When Bernie Sanders was beginning his presidential run, I asked the nation’s most prominent democratic socialist how he thought the word “socialism” would play on the campaign trail.
“Do they think I’m afraid of the word?” he replied. “I’m not afraid of the word.”
That was a transformational answer, as it signaled a break with the politics of caution and compromise that for decades had stifled debate within the Democratic Party where Sanders was mounting his bid. It also marked a renewal of the historic premise that, in order to progress, America’s political leaders must be open to a broad range of ideas. This premise fostered the great economic, social, and political advances that tamed the excesses of the Gilded Age and its aftermath. It cleared the way for a bolder and more expansive politics—influenced by democratic-socialist, progressive, and populist ideas—that created space for the rise of national leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Democratic socialism has deep roots in American history. Socialists have been campaigning for major offices and winning major elections for more than a century in the United States. Voters have elected socialist senators, congressmen, legislators, and mayors. Alliances of socialists, populists, and progressives once shaped the politics of Midwestern states such as Wisconsin. And this is not just a historical footnote. As an unapologetic democratic socialist, Sanders won 23 primary and caucus contests in his 2016 Democratic presidential bid—securing over 60 percent of the vote in almost a dozen of them, carrying urban and rural regions and sweeping the youth vote. A proud democratic socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just won a primary victory over one of the top Democrats in the US House of Representatives — and members of Democratic Socialists of America have been on a winning streak in legislative and local races nationwide.