The Uses and Abuses of “Socialism”
The word largely serves as a distraction. Discuss actual policies.
In February’s State of the Union, Donald Trump explicitly condemned socialism, giving everyone a preview of his reelection message. It was aimed squarely at Vermont’s self-described “democratic socialist” senator in anticipation of his recently announced presidential bid, along with some popular new members of Congress that embrace the label.
Nowhere was the hyperventilating about socialism more obvious that the CPAC convention. Socialism was the weekend’s biggest theme, as speaker after speaker talked about the impending overthrow of capitalism. The Green New Deal was especially terrifying, as the president and others warned about Democrats coming for Americans’ hamburgers and pickup trucks. Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka compared the Green New Deal to a watermelon, green on the outside but “deep communist red” on the inside.
Fear of socialism is nothing new in America, dating back to the Red Scare of the 1920s and McCarthyism in the ‘50s. In the past century, conservatives have labeled any expansion of the welfare state, such as Medicare and Social Security, as socialism. Not long ago, parts of conservative media regularly described Barack Obama as a socialist, comparing him to Stalin and Mao. Obama-era policies like the Affordable Care Act (based on ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation and the plan Mitt Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts) and a stimulus in response to the Great Recession (largest single item: tax cuts), were depicted as signs of an impending leftist dystopia. Today, conservatives see the Democratic Party as a barely-disguised force to stage a socialist revolution.
Given this history, one might dismiss the latest charges as garden-variety fearmongering. But there may be some merit to the claim that socialism is having a moment. Polls show socialism increasing in popularity, especially with millennials, with 57 percent of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion in 2018, compared to 47 percent with a positive view of capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership explode, and dozens of DSA-endorsed candidates have been elected from the local level on up to Congress.
Socialism means many things to many different people, so it will invariably be hard to pin down and prone to wildly disparate definitions. At its most basic, socialism is a political and economic philosophy centered on the public ownership, either by the state or workers, of the means of production.
There is the Marxist concept of socialism where the working class seizes power and the means of production, aiming to abolish private property and usher in a classless society (communism).
Then there’s democratic socialism, something meaningfully different, where the working class gains power democratically through political parties, unions, and non-capitalist ownership models like cooperatives or employee-owned businesses. The idea is to spread democracy beyond politics and into the workplace, eventually moving beyond capitalism.
Relatedly, there’s the socialism that advocates for state-owned companies in industries like energy, transportation, and healthcare while maintaining the basic structure of capitalism — think of the socialism of the British Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s.
Single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public universities, and high taxes on the wealthy are firmly part of the social democratic tradition that combines markets with a robust welfare state. Advocated by people like Elizabeth Warren, it aims to even out the roughest edges of capitalism with regulation, anti-trust, and a universal social safety net.
Others, like Bernie Sanders, go further, believing that capitalism will inherently produce major inequality and that industries like healthcare should not be run for profit. The state and muscular trade unions therefore exist to empower the working class.
Socially democratic ideas can be found in nations around the globe. One variation grounded the New Deal and the Great Society, including programs that have become integral aspects of American life, such as Medicare and Social Security .
By this definition, Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal is also part of the social democratic project, but it isn’t a terrifying or revolutionary aberration from what worked for America before. Rather, it resembles other major government mobilizations in American history designed to take on major challenges, like the Great Depression and World War II. Indeed, it’s a lot like huge infrastructure projects, such as Tennessee Valley Authority or the interstate highway system. To Green New Deal supporters, climate change represents a similar challenge that requires mass mobilization to fight. Even a federal jobs guarantee is reminiscent of New Deal-era jobs programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
Most of the policies proposed by the left wing of the Democratic Party are bold, transformative expansions of federal government involvement in the economy. But to claim they send America down the path to communism is inaccurate. The greater favorability of socialism among Democrats is a sign that some associate socialism more with Scandinavia than the Soviet Union.
But Scandinavian countries, insofar as they represent a “socialist” model, are social democracies where generous welfare states, unions, and some publicly-owned industries coexist alongside capitalism and markets. None of those policies seek to end capitalism, though they do challenge the idea that all systemic economic and social problems are best solved by the market.
The political debate today is not about socialism versus capitalism, but a contest between a more activist federal government and more market-based solutions — the same battle that’s defined American politics for more than a century. There are legitimate concerns to be raised about the costs and benefits of these proposals, but merely arguing that they represent socialism does nothing to promote legitimate debate.
Unfortunately, the right will keep tarring any expansion of government they don’t like as “socialism” no matter how many times they are shown to be using sloppy language for political or tactical purposes. A fake Karl Marx quote from a popular meme is perhaps the best summation of how some conservatives abuse the term as a mere scareword: “Socialism is when the government does things, and the more things it does the socialister it is.”
Instead of yelling about socialism to rile up the base, conservatives should at least attempt to understand why young people may be attracted to socialism. It’s unwise and inaccurate for conservatives to chalk millennials’ disillusionment up to indoctrination from Marxist professors and the liberal media.
Unlike previous generations, millennials have come of age in a time of profound economic uncertainty. The Great Recession and trillions in student loan debt have created a generation of potentially downwardly mobile young people with precarious job prospects. Rising housing and healthcare costs make it worse, as do the impending dangers of climate change. For many, capitalism’s promise of unbridled growth and prosperity seems false.
In the end, we can only speculate about how labeling Democrats as socialists will affect the outcome of the coming presidential race. But we know the contest will feature two competing moral visions of America.
A resurgent left wing of the Democratic Party will make 2020 a clear contrast of both policies and values.