Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reaches out to supporters at a rally in Columbia, S.C. (Lucian Perkins for The Washington Post)
Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about the rise of socialism.
Bernie Sanders and his young supporters say, “No worries, we’re democratic socialists.” Outsiders say, “No problem, they barely know what socialism is.” Others see Sanders’s movement as a passing response to an economic downturn.
All of this is largely mistaken. Modern American socialism is decidedly undemocratic; its young acolytes are far less ignorant of socialism than they appear; and contemporary socialism is more of a religious than an economic phenomenon. Distracted by the disturbing rise of Donald Trump, liberals and conservatives alike are responding far too complacently to a recrudescent socialist movement that is destined to harm our democracy.
Today’s socialism is a direct descendant of the student radicalism of the 1960s. Sixties radicals were enthusiasts of violent, socialist revolution
. Ostensibly democratic in their preference for consensus-based decision-making, the radicals favored authoritarian “self-criticism sessions,” precursors to modern-day political correctness. As the passions of the ’60s cooled, the radicals placed revolutionary hopes on hold and flooded into two professions: community organizing and academia.
Saul Alinsky-style community organizing is a form of incremental socialism. Instead of overthrowing capitalism, Alinskyites “confront power” and “attack targets” (like conservative politicians or “capitalist” donors to conservative causes). Instead of nationalizing banks, Alinskyite groups intimidate banks into programs of financial redistribution
. This ideologically reticent, yet still self-consciously socialist world was President Obama’s milieu. He has helped to popularize and legitimate it.