Five things you should know about the US progressive surge

After the election of US President Donald Trump, the US saw an historic uptick in interest in left-wing groups.

Protests enveloped Washington, DC and other cities, where the streets
teemed with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on January 20, 2017,
when Donald Trump was sworn in as the United States's 45th president.

Angry rallygoers stuffed airports nationwide the following month, when
the newly minted Trump administration introduced an executive order
banning entry to the US for travellers from several Muslim-majority

With public furore generated by the president's anti-immigration
programme, anti-Muslim policies, controversial remarks about women and
flirtation with white nationalists, the political landscape was primed
for change.

In the early months of Trump's presidency, membership in several
left-wing outfits flourished, while progressives vied to chart an
alternative path within the Democratic Party.

More recently, Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidates
garnered a flurry of media attention in primary elections, during which
many of them challenged - and some bested - centrist Democratic

On November 6, Americans will cast their ballot in midterm elections
largely understood to be a referendum on Trump's presidency.

But after months of upheaval in the Democratic Party, with young
progressives seeking to displace party longtimers, there is heightened
attention on a surge in left-wing newcomers.

We break down the five things you should know about the US progressive surge:

1. Trump's presidency has fueled a left-wing surge

When Trump became president after a heated campaign taking aim at
immigrants, Muslims, women and others, the US saw an historic uptick in
interest in left-wing groups.

Bernie Sanders, who unsuccessfully challenged Hillary Clinton in the
2016 Democratic primaries, describes himself as a democratic socialist
and has been a senator for Vermont since 2007. His 2016 primary campaign
saw a swell in support, particularly from young people.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), founded by Michael
Harrington in 1982, more than doubled from May 2016 to February 2017,
reaching 16,000 members. The growth continued at a breakneck pace,
touching 32,000 by the end of 2017.

Now, the group estimates that it has 50,000 members across the country
and describes itself as the largest socialist outfit in the US.

Though not a political party, the DSA endorses candidates with politics
that align with the organisation's. Those candidates share the DSA's
views on broadening access to healthcare and education, opposing
capitalism and US wars, and advocating for labour rights, among other

Earlier this year, DSA-backed candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic Party
primary election for New York's 14th District in the House of

Her victory was celebrated by advocates as a step in the direction of
creating a society more broadly able to provide a decent life for the

But while the DSA has received the lion's share of attention in
discussions about socialism in the Trump era, several other groups and
parties reported increased membership in the wake of the president's
election. Among them were the International Socialist Organization,
Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party USA.

2. Socialism has a long history in the US

Socialist organising is nothing new in the US. Its roots can be traced
back to the 19th century, when immigrant communities arriving in the
country played a vital role in its inception and growth.

In 1901, the Socialist Party of America was founded after a merger of
previously existing socialist groups. During that era, several socialist
politicians landed in office.

In 1910, Victor L Berger became the first socialist elected to US
Congress after winning Wisconsin's 5th District Congressional seat. In
New York, Meyor London became the second socialist elected to Congress
in 1914.

In the 1912 and 1920 elections Eugene V Debs, a socialist icon who ran
for president five times, pulled in more than 900,000 votes. His
Socialist Party of America's membership peaked in 1912 at around

During that period, socialists played an active role in campaigning
against the US's entry into World War I. Many of them were jailed over
that advocacy, owing to the Espionage Act.

In June 1917, more than 2,000 protesters were jailed for rallying
against US participation in the war. Debs himself was arrested and put
on trial in September 1918 on 10 counts of violating the Espionage and
Sedition acts. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and campaigned for
the presidency from behind bars in 1920. His sentence was commuted, and
he was released from jail in 1921.

Crackdowns on socialist organising continued throughout the 20th
century, most notably during the "Second Red Scare", a period during
which US Senator Joseph McCarthy led a far-reaching campaign against

At the time, with the Cold War in its early years, McCarthy's efforts
led to the highly publicised trials - and imprisonment - of many people
merely suspected of being socialists or communists.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left saw socialists and other
leftists participate in struggles for civil rights and against US wars
abroad, such as the war in Vietnam. Many prominent black rights groups,
such as the Black Panthers, were self-described as Marxist

Later, socialists played important roles in the pushback against a slew
of wars, including the first Gulf War in 1990 and the 2003 invasion of
Iraq under President George W Bush.

3. Many famous Americans identify as socialists

Actor Mark Ruffalo is one of many famous Americans to embrace democratic
socialism in recent years, along with fellow actor Wallace Shawn,
acclaimed author Angela Davis, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, and many

But they follow in the footsteps of largely celebrated socialists and others who embraced elements of socialism.

Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr was a staunch opponent of
capitalism, who often sang the praises of socialism and an end to the
class system. "I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than
capitalistic," he famously told a girlfriend. Later, he called for a
politics that waged war on both racism and poverty, supported a
guaranteed annual income, advocated constitutional amendments to secure
economic equality and pushed for an expansion of public housing.

Hellen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts
degree and celebrated writer, was an active socialist until her death in
1968. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial
Workers of the World, Keller actively campaigned for women's suffrage,
labour rights and anti-war causes, among others.

Albert Einstein, the legendary physicist, admired Soviet revolutionary
Vladimir Lenin and called for the establishment of a socialist economy.
Writing for the Monthly Review, a socialist publication, Einstein
stated: "I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave
evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy,
accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward
social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by
society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion."

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils,
namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by
an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In
such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and
are utilized in a planned fashion.

Albert Einstein

These views led to the FBI keeping a file on him that eventually amassed some 1,400 pages.

4. Young Americans are moving away from capitalism

Less than half of Americans between 18 and 29 embrace capitalism,
according to an August 2018 poll by Gallup. The poll marked a 12-point
decline from a previous survey in 2010, when 68 percent of young
Americans viewed capitalism positively.

That same poll found that 51 percent of young people view socialism
favourably. The increase came owing to growing costs of living, stagnant
salaries, increasing healthcare costs, dwindling pensions and the need
to take on second jobs to make ends meet.

Earlier this year, a University of Chicago GenForward Survey of
Americans found that 62 percent of respondents between 18 and 34 years
old believe that the US needs "a strong government to handle today's
complex economic problems".

That survey concluded that 45 percent of young Americans view socialism
favourably, contrasted with a previous poll that found that 26 percent
of their parents' generation would prefer to live in a socialist

Meanwhile, a 2016 survey published by Stanford University found that
Americans entering the job market "are far less likely to earn more than
their parents when compared with children born two generations before

5. Can the current socialist surge last?

Although the current surge has elicited widespread attention, not all of
it has been positive. When DSA-backed Ocasio-Cortez's decried Israel's
response to Palestinian protests in the Gaza Strip and was criticised,
she replied by admitting that she is not "an expert on geopolitics on
this issue". It led critics to lambast the faces of the nascent
left-wing surge as unserious.

The primary campaign of Julia Salazar, another DSA-backed candidate for
New York State Senate, was marred in controversy after a string of news
reports accused her of falsifying her background, a charge she rejected
and chalked up to misreporting and confusion.

Others have charged the left with either being implausible in the US,
where history has been less than kind to self-described socialists, or
out-of-tune with the priorities of most American voters. In a country
whose history and ethos are so intimately tied to capitalism and
individualism, critics say, socialism could not work in practice.

For his part, Trump has attempted to brand his opponents as radicals,
alleging on several occasions that his detractors were "paid" protesters
or "professional anarchists".

With US midterms approaching, Trump's current approval rating hovers
just below 43 percent, a fact large enough to cast hesitation on the
longevity of the progressive uptick. Unemployment is low, sitting below
four percent, and it remains unclear how widespread a traction the new
progressives can command.

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