Democrats, can we please stop talking about economic models as a sort of tribal affiliation? I’m not an economist. I’ve read some economic theory but I have far too much respect for academic expertise to make any claim to sophistication in matters that they literally award a Nobel Prize for. I do, however, know enough to point out how ridiculous the distinctions are that we typically make.
The Cold War was traumatic for America. The geopolitical implications of an international power struggle between two countries who could near-instantly destroy the world many times over had a lasting impact on the way we talk about ourselves and the world. In those days, the distinction was framed as communism was socialism and bad and our system, capitalism was good. It was obvious that the economic engine of America ran laps around the Soviets. So socialism became the boogeyman and at our most extreme, we as a nation had no shame in accusing innocent people of conspiring to overthrow the government to bring a Bolshevik vanguard to power.
Republicans realized they had a powerful tool at their disposal. Long before the rise of modern conservatism, Republicans did things like set the highest marginal tax rate at over 90% and create a federal agency to protect the environment. Nonetheless, because the New Deal Democrats had thrown a lot of social programs at the wall in their Keynesian attempt to end the worst economic depression our country has ever seen and because Communists were the baddies, to this day, they continue to get real mileage out of convincing people that Democrats are Stalinists who open their conventions singing The Internationale.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been socialists in America. Between 1904 and 1920 Eugene V. Debs ran for president four times and was really the start and end of American socialism. He won 39 electoral votes which certainly ain’t nothing. Wait, that was Strom Thurmond in 1948 running on a racist, segregationist platform. Debs did lead in the polls in the run-up to the election and received almost 20 million votes, about 19% of all votes cast. Hold on, that’s H. Ross Perot who ran in 1992 on a platform of posterboard charts and typewritten manifestos (Just kidding, he ran in 1992 opposing NAFTA and the Iraq War, and promoting a balanced budget. But can we all just admit in hindsight that he was a wingnut?)
Debs, on the other hand, never broke 1 million votes in any presidential election, never got above 6% of the vote, and never won a single electoral vote. In the four presidential general elections he participated in, he averaged 3.8% of the vote. Very Serious People seem to spend a lot more time talking about socialism when historically, other far scarier (or stupider) third-party political movements have garnered far more support.
Even Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, today’s two most famous members of the Democratic Socialists of America (which is not a political party but a movement with chapters in 48 states), don’t ever actually talk about socialism. Instead, they talk about regulated markets, social spending, and stronger unions. In 1976, Sanders said, “I favor the public ownership of utilities, banks and major industries” but, despite the mythology that Bernie’s politics have never changed, that’s no longer his platform.
Elizabeth Warren, to the consternation of Twitter’s pseudo-socialists, is an avowed capitalist who says she believes in markets but also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and has said, “Markets without rules are theft.” Prior to the relatively recent rise of modern American conservatives (who were small and radical enough in 1954 for Eisenhower to refer to as both small-numbered and stupid), almost everyone in America embraced our mixed economy — regulated capitalism with social spending. Today, sure enough, in varying degrees, that’s what all of the 24 declared Democratic candidates for president in 2020 want as well.
Economic conservatives, on the other hand, are indeed looking to abolish the mixed economy that resulted in the largest, most sustained economic growth and broadly shared prosperity in American history (and yet still fell far short of where it should have) and return us to the laissez-faire approach of unregulated markets without any social spending. When zombie-eyed granny starver, Paul Ryan and drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub fetishist, Grover Norquist describe the government they want, they really are talking about pure capitalism. The elimination of Medicare, Social Security, public education, food stamps, consumer protections, anti-trust regulation, and controls on financial institutions would create a very different America. As bad as things are today, they can get markedly worse.
But our civic duty in a democracy isn’t to simply prevent things from getting worse. There are wildly important discussions to be had leading up to The Democratic party choosing its candidate for the 2020 general election. Discussions that need to be had to solve problems at their root cause: incrementalism vs large-scale, punctuated change, institutionalism vs broad structural reforms, taxation, social programs, the Green New Deal and the climate crisis, Medicare for All, the future of American foreign policy and interventionism, electoral reform, defense against Russian interference, and of course the impeachment and prosecution of governmental corruption and lawlessness in the Trump administration among many, many, many others. Fighting over which of the Democratic candidates is a socialist or trying to redefine socialism as New Deal liberalism creates a narrative that shifts focus away from the actual, gargantuan problems before us.
Oh, hello! Welcome to the fifth installment of my 365-day project. I’ve decided to write a minimum of two paragraphs a day for the next year. I’ll post what I write online. When I succeed and when I fail, it will be terrifyingly public, discoverable by anyone who cares to look. I plan to write about my past: familial relationships, emotional trials, joyfulness, discovery, and my reckless youth. I’m fascinated by history, political philosophy, language, and culture; I’m deeply concerned about democracy and this political moment; I have strong feelings about both the technology sector and the business world in which I work — all fodder for this gnashing beast of a project that I’m throwing myself into.