Despite the excitement surrounding this year’s presidential primaries, American democracy is in big trouble. Sen. John McCain has served his country bravely and on occasion he shows commendable independence. Sen. Barack Obama provides a welcome voice for national unity after decades of partisan wrangling and government paralysis.

But, given the scale of our national problems, personal integrity, bipartisan civility, and inspiring appeals to our better nature will not be enough to break the logjams created by interest groups, identity politics, and widespread denial of responsibility for public life.

Both candidates pick away at the Bush administration’s blunders, promise to do a better job using the military, avoid serious questions about the goals of foreign policy, tell the poor and workers that they feel their pain, and try to persuade the rich that they will be better off with more competent leadership. There are serious differences about Iraq, the economy and, critically, the Supreme Court, but neither McCain nor Obama seems prepared to challenge chronic inequality at home and a unilateral, unending search for national security abroad. Barack Obama’s idealistic appeals for a fresh start may well bring him to the White House, but he will need better ideas and the support of a new, organized reform movement if he is to redeem America’s democratic promise.

At the very least we need a wider set of political options. Wouldn’t we all be better off if this year’s candidates had to contend with organized demands for single-payer health care, federal incorporation and oversight for transnational corporations, reassertion of the public interest at every level of government, and an internationalist foreign policy? To open up such possibilities we cannot await a charismatic political redeemer. Instead a considerable number of us will have to renew our sense of political responsibility. “Democratic government requires a democratic people,” we once told ourselves; and a democratic people must share responsibility, everyday, for building and protecting a democratic way of life, in the workplace and the neighborhood, at church and school, in unions, professional organizations, and social clubs. Democracy, in short, is a verb as well as a noun. Practice democracy or it dies.

So where do we go to practice democracy? Many years ago, looking for an answer to that question by studying American history, I discovered Eugene Victor Debs (1855–1926). Debs ran for president four times on the Socialist ticket, the last time in 1920 when he was a prisoner in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, a guest of the government for opposing World War I. The most popular leader in U.S. socialist history, Debs led a fractured party. In 1919 some socialists split off to form the American Communist Party, which then split into two Communist parties, neither of which had any use for the other. Both parties claimed to be revolutionary and both despised Debs and his commitment to democratic politics.

Debs was a powerful speaker, but he rejected the role of charismatic leader often associated with popular movements. He would not be a Moses to lead people into the promised land, he once told an adoring crowd, because if he could lead them in, someone else could lead them out again. They would have to find their way through their own efforts, or the freedom they achieved would end up an illusion. Biographer Nick Salvatore found that Debs’s democratic vision, formed in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, transcended the violent class conflict forced upon everyone by the greed and lust for power of America’s corporate elites and their political lackeys. Through trade unions and machine politics, ordinary people, with minimal help from intellectuals, professionals, and religious leaders, learned to fight back in that elite-initiated class struggle. Some of them, mostly white, even achieved a level of precarious prosperity.

Realistic labor leaders and politicians said that was the best they could expect. Debs disagreed and invited working people of every class to fashion a society marked by personal generosity in private life, shared responsibility in the political economy, and genuine solidarity across all those boundaries that divide people and crush their spirit. Building on the memory of abolitionists, populists, and pioneer labor agitators, the Socialist Party of Debs came as close as we have ever come to providing Americans with a truly democratic political option.

That party might have become a Social Democratic Party comparable to the parties that regularly preside over governments in Europe and Latin America. But, tragically, American socialists barely survived on the political margins. The leaders who followed Debs, Norman Thomas and Jesuit-educated Michael Harrington, never matched Debs’s charisma. Thomas, a Protestant minister, won respect for his principled pacifism and life-long defense of civil rights. Harrington was an intellectual, known best as a champion of America’s “invisible” poor. His book The Other America helped spark the Kennedy-Johnson “war on poverty.” For three decades Harrington provided intelligent analysis and carefully crafted proposals for reform, but under his leadership the party stopped running candidates for office. Worried about persistent conservative efforts to dismantle the welfare state, destroy the unions, and cripple regulatory agencies, Harrington and his followers tried to make socialism an effective presence inside the Democratic Party. “Boring from within,” they would be “the left wing of the possible.”

That strategy provided important support for reforms like Medicare and occupational health and safety, but it did not work out. Few Democrats became socialists, while many socialists looked more and more like Democrats. Labor unions, some sympathetic to socialism, were battered by revisions of labor law, isolated by the identity politics of the cultural Left, and weakened by internal divisions. For a time in the 1960s it appeared Harrington might guide the burgeoning student movement into a revitalized Social Democratic Party, but divisions over the war in Vietnam shattered promising “new politics” initiatives. Martin Luther King’s murder ended hopes that democratic renewal would emerge from the civil-rights movement. By the time Bill Clinton and his friends gained control of the Democratic Party in the late 1980s with a new, probusiness agenda, America’s remaining socialists found themselves politically homeless.

A few sturdy independents like veteran Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota arose from democratic socialist politics, but after Harrington’s death in 1989, socialist ideas all but disappeared. At times it appears that democratic aspirations passed away as well. Who now makes the case, as some of this country’s founders did, that without a measure of economic democracy, political democracy will whither and die?

So perhaps the time has come to reconsider the legacy of democratic socialism. At its peak, the socialist movement offered three practical strategies for promoting genuine democracy: nationalization of natural resources and public services; public guarantees of basic human needs, such as health care, housing, employment, and education; and development of structures of shared economic responsibility that would combine public accountability and worker participation.

Socialism of this sort has much in common with Christian teachings that emphasize human dignity, human rights, and solidarity, and with traditional conservatism and its concern for inherited obligations, institutions, and the common good. That term, the common good, is a mantra of political discourse often abandoned in the give-and-take of framing policy amid democratic politics. But socialists believe there is a public interest, a common good that makes genuine claims on us as individuals and as a people. That means that we should take into consideration the good of the entire community, not just when government makes decisions but when we do. When we pollute the environment, pay less than a living wage, or wink at violations of the law, we betray the sacred trust of democratic citizenship. When we try to be good citizens at work, whether in board rooms or cotton fields, we practice democracy: the Catholic bishops once called it “justice as participation.”

Governments—local, state, and federal—are supposed to protect the public interest. In some situations this is best done through public ownership, in others through regulations enforced by public agencies and the courts, in still others by deferring to nongovernmental organizations in the private sector. Powerful interests have persuaded us that strong government threatens personal liberty, but the liberty most cherished today is the liberty of corporations pledged by charter and law to pursue their self-interest, not the public interest. In a corporate economy, the people need strong government to protect their rights and interests, and they must organize to make that happen. The only guarantees of freedom amid any bureaucracy, public or private, are engaged, intelligent citizens aware of their civic responsibilities. Ordinary party politics ignores all this while democratic socialism makes such commitments the heart of democratic citizenship.

Why has American democratic socialism had such a sad history? There is a library of books on that question. Here are a few answers.

First, American abundance. Why endure the pain of socialist restraint when all of us can have what we want if we only work hard and play by the rules? Why go to so many meetings if we can shop at Wal-Mart? American socialism, a visitor once said, “foundered on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.”

Second, the peculiar structures of American government require reformers to gain power over executive offices, legislatures, and courts—federal, state, and local. The courts remain a huge obstacle. In the late nineteenth century they ruled that corporations are persons with rights, just like us. From that point on, government regulation and proposals for public ownership encountered powerful opposition.

Third, American pluralism. If a reform movement does not have money (and socialists did not), all they have to work with are people, and people often do not trust each other very much. There are racial, gender, religious, ethnic, and regional differences, and for a long time some were excluded: slaves, immigrants, women, people without property. Some were not sure about Catholics, or Jews, or foreigners. Nowadays we think we are beyond such discrimination, but privatization, resegregation, and suspicion of immigrants all speak more of mutual distrust than of democratic confidence.

Finally, violent repression. American workers were not very class conscious but capitalists certainly were. They enlisted police, militias, and (in a pinch) the army, and they engaged in persistent, often violent, and ultimately very successful attacks on socialism and socialists.

There is substance in all four of these factors, but I want to discuss three other reasons for socialist failure that might point to avenues for democratic renewal.

First, American socialism, like American trade unionism and machine politics, never got beyond the bread-and-butter stage. For good reasons, unions set better wages, hours, and working conditions as their goals, and not for everybody but for their members. Unions, political machines, and ethnic groups understood power: alone you get nothing, organized you might get a shot at security and a share of prosperity. Similarly, a democratic economy, one responsive to popular interests as well as reflective of American ideals, is only possible if people organize. Corporations will always resist independent organization and they will always try to deprive employees of substantive power, in the workplace or the public square. The only way to fight back was to organize. It still is. Asked in a debate if Martin Luther King would be supporting him, Sen. Obama said no, that Dr. King would be out in the streets organizing people to hold the winner’s feet to the fire.

But organization is not all. Working-class politics won some victories, but it left the undemocratic structure of the economy in place. Lesson one is that if people want to govern themselves, and share responsibility for the common life, they must organize, not just for fair wages or professional self-interest but for a democratic reorganization of the economy.

Second, too few socialists listened to Debs when he told them that socialism, like democracy, was a choice. Debs never subscribed to the Marxist belief that socialism was inevitable, built into the process of history. Debs knew better. American workers were realists. They figured out that the socialists would get crushed so they had better cut the best deal they could with the capitalists. After his heroic leadership of the Pullman strike in Chicago in the 1890s, Debs ended up in jail when federal troops were called in to protect the railroads. If plutocracy was ever going to be replaced by democracy, Debs concluded, democratic leaders would have to build a multiclass coalition of U.S. citizens prepared to fight for power. For that to happen, leaders would have to trust their people. In short, like a good pastor or grass-roots politician, Debs liked people and trusted them. His invitation to democratic citizenship affirmed human freedom and presented socialism as a project that required creative commitments and responsible choices. The future was open and history was still to be made. And the making required, and still requires, everybody.

Third, Debs made democracy into something resembling religion. The Christian Social Gospel movement of his time had limited impact, in part because its advocates never persuaded people that work for justice, equality, human rights, and nonviolent conflict resolution are not secondary “fruits” of more basic spiritual commitments—but identical with faithful discipleship. Democratic self-determination is about human relationships and the meaning of human history. It rests on a faith in human dignity that penetrates all of life. Shared responsibility for the common life is a fact, not an option. What is missing are ideas, movements, and structures through which to carry out those responsibilities. But the first and most important point is the conviction—the faith—that history matters, that human survival, human rights, and human solidarity are of ultimate value, and that the future depends on us.

So the problem remains as old as the American experiment. Political democracy and social democracy cannot long survive without a good measure of economic democracy. Capitalist markets have many virtues and socialists too often stifled markets with over-regulation. But, left to themselves, markets inevitably produce inequalities of income, wealth, and power that overwhelm institutions of democratic self-government. In the United States, gaps in income and wealth are back to levels not seen in a hundred years, rural and urban populism has disappeared, unions and consumer groups are a shadow of what they once were, and grass-roots community organizations are compelled to accept the best local deal they can.

A handful of public-interest and reform organizations do impressive work on the environment, economic justice, and human rights, but powerful factions long ago mastered the art of co-opting or marginalizing the efforts of part-time citizens. To recover the democratic promise will require of us new levels of personal commitment, critical intelligence, and political seriousness. The old Marxist idea that some class or other would do the work of the democratic revolution for the rest of us was always a self-serving lie. The self-evident truth is that democracy—liberty and justice for all—requires a democratic people, and that means us. Democracy, like love, may begin as an emotion, but eventually it must become a decision. Now is the time for that democratic decision. Nothing, nothing, matters more for our country.


Related: George Scialabba reviews G. A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?

David O'Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.
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Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: View Contents
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