The term “socialism” has always been an enigma to Democrats. Its basic theory forms the underpinnings of some of the most long-standing, valuable, and endearing programs of our country and yet the Democrats treat the term itself as an anathema in a political campaign – as if it is the worst thing one could say about a candidate or his or her promises.
In the arena of political debate, the Democrats leave the definition of terms to the Republicans – and they get it wrong. With eyes tight shut and both ears firmly plugged, the far-right poohbahs and cognoscenti loudly maintain that socialism is a misguided, experimental theory that has never worked anywhere or at any time; that if any part of it is adopted in the United States, it will inevitably lead to ruin and despair. Republicans then apply the term to every idea or program proposed by every Democratic running for anything.
The Republicans are wrong in the modern application of socialism, but no one ever calls them upon their errors. They confabulate socialism with communism, and then use the horrible post war conditions of Eastern European autocracies or the corrupt and ineptly managed Venezuela as their examples of socialism run amok. But modern socialism is not communism, and the failures are more due to the consequences of the repressive totalitarian regimes and the corrupt and incompetent administrations rather than to any economic inadequacies of socialistic principles. But rather than take the Republicans on in any debate over these mistakes, the Democrats, individually and collectively, simply run off and hide.
If anyone looked in a different direction, they would see that every democratic country of the industrialized world operates upon at least some underpinnings of socialism. When one compares the economic achievements of these modern western democracies, the results are quite different than what the Republicans represent. Modern socialism puts the emphasis on regulatory controls rather than government ownership. It does not mandate government ownership of all business; it does not negate the profit motive; and it does not forbid the accumulation of wealth. It allows for substantially free markets with ample room and opportunity for individual innovation and achievement, so long as the results are not oppressive or unfair and so long as benefit to the community is not ignored.
The strongest examples of successful socialistic economies are in the Scandinavian countries of Northern Europe. When one examines the economies of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, and the economic history these countries have enjoyed since the end of World War II, one finds that all are thriving under fundamentally socialistic principles operating within the sphere of democratic governance. According to a recent study by The Heritage Foundation, they are all equal to or ahead of the United States in most quadrants of economic measurement, including not only their average standard of living but in sustained growth, economic freedoms and in the levels of contentment of their middle classes.
The emphasis in modern socialism is on economic guarantees, individual protections, and in safety nets rather than government ownership. It maintains that benefit to the community is or should be a necessary element for anyone utilizing the resources of production and exchange – whether by public or private means – meaning that the aggrandizement of private business must include a public benefit objective along with the accumulation of wealth and realization of profit as being a necessary goal to be achieved.
Although we claim to be a free market, capitalist-based economy, we already incorporate many of these modern, socialist based concepts in our laws today, and we have steadily done so since the turn of the 20th century. Public schools, fire departments and police are socialistic institutions that no community would do without. The early anti-monopoly and unfair competition laws enacted in the 1900s were ground-breaking innovations of the day and were quickly followed by government regulations establishing minimum wages and maximum hours, protection against child labor, requirements for workers’ compensation insurance and unemployment compensation, and laws and regulations pertaining to safety in the workplace. Social security benefits and Medicare health coverage for the aged and disabled are so firmly established, they are considered to be untouchable by even the most extreme right winger. More recently, we have added laws and regulation for the protection of the disabled, towards equality of women in the workplace, and of preventing discriminatory practices towards minorities. The debates today are not whether to keep these programs, but how best to maintain and improve them to the better benefit of all. The socialistic underpinnings are seldom even mentioned.
All of these laws, collectively, could be considered cornerstones of modern socialism –and virtually every one of the laws in the areas summarized were brought about by Democrats, over the objection of Republicans, upon the objection of creeping socialism.
With all of this background, it should be no surprise that Bernie Sanders continues to attract huge crowds of young voters accepting with enthusiasm his version of socialism. Even more dramatic is the cadre of new members of Congress who were elected in 2018 and who are openly advancing the notions of democratic socialism as part of their basic platforms. This, despite the strong efforts of the media, the Republicans, and even members of the mainstream Democratic party to convince them otherwise.
The newer generations of voters, who do not have the experience of the cold war with its frightful examples of the Iron Curtain countries struggling to industrialize under the repressive communist rule, have no reason to instinctively run away from the concepts of socialism. The result is a new wave of voter beginning to think about the differences between Republican and Democratic governance in a more insightful fashion, ignoring the clattering outrage of the old arguments by the simple process of accepting a new banner for Bernie’s ideas – “Democratic Socialism.”
Despite all this, whenever the specter of socialism rears up in political campaigns today, instead of debating the Republicans head-on over any of their foolish premises, the Democratic candidates still go hide. They twist themselves into pretzels to avoid having some proclamation or campaign promise of theirs besmirched with the awful sobriquet. It is bad enough for a Democrat to have to put up with being termed a “liberal,” (which is also left for the Republicans to define) but to be caught off guard and tagged a “socialist” without solid cover to hide under is considered a campaign-ending blunder.
Except for Bernie Sanders, every one of the top line Democrats seeking to unseat the old fool in 2020 is running away from the arguments of democratic socialism. Biden, Harris, Warren, Booker, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and O’Rourke have all been pointedly quoted as saying they are not socialists, that their programs are not socialistic, and that socialism is not something that is needed in U.S. With the Democrats avoiding any debate on the matter and running away at even the mention of the word, the entire subject of socialism is still left to the Republicans to shape and mold as they wished.
Only one candidate so far, besides Bernie, has addressed the place that socialism might play in a presidential campaign. Pete Buttigieg’s direct answer to CNN’s Jake Trapper, in response to a question about Trump’s declaration that the U.S. would never be a socialist country, is illuminating. Mayor Pete observed that the word “socialism” as losing its power, and that today, it was more likely to be “the beginning of a debate, not the end of a debate. You can no longer simply kill off a line of discussion about a policy by saying that it’s socialist,” Pete said, “If someone my age or younger is weighing a policy idea and somebody comes along and says, ‘You can’t do that, it’s socialist.’ I think our answer will be, is it a good idea or is it not?” Yeah, Man! Here is a response to the Republican’s challenge that makes sense!
Nevertheless, the Democrats are starting out this silly season just like always – by ceding the high ground of the debate – the definition of terms – to the Republicans and trying to maintain that there will not be even the taint of socialism anywhere to be found in their promises and programs. This means that they will have no place to go when it comes time to roll out the details of their programs and actually put meat on the bones. To attempt to argue that solutions can be reached to the problems at the core of the Democratic Party’s agenda without reference to socialism or socialistic principles is sophistry. When the Democratic candidates start rolling out the details of their programs, the socialistic elements are going to be obvious. This means the candidates are going to get caught, which means the insidious result will be a weakening in the structure of the Democratic position.
The point is that no one is advocating the overthrow of capitalism. The solutions to be offered in all of the programs to be advanced are going to be in the area of socialistic protections and provisions to be added our existing systems: additional protections to the markets from unfair tactics and rigged or artificially dampened opportunities; additional protections to individuals against exploitation or abuse; and additional safety nets where required in the event of unsustaining cyclical reversals. It does not really matter whether we term the results we expect after adding these devices to be free market capitalism with a degree of socialistic protections or socialism with an overlay of free market capitalism. The point is that our economy now exists and is going to exist into the future with elements of both capitalism and socialism, as both are necessary and essential to the operation of the society to which we have become accustomed.
Given all of this, it is pure foolishness to start the argument with fully one half of the topic declared completely off limits for discussion.
Isn’t the practical solution obvious yet?