FOR long-term America-watchers like me – often stranded between love of, and frustration with, the whole inferno – it is a strange thrill to see the US grapple with the idea of an “American socialism”.

What could possibly have triggered such a weird, indeed un-American activity? Well, perhaps the election of some out-and-out American socialists.

The long-time “independent democratic socialist senator from Vermont” Bernie Sanders blasted the s-word into the centre of American political discourse through his explosive run for the Democrats’ presidential ticket against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bernie’s “Revolution Now” (the name of his campaign organisation) is currently bearing wider fruit.

A few days ago, actor Cynthia Nixon (one of the Sex And The City quartet) very much held her own in a New York governor candidate debate with Andrew Cuomo. She also stood as a recently signed-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

A month ago in Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the candidacy for senator of the area as a member of the DSA, beating a 10-term establishment Democrat (Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, achieved a similar feat in Detroit). Florida Democrats have just nominated as their gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who Donald Trump tweeted was “a failed Socialist Mayor”, and whose higher-tax, NHS-like policies certainly sound at least social democrat.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that 57% of Democrat voters have positive views about whatever they think the word “socialism” means. And the membership of the DSA has shot from 6000 to 50,000 over the last few years. Something is definitely afoot among younger Americans – for whom a “red under the bed” is more like to be a stray Nike running shoe than a communist subversive. About 20 years ago, I had some direct experience of American socialists, but they were mostly academics in the major cities.

I sipped bitter coffee in St Mark’s Place with vastly gloomy critical theorists from the New School in New York, brooding about “digital labour” as the blacked-out limos purred past.

I shot the breeze about the Californian dream with the Marxist urbanist Mike Davis, in a sun-kissed Glendale, California suburb that was more pixellated than Pixar. I visited Noam Chomsky – who occasionally identifies as a “libertarian socialist” – in the bowels of his clapperboard college on the MIT campus in Boston.

I also remember storming the editorial floors of leftist magazines such as The Nation (I was once their only Scottish subscriber) and Telos, buried deep in deepest Manhattan. Staff would blink at me perplexedly, pallid under strip lights in windowless rooms, with teetering stacks of journals about to crush them mercilessly. “From Scotland? Like, Adam Smith Scotland?”

All of this was to experience how literally cloistered leftist discourse has been in the US for decades. In the 1990s, the Palestinian-born academic Edward Said used to call campuses in America “the last utopias left standing”.

American party politics might have been triangulating itself between an ever-narrowing set of pro-market positions. Meanwhile, the academic socialists were burrowing in, securing their tenure, and teaching class after class of young impressionables.

Obama and his background – a Chicago street organiser schooled by Saul Alinsky, taught by the oracular leftist law professor Roberto Unger at Harvard and then becoming an academic there – was a sign that this scholars’ socialism was beginning to impact on the American power structure. Even as a faint presence.

Indeed, there’s an infamous 2006 YouTube clip of a young Senator Obama turning up in Vermont (with Ted Kennedy) to support the election campaign of one Bernie Sanders.

As an American public turned away from the failed centrism of Clinton/Obama, and sought solace in clear populist positions, Sanders was the antithesis of Trump. Yet it wasn’t a matter of chance that Sanders’s specific ideology had captured the insurrectionary mood.

In the academy at least, American socialists – even if only through their mode of teaching – had been furnishing young minds with critical thinking about class, gender, identity and infrastructure for decades.

And the times – or as a real socialist would say, the “conjuncture” – became ripe. The 2008 financial crash had many reverberations and consequences, and one of them was certainly the Occupy movement (composed of many student and graduate radicals). Their actions and rhetoric brought the labelling of the “1%” to the general consciousness – the new ruling classes who aggrandise themselves in our digital gilded age.

The Sanders campaign exploited that unearthed resentment about elite power (as of course did Trump, in his promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington). The Sanders moment looks like the first in quite a long line of US campaigns and representatives that will try to mobilise these generations of graduates, demonised on the alt-right as “social justice warriors”.

There are two other angles that might explain the rise of “socialism” as an attractive term in US political discourse. One is that the word “social” has dominated all discussions about the effect and purpose of the internet for about 15 years, and particularly in the US.

This goes from the most trivial level of shrieking about “social media celebrities”, to the deepest scholarly musings on how the internet opens up a “commons” of information goods beyond the market. Why should we be surprised that a “social-ism” (or as the cyber-guru Kevin Kelly once suggested, a “socialism 2.0”) might attract millions defining themselves as “social”, through their tech use?

Indeed, you could regard recent movements that spring out of “hashtags” – such as #blacklivesmatter and #MeToo – as forms of this socialism 2.0. They use networks to channel emotion and mobilise people on an everyday level (and they’re in a meme war with powerful forces on the right).

But the other attraction of socialism for American politics may well be about the problems inherent in such “flash” moments of protest. The great failure of Occupy, identified by many, was the desert of its policies. This meant its unwillingness (or inability) to think about proposing new and better institutions. Instead, its followers largely preferred to protest creatively and horizontally against the existing ones. Learning these lessons was one of the most interesting aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement. Alongside its street protests against police brutalisation of black Americans, it swiftly promoted a strong and broad platform of leftist policies. It was explicit that living wages, single-payer healthcare and reversal of tax cuts on the rich would benefit poor white Americans as much as poor black Americans.

On the 50th anniversary of his killing a few months ago, many reflected on how Martin Luther King’s interests turned more and more at the end towards economic equality for all, as the proper complement to his pursuit of civil rights. Could “democratic socialism” be the banner behind which many of the divided and fractured progressive tribes in American could unite?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Caligularity of the Trump regime is forcing unusual, perhaps extreme developments on his opponents’ side.

I still can’t quite cope with it: “American socialism” still seems as oxymoronic as “classical Elvis”, or “nouvelle cheeseburger”. But I am very happy to see it. Change is gonna come.