The Debate on Socialism

I ran into a friend the other day, and the first words out of his mouth were “Since when did the Democratic party become Socialist?” My short answer was — they haven’t. They’re they same old corporatist, center-right party they’ve been for years. It’s just that Republicans, seizing on the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and a few others, have decided that socialism is the Democrats’ Achilles heel and so they’re making a big issue of it. Oddly enough, however, this could turn out to be a good thing. By drawing attention to it, they’ve opened a debate that’s been dormant for decades.

The return of socialism to the political sphere started with Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election when he ran as a “democratic socialist” with such popular policies as Medicare for All and free public college. It continued to simmer as progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made radical proposals of their own, including steeper taxes on the wealthy and the Green New Deal. And it got a big reboot from Donald Trump, when he declared that “America will never be socialist”* in this year’s State of the Union address. If nothing else, socialism has become a topic to talk about and take positions on.

Since World War II, Americans have been generally opposed to socialism. We’ve been carefully taught to distrust it as a slippery slope into Communism, which everyone knows is bad — Cold War propaganda made sure of that. Socialism has been tarred with the same brush by capitalists (conservative and liberal alike) who see it as a threat. Hence, calling someone a socialist is a slur. It’s designed to discredit them.

This is why the Democrats, who would seem more likely to support socialist policies, generally oppose them. Obama, for instance, could have supported a Medicare for All, single payer health insurance system. Instead, he fought for a system requiring all citizens to buy private health insurance. No socialism there, unless it be corporate socialism. Center-right democratic leaders such as Pelosi and Schumer remain faithful to the capitalist system.** Meanwhile, upstarts like Ocasio-Cortez and Warren are seen as disruptive forces in the Democratic party, as indeed they are.

Be that as it may, polls indicate that support for socialist policies is slowly increasing, especially among the young, while support for capitalism is dropping. But why are people beginning to look into an alternative economic system, especially one as politically unpopular as socialism? The answer is simple: because the old capitalist system isn’t working anymore for the majority of people.

To find another era comparable to our own, we have to go back to the last gilded age. During this time of unbridled capitalism, wealth inequality soared. The living conditions of poor and working class people declined precipitously, to the point where it became unbearable. In this climate, alternative economic systems arose, notably communism and socialism, and because people were desperate, they began to subscribe to them.

Needless to say, both of these new economic theories were vigorously opposed by the capitalist class, who rightly saw in them a mortal threat to their way of life. Nevertheless, by the end of the Great Depression and World War II, socialist programs were in place across the world, from Social Security here in the United States to socialized medicine and education in Europe. When circumstances become dire, capitalism is no help. It isn’t goal of capitalism to improve the lives of regular people, and the much touted trickle down effect, if it materializes at all, is too slow. Socialist policies, on the other hand, are direct. If people can’t afford health care, health care is provided. If old people are dying in squalor and poverty, government pensions alleviate that. And so forth.

In America, even today, the virtue of self-reliance is our beacon, but it only works if people are getting a fair shake economically. It’s hard to be self-reliant when your job doesn’t pay a living wage. Economic hardship tends to be radicalizing, and solutions that in a more prosperous times could be dismissed now seem more attractive.

The rich know all this, and they’re equally aware that their own actions have led to our current state of affairs. Nevertheless, they’re digging in. The mere mention of socialist ideas is dangerous to them, because if people start to talk about socialism, they might actually want it, and that could lead us down a ruinous path — at least, for the super rich. They will employ all the scare tactics they can think up to convince people, not that capitalism is good but that socialism is evil. Meanwhile, Trump and the conservatives will run on an anti-socialist platform, keeping Democrats on the defensive as they struggle to counter the accusation without actually admitting that they’re nothing of the sort.

As for the rest of us, we can fall for the negative propaganda likely to emanate from both parties on this matter, or we can think for ourselves. But unless something is done to address the real and urgent needs of the poor and working class, the social problems engendered by poverty and despair will continue. Capitalism confronts social unrest with weapons and force. Socialism does so with social programs. Which way do we want to go? Should we have one or the other, or a combination of both? At long last, America seems ready for that question.


* From Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address:

“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

** From Nancy Pelosi, on a CNN Town Hall:

We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.

Comments | 8

  • Our Regular Programming

    Edward Dowling wrote: “The two great obstacles to democracy in the US are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy; and second, the chronic terror amongst the rich, lest we get it.”

  • Americans and Socialism

    When I said that there is increasing support of socialism and declining support for capitalism, especially among the young, that really only tells part of the story. According to the latest Gallup Poll on the subject of socialism vs capitalism (2018), Americans overall favor capitalism to socialism, 56% to 37%. 37% is a pretty low number so I don’t think anyone has to worry that socialism will overrun the country any time soon.

    Needless to say, there’s a right/left split on positivity toward socialism. Only 16% of Republicans have a positive view of socialism, compared to 71% for capitalism. Democrats, on the other hand, have a 57% positive rating vs only 47% for capitalism. Any attempt to enact policies deemed by the right to be socialist will have a really touch time getting past their opposition.

    Agewise, there’s also a split. 51% of under 30s have a positive view of socialism, while only 45% of this age group feel the same about capitalism. Once you get over 30 however, the numbers fall as the respondents get older. Only 30% of over 50s have a positive view of socialism and only 28% of over 65s. Our oldest citizens are most likely to support capitalism and oppose socialism.

    There were anomalous years. In 2012, Republicans show a spike in support for socialism, going all the way to 23%. Was this fallout from the financial crisis that caused them to temporarily blip away from capitalism? As a matter of fact, all groups show an increase in support for socialism in 2012, except, oddly enough, young people and Democrats whose support stayed the same or dropped.

    And finally, 2016 was a blip year for young people and Democrats respectively, with support of socialism rising to an 8 year high. I like to think this was the Sanders Effect.

    Interesting numbers, and this year’s should be even more so. They prove how very ingrained our economic system is into our sense of values.

  • Social(ist) Media

    I can see why the younger folks aren’t against socialism. They’ve been raised on “social” and to be “social” is a badge of honor more than an insult. Add to it that many listened to Bernie Sanders and heard some pretty good things – education, health care, and so on. The equation goes something like:

    socialism = social + helping people and the planet

    It’s almost as if the major parties forgot about socialism. Sure, we all hate “communism” – we’ve been told to despise it steadily since the 1930’s. Because of Russia! But the powers that be let ‘socialism’ flutter along, without as much criminalization of the word.

    communism = we’re against it!
    socialism = it might be bad, I can’t recall. Aren’t some nice places in Europe sort of socialist?

    If Trump and the GOP are attempting to use “socialism” as a derogatory term, it is a gamble. It may cause a reaction.

    socialism = something Trump hates = something I therefore like

    I think the proper comeback “insult” for Democrats accused of being socialist is to accuse the GOP of being capitalist, as if that were also a bad thing. Take up the GOP on their offer to debate the merits of capitalism. Point out how it has failed, and has corrupted.

    Now, this won’t happen. As Lise quotes above, Nancy Pelosi seems to want to immediately go on the defensive about not being socialist. She fell for a linguistic trap. “I am not a crook” makes one think that perhaps the speaker might be a crook. “I am not a socialist” is a weak reply that will make one think that perhaps the speaker is a socialist. She didn’t say that, of course, she insisted she was a capitalist! That reinforces the idea that somehow being socialist is a bad thing, and will give power to the Trump/GOP message over time.

    Socialist is very similar to populist.

    Capitalist is closer to corporatist.

    Language matters, and it is interesting to see how candidates are using words in these early days of campaigns. It’ll be interesting to see how the media choose to use candidate’s language or not when talking about issues.

  • Billionaire Weighs In; Says Socialism Is Bad

    Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan, worth about $1.3 billion, agrees with Trump that socialism is bad. He sent a letter to shareholders saying so.

    “Socialism inevitably produces stagnation, corruption and often worse – such as authoritarian government officials who often have an increasing ability to interfere with both the economy and individual lives – which they frequently do to maintain power. This would be as much a disaster for our country as it has been in the other places it’s been tried” wrote the person who was paid just under $85,000 a day every day last year.

    Dimon, who averaged just over $3,500 an hour (24 hours a day, even while he slept, 365 days) last year, admitted that “This is not to say that capitalism does not have flaws, that it isn’t leaving people behind and that it shouldn’t be improved. It’s essential to have a strong social safety net – and all countries should be striving for continuous improvement in regulations as well as social and welfare conditions.”

    Hmm. Trump and billionaires don’t like socialism. Must be something good about it for the rest of us… : )

  • Good article, Lise-

    This is part of a problem:
    “Since World War II, Americans have been generally opposed to socialism. We’ve been carefully taught to distrust it as a slippery slope into Communism, which everyone knows is bad — Cold War propaganda made sure of that.”

    Here’s another:
    In 1946, Joseph McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Wisconsin, and in 1950 he publicly charged that 205 communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. Reelected in 1952, he became chair of the Senate’s subcommittee on investigations, and for the next two years he investigated various government departments and questioned innumerable witnesses, resulting in what would be known as the Red Scare. After televised hearings in which he was discredited and condemned by Congress, McCarthy fell out of the spotlight.
    I grew up during McCarthy ‘s Red Scare era where we imagined there was a Commie hiding under every bed. If asked what was the difference between a Communist and a Socialist, the answer was always an anti-Semitic “Jews believe in God”.

    Nobody publicly mentions that the form of Capitalism which made our country prosper in the nineteenth century is very different from the Capitalism we see today. Mom & Pop Capitalism has devolved into a global system of welfare for the elites and serfdom for the rest of us.

    FWIW, the Liberty Union Party describes itself as a non-violent Socialist alternative.

  • Social Democracy

    The United Nations’ latest World Happiness Report Judges Norway to be the happiest country in the world.
    Denmark ranks second, Finland ranks 5th, the Netherlands 6th and Sweden is 10th.
    These are all Social Democracies (a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist economy)
    Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes.

    • 2019 results

      For 2019, Finland is happiest. Following (in order) are Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. The US is19th.
      South Sudan is the least happy nation, preceded by the Central African Republic and Afghanistan

    • International Happiness

      Thanks for the happiness rundown. It appears from this list that the way to make people happy is a) not to have wars in their country and b) have a social democracy. Or just be naturally happy like the Finns. (joke)

      International Happiness Day was just last month. Although some see happiness as a frivolous frill, I think it’s important to maintaining a functioning society — democratically, economically, and socially. Unhappy people, when there are a lot of them, tend to drag a society down, at least until their needs are addressed. America tends to want to ignore glaring social problems until they’re gigantic (the opioid “crisis” and its causes, for instance). Unhappiness is such a buzz kill, man! (kidding)

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