Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

Democrats should be wary of embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, argues Princeton sociologist Paul Starr.* “Socialism” isn’t just another term for New Deal liberalism, he says, but a distinctive political and ideological outlook that is at odds both with the liberal tradition and economic and political reality.

Sanders’ own political journey recapitulates the evolution of socialism itself: communal living on an Israeli kibbutz, touting the state socialism of Eugene Debs, affiliations with the Socialist Workers Party, and now advocating a program of extensive redistribution and regulation as a nominal Democrat.

Starr argues, however, that Sanders’ proposals, such as his tax and health plans, are outside of the mainstream even when compared with the European social democracies he upholds as models. For instance, Scandinavian governments have largely made peace with capitalism, financing generous welfare states with wealth produced by a relatively low-regulation market economy. (This point has also been made by libertarian writer Will Wilkinson.) But Sanders doesn’t talk as though he recognizes any external constraints on the feasibility of his plans–other than those that stem from the greed of the rich or the venality of establishment politicians.

Sanders’ causal attitude toward the real-world obstacles to implementing his policies has caused considerable consternation among some high-profile left-of-center economists and policy writers. But it reflects the moral fervor that animates his campaign. That is, Sanders’ socialism is not first and foremost an economic plan to be evaluated according to the canons of technocratic rationality; it’s a moral vision based on the value of economic equality. The revolution trumps (pardon the expression) the petty bean-counting of wonks.

But this single-minded focus on equality distinguishes socialism (democratic or otherwise) from liberalism, according to Starr:

At its core, liberalism has a concern for liberty. While liberals have expanded public programs, they also have sought to strengthen rights that limit arbitrary power, both governmental and private. Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy.

While I think Starr may overstate his case a bit here (a passion for equality is not necessarily at odds with a commitment to liberty), Sanders does seem to operate on a different set of assumptions than mainstream liberals. Do current business practices require stronger oversight are are they fundamentally illegitimate? Is there any limit, in principle, to the scope of authority the government should have to manage economic outcomes? Can capitalism be harnessed for more equitable growth, or is it essentially immoral? This is an long-running debate between liberals and socialists, reformers and radicals.

My own inclinations are toward the incremental progress and messy compromises of reformist liberalism. Pure socialism, in any of its forms, has little appeal to me, and I’m a moderate by both temperament and conviction. I also share the concerns about the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals, not to mention his appeal to a chimerical “political revolution.” (There’s also his evident lack of interest in foreign affairs and other aspects of the actual job of being president.)

But at the same time, liberals should listen to and benefit from more radical critiques and ideas. The New Deal wasn’t socialism (and neither was the Great Society or Obamacare), but progressive reform in the U.S. has often been influenced by more radical movements, with liberals in many cases co-opting (and moderating) ideas advocated by socialists and other more radical leftists. Abraham Lincoln, in some ways the pragmatic liberal reformer par excellence, was pushed in a more progressive direction in part by radicals in his own party as well as by activists like Frederick Douglass** (the course of the war had something to do with it too). Without this pressure, Lincoln might’ve pursued a restoration of the pre-war status quo instead of making the abolition of slavery a reality.

I don’t plan to vote for Sanders (unless he wins the nomination, which currently appears unlikely). But I’m glad he’s injected some more radical ideas into the race. The vast wealth disparities that characterize our new Gilded Age threaten values that everyone on the left side of the political spectrum holds dear. By putting the issue of inequality front and center, Sanders has done liberalism–and the country–an important service.
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*Starr is the author of Freedom’s Power, a very good book on the history and ideas of liberalism.
**Douglass also came to value Lincoln’s pragmatism, however. A good book on the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and their different approaches to political change is James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican.
 

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One thought on “Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

  1. Pingback: Why I’m for Hillary | A Thinking Reed

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