In the wake of Trump’s attack on socialism in his State of the Union, conflating (democratic) socialism with authoritarianism, it appears that almost all of the Democrats in the Chamber were ready to distance themselves from socialism in one of two ways. Some Democrats applauded Trump’s declaration that we will never become a socialist country, including Nancy Pelosi, directly demonstrating their anti-socialist bona fides. Other Democrats didn’t applaud because they were angry at Trump’s attack on the good name of the Democratic Party, which as everyone should know, is deeply committed to capitalism, not socialism From Roll Call, “‘Mr. President, get real’: Democrats reject Trump’s SOTU alarm about socialism:”
While some Democrats stood to applaud the last line pledging the U.S. will never become a socialist country — including a handful of Democrats running for president in 2020 — most of the party reacted with dismay that Trump went there. Some were shown on the C-SPAN cameras scowling.
“It was such a demagoguing approach that the scowling was, ‘Mr. President, get real,’” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Wednesday.
“There’s no issue about socialism, that we want to leave the free market capitalist system. I don’t think that’s an issue in the Congress,” the Maryland Democrat added, dismissing the remarks as Trump trying to rile his base, “Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter et al.”
And just in any case anyone has any questions about where the Democratic Leadership in the House stands, the article also quotes Hakeem Jeffries:
“House Democratic Caucus supports a well-regulated, free-market economy that is also anchored in a robust social safety net including Social Security and Medicare,” Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Wednesday when asked about Trump’s remarks.
“We as House Democrats support what I would term compassionate capitalism that is based on an emphasis of the well being of working families, middle-class folks, senior citizens, the poor, the sick and the afflicted,” the New York Democrat added. “Donald Trump apparently supports crony capitalism.”
[Brief aside: perhaps someone should remind Jeffries that “compassionate conservatism” was a phrase George W. Bush loved to employ. We wouldn’t want to confuse the Democrats with GOP lite, now would we?]
We will turn to how successful capitalism, compassionate or otherwise, has been shortly, but first let’s note how the day after the SOTU, we were reminded about the dangers of using the term (democratic) socialism by the paper of record. From The New York Times article, “Painting Socialists as Villains, Trump Refreshes a Blueprint:”
The threat of socialism was something new. But it could become the kind of rhetorical touchstone of his re-election campaign that sounding the alarm about “criminal illegal aliens” was in 2016.
If it does, it could provide Mr. Trump with a potentially effective weapon in confronting an increasingly aggressive and more liberal Democratic Party, defining it through attacks on Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who describe themselves as democratic socialists, and other members of the party pushing progressive policies like a 70 percent tax rate and “Medicare for all.”
If this weren’t enough, coming from the Gray Lady herself, to send chills down the spine of Democrats, we have the liberal Democrat and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein with an opinion piece entitled, “Trump Is Right to Warn Democrats About ‘Socialism.’” Let this title sink in for a moment, and then read his opening paragraph.
In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump was entirely right to reject “new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” He was right to add that “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion,” and to “renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
He goes on to say,
True, most of the Americans who approve of socialism are likely to be thinking of something like Scandinavian-style social democracy, rather than something out of Karl Marx. But words matter, especially when they refer to systems of governance. What, then, is socialism?
According to a standard definition, socialism calls for government ownership or control of the means of production. By contrast, capitalism calls for private ownership and control — for a robust system of property rights.
By Sunstein’s own admission, most Americans who approve of (democratic) socialism have in mind Scandinavian countries, but then he feeds the right-wing machine by focusing on a definition that is meant invoke fears of Soviet style communism. At the same time, just in case we might misunderstand capitalism, he reminds us that it calls for a robust system of property rights. (Yes, ours certainly has one. One might even say that we value property over people, you know, if one were just a tad cynical.) Sunstein’s cut to the chase reminder of his commitment to capitalism recalls the words of Nancy Pelosi, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is,” in response to an NYU student who asked her about the need for the party to move left.
For Sunstein, Sanders isn’t talking about socialism (someone should tell Bernie), but FDR-style programs, so why bother with the term socialism. It will just create a target for the defenders of capitalism.
In his own effort to explain what he meant by socialism, Sanders did not invoke Karl Marx. Instead he spoke of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In particular, Sanders pointed to Roosevelt’s great 1944 speech, in which he called for a Second Bill of Rights. As Roosevelt described it, the Second Bill includes a right to adequate medical care; a right to a good education; a right to protection against the fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; a right to freedom from domination by monopolies; a right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing and recreation; and a right to a useful and remunerative job in the private sector.
Sunstein has supported this program, although his language in this piece doesn’t suggest a ringing endorsement. Of course the issue isn’t only about supporting these ideas, but understanding how they have been thwarted and how they may realized. For Sunstein, we must not call the program socialism, because doing so will prevent good things from happening. One small problem. It’s been 75 years since FDR gave that speech, and how many of these goals have actually been achieved?
Right to Adequate Medical Care No, not even after the ACA.
Right to a Good Education No, but you can still buy one.
Protection Against Fears of Old Age The nursing home crisis.
Sickness, Accident and Unemployment Dream on…..
Freedom from Monopolies No way!
Right to Earn Enough (for basics) Uh, no!
Right to a Remunerative Job Good Luck.
Seventy-five years, and we are still waiting, still waiting, still waiting…..*
Looks like “compassionate capitalism” hasn’t worked out so well for this agenda. A few genuine improvements—for example, Medicare and Medicaid, but both are now more than 50 years old—a few band aids, no doubt, but 75 years? 75 years! Snails run faster. What could be the problem? Although we must not minimize intransigent Republicans and their financial supporters, perhaps some of the problems are closer to home, especially for Democrats during the last three decades, you know, since “centrism” became a thing.
Maybe one of the reasons that we are still waiting is that there hasn’t been enough daylight between Democratic Party leaders and the Captains of Capitalism. The Democratic Establishment has remained dependent on capitalist backers.** And Dems like their lobbying jobs after working in government. Ah, self-interest.
Maybe commitment to these programs over the long haul never had a chance of being as robust as Sunstein’s commitment to his beloved system of property rights, because for far too long the Democratic leadership for various reasons hasn’t been into rocking the economic boat.
Maybe the party got so caught up in the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s that it never recovered, or, better, wanted to recover, even years after the Democrats made their peace with the “small government” ideology of the “Reagan Revolution.” Why take a chance on programs that might make us look like reds, even in 2009? Better to remind folks, “we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.”
But maybe, just maybe, times have changed and the fear mongering won’t work any longer, especially for younger generations. The term socialism already appears to be catching on among younger voters. In just two years there has been a 12 point decline in their view of capitalism. Perhaps someone is worried. From the NY Times article mentioned above:
Among Americans ages 18 to 29, the Gallup poll found, 51 percent were positive about socialism while 45 percent viewed capitalism favorably. Gallup noted there was a marked, 12-point decline in younger adults views on capitalism in just two years.
Maybe this time, especially after the great recession, with another recession looming in the next couple of years, what’s happening here, which might not exactly be clear,*** is that establishment Democrats are terrified that democratic socialism will catch on, because people want the kinds of programs listed above, and they are learning that contemporary capitalist concentrations of wealth and power make such programs extraordinarily difficult to enact. Capitalism in its present form is a serious problem in this regard, and calling for a compassionate version does nothing to disrupt the basic power dynamics of the system.
And maybe Trump will prove helpful here. I mean, really, do most Americans believe anything that the man says? If he says, day, most of us know that it’s night. Trump may be the best thing socialism has had going for it in America in a long time. If he says (democratic) socialism is bad, odds are that it’s a winner. Establishment Democrats might want to factor this into their political calculations.
* With apologies to the Talking Heads.
** How many Democrats running or hoping to run for president will actually support a true Medicare for All, as opposed to one that must make a space for “free” enterprise, meaning insurance and pharmaceutical companies? Watch as even its supporters, except Sanders, tack to the so-called “center” after the primaries. They will get “practical.”
***With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.