The socialism question


In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lively argument going on about the rise of “democratic socialism” within (or adjacent to) the Democratic Party. Obviously, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries is ground zero for this discussion, but we’ve seen a general shift, even among otherwise mainstream Dem pols, toward “socialist” policies like Medicare for All and free college. Most recently, the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fully paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America, unseated veteran Democratic congressman Joe Crowley, leading to a wave of fist pumping or hand-wringing (depending on your ideological leanings) about the specter of socialism haunting the Democratic Party.

Some more traditional liberals have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s (and her like-minded comrades’) platform doesn’t look a lot like socialism as traditionally understood. Rather, it resembles an updated version of mid-20th-century liberalism: a program aimed at taming the excesses of capitalism instead of transcending it. (In Europe this program typically goes by the name of social democracy: a generous welfare state, regulated markets, etc.) Leftists have responded that over the last several decades mainstream liberalism, by embracing deregulation, deficit fetishism and privatization, has moved so far to the right that those further to the left needed a label to distinguish themselves from this desiccated form of liberalism.

Now, I’m hardly the pope of socialism (I wouldn’t even consider myself a member of the church), but it seems obvious to me that “socialism” is an attractive label in part because it evokes the desire for a dramatic alternative to the status quo. This isn’t just something that appeals to young people, but young people are perhaps better positioned than certain tut-tutting pundits to perceive the shortcomings of the American approach to capitalism. Many people coming of age after the Great Recession have dimmer economic prospects than their parents, are saddled with massive student debt and struggle to find good-paying jobs that include benefits you need for a decent life (like health insurance). There’s also the minor detail that they may be inheriting a planet on its way to being rendered uninhabitable by human civilization in its current form.

While the Trump administration and the current Republican congress are exacerbating these problems, they predate the Trump era. Obama-era policies may have ameliorated some of the grosser effects of these trends, but they haven’t reversed them. It’s not surprising that many Millennials like Ocasio-Cortez consider “liberalism”—meaning the type of policies associated with the Clinton and Obama years–woefully inadequate to our present situation. That may be unfair to the Clinton and Obama administrations, who were at least to some extent constrained by the hands they were dealt and would’ve liked to do more, but whoever said politics was fair?

The Democratic Party will probably remain a broad center-left coalition of leftists, mainstream liberals and even moderates for the foreseeable future (and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing). But it’s clear that much of the energy and excitement is coming from the further-left end of the spectrum. And a big part of that excitement has to do with the promotion of big, bold ideas that offer the promise of a tangibly better life for lots of people. Some of these are ideas recently thought impossible within the confines of our post-Cold War/post-Reagan consensus. But one lesson that the rise of Trump should’ve taught us is that–for better or worse–the boundaries of what’s “possible” are wider than we previously imagined.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth clarifying that there does seem to be a genuine diversity of opinion among democratic socialists (and Democratic Socialists) about their ideal society. Some do envision the abolition of capitalism as we know it, whereas others seem more focused on concrete policies (like Medicare for All) that would take certain essential goods out of the market nexus. In other words, “socialism” isn’t just a radical-sounding label for an old-fashioned liberal program (at least not in all cases). There does seem to be a fair bit of slipperiness in current usage, though that may not be entirely a bad thing. It might be more useful for “socialism” to point to a broad set of values rather than a detailed blueprint for a post-capitalist utopia.

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