In the U.S., midterms elections are coming up. While social democrats have lost in recent European elections, social democracy is growing across the Atlantic. Surprising victories by before unknown, female, social democratic Millennials are catching the attention in the run up to the elections in November.

Our observations

  • Over the last two months, multiple young, progressive, democratic socialist women have won decisive primary elections, defeating male incumbents favored by the political establishment in the U.S. Summer Lee, 30, Sara Innamorato (32) and Elizabeth Fiedler (37) each endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, ran for the state Legislature in Pennsylvania and won. Last month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (28) toppled Joseph Crowley in a Democratic primary in New York. He was seen as a candidate to succeed Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic leader (Minority leader in the in the Republican-controlled House).
  • The fact that Crowley had about ten times more money on hand to spend on campaigning, which is usually a measure for the success of a candidate makes the Ocasio-Cortez victory remarkable.
  • Another notable fact is that midterm elections have notoriously low voter turnout but Ocasio-Cortez had high voter turnout from communities that are generally not focused on: 18-22-year-olds, people of color and low-income communities. Her unexpected win was largely due to her ability to connect to voters one-on-on and mobilize numerous volunteers by engaging with people in her district and online through inexpensive social media usage instead of costly airtime.
  • The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs, is the largest socialist organization in America. Although still small, it has exploded since the 2016 election from 7,000 members to more than 37,000. At the time, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic primary and Ocasio-Cortez shares his agenda. The DSA works with the Democrats (DNC) in the electoral realm but mostly functions as an activist group agitating against injustice outside the political party. It advocates tuition-free public college, job guarantee and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and healthcare insurance for all.
  • Although socialism used to be almost a swearword in the U.S., younger generations have a different perception of it than older generations. A recent survey shows that one third of millennials view socialism as favorable.
  • In Europe, although many social democrats have lost recent elections, the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn gained massive popularity among young voters, and Labour’s manifesto caught the attention of young leftwing activists in the U.S. Indeed, American millennials seem to be attracted by European values.

Connecting the dots

Ever since 1906, when Werner Sombart famously asked “Why is There No Socialism in the U.S.?” in his study, this question has been raised frequently. Sombart concluded that characteristic for the Americans are their individualism and anti-state interventionism. Why is social democracy gaining popularity in a country that previously led the battle against socialism and actively demonized socialism as the close cousin of Soviet communism? Already in 2016, the rather old presidential candidate Bernie Sanders introduced social democracy to an enormous group of enthusiastic voters.
Increasingly, they are embracing the idea of a government controlling capitalism instead of the other way around. Even at a national level, interventionist government ideas are discussed and taken seriously, such as health insurance for all. Indeed, interventions like  Social Security and the Medicare Program remain popular and have been effective in  reducing the poverty rate among the elderly. This marks a shift since the 1980s, when most  policies were based on minor interventions and the free market was the way to go, the idea  of Big Government on the right has now made a comeback under Trump. He takes  protectionist measures and has launched a trade war. The popularity of social democracy can be seen as the alternative to this idea of state intervention on the left. Especially the  youth in the U.S. view socialism positively.
They grew up facing unreliability of health insurance, rising student debt and growing  insecurity on the job market. The broken American dream and social immobility add to this. These formative experiences shape them in their beliefs. While younger generations see how capitalism is failing them – they still have the financial crisis fresh in mind – they have

no memory of the failures of communism. And thus, they can be a major force in an America introduced to social democracy. What does this wave of social democracy mean for current political affairs? For the Democratic Party, which is in search of a new identity in the Trump era, some argue that the stormy popularity of characters like Ocasio-Cortez is
risky. The left is now seen as a force and many Democratic Party candidates are already moving to the left on the immigration issue, Medicarefor- all, and minimum wage. However, some warn that the social democratic movement shows that the party center is bending to the left instead of reclaiming the vital center of American politics. This could create a rift in the party and undermine success in the midterm elections and the presidential campaign in the future. Others doubt whether the movement is strong enough to really add to the Democratic Party by reaching voters outside of New York City. The Bernie Sanders movement showed that it could reach the industrial Midwest, listing primary wins in Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Indiana. Whether
the current social democratic newcomers can create a platform bringing together the anti-Trump right, the working class across the Mid-states and the people of color and lowincome suburbanites, remains to be seen. But if the idea of an interventionist state in order to serve 99% of the people, not corporates and banks, takes hold among a wider group of voters – and mobilizes a large group of millennials –, this can represent a shift in the way many Americans think about the role of the state and the free market in their life and lead to a durable social democratic movement in the country.

Implications

  • The latest polls show that the Democrats will fare well during Midterm elections. This
    wave of young, engaging newcomers brings fresh energy to the party.
  • Young political leaders are increasingly popular, a development that is already visible in Europe. A young generation shaped by different formative experiences could come to power in the U.S. as well, changing the current political make-up. The idea that it is still common sense that the youth do not vote might be a blind spot in coming  elections.