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  • Paul D. Wilke

Embracing the "S" Word


"It has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."

Fredric Jameson

The recent primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York revived the debate about democratic socialism in American politics. In this case, Ocasio-Cortez is notable for her open and proud membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (Full disclosure: I am also a member of DSA). Socialism is one of those words that means different things to different people; for some, it is associated with European-style social democracy. In this case, socialism does not represent some monolithic and all-encompassing economic system but a tendency to implement steeper redistributive policies ("socialist") within a society to bridge the gaps where free market solutions fail. This is roughly my position. On the other end of the spectrum are those who steadfastly define socialism only in a single way as embodied by the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century. Ocasio-Cortez's victory prompted a round of dire warnings from this latter portion of the punditsphere that sees only this one, dangerously malevolent version of socialism to the exclusion of everything else.

Nuance and rational discussion end up casualties as a result. Platitudes abound, however. It's a running joke by many on the left that all liberal policies, no matter how benign, are seen by the right as slippery slopes to Lenin, Stalin, and the gulag. Partisan hacks like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, to name a few, have for years cried socialism like wolf at every opportunity, and millions have credulously bought into their interpretation. And why not? Fear sells guns and gets votes. Remember Obama's modest reform of our broken health care system? That was merely the first step toward freedom-destroying socialism. What about the bailout of the auto industry? Same thing. Any mention of stricter gun control legislation? That's the first step toward disarming the populace so its liberty can be taken away and coercive socialism imposed. And abortion? Freedom-hating socialists like killing babies, just like the commies in the Soviet Union.

And so on, any progressive initiative gets fear-mongered to death by conservative echo chamber demagogues, who arm their audiences for battle on Facebook discussion threads with ideologically simplified talking points. This fear-mongering is wonderfully effective at winning short-term political advantage; after all, caricaturing opponents with bad-faith arguments is effective, if disingenuous, especially when your audience is allergic to nuance and soaked in bias. If you don't believe me, dear conservative reader, ask yourself how frustrating it is to have your own moderate, right-of-center views constantly labeled as fascist all the time. Sucks, doesn't it?

Fortunately, this is finally becoming a tactic of diminishing returns. If every progressive policy idea is socialism, then none of them are. Such critiques dissolve into incoherence, becoming rote insults flung like feces rather than subtle arguments. Sean Hannity unintentionally made this point in the aftermath of Ocasio-Cortez's victory. Here's what he said: "Many are hailing Cortez as a rising star on the political landscape, but in reality, her views, her policy positions are actually downright scary... Look very carefully. This is the future, this is the modern Democratic Party." Hannity then showed the terrifying truth of what a scary, far-left democratic socialist platform looks like. Here it is, brace yourselves:

Whoa! There you have it folks: mass arrests, gulags, one hundred million dead, tyranny, the horrors of forced collectivization...it's all there.

No, wait, it's not.

What Hannity posted was cut and pasted almost directly from Ocasio-Cortez's website and appears, at least to me, to be quite reasonable. Medicare for all, housing, jobs, women's rights, support for LGBTQ and seniors, and so on. That's liberty-crushing socialism? That's what we're all supposed to be terrified of? Yes, many of these are traditional progressive issues, but you can see the ridiculous position people like Hannity are in when they try and fit these rather ho-hum liberal policy aspirations into the monochromatic idea that socialism equals totalitarian horror. It's silly.

Right-wing media has deployed socialism so much as a slur, and so often, and so out of context that the American public is slowly developing an immunity to this nonsense. At the same time, perhaps recognizing the distortion of these tactics, some are beginning to reconsider. People, especially millennials, are asking if these proposals would be so bad for society. Now that conservatism is synonymous with Trumpism, these questions will become louder, and this window of opportunity to positively reframe democratic socialism will only widen. It's an ironic twist, but democratic socialism will now get a serious look thanks to President Trump.

Also, millennials are not stuck with the intellectual baggage of older conservatives who tend to see left-leaning politics through a Cold War lens. If the under thirty crowd is ignorant of history, as they are accused of being, then many in the older cohorts seem unable to view history with anything but tunnel vision. What they claim to have is a more in-depth historical perspective based on personal, lived experience. Unfortunately, in this case, that is a crippling handicap. Historical tunnel vision makes them more susceptible to the bullshit of the Glenn Becks of the world and others like him who make a living blasting any critiques of the free market as heretical and un-American. There's more to history than Nazis and Commies.

The boring truth? Ours is a mixed economy, mixing capitalism with the targeted redistribution of wealth (progressive tax system, Medicare, basic education). This mix gets determined by democratic elections. Go too far in either direction, and the electorate will tend to correct back toward the moderate middle. It's assumed to be the best way to run a society we have so far come up with. Today's economic and political policy debates revolve around this assumption, no matter how much hyperbole infects the discourse. Every prosperous nation on the planet has a mixed economy and every developing nation aspires to become one. Everyone gains from the targeted redistribution of wealth, even those who complain the loudest about how unfair it is. The questions the left should be asking are whether we are doing all we can (or should) as a society to promote some level of economic security for all. Remember, the fact that three men (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates) own as much wealth as the bottom 50% of Americans means strong arguments are waiting to be made for more democratic socialism, not less, in our society. Three men get to eat half the pie.

In any case, the current moment represents a prime opportunity to reintroduce the American public to more progressive ideas (and yes, some healthy doses of socialism in certain parts of the economy). The right holds the levers of power at the moment in all three branches of government and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That's a fact, but also represents an opportunity. Though it looks grim right now for progressives, the right's current ascendancy came at the cost of its moral credibility. So much winning has a price, it seems, and the bill comes due sooner or later. In the meantime, this moral bankruptcy is an opening for hard-working candidates and activists on the left to get back to basics, to knocking on doors and working in communities to implement real change. That's precisely what Ocasio-Cortez did, focusing on a grass-roots, local, small donor campaign that actually listened to the voices of average voters, rather than only those with the deepest pocketbooks. That resonated.

Here is no roadmap to tyranny, but how a healthy, functioning democracy can repair itself. Even if you disagree with the policies, that's what good democracy is all about: getting people engaged and invested in the success of the democratic process, rather than tuning out and becoming alienated. What some are calling the Democratic Party's "lurch to the left" ignore the fact that the so-called center-left came to be defined by the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, and the other Big Money guardians of the corporate status quo. How did that work out for us liberals? Put bluntly, we Democrats must also deal with a loss of moral credibility.

So no, the gains made by DSA candidates, modest though they have been to date, do not represent any dramatic lurch to the left, but more of a correction, a return to progressive fundamentals, and therefore a necessary antidote to both the current lunacy of right and the rotten complacency of today's mainstream Democratic Party. If we want to get back on course, we need more people like Ocasio-Cortez, not less, and we need to openly embrace progressive ideas that have been too long pushed to the margins as too radical. The "S" word is one of those ideas. Change won't happen overnight, and there will inevitably be more setbacks, but it will happen, sooner or later.


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