What Would a Socialist America Look Like? Politico asked thinkers on the left to describe their vision for a re-imagined American economy.
Just a decade ago, “socialism” was a dirty word in American politics. Debates over its merits were mostly limited to obscure blogs, niche magazines and political parties on the other side of the Atlantic. But more recently Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of other politicians have breathed new life into the label, injecting a radical alternate vision for the U.S. economy into the mainstream political debate. Ahead of the midterms, politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Kansas’ James Thompson have proudly held up their endorsements from Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist group, whose numbers have swelled since Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
For Fox News viewers, it’s the stuff of nightmares—not to mention that skittish Democrats fear alienating swing voters more comfortable with their party’s post-Lyndon B. Johnson incrementalism. According to a pollfrom August, however, for the first time since Gallup has asked the question, more Democrats approve of socialism than of capitalism. Could socialism really come to America—and what would it look like? Politico Magazine invited a group of socialist writers, policy wonks and politicians (and a few critics) to weigh in, and their responses were as diverse as the movement itself—reflecting, if nothing else, the expanded political horizons of our post-Trump brave new world. —Derek Robertson
If it’s good enough for the Nordics, it’s good enough for us.
Matthew Bruenig is the founder of the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank.
One way to implement socialism in the United States would be to copy many of the economic institutions found in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries, which consistently rank near the top of the world in happiness, human development and overall well-being, have highly organized labor markets, universal welfare states and relatively high levels of public ownership of capital.
To move in the Nordic direction, the United States should promote the mass unionization of its workforce, increase legal protections against arbitrary termination and allow workers to control some of the seats on the corporate boards of the companies they work in, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently suggested.
When it comes to the welfare state, the country should create a national health insurance system, akin to some Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals, extend new parents paid leave from work, provide young children free child care and pre-K, and give each family a $300 per month allowance per child. The United States should also provide housing stipends to those on low incomes and increase the minimum benefits for those on senior and disability pensions.
To increase public ownership over capital, the government should establish a social wealth fund and gradually fill that fund with capital assets purchased on the open market. Over time, the returns from this fund could be parceled out as universal payments to every American, or used for general government revenue. The government should also build at least 10 million units of publicly owned, mixed-income social housing, which would both increase public ownership of the U.S. housing stock and provide a much-needed boost to the housing supply in prohibitively expensive metropolitan areas.
Democratic socialism is about expanding democracy.
David Duhalde is the senior electoral manager for Our Revolution, the Sanders-inspired progressive nonprofit.
The often-ignored core of how we would implement socialism is the expansion of who makes decisions in society and how, including the democratic ownership of the workplace. Democratic socialism in the United States is as much about expanding democracy as it is anything else.
In the short term, socialists, like liberals, want to protect, strengthen, and expand social services and public goods. We do so, however, not just because those programs are humane, but to move us toward a social democracy where people’s lives are less bound to the whims of the so-called free market. Universal health care and a jobs guarantee, two seemingly radical ideas that are in fact currently before the Senate, would be just the first steps toward social democracy.
Establishing democratic socialism means democratizing ownership of capital, our jobs and our personal lives. Socialists believe that if you work somewhere, you should have a say it in how it’s run. Through unions, worker councils and elected boards, this is possible at the company level today. Furthermore, if your labor generates profit, under socialism you would have an ownership stake and a democratic say in how your workplace is run. Co-ops and public enterprises like Mandragon in the Basque country, Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi and Red Emma’s in Baltimore give us a partial glimpse into what such ownership could look like. This type of democratized economy would grant autonomy to historically neglected communities, and it would be the foundation of any socialist United States.
Call it what you want, it’s about making communities more equal.
Rashida Tlaib is the Democratic candidate for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
Socialism, to me, means ensuring that our government policy puts human needs before corporate greed and that we build communities where everyone has a chance to thrive. I’m resistant to labels, even ones that might obviously describe me, like “progressive,” because I feel like once the media starts defining you, instead of letting your actions speak volumes, you start to lose a bit of who you are. I’m proud to be a member of the Metro Detroit DSA because they are working for the same things I’m working for—a living wage for all people, abolishing ICE and securing universal health care, to name just a few.
We’re trying to create communities where the education you have access to, or the jobs you’re able to get, don’t depend on your zip code or your race or gender. People aren’t looking for a “progressive” or a “democratic socialist” representative, necessarily, but they also aren’t scared of those words—they’re just looking for a fighter who will put their needs ahead of corporate profits and never back down. So, if other people want to call me a democratic socialist based on my fighting for public goods that make us all better off, that’s fine with me, and I certainly won’t tell them otherwise. But I define myself through my own unique lens—I’m a mother fighting for justice for all. Ultimately, I’m trying to build coalitions and inspire activists to create a society where everyone has a chance to flourish. That’s the socialism I’m interested in.
Socialism would remedy the systemic deprivation of people of color.
Connie M. Razza is director of policy and research at the think tank Demos.
A more democratically socialist—or equitable—American economy would require a re-engineering of the structures that have systematically stripped wealth and other resources from communities of color. To see these structures, one could look back hundreds of years to Europeans stripping land from Native Americans and enslaving Africans to till that land; one could look back just nine months to Republicans passing a tax cut to benefit their big-money donors at the expense of the working and poor people.
Additionally, a new system would adjust how corporations are treated, recognizing what is already true: We invest in corporations and the infrastructure they rely on because they should serve us. With the current mood for deregulation and cutting taxes, we’ve shifted power to corporations. Appropriate regulation and fair taxation help business to pool resources—whether money (as in finance), power (as in energy companies), technology, food—and distribute them where they truly need to go.
Crucially, an equitable future requires that everyone has an equal say in American democracy—equal ease in access to voting, free of overly restrictive hurdles. Smart public financing would enable voters to participate meaningfully by donating to candidates and enable all qualified citizens to run for office. Money should not give the wealthy extra votes. A more balanced political economy would recognize that only speech is speech, and the opportunity to influence the thinking of representatives is through the soundness of ideas.
Democratic socialism means democratic ownership over the economy.
Peter Gowan is a fellow with the progressive nonprofit the Democracy Collaborative.
A democratically elected government should own natural monopolies such as utilities and rail transport; provide social services like health care, education, housing, child care and banking; and create a general welfare state that eliminates poverty through guaranteeing a minimum income, with assistance for people with disabilities, the elderly and families with children.
But we have to go beyond that. We need measures to establish democratic ownership over the wider economy, and eliminate our dependence on industries that rely on pollution and war for their existence. There need to be strategies to allow workers in the defense, aerospace and fossil fuel industries to repurpose their facilities for more socially useful production, drawing on the example of the Lucas Plan in Britain, where workers designed and published a viable “alternative corporate plan” that included funding for renewable energy, public transport and medical technology.
We need a mechanism to transfer corporate equity into sector-oriented social wealth funds controlled by diverse and accountable stakeholders, which would gradually transfer ownership away from unaccountable elites and toward inclusive institutions.
A democratic socialist America would be a society where wealth and power are far more evenly distributed, and it would be less cruel, less lonely and less alienating. Democratic socialism aims for the liberation of human agency and creativity—not just in America, but in all the countries that capital exploits and invades for the profits of our nation’s billionaires.
It’s about giving everyone a voice in decision-making.
Maria Svart is national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Our collective power is the key to what socialism in America would look like, because democratic socialism rests on one key premise: We don’t have a blueprint, so expanding democracy to include all of us is both the means and the end.
The problem with capitalism is not just that a system fueled by a wealthy, profit-hungry elite is inherently unstable, or that it leaves whole layers of society starving in the streets. It is that it relies on the dictatorship of the rich. The fundamental difference we expect from a socialist society is that we will all have a voice in the decisions that impact our lives. Workplaces will be owned by the workers who run them, rather than an authoritarian boss.
The political system will be truly democratic, rather than run by those who have bought the politicians. Family life will be more democratic, and no one will have to depend on a breadwinner to survive because public services like health care will be available to all, and will be run with community oversight. Finally, government investment will be democratic, rather than decided by corporate donors or Wall Street gamblers. In other words, we will have true freedom, not just survival—the choices available to us now that depend on the whims of the few.
It’s much simpler: social insurance.
Samuel Hammond is director of poverty and welfare studies at the free market think tank the Niskanen Center.
Almost a century after FDR signed the Social Security Act into law, it remains his most enduring legacy, helping to keep more than 22 million seniors out of poverty each year—and protecting millions more from the risk of outliving their savings. And yet, we generally don’t think of Social Security as, well, “socialist.” But why shouldn’t we? Not only is it the federal government’s largest outlay—one third of the budget, at nearly $1 trillion per year—but its establishment signified that even the most rugged American individualist is ultimately bound to his or her fellow citizens.
The frontier spirit of American entrepreneurship, and the enormous heterogeneity that comes with being a nation of immigrants, means the United States will never have the high-trust brand of social democracy one finds in Northern Europe. Yet the success of Social Security provides a two-word hint for how America can become more “socialist” overnight: social insurance.
Social insurance is the public pooling of risks that markets struggle to contain, from pre-existing medical conditions to the sudden loss of employment. It can be done efficiently by any government competent enough to cut checks. And while the bureaucratic opacity of the Social Security Administration can be infuriating, it appears perfectly compatible with America’s low-trust brand of pluralism. This suggests that the path forward for American socialists is not occupying Wall Street, but the streets of Hartford, Connecticut—the nation’s insurance industry capital.
Forget social democracy. America is ready for actual socialism.
Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at the Democracy Collaborative.
When socialism comes to America, it won’t be “one size fits all”—although it will have universalist aspects and aspirations. Rather than imposed from above, it will be bottom up, in line with America’s best traditions—able to draw, like the New Deal, on a rich tapestry of experimentation in state and local “laboratories of democracy.” It will be democratic, decentralized and participatory. It will be rooted in racial, gender and sexual justice, recalling Langston Hughes’ “and that never has been yet—and yet must be.” It will dismantle an already-existing American gulag—today’s racialized regime of mass incarceration, encompassing the largest prison population in the world—rather than imposing one. It will be about living safely, wisely and well within a flourishing commons, in solidarity with our nonhuman comrades, rather than overshooting ecological boundaries in the pursuit of financial accumulation.
This will be actual socialism, rather than social democracy or liberalism, because it will have socialized the means of production—although in plural forms that do not all center on the state. Instead of concentrated wealth, it will have broad dispersal of ownership. Instead of frictionless global markets, the rooted, participatory, recirculatory local economy. Instead of extractive multinational corporations, the worker, community and municipally owned firm. Instead of asset-stripping privatization, myriad forms of democratic public enterprise. Instead of private credit creation by commercial banks and rentier finance, the massive potential power of public banks and sovereign government finance—harkening back to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A radical alternative to an American capitalist system that is anything but free.
Thomas Hanna is director of research at the Democracy Collaborative.
A practical form of socialism in the United States in the 21st century would occur when democratic ownership displaces and supersedes the current, dominant extractive corporate model. There is no single, ideal form of democratic ownership, but an enormous variety including full state ownership, partial state ownership, local/municipal ownership, multi-stakeholder ownership, worker ownership, consumer cooperative ownership, producer cooperative ownership, community ownership and sustainable local private ownership.
Despite all the rhetoric about the “free market,” the American capitalist system is anything but. It’s already reliant on a heavy dose of government policy, regulation, administration and accompanying interventions at various levels—in some cases even approximating soft planning, as in, for example, the farm sector. Some such mix of markets and planning will, at least at first, inevitably be a feature of an American socialist system, ideally with more democratic involvement in determining long-term national, regional and local priorities, on one hand. On the other, it will feature greater rationality in efforts toward more geographically equitable economic development—not to mention dealing with the increasing threat of climate change.
America could turn into Western Europe. But should it?
Carrie Lukas is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum. She lived in the European Union for the majority of the past decade.
When Americans talk about socialism, they typically aren’t referring to government seizing property and taking control of industry. Rather, they mean more aggressive and redistributive policies, with more regulation and higher taxes to fund more generous welfare services—similar to policies already implemented in Western Europe.
While this path is clearly preferable to more extreme versions of socialism, Americans should still be wary. Higher taxes and more generous welfare services discourage work and invite people to rely on the state. Countries with strong cultures of work and personal responsibility are held up as examples of how this system can succeed, but these are the exceptions; high unemployment rates and lower incomes are the norm.
Americans also face unique budgetary concerns: Europe has been able to forgo massive spending on defense and national security largely because of the role the U.S. military plays in our global alliances. The United States has no such guaranteed backstop. Meaningfully cutting defense spending will make not just our country, but the world, less secure.
Just as importantly, Americans ought to consider how welfare-state socialism undermines people’s basic gumption. Europeans can hardly bother to reproduce, are less charitable, have less civic engagement and are less entrepreneurial than Americans. American innovation, risk-taking and our fundamental commitment to leaving the next generation better off than the last would all be jeopardized if we embrace European socialism. These are the virtues we would undoubtedly miss the most.
A complete welfare state, a transformed labor market and state ownership of the means of production.
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent for The Week.
The moral motivation for a move to socialism is egalitarianism, taken from John Rawls or Jesus Christ or whomever. The basic objective would be to harness the wealth developed by the collective operation of the economy on behalf of the entire population, because it is unjust for a tiny elite minority to hoover up a gigantic fraction of income and wealth while millions are destitute or just scraping by.
In general, there are three main socialist policy objectives that make the most sense. The first is a complete welfare state, in which the state will catch every category of person who either falls out of work or cannot work—the unemployed, children, students, elderly, disabled, carers and so on. Once complete, the welfare state removes the capitalist compulsion to work by threat of destitution, and replaces that threat with the offer of job placement, training and so forth. Second would be a radically transformed labor market, in which virtually all workers are unionized and covered by union contracts, wage differentials between skilled and unskilled are sharply compressed, and workers hold perhaps 33 percent to 50 percent of corporate board seats. Third is the direct state ownership of the means of production, either through building up productive state enterprises, nationalizing certain key companies, or scooping up large swathes of corporate equity into a social wealth fund (as Alaska has done).
This last one is the most radical but, I think, necessary to really hammer down inequality. A third of all national income goes to capital, ownership of which is increasingly concentrated. Indeed, all the top 1 percent income growth since 2000 has come from capital.
Markets are not enough to solve the problems we face.
Sean McElwee is a writer and the co-founder of Data for Progress.
Socialism is the radically simple idea that democratic values should guide our economy toward the maximization of human flourishing, rather than the accumulation of capital. We would never accept decisions about our government being made exclusively by old rich white men, and we shouldn’t accept decisions about our economy being made that way. Historically, rich white men as a group have not been the best stewards of the common interests of humanity.
When our economy is not democratic, it’s impossible for our government to be. We cannot steer our society toward maximum well-being as efficiently as the interests of capital override the interests of our shared humanity. Take, for example, climate change: The math is simple. Our largest corporations have fossil fuel supplies that, if burned through, would push global concentrations of carbon to more than twice the dangerous threshold. The choice is simple: Humanity exists, and companies take a write-off, or companies maintain profitability and human life is extinguished.
How do socialists differ from liberal Democrats? First, socialists recognize that markets alone are not enough to solve the problems we face. In the current moment, the market capitalization of just a few large fossil fuel companies has been enough to override the will of not just American voters, but the international community. More of the economy must be taken out of the hands of markets—not just energy production, but health care, through socialized medicine. Second, socialists recognize that a welfare state built on imperialism is not a progressive goal. The United States, as many Democratic politicians like noting, is the wealthiest country in the world. That wealth is built on violence tantamount to murder on a global scale. It is the wages of empire. A socialist politics strives for a radical flattening of the global income distribution.
Socialists believe that without democratic control of capital and an end to imperialism, the goals of progressivism will be left unfulfilled. Socialists argue that capitalism is incompatible with democracy. To those who disagree, we pose a simple question: which will be wiped out sooner—the market capitalization of ExxonMobil, or the city of Miami?