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Sainati: Don’t give Bernie Sanders credit for socialism’s surge

Leo Sainati, Op-Ed Contributor

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We all have that one friend who’s probably a socialist.

Seriously, though, chances are most of us may actually have at least one socialist friend –– a reality emblematic of the dramatic, yet predictable rise of the Democratic Socialists of America. Between October 2016 and October 2017, the DSA reported over a 400 percent increase in membership, gaining approximately 21,000 new members. Fourteen DSA members hold elected offices across the country, according to the group. The DSA’s biannual conference this August drew about 1,000 people — the majority of whom appeared to be under 35 years old, while 40 percent identified as women and 20 percent as people of color. In short, socialism is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., and while the DSA isn’t technically a political party, its distinguishing red rose logo is sparking political debate across a disillusioned liberal working class.

Many seem to credit Bernie Sanders as the catalyst for the DSA’s rise, overlooking the political climate from which modern U.S. socialism was born. In short, Sanders’ “revolution” was overhyped. As Benjamin Page and James Simmons explain in their book “What Government Can Do,” the U.S. has lacked “a particular kind of political party that has played a crucial part in the politics of many European countries: a Social Democratic party, explicitly run by and for the working people and organized labor.” Democrats have always claimed to be a home for the working class, but the newly re-branded progressives have left workers behind, drifting further and further toward political elitism. Neither major party has truly been able to successfully reach out and mobilize low-income and working-class citizens, leaving a gaping hole in their representation.

The idea that Trump won off the backs of working-class Americans has been widely discredited, effectively put to rest by a Washington Post analysis, “It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class.” The majority of his voters, rather, were upper-middle class whites; his primary supporters had a median household income of about $72,000. Another pre-election survey by NBC found that two-thirds of Trump supporters earned household incomes above the national median, and half of those made more than $100,000.

The common narrative on the left that Sanders energized working-class people of color is appealing, but also misguided. Clinton’s and Sanders’ voters made similar median incomes — both around $61,000, compared to the national average of $55,000. Sanders also failed to win the minority vote as Clinton won black and Latinx voters in nearly every contest of the primaries by at least a 10 percent margin. What remains of the electorate is a group of low- and middle-class Americans, frequently marginalized and kept out of politics, precisely the group to which the DSA caters its attention.

Perhaps what makes the DSA so promising and appealing to its supporters is that it looks to make large-scale structural changes from outside the political system. Sanders spearheaded a “political revolution,” but it was doomed from the start, unable to make lasting change within the confines of the system it sought to uproot.

Don’t give Sanders credit for a revolution he didn’t create, but merely borrowed from to court upper-middle class white millennials. Socialism’s rising popularity wasn’t born from Sanders’ “revolution” and instead continued growing even after Sanders lost traction. Beyond all the media’s narratives lies the truth that no politician has been able to energize and inspire lower-middle class voters — neither white nor of color.

Many stand opposed to the dramatic and arguably radical ideas of the DSA. Rhetoric aside, however, no one can argue against its mobilization of ignored and forgotten groups in our political system. Where Clinton, Sanders, Trump and nearly all other politicians on both sides have failed for decades, the DSA finds its strength. While still comparatively small, for better or for worse, the DSA has significant potential to finally give voice to those who need it most.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at leosainati2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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