What if…a socialist became president of the USA?

Richard Swift ponders a pipedream – or a possibility.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to the crowd during Bernie s Big New Year s Bash on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in downtown Des Moines.008 Bernienyebash 1231 Cr2
In the 1960s, Senator Bernie Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth section of the Socialist Party of America.
Credit: Kelsey Kremer/The Register. Pictured: New Year's Eve, 2019

Seems about as likely as pigs flying, right? But hold on. These days, the unashamedly socialist Bernie Sanders is taking his second crack at the job using the US primary system – one of the few elements of true democracy in a political set-up otherwise engineered to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. He did pretty well in 2016, with tens of thousands attending his rallies in such unlikely places as Texas and Arizona. This time he has even dragged other Democratic contenders along, supporting such social democratic policies as universal healthcare and taxing the rich.

A recent poll found 70 per cent of Millennials and 64 per cent of GenZers claiming they would be favourably disposed towards voting for socialist candidates. Unease with the future (or lack of same) on offer from climate-gobbling capitalism has swelled the ranks of organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and is helping to elect radical candidates (such as the Bronx’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a bevy of others) both in and outside of the Democratic Party.

What would a socialist president in the US do?

Time and again Sanders turns this question back on his interrogators, demanding what would they do? This is not just a rhetorical trick. Without an activist base shaping socialist alternatives at all levels the default conservatism of US anti-government populism will kick in. If socialism is to be built in the corporate heartland it will take many hands and many brains. It will also need to draw from such nostrums of US popular culture as ‘good ole American know-how’, ‘don’t tread on me’ or, to quote Will Rogers, ‘always drink upstream from the herd’. Such sentiments can be flipped either way – a mythical individualism salted with reactionary patriotism or a determination to craft a real democratic society and economy with decisions taken by ordinary people rather than remote bureaucracies.

The roots of a socialist president’s programme will be found not in some bureaucratic five-year plan but in a variation of Roosevelt’s New Deal, morphed into a more radical Green New Deal to fit today’s species-threatening ecological crisis. It will be a steep hill to climb, made more so by the necessity of dismantling a race-based prison-industrial complex that has more people behind bars than anywhere and a military budget that is close to outstripping the rest of the world combined. But the cash used up by such wastrels could easily bankroll a Green New Deal.

Enabling vs implementing policies

A US socialist presidency needs to enable the push from below to achieve a popular power rooted in workplaces and communities. Decrees from above are likely not only to be unwelcome but to get easily tied up in Congress or in litigation before the Supreme Court in a system of checks and balances designed to prevent radical change.

Enabling legislation would enact a series of opportunities to allow workers to gain both power in and ownership of their workplaces, replacing their authoritarian bosses and allowing for sustainable investment choices rather than short-term profit grabs. Enabling legislation would also decentralize power to municipalities and local communities – a precondition for invigorating a participatory democracy. Presidential power from above works best when it provides real opportunities for an activist push from below.

Changing the world

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of a socialist presidency will be the rest of the world, particularly those living in ‘trouble spots’ like the Middle East and Latin America, who will no longer be subject to violent regime change. Any White House socialist worth their salt would take a lead on such pressing global issues as climate degradation, the runaway arms trade and the refugee crisis. The presidency could be used to amplify multilateral initiatives to deal with these and a number of other urgent issues that have our sad old world teetering on the edge.