on some of the initiatives that will go into building up the activist state — and maybe even the restructuring that will create social control. Our Revolution and similar groups will be running progressives in Democratic primaries, and — most important — we will be doing offensive, rather than defensive, organizing and movement work. This could be the opening of a joyous time for us.
We could begin by dropping the word “evil” to describe those whose only crime is being to our right.