by Chris Maisano
Democratic Left - Spring 2012
When he campaigned for the White House in 2008, President Obama spoke admiringly of Ronald Reagan’s status as a transformational figure who reshaped the nation’s political order. In his State of the Union speech and in recent campaign appearances, Obama has sought to channel the Gipper’s sunny, can-do spirit by declaring that “America is back.” That’s news to us, and it’s news to the tens of millions of Americans still grappling with the devastation the Great Recession left in its wake. Fifty years after Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington published his groundbreaking book The Other America, the poor are not only still with us; over the last decade, their ranks have grown dramatically. DSA Vice-Chair Joseph Schwartz surveys the grim landscape of poverty in the contemporary U.S., while the distinguished historian Maurice Isserman reflects on the ways in which Harrington’s democratic radicalism resonates in our own time.
Such hardships, of course, are not confined to our own country. A global crisis has produced suffering on a global scale, and the comparatively humane countries of Europe have not escaped its terrible grasp. The eminent sociologist Norman Birnbaum has been a keen observer of European society and politics for decades, and in this issue he applies his characteristic acuity to the contemporary crisis of European social democracy. From Greece to Spain to Ireland to France to Germany, the principles of solidarity and social welfare are under attack. They may not hold up under the combined pressures of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the financial elite. Capitalism’s clear inability to deliver the goods,combined with the passing of the Cold War, have created clear political openings for socialists. Whether we take advantage of them is, of course, up to us.
But the story is not solely one of doom and gloom. As Phillip Logan, an Ohio-based Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) activist, demonstrates in these pages, the long economic crisis has made American youth increasingly open to progressive political alternatives. If recent public opinion polls are to be believed, a majority of young adults actually prefer “socialism” (which the polls leave undefined) to “capitalism” (also left undefined). Capitalism’s clear inability to deliver the goods, combined with the passing of the Cold War, have created clear political openings for socialists to take advantage of; whether we do so is of course up to us.
YDS has wasted no time in doing so. In February, the youth section held its annual outreach conference in New York; it was one of the biggest and most successful youth conferences in years. Skyrocketing student debt, cuts to public education funding, and the spectacular emergence of the Occupy movement have reinvigorated youth and student politics in the U.S., and YDSers have been on the front lines of the movement on campuses and in communities across the country. Temple University YDSer Beth Cozzolino reports on the conference’s highlights and considers the prospects for rebuilding a new democratic Left for the 21st century.
These are interesting times indeed, and if there is to be a future for our vision and our values, DSAers will need to settle in for a long-term battle. The challenges are daunting, but there are signs that the tide may be starting to turn, however slightly, our way. Let’s keep pushing.