If the American left is to confront Donald Trump, it must have a movement with confidence and energy — one that will defend democracy with the same frantic urgency of conservatives trying to undermine it. In a word, it needs socialism.
To see the power of a hardcore movement, you only need to look to North Carolina, where Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship in a close race and where conservatives are now trampling over democracy and precedent in protest. The GOP-dominated legislature is holding a special session to reduce the governor to all but a figurehead. They're slashing Cooper's ability to appoint state bureaucrats and the trustees of the state university system, cementing control over the state electoral machinery, and sharply restricting the power of the state Supreme Court (where a Democrat won control of a swing seat).
Overall, the point is concentrate as much power as possible in the legislature, on which Republicans have a death grip due to gerrymandering. They will disenfranchise enemy demographic groups, ignore federal court orders, arrest members of the press, and otherwise bend the law to the breaking point in the service of clinging to power.
Mainstream liberalism is simply not equipped to fight back against this sort of thing. Liberals are palpably wrong-footed — isn't winning the election enough? Good heavens, when will they stop? When will Republicans settle down and respect the legitimacy of democracy? The answer, at least in operational terms, is obvious: never.
Now, to be fair, there are a great many people doing all they can on the ground in North Carolina and elsewhere. (The Moral Mondays movement is half the reason Cooper got elected in the first place.) But nationally speaking, there is nothing on the left like the conservative movement. That's how Republicans have won the presidency, Congress, and the vast majority of state-level political institutions despite their president-elect, their party, and their agenda being very unpopular.
What Democrats need is a fighting spirit to put some energy behind their own popularity advantage. Socialism — the democratic variety, not Marxism-Leninism, of course — is just what the doctor ordered.
First, it is substantively in the right ballpark. Leftists can and do argue all day about what precisely a socialist program should be, but it seems inarguable that liberal capitalism is failing a huge fraction of American citizens. Hillary Clinton ran a status quo campaign and lost; a systemic critique acknowledging that America is not already great will channel the energy of disaffected young and working-class people. Just look at who flocked to Bernie Sanders campaign — the most politically successful socialist in American history.
Second and perhaps more importantly, socialism is forthrightly radical. None of this trying to adopt new monikers like "progressive" because conservatives turned "liberal" into a smear. Instead, adopt an older term of abuse whose viewpoint has been massively validated among young people by the 2008 crisis. Socialism communicates confidence and vision. Build, organize, and fight on democratic freedoms, universal social programs and massive wealth redistribution, not fiddly little tax credits.
That need for clarity is probably why new members have been flooding into the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States. They have added some 3,000 dues-paying members since the election — increasing their membership by over 40 percent nearly overnight. Just in the last week they have added chapters in three states, and have over 20 chapter requests still waiting to be processed.
It's important to realize that one does not have to actually believe in socialist policy to recognize the value of a strong and mobilized left flank. Today's socialists are all firm democrats and believe strongly in social justice; despite the inevitable infighting that always happens on the left, nobody is calling social democrats "social fascists" on orders from Moscow. Milquetoast liberalism has been comprehensively devastated, but this sort of popular front strategy has room for them as well. Once the right has been defeated, then the left can hash out what to do.
A new rise of socialism would fit with the historical pattern. The modern echos with the 1930s are downright eerie, as right-wing political formations have been steamrolling center-left ones across the globe. While FDR did enormously well in the '30s with a quasi-socialist policy program, during the Great Depression European liberals could not contest the rise of fascism. Traditionally, to beat Nazis you need communists. Our own time is not yet so dire, but the weakness of American liberalism is indisputable. Something has to change.