A summary of Democratic Socialists of America's Strategy Document - June 2016
2016 was a game changing year for leftists and progressives. We are finally reemerging as a vital and powerful force after an extended period of stagnation and demoralization, and we face a political landscape more favorable than perhaps at any time since the 1960s. For roughly 30 years after the end of World War II, the United States and non-Communist Europe experienced solid economic growth, declining inequality, expanding social services and increasing working-class power, coupled with landmark advances toward racial, gender and sexual equality. In countries such as France and Sweden, labor and socialist movements even made significant (if fleeting) progress toward a democratic socialist transition. Though these gains were tainted in countries such as the United States by the racialized and gendered manner in which they were distributed, this period represents the high-water mark of working-class strength and security in the 20th century.
The global environmental crisis, together with growing inequality, is the great challenge of the 21st Century. Fossil fuel combustion and deforestation are destabilizing the global climate, and extreme weather events are accelerating. Renewable resources such as topsoil and groundwater are being consumed far faster than they regenerate. Species and entire habitats are disappearing at a pace unseen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Even the oceans are not immune to oil spills, fertilizer runoff, overfishing, acidification and the poisoning of coral reefs.
Democratic socialists believe that the individuality of each human being can only be developed in a society embodying the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity. These beliefs do not entail a crude conception of equality that conceives of human beings as equal in all respects. Rather, if human beings are to develop their distinct capacities they must be accorded equal respect and opportunities denied them by the inequalities of capitalist society, in which the life opportunities of a child born in the inner city are starkly less than that of a child born in an affluent suburb. A democratic community committed to the equal moral worth of each citizen will socially provide the cultural and economic necessities—food, housing, quality education, healthcare, childcare—for the development of human individuality.
Mitt Romney was ridiculed by the liberal media when he complained to wealthy donors, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.” To Romney, these voters are united by a dependency on government and a belief that “they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Seething with contempt for half of America, Romney is a caricature of an out-of-touch elite.
I’m told that Michael Harrington once wistfully commented to colleagues that he had written sixteen books, and on the dust jacket of the sixteenth, the publisher had put, “By the author of The Other America.” It is entirely fitting that Mike should be best remembered for his first work. It influenced President Kennedy, and President Johnson sent Mike a pen from the signing of the Economic Opportunity Act, the War on Poverty. The book has sold well over a million copies.
As economic growth stagnated in the 1970s, most western welfare states witnessed “populist” revolts of middle income taxpayers against public provision, with their wrath focused on increasingly marginalized poor populations, frequently composed of ethnic or racial minorities. But why did the social welfare systems of most countries weather the conservative attack better than the United States? While the universal programs of Social Security and Medicare went largely unscathed, the Reagan presidency witnessed 20 percent real cuts in AFDC benefit levels, 11 percent in food stamps, 90 percent in public housing assistance, and a serious erosion of the purchasing power of the working poor. Except for modest restoration of public housing expenditures, none of these cuts were restored under the Clinton administration, and its “welfare reform” contributed to a 50 percent drop in poor women receiving child support payments (TANF).
Today, most of us are only too painfully aware of leftists’ worldwide difficulty in winning and exercising power. Capital’s enhanced global mobility, legal challenges by undemocratic transnational bodies like the World Trade Organization, and the explosion of service jobs that offer little chance for wage and revenue growth sabotage states’ tools for safeguarding their people, firms, and environment. Governments starve for funds to implement the policies we socialists love, and our forebears fought bitter struggles to achieve: universal programs that prioritize human needs for food, shelter, health care, education; and regulations that protect humans and the planet and allow people a life outside of work.
Republicans and conservative Democrats are whipping up public hysteria about the debt ceiling and the size of the federal deficit to justify cutting social programs that benefit the middle and working class. These scare tactics are hypocritical because conservatives militantly pushed for these same cuts when the federal budget was in surplus during the Clinton administration. The United States is not broke. The long-term deficit problem has not been caused by wasteful social spending, as the right contends, but by conservatives’ thirty-year project of starving federal, state and local governments of revenue via tax cuts for the affluent and for corporations. As conservative activist Grover Nordquist quipped during the Reagan era, the goal of the right is to reduce the size of government and drown it in the bathtub. Of course, the “deficit problem” can readily be fixed without cutting Social Security or Medicare if we enact government policies that force the rich and corporations to pay their fair share in taxes and that curtail wasteful “defense” spending.
Americans are familiar with the language of political and civil rights – one person, one voice, one vote; equal treatment before the law. We are less familiar with the justification for the social rights that have been at the center of our great political and social movements over the last century. For all citizens to flourish in a democratic society, they must be guaranteed such basic human needs as high-quality education, health care and security in old age. These goods are provided to every member of most democratic societies not by purchase on the private market, but through equitably financed, high-quality public goods and social insurance.
Frances Fox Piven has spent decades writing about and participating in social movements in the United States. She was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with Chris Maisano, a writer and activist in the New York local of Democratic Socialists of America, to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests, the complex interplay between social movements and electoral politics, and the future of the occupation movement.
Thirty years ago, Douglas Fraser, then president of what was still a million-member United Auto Workers union, presciently warned that the leaders of corporate America—in combination with the American Right—were waging a “one-sided class war.” He described it as “a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.” Jump ahead three decades and the results of that war are palpable.
Where We Stand was written by organization-wide discussion from 1990-1995 to update the original founding DSA document of 1982. While circumstances have somewhat changed and some of the references are dated, it still reflects DSA's basic political analysis and values and remains strikingly relevant in its viewpoint.
"Promising indeed," Eugene Debs wrote in September l900, "is the outlook for Socialism in the United States. The very contemplation of the prospect is a wellspring of inspiration." Debs, a gifted and militant leader of America's railroad workers, seemed to have been granted a prophetic gift. When he ran for President in 1900 as the candidate of the newly unified socialist movement, he attracted a mere one hundred thousand votes. As the Socialist Party's standard-bearer twelve years later, he won nearly a million votes, some 6 percent of the total. In some states, such as Oklahoma, Washington, and California, the Socialist share of the vote climbed into the double digits. Over the same twelve-year period, the Socialist Party expanded its membership from 10,000 to nearly 120,000. Twelve hundred of these Socialists were elected to public office across the United States, including mayors from Flint, Butte, and Berkeley.