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In recent years, American socialism has experienced a rapid return to relevance, with politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now commanding significant influence over national politics. Organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) too are now as large as any socialist organisation in nearly a century, growing from 6,000 members in 2015 to 92,000 by April 2021. This has also witnessed a transformation in the makeup of their activist base, with the average age of a DSA member falling from 68 in 2013 to 33 just four years later. Yet the origins of their ideas that underpin this rising movement go far before the recent upsurge in socialist activity in the U.S. My research seeks to trace these origins by focusing on a key moment in the development of the contemporary American left- the 1970s and 1980s. By using three case studies, the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC, DSA’s forerunner), the Harold Washington mayoralty in Chicago, and the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1988, it will seek to show the contribution of local, national, and Democratic Party politics to the development of the intellectual and organisational beliefs of the American left. To do so it follows the intellectual development of these case studies, with their fundamental contribution the ‘rainbow coalition’ ideal. This political vision saw ‘old left’ groups of the working class and labour movement joining together with the ‘new’ of social movements around anti-war, feminist, and civil rights causes (amongst others) around their shared desire for equality. 

This vision offered challenges to developments in national politics throughout the period, especially the austerity policies of the Carter and Reagan administrations and the trends of deindustrialisation. But it will also reveal the ways in which they responded to the political trends of the period, especially in the anti-bureaucratic nature of their politics and their emphasis upon bottom-up political strategies. This also sheds light on their organisational strategies, revealing how reforms of the Democratic Party that gave more space for participation by ordinary activists and recognised identity groups as legitimate actors in the political process were capitalised upon by the American left. This included successful convention organising in the 1970s, followed by electoral success for Washington and Jackson in the eighties. This could also extend beyond America, with DSA able to engage with likeminded politicians on the global level via the Socialist International. Through this analysis, the project looks to provide a different perspective on late twentieth-century America. Rather than the only story being the rise of conservatism and the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, this research hopes to convey a more complex picture. This is not to deny that these figures and structural trends in the economy did not pose difficulties for the American left. Yet it is to say that they remained still vital and adaptative, showing intellectual and organisational creativity that responded to the political conditions that they faced.

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