Jennifer Roesch is the co-host of the Better off Red podcast, an activist with the International Socialist Organization in New York City and a contributor to Jacobin, Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, and the Indypendent.
If the Democrats take back the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, there will be a palpable sense of relief for millions of people horrified, and terrified, by Donald Trump. But hopes that a “blue wave” can erase the stain of the presidency on U.S. politics seem almost naïve.
An emboldened right-wing is willing to tear up all the rules of the game. A timid Democratic Party is barely mounting a challenge, with its leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, displaying only the wannest of enthusiasm for bold policy proposals that enjoy majority support such as a “Medicare for All” healthcare plan. This confluence of aggression and accommodation is driving a new factor in U.S. politics: the dramatic growth of socialism.
The media enthusiasm for the upset primary victories of socialist-affiliated candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has faded as tight races for Democrats in red states take center-stage. But the popularity of candidates like New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Pennsylvania’s Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato—not to mention Bernie Sanders, who is on his own multi-state tour—is a sign of the growing desire for more radical alternatives. This is playing out in local elections across the nation as well. At the state level, socialists have galvanized support in a number of races. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) expects that six to eight candidates it supports will gain seats in state legislatures.
In California, in an election which permits final candidates to be from the same party, DSA-backed candidate Jovanka Beckles is facing off against the favored candidate of the Democratic Party establishment, Buffy Wicks. They are vying to represent state assembly district 15, which includes parts of Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond. The local race has attracted attention from billionaires who have funded the establishment candidate in an attempt to ward off a more radical challenge from the Sanders wing of the party.
While most of the socialist electoral efforts are affiliated with the Democratic Party, there are some important challenges outside the two-party system. In Chicago, Rossana Rodriguez is running as an independent progressive for Alderman for the 33rd Ward. Her campaign is supported by a wide range of socialist and progressive organizations. With deep roots in Chicago’s immigrant community, she has combined a fight for funding and expanded services with an opposition to deportations and displacement.
In West Virginia, home to the first wave of last spring’s teacher rebellion, Elliott Pritt is a revolutionary socialist running for the House of Delegates on the Mountain Party ticket. In recent years, the Mountain Party has experienced significant electoral gains in tandem with the decline of the Democratic Party there. Pritt grew up in a Republican household and credits his experience in the military for turning him into a socialist. He has been endorsed by West Virginia’s largest newspaper.
Despite these gains for socialists, and the energy and enthusiasm generated by their campaigns, the primary Democratic winners in this year’s elections will be the candidates of the establishment. And the party’s commitment to bi-partisanship will constrain the options for the radical newcomers like Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Lee, and Innamorato.
But it would be a mistake to judge the growth of socialism only by its electoral achievements. The interest in socialism reaches far beyond the ballot box. The red state teachers’ rebellion of last spring has been followed by new signs of working-class upheaval. Hotel workers have gone out on strike in multiple states. #MeToo has reached the workplace as workers from McDonald’s to Google have walked out in protest of sexual harassment.
Trump may whip up his racist base by attacking the migrant caravan, but this is also galvanizing a response from people who feel an instinctive sympathy with refugees driven to walk thousands of miles in response to desperate conditions. While Trump is calling troops to the border, activists are organizing solidarity actions, including plans for a sanctuary caravan to welcome the refugees at the border.
The White House may solicit research papers on the dangers of socialism, but opinion polls show that large numbers, including majorities of Democrats, Independents and young people, hold favorable views of socialism.
It isn't hard to understand why socialism is growing. Despite a recovery in profits, economic inequality has only grown since the recession of 2008-2009. Living standards have declined for wide swaths of the population. And young people—saddled by high levels of student debt, rising healthcare costs, housing costs and falling wages—face a particular bleak future. The prospects look even more dire when one factors in the impending climate catastrophe.
The immediate results of Tuesday’s elections will be to prop up the illusions that the center has held and that American democracy and its institutions can survive the battering they’ve taken at Trump’s hands. But so long as the two-party system fails to deliver for the vast majority of people who are suffering, there will be a deepening of the volatility and polarization that has come to characterize American politics.
International developments provide a glimpse of the more dramatic forms this could take. On one side, the victory of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is a potent warning of the dangers posed by the growth of the far right. On the other, the rapid growth in support for Jeremy Corbyn in Britain has shown the potential for a left-wing alternative for the many, not the few.
The years ahead will increasingly be a battle between these very different alternatives to the crises we face. Whatever the results of the elections on Tuesday, it is that battle—one that reaches beyond the ballot box and into workplaces and communities—that will determine the future.