Susen Shapiro, of Galloway Township, considered herself a Democrat until she lived in South Carolina. Spending 10 years there was enough to turn her into a Democratic socialist.
“People have a misguided idea about socialism,” Shapiro said. “They think the government is going to control everything. That’s not really true. It is really the workers who should be in control of the means of production. In a socialist government, of course, there is more government involvement, but it is for the benefit of people, not merely to control it.”
Not long ago, that would have been considered a fringe view in American political discourse. But socialism is enjoying a bit of a resurgence this year, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders wins primaries while calling for free college educations and universal health care.
A recent Gallup poll found that those ideas are popular, especially among young people. In the poll, 69 percent of millennials said they would be open to voting for a socialist presidential candidate. Among all age groups, 47 percent of Americans said they could see themselves voting for a socialist.
The idea that a sizable minority of Americans identifies as socialists would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
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Sanders calls himself a Democratic socialist. He has won 13 states and has earned 1,011 delegates in this year’s Democratic Party presidential primaries as of April 2. After he announced his candidacy last May, his campaign was the first in the race to receive 1 million individual donations.
Shapiro, who is involved with the Atlantic County 4 Bernie group, was a Democrat for years. She worked with the Democratic Party when she moved in 2003 to South Carolina, and tried to move it to the left a bit.
“Well, it didn’t work, of course,” said Shapiro, who was on the state’s executive committee.
Shapiro saw the South Carolina Democratic Party as a microcosm of the national party. By 2011, she knew it was time for a change. Her involvement with other Democrats was consistently frustrating, she said.
“I was constantly at odds with their thinking. I kind of sat down and had a little chat with myself, and I said, ‘Ok, what’s wrong with this whole picture? Why are you never the same as them? Why are you trying to push them in a different direction?”
Shapiro figured out the answer: She really wasn’t a Democrat anymore.
“I did a little research, and I realized I am a socialist,’” said Shapiro. Her father had identified as a socialist, but he never talked about it with her. “Any issue that would upset any socialist would upset me, and there are many.”
For instance, Shapiro said she had fights with the South Carolina Democratic Party in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She ran a big fundraising dinner, and she wanted a couple of dollars from each ticket sale to go to the Salvation Army to help victims of Katrina. Party leaders had a fit over her idea, she said, but she kept fighting for it, and they finally agreed.
Throughout modern American history, the popularity of socialism has ebbed and flowed, said Danielle R. Gougon, professor of political science at Rowan University in Glassboro.
Socialism became popular in the U.S. during the Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The objective was to make the eight-hour workday a standard. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party of America presidential candidate, earned 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912.
When World War I began in 1914, there was a backlash against this first wave of socialism, Gougon said.
During the Great Depression, socialism became popular again and inspired some of the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But America’s entry into World War II in 1941, the rise of Communism and the subsequent Cold War with the former Soviet Union again cut into enthusiasm for socialism, Gougon said.
“This is the third rise of the Socialist Democrats, which has always been marginalized in this country,” he said.
The recession that started in December 2007 prompted people to question capitalism and to reconsider socialist policies. Some people who watched troubled banks bailed out while average workers faced foreclosures, stagnant wages and high debt were drawn to socialist ideas, Gougon said.
And social media is spreading those ideas globally.
“An 18 or 19 year old, they can know how people in Denmark or Finland are living their lives,” Gougon said.
Millennials haven’t lived through the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so they are not as scared of socialist ideas as their parents’ generation was, Gougon said.
Gougon was talking about people like Natalie K. Midiri, 23. Midiri is the chairwoman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which also covers Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean counties in New Jersey.
The policies of the Democratic Socialists of America regarding wages, housing, education and child care are appealing to many young people, Midiri said.
“Things are getting a little bit better, but people’s expectations are outpacing the economy,” said Midiri, of Collingswood, Camden County.
Many of her generation grew up thinking electoral politics were unfair, Midiri said. She cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, which resulted in George W. Bush being named president.
They also experienced the recent recession, which hit Midiri’s working-class family hard. And they are graduating college with massive student debt. Midiri has $20,000 to pay off.
When Midiri has conversations with older people about Democratic socialism, the usual reaction is more confusion than scorn.
“The core of Democratic socialism is to open up the economy to more democratic participation,” she said.