Franklin Delano Roosevelt killed American socialism.
When Roosevelt took first took up residence at the White House in 1933, the nation was several years into the Great Depression, and people were looking to the federal government to take aggressive action to relieve the suffering. There was some limited opposition, but FDR was able to put together a broad coalition that led to the passage of the New Deal, as well as Democratic domination of presidential politics for decades afterward.
In today’s political climate, the New Deal is viewed as the shining example of progressive accomplishment, and is referenced often by Democrats as a template for future legislation. After President Obama’s election in 2008, TIME Magazine even printed a cover sporting Obama Photoshopped to look like FDR, titled “The New New Deal.” On the flipside, the particular strain of conservatism which believes that government should stay out of the business of helping those in need views the New Deal as the ultimate manifestation of government gone bad, and its passage as the moment when the nation went off track.
When it comes to mainstream American political thought, the New Deal has long been established as the leftmost boundary of acceptable discourse. But, as is always the case with politics, appearances can be deceiving.
The Roosevelt family was among the upper echelon of the nation’s elite, having already produced one president, and FDR was raised to wealth and privilege. After passing the state bar exam, he even worked on Wall Street for a time before entering public life. Roosevelt was the epitome of that period’s “one percent.”
During the first few years of the Great Depression, the Socialist Party Of America was experiencing a comeback after having been all but eviscerated in the early ‘20s by factionalism and public backlash against the party’s opposition to the United States’ involvement in the First World War. From its peak of 100,000 members in 1919, the party shrank to only 8,000 people by 1928.
The economic suffering caused by the Great Depression—along with the dynamic leadership of minister-turned-politician Norman Thomas—reversed the party’s decline, and membership more than doubled over the first three years of the depression.
An ascendant Socialist Party combined with a populace that was becoming more radicalized with every foreclosure and lost job made for conditions that must have given serious pause to society’s elites, who were probably seeing torches and pitchforks in their nightmares. So when FDR—one of their own—put together his New Deal coalition, the Socialist Party was very intentionally excluded, despite the fact that the party would have made a natural ally to the policy.
This had the intended effect. The New Deal gave the nation’s citizens something to latch onto as a source of hope, and people who likely would have seriously considered becoming socialists instead became loyal Democrats. After that, anything to the left of the Democratic Party was associated with communism, which had itself become conflated with Stalinism in the minds of most Americans. In other words, American socialism was effectively dead.
Throughout the Cold War and the economic boom that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, this remained the case, and the promise of American capitalism was viewed as hallowed orthodoxy. In keeping with this, even liberals like Bill Clinton bent over backwards to establish themselves as loyal servants to the sanctity of profit and capital.
It really wasn’t until the financial collapse of 2008—when the shortcomings of our debt-based economy were laid bare—that Americans became ready to rethink their attitudes on economics and capitalism. In 2011, a Pew Research poll showed that among people under 30, 49 percent expressed positive views of socialism, compared to only 46 percent who expressed positive views of capitalism. Americans overall are still heavily biased against the “S” word, with 60 percent expressing negative views of socialism, but that seems to be steadily changing.
Part of what’s going on stems from the current Republican strategy of constantly accusing corporate-friendly Democrats like Barack Obama of being socialists (a characterization I would imagine most actual socialists would take issue with). Americans, for the most part, can see that the Obama administration’s policies are far from radical, and so calling them socialist has the unintended effect of making socialism itself seem less radical.
Socialism still has a ways to go before it could be considered a major factor in American politics. The Democratic Socialists Of America, the nation’s largest socialist organization at 7,000 members, is very clear that they are not a political party, nor do they have any intention of becoming one, instead focusing on local, grassroots activism and often working with progressive Democrats at the electoral level.
But as the political attitudes of the American mainstream evolve, and the Republican Party continues its slide into irrelevance, demand for something to the left of pro-corporate Democratic policies will continue to grow, and it is not at all outside the realm of possibility that American socialism could yet have its moment.