Socialists did not sweep the midterms. That is because it would have been mathematically impossible for socialists to sweep the midterms. For all the ink and pixels spilled, there weren’t actually very many of them on the ballot. Forty-six Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates won primaries in 2018. Of those, 14 were backed by the national Democratic Party and only four were running for the U.S. House. Most prominent among them was New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed a few more candidates on her own as well.
Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional race in a landslide, as did Rashida Tlaib in Michigan. But DSA’s Sarah Smith was beaten out by Democrat Adam Smith in Washington’s unusual Smith vs. Smith congressional race, and James Thompson lost in Kansas to Republican budget hawk Rep. Ron Estes. Ocasio-Cortez fave Ayanna Pressley, a non-DSA progressive, did win in Massachusetts.
In short, no red tide hiding inside a blue wave swept over Capitol Hill. There aren’t even many socialists warming statehouse backbench seats this winter—at press time only six additional DSA candidates had been declared victorious, alongside a handful of hyperlocal wins, such as for neighborhood commissions and boards of education.
Voters are hardly going socialist either. DSA membership has grown from 7,000 to 50,000 since President Donald Trump was elected. But despite the prevalence of the red rose emojis that so-called New Socialists use to signal their allegiances on Twitter, and despite the ubiquity of Ocasio-Cortez’s red lipstick on cable news, those numbers are quite small. For perspective, the Libertarian Party has more than half a million registered voters.
Socialists have not seized control of the country, but they did manage to grab a nice juicy handful of the debate. What was once the province of white-haired dead-enders has now become the primary source of fresh new ideas in American politics.
All of the major Democratic contenders for 2020 have floated at least one signature Sorta Socialist Policy Plank already. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has a plan to aggressively regulate all corporations at the board level, plus a big subsidy for homebuyers in previously redlined neighborhoods called the American Housing and Mobility Act. Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) is offering a $ 500 monthly refundable tax credit to poor families with her Livable Incomes for Families Today (LIFT) Act, which is essentially the Earned Income Tax Credit on meth. She is also part of a Californian crossover initiative called Housing for All, which would involve aggressive subsidies for renters. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) wants to turn the U.S. Post Office into a bank, while Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) is offering “baby bonds” that would be funded by the government annually and mature when the carrier turns 18.
None of these ideas is new—Hillary Clinton pushed a version of the baby bonds idea back in 2008—but they are newly appealing, thanks in large part to the surprising 2016 primary successes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), who has been singing his old refrain of debt-free college and Medicare for All for decades.
Astute readers might note that none of these proposals is actually socialism as it has historically been understood—or as it is currently being practiced in Venezuela, for that matter. The workers do not own the means of production. The economy is not (very) centrally planned. These are not transitional moves toward communism.
And yet you may have seen the headlines last August—right around the time of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District—claiming that Democrats now prefer socialism to capitalism for the first time, according to a Gallup poll. While this is technically true, it’s worth noting that this is the result of a dramatic decline in the popularity of capitalism, not a surge in support for socialism. The latter remains essentially unchanged overall. Even among young people, there is no discernible upward trend. (There is an even more marked drop in support for capitalism among the young, however, including a 12-point fall in the last two years.)
Gallup does not define either term in its question. The “Kids These Days Say They Like Socialism, but They Don’t Even Know What That Word Really Means” article has become a media staple. Full disclosure: Reason has even run one or two essays along those lines. But what we talk about when we talk about socialism isn’t actually nationalizing the means of production or centrally planning the economy. Sure, for a few diehards, it means replacing identity politics with class consciousness. But for most people, cheering socialism is merely a means for expressing discontent with the current capitalist system and a desire for ambitious public works and entitlement programs.
It’s totally fair to point out that Scandinavian-style redistribution of gains from a market economy is not, in fact, socialism. But that point is nonresponsive to what the country will really be talking about as we debate “socialism” for the next couple of years. Instead, we are going to be talking about larger welfare programs, higher taxes, and more regulation. We are going to be exploring more deeply the already established 20th century political technique of campaigning on massive new entitlement programs.
But most of all, what many people mean when they say they like socialism is not so different from what many mean when they say they like libertarianism—or what they meant when they said they liked Donald Trump. They are fed up with the status quo. They see no appeal in the mushy center. They are, basically, sick of the system as it is and looking for ways to shake things up.
And that matters even if Republicans hold the White House for the next two or even six years. Because Trump is not an ideologue, he will be more susceptible than his GOP predecessors to this change in the air. If his opponents’ big, debt-funded policy proposals prove popular with the public, there’s nothing left to stop the president from mirroring them with giveaways of his own. The few remaining limited-government GOPers in Congress will have their hands full, and with Democrats holding the House, compromise proposals where everyone gets to spend massive amounts of money will look even more attractive to an administration desperate for a major policy success heading into re-election season.
Trump may simply decide that every week is now infrastructure week—he has been champing at the bit to put Americans to work digging ditches and paving roads since day one. But there are more ambitious proposals in the Republican pipeline as well.
Despite the DSA’s election-night claim on Twitter that “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the democratic socialists were far from triumphant in 2018. And it’s wildly unlikely that a socialist—or anyone even remotely resembling one—will capture the White House in 2020. The United States is not on its way to becoming Venezuela or anything like it, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. But for the next couple of years, at least, the socialists may have seized the means of policy production.