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The red states

The economics of the crash and the politics of Trump are creating a new force in the US— American socialism

If you asked the muse of American politics to go Homeric on you and sing of the man who caused the Democratic Party to wander in a wilderness of existential terrors and identity crises since 2016, she might mistakenly start a ditty that was only about Donald Trump.

After all, the president has been the focus of massive protests since his election, and his has seemingly been the only name on the lips of Democratic politicians as they campaign to regain control of the House and Senate this year. He is Twitter logorrheic in the face of tragedy and scandal, and his policies are anathema to the values and ideals of the Obama administration, already a golden age in many Democrats’ eyes.

But Trump is not the only figure to have triggered the soul-searching. “People should not underestimate me,” said a crotchety, largely unknown senator from Vermont named Bernie Sanders when he announced his presidential run in April 2015. People did, of course. Hillary Clinton was seen as the party’s sole viable option and Sanders, as CNN put it, was an “unlikely candidate for the Democratic nomination, primarily because he has never been a registered member of the party and calls himself a ‘democratic socialist.’”

Three years ago, that ideology only existed at the margins of American life. History students might have heard of home-grown socialists such as Eugene Debs, but these were figures from a time out of mind, decades before the Cold War. The idea of socialism as a positive force in the world was alien to most Americans. The policies of progressive Democrats since the New Deal might have overlapped with those of social democrats in Europe, but their emphasis was always on the American dream—enabling people to rise up from their class, rather than impelling them to rise up with it.

Post-financial crisis, however, Sanders demonstrated that socialism didn’t have to be so alien anymore. Indeed, he proved it could be an electrifying force in American political life. He packed rallies, first in Iowa and New Hampshire, then around the country. With nothing resembling the connections of Clinton—a former first lady, secretary of state and nearly the Democratic candidate in 2008—and none of her big money donors, Sanders eventually won 23 primaries and caucuses.

Sanders may not have started out with many resources, but he became an overnight celebrity on the strength of his utterly charmless—and thus somehow ultimately charming—harangues about America’s yawning class inequities and a political system made rotten by corporate money. And ever since that night in November 2016, when malcontent rust-belt state voters swung it for Trump, the American left has been haunted by the question as to whether Sanders might have fared better against him.

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In Prospect's November issue: Paul Collier explains how major cities in the UK will always be in the shadow of London unless capitalism is overhauled and suggests ways that we might be able to improve the situation in those communities that capitalism has left behind. Meanwhile, Steve Bloomfield asks what is going at the Foreign Office. The once great institution that was a symbol of Britain’s global power now seems to be lost and unable to explains its role. Also, Samira Shackle explores a Pakistani protest movement that is unnerving the country’s military. Elsewhere in the issue: Dahlia Lithwick suggests that the Supreme Court will struggle to retain its authority now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the bench. Philip Ball argues that DNA doesn’t define destiny as he reviews a new book by Robert Plomin. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer debate political correctness.