Every area of study has its classic puzzles; the “anomalies theorists” pay their dues by proposing explanations. For the biology of sexual selection, it might be the peacock’s tail. For early-20th-century physicists, it was the black body radiation problem. For comparative political sociology, it is, in German historical economist Werner Sombart’s phrase, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” For over a century, the absence of a mass socialist or labour party has been a defining aspect of “American exceptionalism.” But what if that were no longer true? What if socialism were to become a major force in American politics, even as it declined in Europe?
Since the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, almost every major democratic country has had a self-proclaimed labour, socialist or communist party as a major contender for power. Most of the undemocratic world either had a self-proclaimed socialist government or underground insurrectionary movement (and, not infrequently, both).
The United States was different. It exited the 20th century with the same Democratic and Republican parties it has had since the 1860s, and without mainstream politicians rhetorically proposing an alternative to capitalism. The fact of an exceptional American aversion to socialism was undisputed, with leftists and academics alike arguing about the reasons: the racial legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, the immigrant experience, the frontier, Protestant revivalism or the canny political instincts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
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