Virtually every western constitutional democracy has one or more major parties claiming to represent the principles of socialism. Britain has its Labour Party, France has its Parti socialiste, and Germany has its Sozialdemokratische Partei. Even Canada, where I've lived for thirty years, has its own democratic socialist party, the New Democratic Party, which has governed half of Canada's provinces and managed to form the official opposition at the federal level between 2011 and this year. The NDP's first federal leader, Tommy Douglas (better known south of the border as actor Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather), is considered a national hero due to his role in establishing this country's system of universal health care.
But the United States is almost alone in lacking a functioning socialist party. There are many theories behind this absence, the Hartz-Horowitz thesis getting the most play in Canada. According to Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz, as people moved from Europe to the Americas, they brought with them only fragments of the full political cultures of their respective homelands. Furthermore, when the United Empire Loyalists left the newly independent American states in the 1780s, they robbed Americans of an older Tory tradition, leaving behind a lopsidedly liberal individualist society. Because Canadian Tories were more communitarian than individualist, they were open to another communitarian ideology, viz., socialism, while their American cousins were much less so. The late Seymour Martin Lipset discussed this issue in his book, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, adducing multiple causes for this American exceptionalism. Among the plausible reasons why socialism failed to make an impact in the U.S. may be the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in stealing the thunder of the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.
There were exceptions, of course. Milwaukee, with its German immigrant influence, had three Socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. More recently, Congressman Ron Dellums, a professed socialist, served in the House of Representatives under the Democratic Party between 1971 and 1998, and as Mayor of Oakland, California, from 2007 to 2011. But these figures were at the margins of American political life.
Now there's Bernie Sanders, former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and currently Senator from the Green Mountain State since 2007. From my vantage point outside the country, I have been surprised that someone so ready to wear the socialist label has come so far in his quest for the White House. When I was growing up, Americans regarded socialism with a mixture of fear and bemusement. To be a socialist was to be unAmerican at the very best. Moreover, during much of the twentieth century, the socialist label was invoked by two of the most heinous and murderous political forces in history: national socialism, or nazism, and communism. If Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin could both claim to be implementing socialism in some fashion, and if we were rightly repulsed by their brutal treatment of so many millions of people, then any hint of bringing socialism to America could only elicit a sensible aversion to an ideology that had proved so obviously destructive elsewhere.
Why then have Americans lost their fear of socialists such that many are prepared to put one in the Oval Office? The major reason, I believe, is that the generation that lived through the totalitarian experiments of the last century is gradually passing from the scene. For the rising generation born after the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany alike have joined the Roman and Ottoman empires as distant historical episodes outside their lived memories. Though many experienced observers were sounding the death knell for socialism in the 1990s, few political ideas — even bad ones — stay dead for good. For the older generations, the rhetoric of socialism may seem stale, but for younger people it may still carry a fresh scent, especially when joined to the winsome populism and iconoclasm of a Senator Sanders.
Yet despite Sanders' identification with a communitarian ideology, he does so very much as an individual, and in this he is still typically American. He could be the star of a Frank Capra film, struggling as a lone outsider against entrenched special interests for the good of the nation as a whole. Accordingly, we will not expect to hear a summons for the world's workers to unite and throw off their chains. Neither are we likely to see the establishment of a highly disciplined organization capable of commanding broad support for a socialist agenda. If socialism ever comes to America, it will arrive in severely diluted form as the rather idiosyncratic preoccupation of someone more resembling Jimmy Stewart than Lenin or Trotsky.
David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.