A year ago, Donald Trump was elected president of the USA, kicking off a presidency that has been upsetting us ever since. If only Hillary Clinton had won – would Trump even be remembered?
However, almost half of the voters (though not the absolute majority) didn’t consider Clinton to be the best choice. In her recent book, What Happened, she complains that if it hadn’t been for obstacles like her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, she would be president now.
Other people make the opposite point that if the Democrats had taken Sanders as their presidential candidate, they would have won the election. As a “democratic socialist” – that’s his self-description – Sanders may have changed America for real and for the better: higher taxes for the rich, universal health care, tough regulation of Wall Street, etc.
By contrast, according to Clinton, Sanders’s agenda rested on “pipe dreams” – enthralling a few (naïve?) voters (who otherwise would have been Clinton’s), but not realistic enough to convince a majority.
In her analysis, where she blames her failure on “everyone but herself,” Clinton may be self-righteous in many regards – yet when it comes to Sanders, she may be more right than wrong. Why so?
Despite his self-description, Sanders is more of a social democrat than a socialist. He doesn’t go so far as to advocate a system without private property or related ideas. However, by US standards, something like a European-style health insurance indeed borders on “socialism,” disputed even among Democrats. In Europe, even conservative or economically liberal parties wouldn’t exclude anyone from medical care.
In many Western countries (including America’s neighbor Mexico), there’s one major party left of the ideological center, and another one right of it (like in Germany: SPD vs. CDU/CSU). In the USA, the “progressive” Democrats stand right of the European center, and the “conservative” Republicans even further right – at least today, for in the 19th century, it strangely was the other way around: Democrats were the party of slavery; Republicans that of Lincoln.
In any case, in the US ideological system, there seems to be no room left of the European center – room for a major party of socialism or social democracy, which we may define as parties that generally place solidarity above competition, and collective equality above individual liberty.
To borrow Clinton’s book title, what happened in the USA to make the country so slanted towards the right?
The question has haunted scholars, socialists and socialist scholars for one and a half centuries: Why is there no socialism in the United States? In 1906, German sociologist Werner Sombart published a whole book with that very title.
Besides him, Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky themselves observed how the USA became the world’s most capitalist, most industrialized country, but at the same time disproved the Marxist belief that rising capitalism would dig its own grave by inevitably triggering an anti-capitalist, socialist revolution. In the USA, there have never been signs of any such system change. Trump is the latest confirmation.
When searching for the roots of America’s exceptionalism, we find many historical circumstances that may have played a role, alone or in combination. It’s impossible to ascertain which ones were more or less decisive, because we would have to rerun history without certain things to isolate the pure effect of others.
If somebody has access to a time machine allowing us such reruns, please email email@example.com, and we’ll get back to you soon.
Till then, we’ll have to content ourselves with the following range of factors as possible answers to our question.
1) It’s not that there has never been any “labor party” in the USA. For example, there was the Socialist Party of America (existing from 1901 to 1972), and the Democratic Socialists of America (founded in 1982) are still around.
But America has always voted according to a “first-past-the-post” system. Meaning that votes for parties that don’t win at the end don’t count at all – also because US presidents or state governors from one party don’t enter into governmental coalitions with another party.
Minor parties such as the aforementioned are unlikely to win, so voters, who of course don’t want to waste their vote, favor either Democrats or Republicans, which have “duopolized” political power since the mid-19th century. By the way, in Sombart’s analysis, the majority voting system reflects Americans’ fervent pursuit of “success” – winning is everything; all those who don’t finish first are losers. In fact, isn’t “loser” one of Trump’s favorite invectives?
In any case, for minor parties, it’s a vicious circle: People don’t think they can win, and don’t give them their vote; then they indeed don’t win, and people think even more that they shouldn’t vote for them.
Nevertheless, if the US electoral system allows but two powerful parties, why hasn’t one of them been socialist (or social democratic), like in other countries?
2) When Leon Trotsky visited New York in 1917, he was astonished by a worker’s apartment he saw: “At eighteen dollars a month, it was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking-range, bath, telephone, automatic service elevator, and even a chute for the garbage.” In fact, the enormous wealth that industrializing America started to accumulate after the Civil War trickled down to its workers.
In the meantime, workers in London, for example, lived in the slums described in Charles Dickens’s novels. Slums existed also in the USA; but in the worst case, Americans could still “go West,” claim a cheap plot of land, and start a new life full of chances.
American workers had less to complain about not only economically, but also…
3) … socially and politically: European societies have traditionally distinguished several classes with different rights and duties. American society has – at least with respect to white men – been built on equality, as an antithesis to the “old” continent.
In industrializing Europe, capitalist entrepreneurs took the place of aristocrats, and proletarian workers that of peasants in feudal bondage. The American Founding Fathers detached themselves from those traditions, and declared “all men” to be “created equal.”
Thus, in the USA, workers have also always possessed the right to vote and to otherwise participate in politics, and have never had to “bow” before some “upper class” (according to Sombart). What counted in America was not somebody’s birth, but somebody’s accomplishments, thanks to which any worker – if lucky enough – was able to himself become an entrepreneur.
As a consequence, American workers didn’t develop a class consciousness, because they weren’t, like their European equivalents, united by common suffering under common “enemies” named “capitalists.” They didn’t feel the need for a workers’ party, because they understood themselves as American citizens, who were – like non-workers – fully represented by either the Democratic or the Republican Party.
4) While American workers didn’t identify with their “class,” they did identify with their respective ethnic and/or religious group. The USA was an immigrant society, especially with regard to its workers, who arrived year after year from all over Europe and the whole world: the Chinese, the Irish, Brits, Germans, Italians, and Russians; the Protestants, the Catholics, the Orthodox Christians, the Jews; among others. Not to forget the African-Americans freed from slavery, who entered the factories, too.
Probably in order not to lose themselves in the vast country, workers tended to live among mates with a similar background, in the process avoiding or even despising other communities of workers. “To form a single party” out of such people, Friedrich Engels remarked in 1893, “requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.”
5) In addition, there were divisions between workers born in the USA and newcomers as well as between skilled and unskilled ones. Workers who were both established and skilled were to some extent united by trade unions, but…
6) … owing to American workers’ diversity, their trade unions were at constant odds with each other. Moreover, unions were at odds with their country’s political labor parties.
According to Americans’ traditional suspicion toward the state, union leaders sought to help workers by directly confronting employers, for instance through strikes. By contrast, party leaders sought to take over public offices, alter legislation, etc. Therefore, Eugene Debs, an early 20th century leader of the Socialist Party of America, railed against certain unions that cooperating with them was as “wasteful of time as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses.”
7) Finally, there were divisions within American labor parties, namely between dogmatic revolutionaries and pragmatic reformers. Even Vladimir Lenin, who would later accept killing people to implement his notion of socialism (Russia’s “October Revolution” has just marked its centenary, on 7 November 2017), in 1907 accused American socialists of being “unable to adapt themselves to the theoretically helpless but living and powerful mass labor movement that is marching alongside them.”
Perhaps out of traditional American individualism, which also matches the country’s highly fragmented Protestantism (there are the Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.), many US socialists didn’t compromise with anyone, but insisted on realizing a communist utopia. Instantly.
The actual effect of their radical, impatient strategy was that they didn’t achieve any change at all.
8) Although American workers enjoyed, in comparison to their European colleagues, multiple advantages, they too knew times of extreme hardship – notably during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Why didn’t even such a crisis of capitalism unite American workers against that system?
In fact, American socialists hoped that their time had finally come. The existing labor parties saw a surge in membership and votes.
However, President Franklin Roosevelt, after the 1933 start of his first term, adopted many of the workers’ demands for relief as his own, and invited labor leaders (including communists) from parties and unions to assist him in fulfilling those demands, which happened in the framework of the New Deal program.
This is how the shrewd Roosevelt managed to satisfy workers while preserving capitalism, which the New Deal wouldn’t undermine. Already in 1936, the Democratic president was reelected in a landslide, whereas labor parties were again declining.
The Democratic Party had “stolen” their ideas and reaped the political benefits. The labor parties lost their purpose. In view of such examples, historian Richard Hofstadter noted that third parties in the USA “are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”
The described structures and events may be “what happened” in the history of the United States to prevent the rise of socialism or social democracy there.
In today’s America, many things are different than 100 or 150 years ago, and the future will again be different. However, throughout its independent history, the USA seems to have run counter to socialism on a structural level, and structures change at a snail’s pace, if they change at all.
Therefore, also in the present USA, taxation and public spending are exceptionally low; trade unions are exceptionally weak; and there’s no universal health care – in contrast to all other “developed” countries. And the most important fact: All those characteristics haven’t been imposed on the American people by some dictatorship, but Americans have continuously opted for them as citizens of the world’s oldest existing democracy.
In such a country, which comes from the described historical background, would a “democratic socialist” like Bernie Sanders have a true prospect of winning a presidential nomination or even the presidency? We must conclude that he wouldn’t, at least not for now.
Most historical observations in this article have been drawn from the book by Seymour Martin Lipset & Gary Marks, “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States,” New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2000.