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Democrats Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of Socialism. It's OK — As Long As They Get To Define It

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gives a speech on his "Medicare for All" proposal, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gives a speech on his "Medicare for All" proposal, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

“We all know that AOC (Ocasio-Cortez) and this crowd are a bunch of communists …” Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) recently said on "Fox and Friends." Within minutes, Trump had predictably tweeted his rabid sycophant’s comments.

And we’re off. The red baiting that will characterize the 2020 presidential election has begun in earnest.

Why Republicans would try to generate fear and derision through this kind of tried-and-true name calling is no mystery. Consider that the majority of Americans believe the federal government is obliged to ensure that all Americans have health care coverage, think global warming is real and human-caused, support the DACA program and believe that immigrants strengthen the country. Most Americans have also begun to recognize that the Republicans’ tax cuts continue to favor the wealthy and offer little if any benefit to everyone else. The Republican party is not going to win the popular vote based on their policies and (in)action. They have no choice but to rely on what’s worked so well for them in the past — fear-fueling falsehoods.

No, the real question was posed by Jamelle Bouie in a recent New York Times column:

After watching Bernie Sanders try, for at least the second time, to defend himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ by defining ‘democratic socialism’ as something that is not actually socialism, I’m struggling to understand the purpose of it all. What does he gain from this? What is he trying to do?

It’s true. What Bernie Sanders advocates is not the conventional definition of socialism. Neither he nor any of the Democratic party’s candidates for president favor what socialist Joseph Weydemeyer referred to as “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Sanders doesn’t argue for eliminating capitalism, nationalizing industry, or turning management of all businesses over to the workers, let alone the government. He doesn’t even fully embrace the vision articulated by the Democratic Socialists of America, whose 2016 strategy calls for a country in which, “Very large, strategically important sectors of the economy — such as housing, utilities and heavy industry — would be subject to democratic planning outside the market, while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods.”

Sanders isn’t calling for authoritarian rule or extolling the virtues of self-proclaimed socialists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Venezuelan president Maduro or North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Rather, he points to the legacy of FDR, and declares that his mission is to “complete the unfinished business of the New Deal.”

Here is how he defined democratic socialism in a recent speech:

Now, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights — the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment. We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

That’s actually a pretty innocuous political platform, and one that — untarred by the label of “socialism” or “communism” — would likely be embraced by a majority of American voters, even if not a majority of Republican voters. And it is comparable to Elizabeth Warren’s, who still declares herself to be a capitalist.

Indeed, what Sanders and Warren are calling for is capitalism with guardrails, and a social safety net to ensure that the people of this country aren’t scrambling on a daily basis for food, shelter and safety. It is not so much “democratic socialism” — a democratic government coupled with social ownership and worker management of business and industry — as what the Europeans refer to as “social democracy,” which favors democratic governance, a social safety net and business reforms that better balance the social good with stakeholder profits.

... what Sanders and Warren are calling for is capitalism with guardrails

True socialists will challenge whether the latter is possible, and they may well be right. But the question of whether capitalism can ever be the underpinning of a just society is not what’s actually being debated. The immediate and politically viable issue, the one that the Democratic 2020 candidates must continue to frame in a fashion that is clear without being simplistic, is whether unbridled capitalism should be reined in, with some redistribution of tax burdens and wealth.

So should they use the “S” word to do it? I suspect that Sanders is doing so to appeal to his 2016 base, and he — probably only he — can do so with minimal risk. But while Democrats shouldn’t embrace the label of “socialist” since none of them are, 2020 candidates need not run from the label if, as Sanders has done, they remind voters that FDR’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s proposed national comprehensive health insurance were also attacked on those grounds.

Survey data suggests that socialism’s stigma is fading, and that many Americans no longer view socialism and capitalism in binary, either/or terms. A recent Harris poll found that 55% of women between the ages of 18-54 would prefer living in a socialist country. And while a Pew Research Center study finds that “a much larger share of Americans have a positive impression of capitalism (65%) than socialism (42%),” that gap narrows significantly when views are broken out by party. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to have a positive view of both capitalism and socialism, placing them squarely in the ranks of Europe’s Social Democrats.

The key for Democrats will be to ridicule red-baiting for what it is and offer policies that stress the “social” over the “ism;” to clearly articulate a vision in which the broad social good enables, not opposes, the individual good.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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