We’ve long been in need of some new blood in the U.S. political landscape and it looks like we’ve got it now: the Democratic Socialists have arrived. Let’s say hi and see what they’re up to.
First of all, let’s deal with the “S” word: socialist. If you happen to live in Western Europe it’s a word you’re familiar with because it’s been around for donkey’s years. When I lived in Germany in the 1980’s the party in power was the SPD — Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschands. No, they’re not Communists, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. We in the States have no experience with socialists and all we ever hear about them is right-wing palaver about how they’re intent on enslaving the entire population and stealing our precious body fluids. That’s a flawed analysis, to put it mildly. So let’s get some stuff sorted out before we get into details.
Socialism in America
Let’s first have a look at some history about socialism in America from the Wikipedia page (here) on that very topic:
The socialist movement in the United States has historically been relatively weak. Unlike socialist parties in Europe, Canada and Oceania, a major social democratic party never materialized in the United States and the socialist movement remains marginal, “almost unique in its powerlessness among the Western democracies.”In the United States, socialism “brings considerable stigma, in large part for its association with authoritarian communist regimes”. A June 2015 Gallup poll revealed that 47% of respondents would vote for a socialist President while 50% would not. Willingness to vote for a socialist President was 59% among Democrats, 49% among independents and 26% among Republicans. An October 2015 poll found that 49% of Democrats had a favorable view of socialism compared to 37% for capitalism. According to a 2013 article in The Guardian: “Contrary to popular belief, Americans don’t have an innate allergy to socialism. Milwaukee has had several socialist mayors (Frank Zeidler, Emil Seidel, and Daniel Hoan). In 1920, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly 1m [million] votes.”
Richard D. Wolff, a socialist economist of more traditional persuasion who heads up Democracy at Work (webpage here), gives a good history of the shifting fortunes of socialism in America in a piece he did in December of last year called “The Great American Purge” (YouTube video here). Wolff describes how Franklin D. Roosevelt used socialist policies to keep the U.S. from going down the tubes after the economic collapse of 1929 and how the economic elite — the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned us against as he left office — subsequently moved to delegitimize and dismantle Roosevelt’s policies. That’s how we ended up with Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare, how we ended up with Reaganomics and now in this late stage ended up with a milder analogue of Putin’s state mafia appointed as secretaries of several federal agencies (yes, Mnuchin, Ross and all the rest of you creeps, we’re lookin’ at you, babes). So since the 1950’s the word “socialist” in the U.S.A. has just been a synonym for “Soviet-style Communist.” If you think Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Soviet-style Communist then you need to stop right here and go watch something on the Fox News Network. If you’re still with me, let’s press on.
Democratic Socialist Party Platforms
As I mentioned above, democratic socialist parties are a dime a dozen in Europe. The one I’m most familiar with, the German SPD, has a platform that back in Roosevelt’s day you’d just have called “Democratic.” Here’s a rundown on the SPD’s platform (on which more later) from their English-language Wikipedia page (here):
The current party platform of the SPD espouses the goal of social democracy, which is seen as a vision of a societal arrangement in which freedom and social justice are paramount. According to the party platform, freedom, justice and social solidarity form the basis of social democracy. The coordinated social market economy should be strengthened and its output should be distributed fairly. The party sees that economic system as necessary in order to ensure the affluence of the entire population. The SPD also tries to protect the society’s poor with a welfare state. Concurrently, it advocates a sustainable fiscal policy that does not place a burden on future generations while eradicating budget deficits. In social policy, the Social Democrats stand for civil and political rights in an open society. In foreign policy, the party aims at ensuring global peace by balancing global interests with democratic means, thus European integration is one of the main priorities of the party. The SPD supports economic regulations to limit potential losses for banks and people. They support a common European economic and financial policy and to prevent speculative bubbles as well as environmentally sustainable growth.
I don’t see anything there that sets my hair on fire. Let’s turn now to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — who don’t call themselves a party, but really they are so I’ll refer to them as such — and see what their platform includes. By the way, as of August 2018 the party’s membership numbered 49,000. Yes, Bridget, a paltry 49,000. And they already have a representative in the House. Think about it. Here’s the skinny on the platform from their Wikipedia page (here):
We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability status, age, religion, and national origin, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo. We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships. We are socialists because we are developing a concrete strategy for achieving that vision, for building a majority movement that will make democratic socialism a reality in America. We believe that such a strategy must acknowledge the class structure of American society and that this class structure means that there is a basic conflict of interest between those sectors with enormous economic power and the vast majority of the population.
If you look at the party’s own webpage in the section with the heading, “What Is Democratic Socialism?” what you find is a Q&A attempting to do the same thing Richard D. Wolff does in his explanations: show that socialists are not Soviet-style Communists. The semantic envelope in the USA of the words “socialism” and “socialist” is so tainted from decades of anti-Communist rhetoric that it’s inevitably encumbered by associations with Brezhnev (or worse), missiles, the Cold War and all that disagreeable nonsense. These days I’d argue that the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” don’t mean at all what they did in the 1950’s either, but they don’t have a lame foot starting out from the gate like the term “socialist” does. Although come to think of it “Republican” is definitely headed in that direction at this stage of the game … but that’s another story.
The democratic socialist parties of Western Europe are mature organizations with long political experience under their belts. That’s not the case with the DSA, obviously. DSA membership doesn’t include a few generations of members and policy-makers who’ve shaped the party over time through the very practical processes of governing and policy-making. As a result the DSA doesn’t have the political or structural uniformity of its European analogues, which comes out clearly in the Wikipedia page:
The DSA sees itself as a big tent and multi-tendency organization with members expressing a wide range of socialist and anti-capitalist views. The DSA members have views ranging from eco-socialism, democratic socialism, revolutionary socialism, libertarian socialism and communism to Bernie Sanders-style social democracy. Some of these views are represented in different working groups and caucuses within the DSA including the Communist Caucus, the Refoundation Caucus and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
If you use ice-cream as an analogy, a European democratic socialist party is like classic vanilla or chocolate (no crunchy or squishy stuff, thank you very much). The American party is like a banana split made with Neapolitan ice cream, lots of nuts and marshmallows and more than one cherry on top. The only thing missing at this juncture is the kitchen sink. Yeehaw. They haven’t been around very long and don’t have any Hallowed Elders like the majority parties. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the Hallowed Elders will all be dead fairly soon and something else has to come in their place. We can count it a blessing that they’re not making Mitch McConnells anymore — which is a sure sign that Higher Powers exist, if you ask me. You didn’t see him tweeting #WheresAOC as a Hallowed Elder of the Republican Party, did you. Of course you didn’t. He doesn’t tweet, being wholly untwitterworthy. He’s a dinosaur waiting for the asteroid to hit and take him out, that’s about as good as that story gets.
Why Social Democrats? And Why Now?
If you consider the developmental trajectory of the majority parties over the past 30 years it’s easy to see that they’ve both drifted to the right and been co-opted by the influence of the people who have the most money and hence the most political influence. The old dictum “ye shall know them by their fruits” should be our guide. The phenomenon of corporatocracy has overwhelmed both Republicans and Democrats in the United States to the point that — until the advent of Trump’s populist/nationalist incursion — it was becoming difficult to tell the two parties apart. The political agenda has been driven much more by corporate economics than by consideration of electoral representation or social benefit. Consider the 2008 financial bailout of Wall Street and the banks that the American electorate paid for with their tax dollars. Just how much did the bill come to? We’re still paying, in point of fact, as an article in Forbes from 2015 by Mike Collins entitled “The Big Bank Bailout” (here) makes abysmally clear:
Most people think that the big bank bailout was the $700 billion that the treasury department used to save the banks during the financial crash in September of 2008. But this is a long way from the truth because the bailout is still ongoing. The Special Inspector General for TARP summary of the bailout says that the total commitment of government is $16.8 trillion dollars with the $4.6 trillion already paid out. Yes, it was trillions not billions and the banks are now larger and still too big to fail. But it isn’t just the government bailout money that tells the story of the bailout. This is a story about lies, cheating, and a multi-faceted corruption which was often criminal.
Welcome to corporatocracy — ye shall know it by its fruits. This appalling political trajectory has taken place under the majority rule of both Democrats and Republicans. Since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt we’ve seen income inequality grow no matter what party was in power in Washington, D.C. (An excellent article by Richard Feloni from September of last year in Business Insider talking about the now famous research on inequality by French economist Thomas Pikkety is available here.) We’ve seen the role of corporate lobbyists continually expand to the point that a major portion of congressional staff time is now devoted to dealing with their attempts to apply pressure on the legislative process. Awareness among the American electorate of this shift has been called “the swamp,” a fitting term because congressional staff end up being swamped by lobbyists who now number 19 for every one member of Congress. Robert Reich wrote about the problem ten years ago in an article published in Foreign Policy under the title “How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy” (here):
Let us be clear: The purpose of democracy is to accomplish ends we cannot achieve as individuals. But democracy cannot fulfill this role when companies use politics to advance or maintain their competitive standing, or when they appear to take on social responsibilities that they have no real capacity or authority to fulfill. That leaves societies unable to address the tradeoffs between economic growth and social problems such as job insecurity, widening inequality, and climate change. As a result, consumer and investor interests almost invariably trump common concerns.
The vast majority of us are global consumers and, at least indirectly, global investors. In these roles we should strive for the best deals possible. That is how we participate in the global market economy. But those private benefits usually have social costs. And for those of us living in democracies, it is imperative to remember that we are also citizens who have it in our power to reduce these social costs, making the true price of the goods and services we purchase as low as possible. We can accomplish this larger feat only if we take our roles as citizens seriously. The first step, which is often the hardest, is to get our thinking straight.
Man, I wish he’d run for president … Go back now to 2017 after Inauguration Day and consider well what’s happened. A president who was elected on a populist/nationalist agenda and initially rejected as a serious candidate by most mainstream Republicans has stuffed administration posts through the corporate revolving door to an extent the nation has never before witnessed. The agenda of these corporate raiders made Secretary of This or That has consistently been to strip away regulations and policies that prevent the industries from which they come from maximizing their corporate manoeuvrability and profit margins. Corporate America essentially did a soft coup on the government itself and began undoing everything it possibly could that it believed detrimental to its own interests. The common good of the electorate is valueless to such agents. Secretary Mnuchin’s Cheshire cat grin while telling Congress to “just trust the President” about the wisdom of the executive branch’s unilateral decision to remove sanctions on Oleg Deripaska’s companies is the image I’ll forever hold in my mind of the face of corporatocracy at work, operating as if no other interest existed in the world save its own.
So if you wonder why the Democratic Socialists appear on the scene at this point in history, I think it’s clear: corporatocracy threatens the survival of all segments of the population save its own members. It’s the political and social analogue of cancer — an uncontrolled growth feeding off a body that it ultimately destroys and in so doing brings about its own destruction. It’s pure negativity — aka nihilism — from the point of view of the body politic. No wonder young people look at it and think, “WTF???” They have to live in the mess the old white guys are busy making. In their shoes I’d freak out, too.
Whither the DSA? And Whither the Electorate?
There’s now a DSA rockstar in the House of Representatives and she already has her own abbreviation: AOC. Otherwise known as #WheresMitch LOL. Good question, I wish she’d settle that once and for all. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently described by Lawrence O’Donnell as “the second most important person in the House of Representatives.” He said it with an amused smile and by important I’m sure he was referring to name recognition, since his pronouncement was made post-#WheresMitch and post-Colbert show, where AOC added “Zero Fs” to the repertoire of pithy phrases associated with her position. AOC has a ways to go before she reaches the political stature of Nancy Pelosi, but she’s been put on the Financial Services and Oversight Committees and that’s quite something for a freshman congresswoman. Nobody doubts that she’s up to the job.
In July 2018 National Public Radio published on its website an article by Danielle Kurtzleben and Kenny Malone entitled “What You Need To Know About The Democratic Socialists Of America” (here). The article’s last section is about how the DSA fits into American politics. As one might expect it’s speculative rather than conclusive but it makes a good point about the tendencies of the Democratic Party since 2016:
,,, the post-2016 Democratic Party has been moving left, on policies like “Medicare for All” and job guarantees. But … that’s not evidence that socialists caused the shift among Democrats. …
In other words, it’s not that a more popular DSA — or even socialists more broadly — is pulling the party left, it’s that leftward-moving Democrats are making the group more popular.
Still, a lot of the group’s policies — even if they are gaining more adherents — face an uphill battle. Because of potential cost and also just the radical changes involved, DSA ideas are often criticized as economically and politically unrealistic.
Jonathan Williams understands that. He’s a first grade teacher who showed up to the brewery to check out his local DSA chapter for the first time. After seeing Hillary Clinton lose in 2016, he explains, he rethought his more moderate politics.
“That Clintonian view of politics I did find appealing for quite some time,” he said. “It took seeing it crushed rather decisively and then all of those gains wiped away in the course of 18 months to realize that maybe that wasn’t working. And rather than telling myself that good things are impossible that it’s not doing any harm to swing for the fences.”
For a voter who thinks the Democratic Party is balking too much, swinging for the fences just seems like the best option.
So we have the DSA coming onto the scene when the Democratic Party has itself been hastened along its left-moving path by what’s been happening over the two years of the Trump administration. The Democrats are no longer as unified ideologically as they once were. At this juncture, a few months after gaining majority in the House, they’re busy just trying to hold on to the fundamentals like the Constitution and the rule of law. Forget about honing fine points on policy to distinguish themselves from their Republican fellows, they have their hands full seeing to it that the house doesn’t burn to the ground. They could easily spend all their time until 2020 doing investigations into the transgressions of the past two years and still find themselves overwhelmed. No wonder they’ve been skedaddled along to left of center. Soft coup attempts by the far right will do that to a person.
I have no doubt that AOC will fit in quite well with mainstream Democrats on the Committees to which she’s been named. You only have to be sane to know what needs to be done on the House Oversight and Financial Services Committees — and on the Judiciary Committee, as well. But that doesn’t involve the formation of a national political platform or the development of expertise in the crafting of policy. Those processes are a very different kettle of fish and it’s only by engaging them that the DSA will find its substance defined by the environment in which governance must occur. I don’t mean that in the snarky sense of some members of the House who’ve been seated longer than AOC — along the lines of “wait until you get into the thick of it and see, young lady.” Or as one panelist on an MSNBC news show recently put it into the mouth of a more senior member of the House, “Girlfriend, I’m not new here, I am true here.”
AOC comes to the House as a freshman congresswoman, true, but she has a firm grasp on the issues facing the electorate and clear ideas about how to address them. More power to her. I hope she continues to act on ideas like hiking over to the Senate to run down Mitch McConnell and stuff a letter in his hand telling him to get off his backside and put the bills passed by the House onto the Senate floor. I think it would be a great idea to have the ENTIRE House of Representatives do that and stand there glaring at him until he said something sensible — although that would require the patience of a saint, which I think is not one of AOC’s gifts.
The issue is what’s happening with political polarization and where the DSA fits into that growing gap. Where is right, where is left and what happened to the center these days? The right has gone off into a parallel universe that doesn’t even register on the gauge of majority party politics anymore. When you have a president who decides core policy on the basis of a bitch slap tweet from the likes of Ann Coulter, you’re not talking politics, you’re talking La La Land pure and simple. There’s no way to deal with that extreme of polarity because it will admit of no negotiation. Domination is its only objective. Obedience is the only response it will accept, just like in a dictatorship. So we can’t be doing with that in a discourse commons predicated on the premise that dialogue and compromise occur in order to effect policy. If compromise had any value to the far right there would never have been a partial government shutdown in the first place.
It’s time to own up to a disagreeable fact forced on us by the political evidence of the past two years. The minority of the electorate that has abdicated its powers of self-direction to a corrupted Republican Party has to be sequestered as a political element away from public policy formation by the majority of the American electorate. The Republican Party has proven itself beyond any possibility of doubt to have enough membership of autocratic persuasion to make it dangerous to the country as a whole. That stance is wholly incompatible with the political processes of representative democracy as we practice it in the United States. Nothing stops such people from holding their political opinions but the fact — the plain and simple fact — that they’re a distinct and shrinking minority of the electorate must now receive its due. To consider them as anything other than a minority is to give them undue influence and to violate the representational integrity of the electorate as a whole. Once we get past this populist/nationalist detour on the road to our future we need to revise our political infrastructure so that another attempt by a minority to force the majority’s hand becomes structurally impossible. It’s not that difficult to do, truth be told. We’re smart enough to figure it out.
To judge from recent polls the center and left will soon be the only two locations in our political geography still capable of holding a majority large enough to legitimize accession to majority representation in government. What will become of the burned-out shell of the Republican Party is anybody’s guess, but it will take some years to reconstruct it — if indeed there’s enough of the electorate interested in doing that. As millennials move into the demographic majority and the Boomers die off (not long now, folks) the youngsters may be content to consign the Republican Party to history with a stake through its heart.
It seems reasonable to imagine that the center and left will enter into a state of mutual conditioning. The center of gravity lies between them rather than in the nucleus of one group or the other. Their platforms are similar enough that a merger over time is possible, just as happens in the merger of two galaxies coming into proximity. Whatever emerges on the right will have to form itself within the gravitation pull of that dynamic, it will never again be allowed to pretend it has the power of a black hole sucking in the entire country across its event horizon. Trumplandia has spun off into that fantasy and it’s gone over like a ton of bricks. As Mitch McConnell himself has said, there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. Similarly, there’s no education in Trump or Mitch McConnell version 2.0 — once is more than enough, thanks so much.
Fixing the Spin
When DSA members give a public message they inevitably end up justifying the fact that they aren’t Soviet-style Communists. The rhetoric they use to do that, however, draws on a tradition that’s poisonous for a goodly portion of the American electorate. Even words that should be content-neutral like “capitalism” and “social justice” have semantic envelopes charged in the U.S. with overtones of the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc. The “About Us” page of the DSA website (here) is almost entirely devoted to an attempt to clear a semantic minefield they expect visitors to encounter:
What is Democratic Socialism?
Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.Democracy and socialism go hand in hand. All over the world, wherever the idea of democracy has taken root, the vision of socialism has taken root as well—everywhere but in the United States. Because of this, many false ideas about socialism have developed in the US.
- Doesn’t socialism mean that the government will own and run everything?
- Hasn’t socialism been discredited by the collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe?
- Private corporations seem to be a permanent fixture in the US, so why work towards socialism?
- Won’t socialism be impractical because people will lose their incentive to work?
- Why are there no models of democratic socialism?
- But hasn’t the European Social Democratic experiment failed?
- Aren’t you a party that’s in competition with the Democratic Party for votes and support?
- If I am going to devote time to politics, why shouldn’t I focus on something more immediate?
- What can young people do to move the US towards socialism?
- If so many people misunderstand socialism, why continue to use the word?
Ocasio-Cortez is a self-described democratic socialist. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She clarified that the kind of socialism she advocates is not that of Venezuela or Cuba but would “most closely resemble what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”
That’s all well and good, but how many Americans have a clear concept about politics in Europe? A trip to a farming community in the Midwest would quickly provide an answer to that question. In numerical terms it’s somewhere between zero and one. In the boondocks you’re either an American or a Communist — period, end of story. I know because I’m a hayseed born and bred in the boondocks. But I also lived in Europe for a few years so I know what AOC is talking about.
Rather than attempt to defuse for use in the USA what is in fact classical Marxist terminology (e.g. “means of production”) — a task at best fraught, at worst self-defeating — the DSA should adopt the rhetoric used by mainstream European democratic socialist parties. The DSA also needs to formulate its platform formally so that people in the general electorate can find some easy handles to grab hold of, otherwise minds will quickly drift off to associations that can only spell trouble with a capital T.
The SPD in Germany is a mainstream democratic socialist political party with a long history of development and of participation in the governance of the country. Iin 2007 it issued a major revision to its basic platform document called the “Hamburg Program” (PDF in English here). The English translation leaves much to be desired but it gives an idea of the semantic neutrality of the vocabulary used in the original. Here’s the table of contents:
1. Our lifetime
2. Our core values and core convictions
3. Our aims, our policy
3.1 A peaceful and fair world
3.2 Social and democratic Europe
3.3 Civil society based on solidarity and democratic state
3.4 Gender equality
3.5 Sustainable development and qualitative growth
3.6 Good work for all
3.7 The preventive social welfare state
3.8 Better education, society suitable for children, strong families
4. Our way
Sounds good, right? No Marxist word bombs that will light people’s hair on fire and send them running for the exits. You could tweak a few words here and there and easily spin it as bona fide Mom and Apple Pie. It gets even better though — here’s a paragraph from the introduction:
We are working for sustainable progress combining economic dynamism, social justice and
ecological reason. We want to overcome poverty and exploitation by means of qualitative
growth enabling good work for all and counteracting the menacing climate change. The
natural foundations for life shall be safeguarded also for future generations and quality of life need to be improved. To this end we want to put the opportunities of scientific and technical progress into the service of humankind.
What’s not to like about that? You could have any member of Congress read that statement before a joint session and nobody would freak out and call the FBI. It’s easy to understand and talks about things that make sense to people who aren’t politicians or political historians. It doesn’t explain itself through reference to any other political tradition or political organization. It just talks about goals and beliefs based on outcomes it wants to achieve for the lives of people in the electorate.
So if I were a political strategist for the DSA — and lucky for them I’m not LOL — I’d say, sit yourselves down, work out a platform document like the SPD’s that people can download from your website and use it yourselves when you talk to the public. Pay attention to the rhetorical stance the SPD uses, it’s the one YOU need to start using instead of going off at the mouth about the evils of capitalism or how similar you are to socialism in Finland, about which the average American knows precisely nothing. Talk about what you want to do for people in their life experience and then outline in broad strokes the paths you intend to take to make those things realities. Stay concrete and use content-neutral words. Don’t say things like “vulture capitalism” for heaven’s sake. Talk about problems with the “economic system.” That’s not double speak, it’s talking to your audience. There’s always more than one way to say something that’s true.
We’ve seen AOC dance in her office for her fans on social media as a way of throwing shade on her detractors (mostly from Fox News LOL). I hope the DSA keeps growing and that we’ll soon see dancing in the streets — who knows, maybe even one day in the cornfields of Iowa. It’s high time after the political sh*tshow we’ve had up in our grill for the past two plus years.
So bring it on, kids, we’re dying for a breath of fresh air.