Shifting Alliances: Socialists, Social Democrats, and the New U.S. Left

If the rising socialist left wants to consolidate itself as a mass political force, it must build a strong and effective coalition with social democrats.

The elections of 2016 and 2018 demonstrated a widespread desire for a new direction in U.S. politics. Witness the quick rise of Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, yes, even the presidency of Donald Trump. These elections revealed tremendous fissures between the voters and the stated direction of the two major U.S. political parties, both of which were beginning to congeal into an amorphous bourgeois mass, bereft of new ideas and totally detached from the reality of the working class. These electoral waves provide a political opening for socialists who wish to actually impact national policy to the benefit of the working class. However, socialists will fail in all but the most superficial manner if they cannot define what they stand for and – importantly in this time of nascent power for the Left – form effective political alliances. Crucially, the latter is only made possible when the former is achieved.

This essay argues that socialists can effectively shape political debate in alliance with social democrats. I will limit my arguments, for the most part, to the rhetorical level, while recognizing there are larger questions about the relationship between socialists and social democrats that are essential to discuss. The battle over rhetorical space within key alliances is nonetheless central to winning political contests, which is why I focus on it here.

The past two election cycles exposed the feebleness of the stagnant political establishment. “Abolish ICE” entered the political lexicon with a rapidity and ease that seemed unimaginable just a short time earlier. Although the policy position may not have gained much ground in the medium term, its educational value lies in the revelatory impact it had on the punditocracy: they were completely unprepared to answer the position. Former House Speaker, Paul Ryan, who displayed a markedly vapid political vision during the latest Republican presidential primary, was unable to articulate much more than stammering confusion when speaking about the “Abolish ICE” challenge. Likewise in 2015 and 2016, Senator Bernie Sander’s courageous, unapologetic call for “Medicare for All” at first drew reflexive and patronizing dismissal from Secretary Hillary Clinton. Yet, now it is so mainstream that Pete Buttigeig even attacked Sanders by saying that his positions are mere “novelty.” This situation finds its dark parallel in Trump’s call to “build a wall.” Against this rhetoric, which seemed quite insane given normal centrist discourse, the bourgeois men and women of politics were equally unable to respond.

From the Margins to the Mainstream

In the cases of “Abolish ICE” and “Medicare for All,” it was clearly demonstrated that candidates with the strength and conviction to propose different ideas have the ability to shift the political parameters of debate. These parameters are commonly called the “Overton Window.” Named for the late Joseph P. Overton, the Overton Window is a framework for understanding policy debates, in which politicians in a democratic system generally advocate for policies that have broad-based support. The range of these broadly accepted policy options are considered to be within the Window, and deviating outside of it is considered politically “unfeasible.” However, as the examples above show, the Overton Window can be moved over time through the political action of groups within society.

A political group’s ability to shift the Overton Window is a positive assertion of political power. It is the power to, through rhetoric and appeals to the electorate, shift what policies are considered valid in political debate, and, in doing so, also deny that validity to the policies of political opponents. For many issues, the Window within the Democratic Party has widened dramatically since 2015. Medicare for All is now is now a litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates. State-facilitated worker ownership of business is part of Senator Sanders’ campaign platform. College debt forgiveness, tuition-free public university, and a 70-percent top marginal tax rate have all come into the mainstream policy discourse. These are clear victories for the Left on the national stage, and they should be taken as evidence of the power that leftist ideas have when they are advocated for seriously. 

Let us consider the prime example of socialist policy: worker ownership and management of business. Below in Figure 1, I have produced a rough sketch of the Overton Window for U.S. political discourse (shaded in light red). The table ranges between the most extreme ends, with complete control of private capital over production and consumption at the top (think the town stores that existed in mining towns in Appalachia) and complete control of labor over the means of production and finance at the bottom (socialism or cooperativism). In modern U.S. politics, only the extreme of proletarian liberty is unthinkable; we need only look at the increasing market power of companies like Amazon over distribution and consumption to reveal the easy attitude we have with monopolistic capital. Literary scholar Fredric Jameson once said “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” and the narrow Window below reflects this conceptual limitation. Generously, I have included a mixed economy with corporate, individual, and worker control of capital in the Window, but it has not been until recently that the latter – the inclusion of worker controlled businesses – has received even a word from politicians. Again on this issue, Senator Sanders’ boldness in 2015 has moved the Overton Window leftward, and now even the “capitalist” Senator Elizabeth Warren is pushing policy that lets “workers elect at least 40% of the company’s board members.” 

Figure 1: Example of the Overton Window for Capital Ownership

Complete Private Control of Capital, Labor, and Consumption
🔺     🔺 🔺     🔺 🔺 🔺     🔺 🔺 🔺 🔺     🔺 🔺 🔺 🔺
Private, individual ownership of capital with monopoly on worker consumption
Private, individual ownership of capital with free labor, no corporate ownership
Corporate and individual ownership of capital with free labor
Corporate, individual, and worker ownership of capital with free labor
Corporate and worker ownership of capital with free labor, no individual ownership
Worker ownership of capital with free labor, no individual or corporate ownership
Worker ownership of the means of production and finance with free labor, no individual or corporate ownership
🔻     🔻 🔻     🔻 🔻 🔻     🔻 🔻 🔻 🔻     🔻 🔻 🔻 🔻
Complete Worker Control of Production, Labor, and Consumption


In healthcare, we find another example. In a recent poll from Hill.TV and the HarrisX polling company, 70 percent of registered voters reported support for Medicare for All. Bernie Sanders and the socialists and social democrats who support him were the only ones bold enough to push for what is logical policy from both fiscal and moral perspectives. This is far from the “novelty” that Buttigeig vulgarly describes. Former President Barack Obama, one who would never be described as socialist by anyone with a modicum of political awareness or sincerity, once refused to even broach the possibility of single-payer in policy negotiations; he now supports “new ideas” like Medicare for All. One Democratic pollster stated, “This specter of government takeover of health care, I don’t even hear it in focus groups with white, working-class Trump voters. They’ll say things like ‘I really like Medicare, why can’t we all have something like that?'” This demonstrates, in concrete terms, the possibility for socialists to shift the political paradigm and to force centrist liberals to chase after a public opinion that has left them behind. 

These examples should not be mistaken for anything but a political success for the left. As the Window shifts, social democrats like Senator Warren have moved to remain within the boundaries of their progressive constituency. In doing so, they strengthen the legitimacy of socialist policy ideas and provide political space for socialists to articulate their ideas. In this way, social democrats should be seen as and cultivated as allies in our big-tent democracy.

Coalition Building to Win Power

Social democrats differ from socialists in that the former, like liberals of all types, hold tightly to the idea that, to be productive, property can only be held by private hands for private profit. This is in total opposition to socialism, which holds that the workers themselves should collectively own and perform the management functions of each business; social hands creating social profits through collaboration. However, social democrats align with socialists on most questions of the state in domestic policy: that is, they support the construction of a strong social safety net, labor rights, universal healthcare, effective and affordable education, and prudent use of public funds to address market failures. On these we can agree. Further, I would argue that these general policy positions support the development of an educated and civic-minded working class, which is a prerequisite for any class to engage effectively in the democratic process.

The working class must attain a certain level of civic development before it can effectively engage with the political system, including electoral politics. This civic engagement contributes to the improvement of material conditions, and, in a virtuous cycle, the improvement of material conditions allows for increasing civic engagement. A desperate class of people cannot be expected to fully and rationally engage in democratic politics; the drive to secure the bare foundations of life can easily transform a progressive movement into one susceptible to authoritarian and conspiratorial appeals. 

There is evidence that income inequality negatively impacts voter turnout for presidential elections. Therefore, it should be the immediate goal of a democratic working-class movement (socialism in its truest expression) to improve the material situation of the working class. To actualize this goal, policy must eventually be codified into law. To accomplish this in the current U.S. context of Democratic politics, where socialists are an extreme minority within a progressive minority, it is necessary to form a political coalition to support workers’ democracy. Because social democrats share the broad foundations of these immediate goals – education, healthcare, regulating capitalist abuses – they are the appropriate partners with which to form this coalition. 

Working to form a social democrat-socialist coalition within the Democratic Party also provides ready-made infrastructure for campaigning into the future. The Democratic Party’s fundraising, organizing, and information-dissemination apparatus can be utilized effectively by a leadership selected by delegates representing socialist and social democratic party members. By utilizing existing political infrastructure to shift the Overton Window to the left, as Senator Sanders and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez are doing, leftists within the Party can deny the neoliberal wing rhetorical space while expanding their own. However, the rhetorical strategies used cannot be spontaneous outbursts of progressive anger at the world’s injustices; the failure of Occupy Wall Street gives us the clearest picture of how this tendency resolves. Rather rhetorical and public engagement strategies must be well planned to temper that righteous rage into a political sword that wins electoral offices and gains the actual power to improve the lives of working people.

The Language of Political Leadership

The political operatives of our two major parties have codified a certain set of rhetorical techniques that constitute supposed “institutional knowledge.” There is debate as to whether these operatives’ advice is actually effective in winning votes, but what cannot be denied is their impact on the language and ideas that circulate within the established “wisdom” of the political establishment. While it forms a type of ideological strength of the established political parties, however, it also forms a political opportunity for socialists. This opportunity may be exploited because the broad professionalization of centrist political strategy makes it all the more predictable. Predictability provides an opening for socialists to tailor talking points and rhetorical strategies aimed to pull social democratic allies away from neoliberal centrality toward a new workers’ democratic coalition.

In a political contest, like a physical one, the advantage lies with the party that can draw the opponent into their own territory, where the geography is unfamiliar to the opponent. That is, if the debate on policy can be moved into a space unfamiliar to centrist common wisdom, those same centrists will be burdened with the task of gathering new information in shaping their arguments against a leftist vision. This is the very same tactic used by Trump against the other Republicans during the 2015 and 2016 primary; it is the same tactic used by Republicans more broadly against Democrats. 

For instance, when Republicans in their platform speak of “realiz[ing] the prosperity freedom makes possible” and “build[ing] communities of cooperation and mutual respect,” they speak to a universal human tendency to seek autonomy and self actualization. The underlying meaning, of course, for the owners of capital is the “freedom” to exploit the labor of others; the “freedom” to go hungry; “cooperation” for the private profit of others; and “mutual respect” for rigid hierarchies. However, a working class unschooled in the art of politics hears a different meaning: the “freedom” of self determination; “cooperation” for the common good; and “mutual respect” for ideas. With this strategy, Republicans have made it more difficult for Democrats to speak to in these terms to these values. In the Democratic Party Platform, freedom is mentioned 11 times, only once is “freedom” mentioned in broad value terms; the other 10 refer to freedom for citizens living in foreign countries and the specific constitutional freedom of religion. An analysis by the liberal think-tank Data for Progress titled Polling The Left Agenda showed that progressive policies are more popular among the population than they are for the elected officials responsible for enacting policy. Even among rural voters, progressive policies like public internet and a jobs guarantee polled well.

What this tells us is that there is ample rhetorical space for socialist policies, despite what is considered acceptable for the neoliberal consensus within the Democratic Party. Socialists must, like Senator Sanders, speak to the working class of the entire nation. Ideas such as “freedom” and “cooperation” should be understood and utilized in their proletarian form: the freedom to cooperate for broad-based economic prosperity free of the yoke of capital and the arbitrary dictates of the professional managerial class. In this field familiar to socialists, they can set the terms of debate. In a word, this is leadership: the ability to choose the battleground or, in politics, the terms of the debate most advantageous to your cause.

Centrist liberals also plan messaging and rhetoric for their campaigns, and, to compete, socialists must do the same in their attempts to strengthen the power of the working class in electoral politics. Words have meaning, but the meaning of one word can vary from ear to ear. This obvious “double speak” has been utilized well since the very beginning of democratic politics, and it is a strategy that both Republican and Democratic Parties have used since their inception. When Senator Kamala Harris laughed about jailing the poverty-stricken parents of truant children, it was in the progressive guise of “a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime.” Secretary Hillary Clinton was so bold as to decry Senator Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan not only as something that would “never, ever come to pass” but also as a policy “that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.” 

Notice here how rhetorical form displaces policy function, and logic is turned on its head. The social problem of students living in poverty failing to attend school is solved by employing harsh individual action against poor parents. The social problem of inequitable availability of healthcare is solved by maintaining a system of individual insurance. In short, through progressive rhetoric, the centrist liberals of the Democratic Party are able to reinforce their own bourgeois policies. In this way, they constitute the shiny, technocratic side of the capitalistic coin of American politics, while the Republicans proudly revel in the religiosity, retrograde traditionalism, and naked forms of anti-worker authoritarianism that have propelled their successes in all three branches of government since the elections of Reagan and Nixon.

Some caution must be taken because the power to move the range of acceptable policy does not lie exclusively with the socialists in a political alliance; there is danger also for socialist policies to again be denied legitimacy. Bill Maher, the irreverent and rude liberal comedian who hosts his own HBO show, defined the U.S. as “quasi-socialist” in an apparent attempt to defend liberals against rightist attack. Similarly in a recent appearance on C-SPAN, Cenk Uygur, the anchor of the left liberal show, The Young Turks, made a curious comment on supposed “socialism,” by affirmatively stating that Denmark is a socialist country. An obvious exaggeration (if only!), this line serves two purposes for the social democrats: 1) it shifts the range of what is considered socialist to the right to include social-democratic capitalist countries, and 2) it allows social democrats to appropriate the good will that continually grows for socialism. Socialists must vigorously resist such statements in debate. 

Socialists must not concede the declaratory ground to social democrats. Defining what, exactly, socialism means and why it benefits society broadly must be a first priority for socialists wishing to enter into the democratic arena, or else this definition will be left up to their political opponents. The above examples prove this clearly. I have previously defined what I believe separates socialism from other political tendencies: that is, as Cooperativism, or the position that workers are best placed to own and manage business. This position is fundamental in forming a firm logical basis upon which to build consistent policy arguments. Otherwise, in accord with Uygur and Maher’s logic, socialism is nothing more than social democracy or, in much simpler mocking terms, ‘government doing stuff.’ 

Socialism and the Rhetoric of Freedom

Senator Sanders, in his recent speech defining democratic socialism, exemplifies well the strategies I describe in this essay. He began the speech by citing established statistics that demonstrate the impacts of economic inequality and climate change affecting us all, which are objectively verifiable realities that U.S. liberals and socialists generally agree on. However, Sanders quickly moved into socialistic language by stating that “we are collectively creating” the wealth of the nation while billionaires dispose of it, and, crucially, he made it clear that this inequality of wealth manifests also in an inequality of body, by noting the rich live fifteen years longer than the poor. 

Sanders then moved on to take hold of Democratic Party history and U.S. political language and appropriate it for socialist ends. He noted that American Nazis adorned their speaking platform with a statue of George Washington surrounded by swastikas in their 1939 march on Madison Square Garden in New York City. In this, Sanders draws attention to the ability for violent rightists to easily drape themselves in American patriotism. He contrasts this vile movement against that which birthed the New Deal and its promise of equity and renewal, demonstrating the potentiality of U.S. politics for both the language of barbarism and human progress. 

Senator Sanders anticipates the predictable attacks that will be launched against him, preempting them before the battle begins. In his words, “I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word socialism as a slur.” He notes that FDR’s social demoratic programs such as Social Security were once reviled as “socialism,” and that Republicans attacked CHIP, Medicare, and the Obama Stimulus package as socialism.  With this, Sanders associates in the listeners’ minds that any anti-socialist attacks on popular social programs as the same tired verbal assaults made against social democrats of the past. This effectively places Sanders and socialism as the champion for the defense of social democracy, while also inviting for social democrats to defend these programs along the same socialistic lines.

To end, Sanders uses another strategy that I outlined above by strongly binding the American ideal for personal freedom with the socialist demand for economic rights. He appeals directly to the voter in familiar and straight-forward terms: “Are you truly free if you spend half your income on housing?… Are you truly free if you are unable to go to a college or a trade school because your family lacks the income?… Are you truly free if you work 80 hours because you lack a living wage?” and so forth. He makes the case here that the American Dream for freedom, typically used by centrist liberals and conservatives to justify stifling work and inequality, is unattainable without economic means. He pushes for an Economic Bill of Rights grounded in the language of freedom: the right to healthcare, good education, a living wage, affordable housing, secure retirement, and to live in a clean environment. He thereby justifies socialist policy through traditional political language, making use of the rhetorical opportunities presented in political discourse rather merely reacting against it. 

In writing this essay, I am not seeking to define strictly what socialists must do to strengthen their political positions moving forward. Each region, state, and municipality will have different issues that must be addressed by anyone seeking office there. However, support for the working class and advancing greater democracy in society and business are cross-cutting issues that are relevant to all socialists. Achieving these goals means enacting policy that supports them, and in a democratic system, one must win political office and make allies to do that. Social democrats are not socialists but share much in common when it comes to matters of governance, and they are much stronger politically than socialists are at the moment. Through continuing to appeal to the working class and shifting the Overton Window to the left, social democrats will be the first to follow while centrists and neoliberals will find the political sands unsteady beneath their feet. In alliance, social democrats can serve socialist ends if socialists make active and powerful efforts to strategize, and democracy, equity, and liberty can be expanded to the many rather than the few. As Senator Sanders has said: “It is time for the American People to stand up for their right to freedom, human dignity, and security.”