If you are a progressive, you support policies and programs such as Medicare for All, enhanced social security benefits, student loan forgiveness, nursing care for the elderly, legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community, tuition free college, significant tax increases for the wealthy, three meals a day for children, etc. These and similar policies and programs, your programs, have been undermined for years by the right and centrists through name calling, through calling them socialist.
Elizabeth Warren is only a couple of years older than I am. So, I know that she knows how programs such as these were attacked and undermined as socialist in our lifetimes. And one of the most common features of these attacks involves confusing the American public about socialism. The latter is invariably tied to dictatorial governments, which is supposed to be a knock-down argument against progressive or socialist programs. See, if you move in the direction of these programs, you will end up in an authoritarian state, a dictatorship. You will lose your freedom!
The term “socialism,” however, has a long and complicated history, referring to everything from a historical period that was supposed to precede communism, according to some Marxists, to the benign experiments in social democracy that we find in Scandinavia.*
There is no question that Sanders, and progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, emphasize the importance of democracy when they refer to socialism. They are democratic socialists. Of course, Warren knows this, which makes her standing and applauding in response to Trump’s attack on socialism at the State of the Union troubling. No, more than troubling, clearly unacceptable, because Trump set up his attack against socialism by using the same right-wing scare tactic that has been used for generations, equating socialism with tyranny. Here is what he said according to the White House transcript:
“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. (Applause.)
Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.
AUDIENCE: Booo —
THE PRESIDENT: America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. (Applause.) We are born free and we will stay free. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE: USA! USA! USA!
THE PRESIDENT: Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country. (Applause.)”
At this point, even after hearing how Trump had framed the attack against socialism, Warren stood up and applauded. (Sanders and AOC remained seated.) There is no excuse for this given the history. Warren knew that this wasn’t only an attack on authoritarian socialism. It was a way for Trump to undermine social programs that he and the right can label socialist, programs that she herself endorses.
What a courageous person, a person who isn’t too concerned about her career, should have done, even with Warren’s commitment to capitalism, was to remain seated. Or at least not applaud while standing. She could have then made the argument that while she isn’t a socialist—-“a capitalist to my bones,” as she says—she understood what Trump was up to, and she was not going to have the programs of progressives maligned in this fashion.
Elizabeth Warren has tied herself closely to Sanders as she pursues the progressive vote. How many times have you heard her say, “Bernie and I?” Yet in 2016 when she could have made a difference by endorsing Sanders, especially before the Massachusetts primary, she remained silent. And even if she wasn’t going to make a difference in the outcome of the primary, it would have been the principled thing to do. This is where she should have made a stand, and not an embarrassing one in response to Trump’s words. But she didn’t dare buck the Democratic Establishment. Her willingness to applaud Trump’s words also goes to show that when push comes to shove, there is no reason to assume Elizabeth Warren will take principled stands.
Warren’s supporters are fooling themselves by pretending that this didn’t happen or that it is somehow trivial. It isn’t. Take it from someone who has been around for almost as long as Warren. I’ve seen this play before. And so has Warren. It doesn’t end well.
Photo from Moon Bat, “Elizabeth Warren Isn’t Your Friend.”
* It’s debatable whether the label “socialism” or “democratic socialism” should be applied to the Scandinavian countries, because of the role of capitalist companies in their economies. (See, “Democratic Socialism Isn’t Social Democracy,” Jacobin.) However, given the great variety of positions that have been labeled socialist, the key point here is that the American right typically thinks of Scandinavia as socialist because of its extensive social programs. The Sanders’ left wears the label “socialist” as a badge of honor, in part to contrast its position to the out of control and crony capitalism of contemporary America, and the complicity of Establishment Democrats in supporting this system.