Bernie Sanders's Presidential Bid Represents a Long Tradition of American Socialism

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier Urban policy scholar, analyst, writer, and advocate

Bernie Sanders's Presidential Bid Represents a Long Tradition of American Socialism

Now that Bernie Sanders has entered the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Americans are going to hear a lot about socialism, because the 73-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont describes himself as a “democratic socialist.”

“Ever since I was a kid I never liked to see people without money or connections get put down or pushed around,” Sanders explained in making his announcement. “When I came to Congress I tried to be a voice for people who did not have a voice—the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor. And that is what I will be doing as a candidate for president.”

We can expect the right-wing echo chamber—including Fox News hosts, Tea Party politicians, and Rush Limbaugh—to attack Sanders for espousing an ideology that they’ll likely describe as foreign, European, and un-American.

But Sanders’s views are in sync with a longstanding American socialist tradition. Throughout our history, some of the nation’s most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, and Gloria Steinem, embraced socialism.  


SANDERS KNOWS that his candidacy is a long shot. But his campaign will certainly help inject his progressive ideas into the public debate, influence public opinion and media coverage, and push Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, to the left. In this, Sanders is part of America’s long-standing radical tradition.  Since the early 1900s, few American socialists have been elected to office, but their ideas—and the movements they’ve helped organize—have been influential nevertheless.

When the Socialist Party was formed in 1901, many Americans were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers joined forces in the Populist movement to leash the power of banks, railroads and utility companies. Progressive reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing and in favor of women's suffrage.   

Socialists played influential roles in all these Progressive Era movements and gained many new converts. Among them were labor leader Eugene V. Debs, philosopher and educator John Dewey, Francis Bellamy (the Protestant minister from Boston who wrote the “Pledge of Allegiance” in 1892), settlement house founder and peace activist Jane Addams, novelist Jack London, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, poet Katherine Lee Bates (who penned “America the Beautiful”), journalist Walter Lippmann, public health pioneer Alice Hamilton, working women’s rights activist Florence Kelley, crusading attorney Clarence Darrow, feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman,  Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), and “Big Bill” Haywood (leader of the miners’ union). Helen Keller (1880-1968) is best known for overcoming her blindness, but she was also a lifelong radicaL. She connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women, and other groups, leading her to embrace socialism, feminism, and pacifism.  

Other prominent socialists included muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens (who exposed municipal corruption in his articles in McClure’s magazine, collected in The Shame of the Cities), writer Upton Sinclair (whose 1906 novel The Jungle, about the harsh conditions among Chicago’s meatpacking workers, led to the enactment of the first consumer protection law, the Meat Inspection Act), and Lewis Hine, whose photographs exposed the brutal conditions faced by child laborers to an outraged public. Two socialist newspapers—the Appeal to Reason (based in Kansas) and the Jewish Daily Forward (based in New York)—each reached at least a quarter of a million readers around the country. New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities had their own weekly socialist papers.

In 1912, Debs, the Socialists’ presidential candidate, won more than 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the total. He would have garnered more, but two other candidates—Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Party candidate (and former president) Theodore Roosevelt—stole some of the Socialists’ thunder, diverting the votes of workers, women, and consumers with promises of such progressive reforms as women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and workers’ right to organize unions.  

That year, Milwaukee voters elected Socialist Victor Berger to Congress; two years later, he was joined by another Socialist, Meyer London of New York. Berger sponsored bills providing the abolition of child labor, self-government for the District of Columbia, a system of public works for relief of the unemployed, and federal ownership of the railroads, the withdrawal  of federal troops from the Mexican border, and women’s suffrage. Berger also sponsored the first bill to create “old age pensions.” To promote the Socialists’ campaign for direct election of U.S. Senators (who were then chosen by state legislators), Berger called for the abolition of the upper chamber, which he and others labeled the “millionaires’ club.”

At the Socialist Party’s high point in 1912, about 1,200 party members held public office in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in cities such as Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading, and Schenectady. In office, they pushed for public ownership of utilities and transportation facilities; the expansion of parks, libraries, playgrounds, and other services; a living wage for workers, and a friendlier attitude toward unions, especially in time of strikes.

Milwaukee was the center of American socialism in the early 1900s. Dominated by the brewery industry, the city was home to many Polish, German, and other immigrant workers who made up the movement’s rank and file. In 1910 Milwaukee voters elected Emil Seidel, a former patternmaker, as their mayor, gave Socialists a majority of the seats on the city council and the county board, and selected Socialists for the school board and as city treasurer, city attorney, comptroller, and two civil judgeships.

In office, the Socialists expanded Milwaukee’s parks and library system and improved the public schools.

In office, the Socialists expanded Milwaukee’s parks and library system and improved the public schools. They granted municipal employees an eight-hour day. They adopted tough factory and building regulations. They reined in police brutality against striking workers and improved working conditions for rank-and-file cops. They improved the harbor, built municipal housing, and sponsored public markets. The Socialists had their own local newspaper and sponsored carnivals, picnics, singing societies, and even Sunday schools. Under pressure from city officials, the local railway and electricity companies—which operated with municipal licenses—reduced their rates.

Grateful for these programs, Milwaukee voters kept Socialists in office. They elected Daniel Hoan as mayor from 1916 to 1940, under whom Milwaukee was so frequently cited for its clean, efficient management practices that they boastfully called themselves “sewer socialists.” Milwaukee voters elected another Socialist, Frank Zeidler, as their mayor in 1948, and, remarkably, he remained in office for 12 years at the height of the Cold War.

In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, Norman Thomas, a Protestant minister, ran for president on a Socialist Party platform that called for old-age pensions, public works projects, a more progressive income tax, unemployment insurance, relief for farmers, subsidized housing for working families, a shorter workweek, and the nationalization of banks and basic industries. Thomas figured that in such desperate times, his message would appeal to voters. But many voters who may have agreed with Thomas’s views did not want to “waste” their vote on a Socialist who had no chance to win and who might even take enough votes away from the Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to keep Republican Herbert Hoover in office. Thomas had little regard for FDR, whom he considered a wealthy dilettante and a lackluster governor of New York. He believed FDR’s 1932 platform offered few specifics except vague promises of a “New Deal.”


Thomas did not expect to win, but he was disappointed that while FDR garnered 22.8 million votes (57 percent), he had to settle for 884,781 (2 percent). When friends expressed delight that FDR was carrying out some of the Socialist platform, Thomas responded that it was being carried out “on a stretcher.” He viewed the New Deal as patching, rather than fixing, a broken system.

Following the success of his popular muckraking book, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair moved to California and ran on the Socialist Party ticket for the House of Representatives (1920),  the Senate (1922), and for governor (1926 and 1930), winning few votes. In 1934, Sinclair figured he might have more influence running for office as a Democrat. He wrote a 64-page pamphlet outlining his economic plan—I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty—and entered the California Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Much to Sinclair’s surprise, his pamphlet became a bestseller across California. His campaign turned into a popular grassroots movement. Thousands of people volunteered for his campaign, organizing End Poverty in California (EPIC) clubs across the state. The campaign’s weekly newspaper, the EPIC News, reached a circulation of nearly one million by primary day in August 1934. The campaign allowed Sinclair to present his socialist ideas as commonsense solutions to California’s harsh economic conditions.

Sinclair shocked California’s political establishment (and himself) by winning the Democratic primary. Fearing a Sinclair victory, California’s powerful business groups joined forces and mobilized an expensive and effective dirty-tricks campaign against him. On election day, Sinclair got 37 percent of the vote—twice the total for any Democrat in the state’s history. Sinclair’s ideas pushed the New Deal to the left. After the Democrats won a landslide midterm election in Congress that year, FDR launched the so-called Second New Deal, including Social Security, major public works programs, and the National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the right to unionize.


DURING THE RED SCARE of the 1950s, American socialism fell on hard times.  Few Americans distinguished between the European social welfare systems and the communism of the Soviet Union or China. Across the nation, universities, labor unions, public schools, movie studios, and other major institutions purged themselves of their left-wingers. 

But some socialists keep alive their radical critique of American militarism, big business, and racial injustice. In a 1961 article for Mademoiselle magazine titled "Who Are the Student Boat-Rockers?", Tom Hayden, a leader of the burgeoning student New Left, listed the three people over 30 whom young radicals most admired. All were socialists --  Norman Thomas (a principled anti-war radical and labor ally who headed the Socialist Party), C. Wright Mills (the maverick Columbia University sociologist whose many books,  including The Power Elite and The Causes of World War Three,  exposed America's power structure and warned about the dangers of the Cold War arms race), and Michael Harrington (whose book, The Other America, inspired President Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson to wage a war on poverty).

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Southern racists and right-wing groups like the John Birch Society insisted that the movement was led by Communists, in whose ranks they included Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On that count, they were wrong; King was no Communist. But he was a socialist.  Growing up in a solidly middle-class family in Atlanta, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the “anti-capitalistic feelings” he experienced as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in breadlines. In 1964, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, King observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian "democratic socialism." He began talking openly about the need to confront "class issues," which he described as "the gulf between the haves and the have-nots."

“There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,” King told his staff in 1966.

Since then, only a handful of elected officials and prominent public figures have identified themselves as socialists, but their radical views continue to influence public opinion.

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

A few years ago, when a small group of New York radicals took over Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread to cities and small town around the country, Frank Luntz, an influential GOP pollster, spoke at a Republican Governors Association meeting.  He warned: “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

Luntz  offered tips for fighting back and framing the issues that the Occupiers have raised. For example, he urged Republican politicians to avoid using the word “capitalism.”

“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’” Luntz said. “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street, we’ve got a problem.”

On that point, at least, Bernie Sanders and Frank Luntz agree.


This has been reposted from The American Prospect.


Photo by the Brookings Institute.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College and chairs the college’s Urban and Environmental Policy Department. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). Dreier also is co-author of three books about cities and urban policy, including The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (2005).