John Hickenlooper’s War on Socialism
John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado and a Democratic candidate for President, is slim and clean-shaven, with an earnest, slightly surprised manner and stretchy facial features that can make him look a little bit like the actor William H. Macy. Amid the vast Democratic Presidential field, Hickenlooper, who is sixty-seven and served two terms as Colorado’s governor and two as Denver’s mayor, is near the median in terms of age and experience. He is not the only moderate (Joe Biden), nor the only pragmatic Rocky Mountain governor (Montana’s Steve Bullock) nor, in fact, the only Coloradan (the state’s senior senator, Michael Bennet, is also a candidate). So, although he has a slightly offbeat personal story (he worked as a geologist and then was a brewpub entrepreneur), it was not clear for much of the winter and spring what exactly Hickenlooper brought to the Presidential race. He seemed like an actor in search of a role.
On June 1st, Hickenlooper spoke to the annual convention of the California Democratic Party, in San Francisco, proceeding at a stately, teleprompter-friendly pace. “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals,” Hickenlooper said, and then leaned into the rest of the line, “socialism is not the answer.” He paused for a moment, and loud boos began to swell into the pause. “I was reëlected,” Hickenlooper started again, but the boos had not abated. The video clip went viral, giving Hickenlooper’s candidacy a shorthand, or the possibility of one: the Democrat willing to make the case against socialism. On Thursday night, the second night of the first round of the Democratic debates, he managed to wedge the argument into nearly all of his answers. His final statement concluded, “If we turn towards socialism, we run the risk of helping to reëlect the worst President in American history.”
I first met Hickenlooper in mid-June, at a loud midtown coffee shop, while he was doing a rapid media and fund-raising tour of New York and Connecticut before heading back to Colorado for Father’s Day. It seemed to me that some Democrat—Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, or Elizabeth Warren, or a lesser-known candidate, like Hickenlooper —would inevitably have to make a case against socialism during the Presidential primaries, and I was curious to hear the embryonic version. Hickenlooper had attacked socialism before, in a speech, in New Hampshire, in May, but no one had booed and so no one had noticed. “We were not ignorant that this might cause an outcry,” Hickenlooper told me.
Curious about whether this was the reaction he’d been searching for, I asked Hickenlooper how he felt when he was booed. He took the question very literally. “When people booed me,” he began, and then he paused to summon a sense memory. “I’ve got some friends who are musicians, so on a couple of occasions I’ve gone out and played the banjo or sung at Red Rocks to ten thousand people, right? And I’ve felt how much energy there is when people really focus either appreciation or dislike. You get that emotional translation, it does kind of lift you up and push you back.” Then, searching for a sharper analogy, he remembered body-surfing as a kid, on the New Jersey shore. “It was a little bit like being in a wave and realizing this wave is stronger than I thought.” But, Hickenlooper said, he had spent considerable time working through policy ideas and figuring out why, for instance, he did not think single-payer health care was the best way to achieve universal coverage, and he felt confident in his position.
Hickenlooper went on, “So as the booing came up and was much louder than what I anticipated I didn’t shrink back. I kind of leaned into it and I kind of soaked it in there for a second. Even though having people booing you does not feel good. But I felt like I had a higher purpose. So when I spoke again I felt like I was, if anything, more in control of the moment than I was during the booing. The moment I started speaking, I felt like, I am in the right place at the right time.”
Socialism has become both an indispensable concept in the Democratic primary and a pretty fuzzy one. Shortly after Hickenlooper’s remarks went viral, Bernie Sanders delivered an address at George Washington University to explain his vision of democratic socialism, which drew heavily on Franklin D. Roosevelt and sounded to both trained and untrained ears quite a bit like an expansive version of liberalism. I asked Hickenlooper what he had seen from his fellow-Democrats that struck him as intolerably socialist—perhaps Medicare for All, or the more notional federal jobs guarantee that is embedded in some versions of the Green New Deal? “Those are two clear examples,” he said. “But I think massive expansions of government is a door for stuff that is certainly moving towards democratic socialism.”
Then Hickenlooper considered the enthusiasm for socialism from another angle. “Look, I can tell you where it comes from,” he said. “I think there is a deep-seated frustration that people don’t think they have a fair chance at creating a better life. I think that leads to some unlikely and in many cases problematic solutions.” He mentioned, as Democrats often do, that many workers have no more purchasing power than they did in the early nineteen-eighties. “If you’re not expanding the middle class, American democracy is not going to survive,” he said.
Hickenlooper is unusual in this Democratic field in that, until he was forty-nine, he worked in the private sector. “I’m probably the only person running for President who never even ran for student council,” he said. Hickenlooper spent his twenties and thirties working as an exploration geologist for oil companies—his territory was the awesome expanse of the Rockies—but was laid off in 1986 and was unemployed for more than two years. Hickenlooper went to a Department of Labor seminar, at which he was shown how to write a résumé and was given a list of other oil companies to apply to. But none of the other oil companies were hiring—the setback was industry-wide. Hickenlooper seemed to process this experience as an example not of the cruelties of the free market but of the inability of government to really help. “That became the foundation for what I call the fundamental nonsense of government,” he said.
During the time he was unemployed, Hickenlooper had plans to write for television, which didn’t pan out, and to open a brewpub in Denver, which came together slowly. “You do see a different person in the mirror than you’re used to. You don’t have the confidence. You’re kind of second-guessing yourself every day,” he recalled. But by 1988, he and three friends had opened Wynkoop, a craft brewery that helped to kickstart Denver’s downtown revival and played a role in making brewpubs a thing. “There was a level of uncertainty and anxiety,” Hickenlooper said. “If I’d gone for a couple of years like that, it’s very easy to see how bitter people can become.”
By now Hickenlooper had warmed to what seemed like his real theme—and the source of his instinctive revulsion at the word “socialism.” A focus of his nascent Presidential campaign has been workforce development: he likes to say that in the twentieth century we had too much human capital and too little financial capital, and now it is the other way around. He began happily discussing his approach, as governor, to rural economic development, a “bottom-up” economic plan that relied heavily on partnerships with business. In every county, Hickenlooper’s office built a list of stakeholders, “not just the Chamber of Commerce people, but the people who ran the community health center, and the people who worked in the clerk’s office. The schoolteachers and principals. We got everyone in a room to say—two- or three-hour meetings—‘What’s your vision?’ ” Hickenlooper said proudly, “That’s an entrepreneurial approach.”
One limitation of the Democratic case against socialism is that no major Presidential candidate seems excited about defending the current iteration of American capitalism. So what is advertised as a first-principles debate between two competing ways of organizing society often becomes, when the question turns to policy, a much more minor set of disagreements over degrees of reform. I asked Hickenlooper whether it was excessive for Democrats to refuse corporate PAC funding, but it turned out he’d made such a pledge himself. Trying to find the point of tension, I asked Hickenlooper whether his critique of socialism included Elizabeth Warren’s program. He said that he liked and admired Warren “but she’s never been in business. She really doesn’t care or trust business.” But it sounded like Hickenlooper didn’t really trust business, either. “Capitalism as it’s practiced in America has evolved in a way that’s not healthy,” he said. But, if that was the case, then did the arguments over socialism just come down to the question of whether Medicare for All was the best way to achieve universal health-care coverage? Because that sounded like a tactical question as much as an ideological one.
Listening to Hickenlooper, it seemed to me that there was something else that bothered him about the socialist idea that he was not quite putting into words. He seemed drawn to projects in which people could take action on their own behalf, that existed at the human scale: the bottom-up economic plan, designed around what nurses and small-business owners wanted for their town. A brewpub that could revive a neighborhood; an ambitious light-rail project that helped connect Denver to its suburbs, which he had accomplished through diligent personal lobbying of suburban politicians; an apprenticeship program built through coöperation with Colorado’s business leaders, so that teen-agers who were not headed directly for college would graduate with “skills and a sense of direction.” What seemed to spook him about socialism was an implied passivity. “That rut of thinking that government’s going to solve all our problems,” he said. “I think, as long as we’re demonizing business, as long as we’re saying we have all the answers—the rest of you just wait while we provide you all the answers—I think we’re going to have problems.”
There is an unsettling bigness to Presidential politics right now. The mass identities of nationalism and socialism can sometimes leave little place for the individual. I found that the most moving moments at Bernie Sanders’s 2016 rallies came when he invited members of the crowd to call out their student-debt totals, and anonymous voices would yell debilitating sums from the darkness. And yet it was also a little strange to hear the great creative body of the educated American middle class, so long described by Republicans and Democrats as the source of immense strength, rendered as victims. “So much of this is about optimism,” Hickenlooper said. “One of the real challenges that the country is going to have to come together around is getting back to where we look forward to tomorrow.” That sounded deeply felt, and it was hard to dispute. But whatever social pessimism exists in America set in during a period of rapacious capitalism. I couldn’t really see what socialism had to do with the problem.
Hickenlooper had to get to Connecticut for a fund-raiser, and, as we walked out, it turned out we were headed in the same direction, for half a block. I mentioned a cousin of my father’s, Jay Fetcher, who raises beef cattle on a ranch north of Steamboat Springs and once ran a losing campaign for the Colorado State Senate as a Democrat. “I know Jay Fetcher!” Hickenlooper cried. “He’s awesome!” He remembered Jay’s father, John, too, a real Routt County legend, a rancher and engineer who had helped develop the Steamboat Springs resort and was a figure in the Yampa Valley water wars. At the corner of Fifty-second Street and Madison, we parted ways. Halfway across the street, disappearing into a crowd of thousands, the governor turned back, his face stretched into a happy grin. For a moment, he’d found the human scale. He called out to me, “Small world!”