Experts Explain Absence of Socialism in America

As this year's U.S. general elections draw near, it is safe to say that the vast majority of winners will be members of the country's two main political parties -- the Democrats and the Republicans.  Why is the United States the only major democracy without a viable third party, particularly a socialist or working class political party?
Many analysts agree that the United States is typical of most advanced industrialized societies, except that it does not have a major socialist party at the national level.
"America is very unlike other Western democracies," says Gary Marks of the University of North Carolina, who points to what scholars often call an "American Creed" -- the ideals of equality, social mobility, self-reliance and limited government that Americans have held since declaring independence from Britain in 1776.
"While we often complain about the size of the state [i.e., the government] and try to minimize this, the state -- if you look at it across every level -- is the lowest in the Western world," says Marks.  "What we've seen in the United States is a culture that has emphasized individualism and anti-statism.  And the role of government in the society is much less than it is in European societies, for example."
With each new wave of immigrants, people from around the world have adopted America's common values, which most scholars agree are not in keeping with traditionalism socialism.
Early Gains and Structural Challenges
By the eve of World War I, poor working and living conditions in American cities helped clear the way for socialism.  In 1912, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the popular vote.  And there were hundreds of Socialist elected officials in cities and towns across the country.  But the party had its problems.
"The Socialists, who were a small third party, had very little to offer," says political scientist Gary Marks.  "What they could offer was ideological purity.  They could offer a beacon for a different society.  But the labor unions were rooted in the 'here and now.'"
Unlike the socialists, who were utopian and suspicious of the country's major political parties, labor unions generally worked with the Democrats and the Republicans to win higher wages and better living standards.
According to Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at The Johns Hopkins University, workers were more interested in economic rather than political issues.
"In the United States, when labor became a force, white manhood suffrage was already a long established fact.  There was no need to struggle for political rights," says Ginsberg.  "Labor unions tended to join the parties that already existed -- the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and before that, the Whig Party.  So labor already had an open avenue for political struggle."
The economic upheaval of the 1930s gave many socialists hope that the time had come for a workers’ party in the United States.  But political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says it was too late.
"During the period of the Great Depression and economic downturn, there was more of a possibility for the creation of labor parties," says Ginsberg.  "But with the advent of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition, labor became such a prominent force within the Democratic Party that most labor leaders could see no advantage to trying to go out on their own."
Two-Party Dominance
Labor unions have been very active in promoting voter participation within the context of America's two-party system.  And since the Great Depression, organized labor generally has supported the Democratic Party, which has embraced many people on the left of the U.S. political spectrum.
"The socialists never really understood the logic of the American political system," says scholar Gary Marks, who points out that unlike in a traditional parliamentary system that emphasizes candidates winning a majority of votes in elections, politics in the United States is characterized by an opponent simply winning more votes than his or her rival.
"Essentially this means that third parties have no chance to gain representation at the national level in the United States.  So it's a logic where one has to try to create the broadest coalition that one can," says Marks.  "And to do that means that under normal circumstances, one has to downplay ideology and appeal to as many diverse groups as possible."
Since the Civil War, America's two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have averaged between them about 95 percent of the popular vote in national elections -- a trend that is not expected to change any time soon.
As long as the United States remains "exceptional" in its politics, there is near universal agreement among scholars that a viable socialist party will be merely a hope for a few.

Victor Morales

Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.

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Comment Sorting
by: Smengy from: USA
September 13, 2012 5:58 PM
The reason the Socialist party is more or less absent from US politics is the same reason there's no separate Tea Party and no real Independence Party...our electoral system is structured such that the logical result is a 2-party system.

Because candidates can win elections with less than 50% of the vote, if a 3rd party enters a race (e.g. a Tea Party candidate), it inevitably siphons votes primarily from one of the other parties (Republicans in this case). Therefore, if 55% of the voters are "conservative" but they split their vote between the Republican and the Tea Party candidate (e.g. 45% and 10%), the result is a win for the Democrats who represent just 45% of the population even though 55% of the people would prefer one of the other candidates.

If we had instant run-off voting in all states, we'd give alternative parties a fighting chance to take power away from the Democrats and Republicans who are ruining our country because all they think about is fighting against each other.

by: anonamous from: USA
September 12, 2012 7:53 PM
Jesse Lee Barns:

Why are you even mentioning women's rights in the US? This article was never about that issue. Secondly, USA is about the only country that allows women to parasitically get away with any kind of domestic abuse against her husband or children, and still suck her ex husband dry of any assets he has, or his rights to his children. You want to argue with that? Then refer to the thousands of latch key kids who take care of themselves and their dead beat mother's.

The USA is the best country in the world when it comes to women's rights, so much so that that no one has any room to assert their own (rights) when it comes to certain hallmark issues.

by: William from: Dakar Senegal
September 12, 2012 5:51 AM
We already have the Democrats - why would we need ANOTHER socialist party?

by: Jesse Lee Barnes from: Dallas, TX
September 12, 2012 2:48 AM
Also a result of the dumbing down of America, discouraging women from pursuing jobs as scientists by saying that their brains just arent as good at it as mens, that instead she is nurturing and should be a teacheror nurse, but no not a doctor, doctors should be men as they have to be cold and rational. women just arent wired for it. These are the messages we send our American girls and even if Gen X ticked the numbers up, the stats on Gen "WHY?" are showing sharp declines in graduate science studies.

Sexism, FAUX NEWS science reports, We are failing and its probably the ONLY reason we havnt been attacked again. They dont want to have to deal with our mess and the civil war that is probably less than 50 years off. We have been had, the Greatest Generation knew it...but the "ME" Generation couldnt stop playing the stock markets and gluttonously indulging themselves...until they ran it into the ground, and now they are throwing the next Gen under the bus and committing whatever "white collar" crimes they can against their fathers, mothers and kiids, just look at the rates of theft and fraud,,,,they are addicted to money. And if they dont get...well "Experts Explain Absence of Socialism in America".....peace out...

by: Patricia Eppright from: US
September 11, 2012 1:46 PM
The Democratic party is an excellent socialist party.
In Response

by: Brad Williams
September 13, 2012 6:30 PM
Socialism is a system of no private property. Democrats do not advance that. Democrats and Republicans are rather proto-fascist -- fascism being a system of government control of all property. The US marches toward fascism, not socialism.
In Response

by: mike
September 12, 2012 10:20 AM
Rep and Dem both have socialist running for pres. i.e. healthcare.
In Response

by: Erik from: Amsterdam, Netherlands
September 12, 2012 6:04 AM
Are you just another dumb white person? The Democrats and the Republicans are opposite sides of the same fascist coin. And fascism is a 'conservative value'....

by: Tommy Miles from: New York
September 11, 2012 12:16 PM
Professor Marks conspicuously fails to mention three important points about early 20th century America, one of which our friend from Japan hits upon: Race as a diversion of industrial protest; the smaller percentage of urban workers in the United States than in Europe; and the active violent suppression of the United States left. On that last point, remember that Debs was running for President the second time from federal prison, as he had opposed the First World War. He was not alone in this. The Palmer Raids of the 1920s -- in which most of the United States left leadership was arrested -- was just part of a long line of active suppression of the US left. So it's disingenuous of Prof. Marks to claim that this was some kind of failure at the level of campaign strategy. I think he knows better than this.

by: H. D. Schmidt from: California
September 10, 2012 11:51 PM
America has no Socialism Party, but is fully bedeviled with that evil anyway! Even old Kruschev saw that when at the UN in the 60's while pounding his shoe on his desk he said: "America will accept communism without knowing it". Of course he saw the many, many socialistic/communistic programs in effect at that time and it most certainly is worse now. The National Debt proves my contention.
In Response

by: E. A. Olsen from: Amsterdam, Netherlands
September 12, 2012 6:07 AM
"The National Debt proves my contention." Of course when you write this you do not mean the Pentagon System which is the largest welfare institution ever conceived by man. And yes, the national debt is out of control over military spending. The American people have been betrayed.

by: Fredric Williams from: Lake Geneva, WI
September 10, 2012 11:16 PM
Like the Communist one-party system, the American duopoly has a lock on control of the government at federal, state, and to a lesser extent local levels. The major expectations of Marx, numbered in "The Communist Manifesto" have been largely realized in the US as they have in the rest of the developed world -- and by the same means: universal suffrage.

For this reason, suggesting that the US is a nation of rugged individualists is blatant propaganda (aimed mainly at the domestic populace), astonishing naivete, or academic hairsplitting. Socialism is alive and well, adopted by both halves of the American partisan duopoly.

by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
September 10, 2012 11:04 PM
Probably I am wrong and correct me pease. Who have been blue workers forced labor in harsh conditions by capitalists in America? Haven't they been the blacks and other non-white Americans? Movement of such real blue workers to pursue and obtain proper working conditions has been supressed by strong racism, hasn't it? So, socialism for workers needed not to grow in America, did it?
In Response

by: Janett from: Pennsylvania
September 12, 2012 3:38 PM
Maybe you should read the definition of Socialism before you make a comment.

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