You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Sibling Rivalry

Liberals and socialists share a common inheritance. So why can’t they find a way to work together to defeat Trump?

Illustration by Roberto Parada

At a town hall meeting in New York City early this year, Nancy Pelosi fielded a thorny question about the direction of her party. Trevor Hill, a dapper New York University sophomore sporting a light purple shirt and suspenders, wanted to know where the House minority leader stood on the question of socialism. A recent poll had shown that more than half of all American voters younger than 30—not just Democrats—no longer support capitalism. This statistic felt true to Hill’s own experience, not just among his NYU classmates but also from what he’d seen in polls and on television. He was glad that Democrats had moved to the left on social issues, like gay marriage. So why, he asked Pelosi, couldn’t they move left on economic issues? Could she see Democrats embracing a “more populist message—the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing?”

After politely thanking Hill for his question, Pelosi was quick to shoot down any talk of left-wing populism. “We’re capitalist,” she told him firmly, “and that’s just the way it is.” To be sure, Pelosi acknowledged, there are serious flaws in the system: CEOs are making too much money, and the social safety net has worn thin. But Pelosi assured Hill that Democrats, aided by enlightened capitalists, can solve such problems. The alternative—introducing socialist-oriented policies such as universal health care or free college education for all—is unthinkable. “I don’t think we have to change from capitalism,” Pelosi concluded. “We’re a capitalist system.”

The contrast between Pelosi, a centrist liberal, and Hill, a young leftist, is emblematic of deep fissures within the Democratic Party. These divisions—which flared up during last year’s brutal primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and have only intensified since Donald Trump’s victory—are often seen in narrowly partisan terms, as a lingering quarrel between rival Democratic factions. But it’s a grave mistake to dismiss this dispute as nothing but postelection infighting. In truth, Clinton and Sanders are proxies in a long-standing ideological battle between the two major camps within the Democratic Party: liberals and socialists.

If the battle seems intense, it’s because the two camps are so closely related. Liberalism and socialism are best understood as sibling rivals. Both were born of the common inheritance of the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century. Both are committed to secular amelioration of the human condition. Their family feud is waged over the central issue of the nature of capitalism. Liberals see it as a flawed but worthy system that needs reform, while socialists push for its ultimate (if distant) transformation into a system where major economic decisions are brought under democratic control.

As with all sibling rivalries, competition brings out the best and the worst in both sides. Over the past century, liberals and socialists have engaged in rancorous debate, bitter recrimination, and even political repression. Yet Democratic presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon B. Johnson won their most consequential victories when they faced strong left-wing challenges. Liberals’ greatest achievements—including child labor laws, Social Security, and Medicare—were all based on ideas that socialists agitated for. The most radical phase of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency—the Second New Deal period from 1935 to 1936, when the federal government guaranteed workers the right to organize and enacted a large-scale public works program—took place against the backdrop of intense organizing by socialists and communists. It was widespread fear of this working-class militancy that allowed FDR to push through a far-reaching agenda.

Going forward, the crucial question for Democrats is whether socialists and liberals can overcome their rivalry and find ways to work together. In an age of nationalist fervor and populist unrest, neither can succeed alone. As any child knows, there’s nobody harder to get along with than a member of your own family. But that is what it will take for liberals and socialists to reclaim their common inheritance, defeat Trumpism, and forge a more egalitarian and representative democracy.

Socialism has been in eclipse in America for so long that we don’t normally think of it as a major ideological force. While Eugene Debs presided over a vibrant third party in the early twentieth century, becoming the most popular left-wing insurgent ever to run for president, his successor, Norman Thomas, won only 0.29 percent of the vote as the Socialist Party candidate in 1948. Over the course of a century, socialism in America transformed from mass movement to die-hard sect to an eccentric hobby. In his book Blood of the Liberals, the journalist George Packer provided a dispiriting account of what it was like to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the major organ for socialist politics after Debs’s party dissolved, during the 1990s. “The organization acquainted me with the pathos of left-wing activism in twilight,” Packer recalled:

It was marginal, pedestrian work, based on the eternal postponement of gratification: three-hour board meetings in a narrow room in a church basement; a two-year fund drive to buy a used computer; a snowbound forum on the Canadian left, whose announcement reached most of the membership too late because the nonprofit mailing wasn’t sorted properly. The word “Sisyphean” is misleading, since we never pushed our rock anywhere close to the top.

Given this disarray, the most enduring legacy of 2016 might not be Donald Trump’s presidency, but the rebirth of American socialism. Sanders, a democratic socialist, won 43 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party primaries and has, polls show, become the most popular active politician in America since Trump’s election.

The Sanders campaign was the crest of a larger socialist wave that began with the global financial crisis. The ensuing recession, coupled with the manifest failure of either Democrats or Republicans to address the crisis adequately, sent more and more Americans in search of explanations and solutions that establishment politics did not offer. On the right, this contributed to the rise of the Tea Party, Breitbart News, and Donald Trump. On the left, Occupy Wall Street critiqued the predatory one percent in a new vocabulary, while Rolling Jubilee attempted to salve the crushing burdens of student and medical debt. DSA membership has surged to record levels, and socialist magazines both new and old (Dissent, n+1, Jacobin) hum with lively debates over single-payer health care and universal basic income. For the first time since the 1960s, the left wing of the American political spectrum doesn’t end at left-liberalism, but extends to socialism.

In the realm of political theory, if not in the messier realities of practice, it has long seemed logical and necessary that liberalism and socialism should converge. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, the foremost heir to classical liberalism, concluded that liberalism’s commitment to private property and limited government, born of an age when suffrage was still restricted to propertied men, would have to be modified in the age of mass democracy, when both women and working-class men had won the vote. The newly enfranchised masses would make material demands that couldn’t be met by the minimal state endorsed by classical liberalism. The liberal ideal of individual freedom could only become real to most people if it were bolstered by socialist economic policies.

“The social problem of the future,” Mill explained in 1873, was “how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in the raw materials of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labor.” Mill’s project of creating a liberal socialism (or a socialist liberalism) was taken up by such distinguished successors as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. “The cause of liberalism will be lost,” Dewey observed in 1935, “if it is not prepared to go further and socialize the forces of production now at hand.” Dewey was writing at the height of the Great Depression, when European business elites were openly supporting fascism as a means to counter working-class militancy. Bourgeois liberal society, it was clear, could not defend its own achievements unless it accepted social democratic reform.

In practice, however, relations between liberals and socialists have been tense and sometimes bloody. Consider the fate of Debs, who received nearly 6 percent of the vote as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1912. Under his leadership, the party won over a thousand local races across the country, electing socialist mayors in 24 states. Debsian socialism was broad and inclusive, attracting immigrants in New York and Oklahoma farmers. His party stood also at the forefront of the feminism of the time, supporting female suffrage and the legalization of birth control.

Yet the Socialist Party was ultimately undermined by Woodrow Wilson, who both stole its ideas and suppressed its leaders. As Irving Howe observes in Socialism in America, many of Wilson’s major reforms were drawn directly from the “traditional socialist legislative program,” including “a graduated income tax, the Clayton Act to limit labor injunctions, a child labor law, several laws helping farmers, the direct election of senators.” Having stolen socialism’s thunder, Wilson used the powers of the state to quash the Socialist Party. Declaring Debs a “traitor to his country” for his opposition to America’s entry into World War I, the Wilson administration banned socialist publications and jailed party activists—including Debs himself, who was convicted of sedition in 1919. The following year, when Debs ran for president from his prison cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he received nearly a million votes.

While relations between liberals and socialists would never get so low again, certain patterns would recur. Socialist energy and activism continued to push liberals toward their most far-reaching reforms, ranging from Social Security under FDR to the War on Poverty under LBJ (which took inspiration from Michael Harrington’s The Other America). Yet time and again, socialists came away disappointed by the way such reforms were weakened or derailed by the persistent power of big business. This sense of betrayal contributed to the marginalization and isolation of the party’s left, steadily reducing the influence that socialists were able to exert on the liberal establishment.

Norman Thomas, who had been active in organizing sharecroppers during the 1920s and 1930s, was furious that farm relief under FDR funneled taxpayer money to big planters, a key constituency of the Democratic Party. Thomas became an implacable critic of the New Deal, which he felt did not go far enough in reforming capitalism. In the ’60s, LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War similarly derailed the possibility of a socialist-liberal alliance, driving many young idealists away from mainstream politics into political extremism or apolitical self-indulgence. Politically engaged young people who might have become Democratic Party activists instead joined the Weather Underground or retreated into communes where they cultivated their organic gardens.

Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was declared a traitor for his opposition to World War I.

In his survey of American socialism, Irving Howe came to the surprising conclusion that the most promising model for liberal-socialist cooperation came not from the party of Debs but from a movement even further to the left: the Popular Front forged by the American Communist Party between 1935 and 1939. During this period, the party demonstrated a skill for realpolitik that Debs and Thomas were incapable of. Instead of opposing the Democrats, the Communists became their junior partners, forming anti-fascist front groups that pitched communism as a patriotic movement. Repackaging themselves as “liberals in a hurry,” the Communists worked hard to emphasize the shared goals of a broad left.

To be sure, the Popular Front’s attempts to make socialism as American as apple pie sometimes sounded absurd. In 1938, the Young Communist League at the University of Wisconsin put out a pamphlet that read:

Some people have the idea that a YCLer is politically minded, that nothing outside of politics means anything. Gosh no. They have a few simple problems. There is the problem of getting good men on the baseball team this spring, of opposition from ping-pong teams, of dating girls, etc. We go to shows, parties, dances and all of that. In short, the YCL and its members are no different from other people except that we believe in dialectical materialism as a solution to all problems.

But however strained its sales pitch may have been, the Popular Front embraced a key insight that had eluded socialists. In The Heyday of American Communism, published in 1984, historian Harvey Klehr argued that the Communists “discovered just how open and permeable American political parties were.” As Communist official Terry Pettus told Klehr, “You are a member of whatever you say you are.” Just by working within the system, Pettus and his comrades discovered, a small group of activists “could win control of a large segment of the Democratic Party.” By forging a successful alliance with liberals, the Popular Front enabled the Communist Party to become a significant political force in states like New York, Minnesota, and Washington.

For Howe, the lesson was that socialists like Debs and Thomas might have profited from creating their own version of the Popular Front. Rather than establishing a third party—a strategy doomed to failure in America’s winner-take-all electoral system—socialists should try to become an influential faction within the Democratic Party, winning elections on the party ticket and shaping policy from Washington State to Washington, D.C. That’s what Jesse Jackson attempted with the Rainbow Coalition, expanding the range of ideas and constituencies that were welcomed within the party. That’s how the Tea Party transformed itself into the dominant force within the Republican Party in the space of a few years. And that’s the strategy Bernie Sanders pursued when he ran as a Democrat in 2016, injecting socialist ideas directly into the liberal mainstream and forcing the party further to the left.

Socialist strategy isn’t the only thing that has prevented the emergence of a new Popular Front. While Democrats under Wilson and FDR embraced and even implemented ideas from the left, today’s liberals have worked hard to distance themselves not only from socialism, but also from liberalism. The historic cooperation between the two broke down with the rise of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, who championed Third Way politics in the ’90s. In an earlier era, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had envisioned liberalism as inhabiting the “vital center” between “fascism to the right, communism to the left.” Clinton adopted Schlesinger’s term—speaking of the “vital American center”—but he located his midpoint on a very different spectrum. Clinton positioned himself a centrist standing between the conservative extremism of Ronald Reagan and the older liberalism of FDR and LBJ.

Third Way politics moved the center rightward. Clintonism wasn’t just to the right of New Deal liberalism on specific policies, like welfare reform and balanced budgets—he urged Democrats to embrace the right’s underlying ideological framework. “The era of big government is over,” he declared in his State of the Union address in 1996, abandoning any commitment to bringing the economy under a modest degree of democratic control. In the place of government regulation, Third Way liberals now extolled the market as the solution to all of society’s problems. Government itself had to be brought under the discipline of market economics, made leaner and more entrepreneurial. Instead of large, universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, Third Way liberals supported targeted, market-friendly ideas like privatization and welfare reform. If there had to be more government spending, it would be means-tested.

Third Way politics returned Democrats to the White House—but it also laid the groundwork for the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Barack Obama won by promising hope and change, but he governed by hewing to the market-friendly version of liberalism staked out by Bill Clinton. He was wary of implementing public-works programs even in response to the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, refused to crack down on the big banks responsible for the crisis, and tinkered with health care markets rather than pushing for a single-payer system. Whatever success Obama achieved, his brand of liberalism remained well to the right of that of FDR.

But while Obama worked to protect liberalism from any whiff of socialism, extremists on the right were forging a powerful alliance of their own. With Obama’s election, the Tea Party—a movement that cloaked its fanaticism in the language of patriotism—staged a coup of the Republican Party. At the same time, the legacy of a quarter-century of Third Way policies, from free trade to financial deregulation, supercharged the wealth of the one percent and drove millions of Americans into joblessness, insecurity, and debt. To respond to these crises, liberals need the energy and ideas of socialism, while the left needs the access to power that only the Democrats can provide in our two-party system. As a result, the possibilities of a successful alliance between liberals and socialists is greater today than at any point since LBJ’s creation of the Great Society.

To forge a modern-day Popular Front, both liberals and socialists will have to give a little, making a variety of ideological compromises in the interests of political unity. Take foreign policy: Democrats like Hillary Clinton have supported the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and don’t treat Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a pressing problem. Socialists, by contrast, tend to oppose U.S. intervention overseas, and DSA has backed the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. Daniel Biss, a Democratic state senator running for governor of Illinois, recently demonstrated the limits of liberal tolerance in foreign policy when he dropped his running mate, DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, over his involvement in BDS.

Another hurdle is money. Socialists hold that a party reliant on big donors isn’t free to fight for economic equality. You can’t run on lowering drug prices, say, when pharmaceutical companies are funding your campaign. Fortunately, socialists appear to have come up with an alternative funding model that could help overcome this obstacle: Last year, Sanders raised $220 million mostly from a broad base of individual donors, who contributed an average of $27 each to his campaign. If the Sanders model can be replicated in congressional races and elect a Democratic president, then liberals need no longer be beholden to Wall Street and big corporate interests.

A final obstacle to an alliance of socialists and liberals is identity politics. For most of the past century, socialists have been well ahead of most liberals in opposing racism and sexism. But socialists have done themselves no favors by insisting that class must take precedence over issues like race and gender—a position that comes across as dismissive of the concerns of women and people of color. Certainly Sanders made himself vulnerable on this front by treating identity politics as little more than a distraction from the goal of economic equality. In the wake of the 2016 election, Sanders continued to emphasize class above all else: “It’s not good enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.’ I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big money interests.”

To overcome the sharp divide over class and identity, socialists must develop a new generation of politicians—one that can speak to such issues in a more sophisticated way. Since economic inequality is deeply intertwined with both race and gender, it’s reasonable for socialists to argue that focusing on income redistribution will disproportionately help women and people of color. But politics isn’t just a matter of pursuing the right policy—it’s about voice and representation. For socialism to succeed, it can’t come from a white male demanding that women and people of color choose between their class interests and their racial and cultural identity. The political face of socialism—the leaders who represent it—must resemble the actual working class, which is increasingly nonwhite and female.

Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, 1995: Third Way liberals like Clinton moved the center rightward.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty

Despite such hurdles, though, there is good reason to think that socialists and liberals can forge a Popular Front, one motivated by the need to confront a common enemy: a capitalist system that has returned America to the stark inequality of the Gilded Age. In recent years, there’s been a dramatic shift in liberal thinking about the nature of capitalism itself. As tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon increasingly exert their influence on all aspects of public life, activists like Barry Lynn have played a major role in reviving anti-monopoly politics among liberals. Documenting the concentration of corporate power, the Open Markets Initiative has pushed for a revival of antitrust laws, a powerful tool and central tenet of the Democratic Party until the rise of Third Way liberalism. In the current political landscape, liberals are being forced to reexamine the systemic nature of the crisis, which means finding blame not just in a baleful individual (Trump) or even his party (the Republicans) but also in the larger social forces that made the crisis possible.

For the first time in decades, liberals are starting to see entrenched capital as the primary foe. What were once heretical positions are now becoming litmus tests for politicians on the national stage. When Sanders introduced his Medicare for All proposal in early September, almost a third of all Democrats in the Senate signed on as co-sponsors. Notably, the list included many of the politicians considered most likely to run for president in 2020, including Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Whether or not Sanders himself runs again, he’s clearly setting the agenda for policy debates that have long been the exclusive domain of liberals. Democrats are once again listening to the ideas and vision of the socialist left. The limits of the possible—the best working measure of politics—have expanded enormously. Both sides recognize that democracy cannot function as long as moneyed interests go unchallenged. Which means that Nancy Pelosi’s response to the hopeful NYU student—“We’re capitalist”—is no longer the final answer.