Ever since Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders launched his first campaign for the presidency in 2015, America has found itself immersed in a renewed debate over the concept of “socialism.”
This is, of course, not a new discussion. The word itself goes back at least to the 19th Century and many of the ideas associated with it can be traced to the beginning of human history. What’s more, the “socialist” label has been embraced, attacked, defined and understood by countless leaders, thinkers, activists and political movements in myriad ways.
Today, Sanders may describe himself as a proponent of “democratic socialism,” but what the senator has in mind when he uses such a term clearly bears little resemblance to what many others who have used the “socialist” label were seeking to promote – be they the sclerotic autocrats of the late 20th Century Soviet bloc, the leaders of numerous Third World revolutionary movements, or even the far right “National Socialists” of Nazi Germany and today’s “Heil Trump,” white supremacist movement.
What Sanders and his supporters are talking about, of course, is a socialism of the kind that has spread deep roots in Scandinavia and parts of Western Europe over the last several decades – an organization of society in which strong public and democratic structures and systems undergird (and address the shortcomings and inequities of) a broadly capitalist economy to guarantee things like universal healthcare, affordable higher education and a robust public safety net.
Neither Sanders nor his supporters are arguing for some sort of crude Soviet-style economic takeover in which the means of production are collectivized and private property is banned. In the event that Sanders or someone like him becomes president, Americans can rest assured that the bells will continue to ring at the New York Stock Exchange, Apple Computer will continue to sell iPhones, and Super Bowl commercials will continue to feature all manner of Madison Avenue-generated homages to capitalist excess.
Not surprisingly, though, this is not the image that denizens of the modern American Right are attempting to conjure up when they use the word socialism. Two weeks ago, Senator Thom Tillis sent out a fundraising appeal that included the following diatribe:
Malnutrition. Power outages. Bread lines. A medical system without medicine. Socialism’s failures aren’t just a theory….This is happening in socialist-controlled Venezuela right now.
Despite those facts, Democrats are still trying to import socialist policies to North Carolina’s shores.
Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college tuition. These policies advocated by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders place us directly onto a long road to devastation.”
Tillis’ nutty, wild-eyed claims (free college tuition will place us on the road to devastation?) were echoed last week by an author at a Raleigh conservative group, who claimed in a rather embarrassingly ill-informed and convoluted post that socialism is one of the world’s “extremist ideologies” and responsible for “havoc and poverty…all over the globe.” The author also noted approvingly that “President Donald Trump appears poised to run on saving America from socialism as a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.”
There was no mention in either diatribe of Social Security, Medicare for seniors, unemployment insurance, public education, farm subsidies, law enforcement and public safety, environmental and consumer protections agencies, or scores of other American “socialist” structures and services.
The five percent national poverty rates in Denmark and Finland also somehow escaped mention, as did the multi-billion dollar public subsidy that North Carolinians pay each year to fossil fuel titans like Koch Industries via the massive outlays we make to deal with environmental and public health havoc that’s wrought by carbon pollution.
All that said, it’s probably not unreasonable to ask whether Sanders and his allies and supporters are especially wise to have embraced the “socialist” moniker given the word’s fraught Cold War era history in this country.
The truth of the matter is that no major American politician of either party questions the basic efficacy of a capitalist economy. All understand that markets and the pursuit of profit are among the most useful tools that humans have ever fashioned for stimulating the production of societal wealth.
What sets progressives like Sanders and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren (and probably Thom Tillis in his honest moments) apart from so many extremists on the modern ideological right (excluding Trump, who clearly doesn’t have any real beliefs other than in enriching and empowering himself) is their understanding that the market economy is not, for all of its many strengths, infallible or divine.
They understand that the market is a powerful but imperfect human tool that we must use and regulate to maximize societal wellbeing.
This was something Franklin Roosevelt understood 80 years ago when he helped save the U.S. capitalist economy by embracing an array of public policies that put government in the business of easing human suffering.
And regardless of how it’s labeled, it’s a way of thinking that Americans would do well to enthusiastically embrace again in the 21st Century.