Socialism’s Uphill Struggle in Public Discourse

My aim here is to explore the role that the idea of socialism plays in popular public discourse in the US. As inspiration for writing this, I examined two books from the left about socialism, and one from the right. I’ll describe each of them briefly here, and revisit them later on.

Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington, the late founder of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in 1989 wrote a dense appraisal of socialism entitled, Socialism: Past and Future. It was written during a period of discouragement for socialists worldwide. In evenhanded fashion, Harrington reviewed the historical evolution of socialist thinking, alongside socialism’s failures in the 20th century, and he took seriously the more recent developments in our financial and economic systems.

He dismissed Soviet collectivism as being the direct opposite of socialism, and noted that third-world emulation of top-down, Soviet-style state planning was motivated primarily by the need for rapid industrialization—in part, to defend against Western neocolonialism. Harrington ultimately accepted that capitalism is here to stay, but envisioned a resurgence of some kind of socialism in some future generation.

John Judis

More recently, John Judis published a book about the Bernie Sanders democratic socialists, entitled The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now about the Left. An old socialist himself, Judis takes a very measured, pragmatic, and slightly pessimistic view of the movement. He stresses that Sanders’ platform was really very modest, and that, among Sander’s supporters, there is very little interest in what Judis frequently refers to as “orthodox Marxism.” He clearly is irritated by a small but very active group within the DSA that persists in more radical and revolutionary goals. DSA membership has grown, but is still relatively tiny. Judis suggests that, if democratic socialists want to be relevant, they must gain favor with many more Democratic voters and politicians, and must adopt a stance that is friendly to US nationalism.

Dinesh D'Souza

Finally, from the right, Dinesh D’Souza’s United States of Socialism brings us familiar arguments against socialism including, certainly, the millions of deaths caused by the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot. He asserts that the Founders wanted capitalism and disdained majority rule, and that the market is the only true and honest democracy. In the US, the socialist class actually is in pursuit of tyrannical power and money, and climate change is the new “ruse to get the public to go in for full socialism.” And so on. He frequently sneers at his opponents.

When he discusses the “Nordic model”—a longstanding annoyance for the right—D’Souza salutes the usual conservative argument that those countries aren’t really socialist. But he also ventures an argument of his own: that Scandinavians prize ethnic homogeneity, while the American left values division, and so the Nordic model could not and will not ever come here.

That relates to what I believe is a noteworthy aim of D’Souza’s book: to conflate American socialism with identity politics. The left wants to divide “black and brown against white, female against male, gay and lesbian and transgender against ‘heteronormatives’,” and to flood the country with “illegals,” on the implicit premise that socialism is about obtaining justice not just for workers but for any and all oppressed groups.

First, Reality

The question of how our society should be run is of course a great puzzle, and the topic of socialism is very relevant to it. Before delving into how the public thinks about it, though, it is important to review the current underlying reality.

In historical terms at least, the present-day combination of liberal democracy and a mixed economy is, at its core, running very well. And is anything besides a mixed economy even worthy of consideration? Russia has a mixed economy, China has a mixed economy. Technical economic analysis has identified the specific sectors, within a private-ownership economy, that need “socializing” in some sense, based on concepts like public goods, natural monopolies, externalities, etc.

Meanwhile, in most Western countries, much of the low hanging fruit of socialist-inspired wishes—basic worker rights/protections, a social safety net, unemployment insurance—have been instituted. And every OECD country now has a welfare state (which was dismissed by Marcuse as an implicit bargain between the upper class and the People, crudely: we’ll provide a reasonable level of economic security in exchange for you not agitating too much.)

In the US in particular, our current system is very hard to change, given our Constitution-rooted “vetocracy” and our political duopoly, and exacerbated by modern technologies. And so, it’s a priori unlikely that socialism could advance significantly further here, except in the form of higher taxes and tweaks to our welfare state.

But backing up for a moment… why would we want socialism (in whatever form) in the first place? Harrington often employs the words “freedom” (one interpretation: not having to sell your labor to live?) and “justice” (we all get what we deserve?) to indicate the main objectives. From a less partisan perspective, I surmise that the more general, basic motive is a humanitarian one: that oppression causes suffering, that poverty in a rich society is immoral, that we should, in spite of inevitable obstacles, do what we can to make things more fair. FDR’s Second Bill of Rights is one expression of this motive which I’ll return to later.

Of course, if this motive were the only relevant consideration, then communism (in Marx’s original sense) presumably would be the prescription. However, there are other, competing objectives, such as, the comforts of increasing material prosperity, and societal progress (defined in various ways), and human dignity and self-actualization, and so on. Furthermore, there are hard realities such as human greed/hoarding, bureaucratic failings, competition between nations, and inequalities of birth and circumstance.

Looming over the whole discussion, meanwhile, is a planetary view, escalated by climate science advances. Do equality and fairness matter much if we’re threatened with extinction? Progressives wish to link climate action with equity, but I have difficulty not seeing those as two separate things, particularly when equity includes domestic social spending. Certainly, alternative energy investments could create jobs, at least in the short term. And the poor and middle classes would need some financial mitigation if carbon taxes were instituted. And people of color would bear the greatest burdens stemming from climate inaction. So, some connections, definitely; and even if the arguments for linkage are weak, of course, there’s no reason we can’t care about both issues simultaneously.

In any event, there are indeed good reasons to want some form of socialism. But we see that there are constraints and complications.

With things in the US humming along, and with radical change unlikely, the welfare state appears to be the grand solution, for the imaginable future. The right long ago capitulated to it, and no legitimate economist objects to it. The only remaining substantive fights are about the details: how to pay for it, and who should get what types of benefits from it.

It’s a thing that’s impossible to optimize. Can we imagine an AI algorithm that takes into account thousands of circumstantial variables, and has thousands of hand-crafted rules and weights that all Americans are willing to bless and salute, to compute the “optimal” types and amounts of benefits that each individual family gets? Certainly not, and so we can instead forever expect ongoing, raucous, emotional debates in which different groups and the people representing them argue using self-serving words, narratives, and principles. (My group should get more because…/My group should contribute less because…/etc.)

So, that, in my estimation, is the current, mostly-unchanging reality of our government and economic system in the US. Unfortunately, public discourse about socialism does not necessarily display much recognition of this. Let’s now begin to explore, what is that public discourse actually like?

The Public Discourse

A useful starting point is that the left wants to push public discussion about increasing inequality, and the capitalist-supported right would rather avoid it. At bottom, the left’s arguments are pretty plain: we should take care of everyone, and the powerful, self-entitled rich have too much. The left seeks to provoke outrage at fundamental unfairness. In contrast, the right tends to pour derision on the idiocy of the left, and steers the debate away from the left’s demands. Some suggest that the wealthy class deliberately encourages culture war against liberals, to distract from issues of economic inequality.

The right begins from a position of advantage because the majority of US citizens have a dim view of “socialism.” A recent Pew poll showed that 55% of Americans had a negative view of socialism; even among Democrat-leaning citizens alone, 33% were negative. “Capitalism,” meanwhile, was regarded by most as positive.

The reasons that poll respondents gave for not wanting socialism, however, were puzzling: “undermines work ethic” (are they instead thinking of “welfare”?); “undermines democracy” (but socialists definitely want more democracy…); and a large percentage of respondents couldn’t or at least wouldn’t even provide a reason.

Even if the polling methodology was suboptimal, this is telling: it’s not clear whether people have much of an idea what socialism is. For many, I assume, it merely conjures images of Soviet tanks or youthful radicals of the 60’s.

A citizen’s age certainly is an important factor in the public discourse. Each age cohort has lived through different macroeconomic developments and political realignments. Merely as context, here is a useful (if crude) mini-summary of recent history:

1945-1975 – New Deal liberalism, Cold War, growing prosperity
1975-1980 – stagflation crisis
1980-2008 – the Reagan Revolution, neoliberal dominance
2008-present – the Great Recession, Tea Party, revived interest in socialism

Throughout the Cold War, Republicans were the primary beneficiaries of the dominant anti-Communist narrative, culminating in the triumphal conclusion of the Soviet collapse in 1989. That narrative, as well as a complementary anti-government philosophy promoted by Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and others, operates deep in the psyche of older Americans.

“Socialism” today is frequently used as a bludgeon by Republicans. And most Democratic politicians don’t dare speak in favor of socialism because of the risk of rubbing swing voters the wrong way. Of course, the public discourse about socialism has little connection to debates about the mixed economy, or the plight of the poor and middle classes. Like most public discourse, it is more of an us-versus-them, good-versus-evil song.

Aside from Fox News and handful of smaller outlets, liberals dominate the mainstream news media. But the right has a more focused propaganda industry which enables them to influence the terms of popular debate. Accordingly, the best source for understanding the roots of public acrimony is to look at the arguments at the heart of that propaganda effort, and there might not be a better source than D’Souza. Accordingly, in the next section I will mention a few key arguments that he quite shamelessly lobs onto popular right’s stage. Many of his arguments wouldn’t pass muster in a high school debate class. But that’s because these arguments aren’t for debating—they’re rightwing talking points, they’re accusations, they’re demonizations. And, not least of all, they promote and defend the interests of the wealthy.

My assessment is not a scholarly analysis of socialism itself, and it is not a general indictment of the right. Again, I am just looking at public, non-academic discourse. When doing so, is important to acknowledge that the actions of the right and the left are not symmetrical. The partisan right tends to act more cynically and tactically, and the partisan left, (with exceptions), more earnestly (and humorlessly). After reviewing D’Souza’s approach, I will also briefly look at the left’s.

Noteworthy Arguments by D’Souza

I honestly had expected D’Souza’s book to focus heavily on the anatomy of the 20th-century socialist failures. It was front and center in the preface (socialism is the “most discredited idea in history”), but got surprisingly little coverage in the rest of the book. I suspect the main reason is that D’Souza recognizes that Cold War scaremongering has gotten pretty stale by now, and doesn’t resonate with younger citizens. The “slippery slope” arguments were always pretty weak anyway. Even Hayek in Road to Serfdom saw merit to a public sector, and his prediction that socialist governments would lead to totalitarianism later proved to be false in Europe.

The Nordic model. The Nordic model is the more relevant proposal today. As I said previously, conservatives are loathe to discuss the idea, and a common argument is that it isn’t really socialism. (If so, then why bother trying to discredit it?) But D’Souza himself makes a different argument instead:

The American left doesn’t want it. If we could somehow transplant the Scandinavian model here, the left would consider the result a nightmare… Socialism in America means forcing groups defined as “oppressors” to submit and pay up to groups defined as “victims.” …For these reasons, American leftists who have thought about the subject realize they don’t want Nordic socialism.

There are a couple possible implications of what D’Souza is saying. The first is that what the left must really want instead of the Nordic model is a totalitarian or fascist style of socialism. This is rather far-fetched. And I’m not so sure that conservatives would enjoy deeper conversations about this anyway, in view of Trump’s illiberal actions and Republican efforts at voter suppression.

The second is a hypothesis that, as Congress tries to expand the welfare state in the direction of the Nordic model, that the left will oppose it because it thwarts their other, more important aim of dividing the citizenry. That is also unlikely. And so, in conclusion, D’Souza’s argument is a pretty flimsy way to dismiss the proposal.

American uniqueness. D’Souza raises a valid point about the unique, traditional, American pioneer spirit. He takes great pains to lionize “self-made men” like Benjamin Franklin and Gilded Age titans, and to portray the Constitution as primarily a manifesto for capitalism. Though, the only evidence he provides for this from the Constitution itself is its provision for patents, which by the eighteenth century was not a new idea.

He also shares a libertarian-flavored quote from anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson that “To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” (Italics added.) Usefully, this validates the impropriety of estate taxes.

The entrepreneurial spirit is definitely a large part of the explanation for American prosperity, though geography is undoubtedly another factor. Once Anglos pushed out the Indians and Mexicans, they had at their disposal vast, resource-rich lands protected by two oceans. Also, of course, much wealth came on the backs of African slaves.

In general, the right’s obsession with the founding and the Constitution is tactical and not merely academic. The Constitution is an impressive historical document, ratified (it must be noted) by the “moneyed interests.” But is it sacred and eternal, as conservatives want us to think? The world has changed a lot in 234 years; is it wrong to consider different approaches, potentially better-suited to our time?

Individualism is an underlying axiom throughout the book. Every person should be self-sufficient. D’Souza describes the philosophy of the Bill of Rights as freedom from government (e.g. the government can’t arrest you for criticizing it). And he contrasts it with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, a call for universal “economic security and independence”, making government a deliverer of certain rights. Roosevelt’s speech, it must be noted, was merely aspirational; however, is there not some point at which a country becomes so highly affluent that the aspiration gains moral force?

Capitalist goodies. D’Souza also is eager to point to the “transforming innovations” that come from American-style entrepreneurship, such as the automobile and iPhones. He recites the platitude that Steve Jobs, driven by capitalist incentives, came up with the iPhone before any consumers knew that they wanted it. He asks, rhetorically, whether socialist-sympathizers would rather live without these miracle products. This raises a larger point I think is worth digging into briefly.

iPhones would have come whether or not Steve Jobs existed. (It’s questionable whether they would have come without earlier government-funded semiconductor research, but we’ll leave that aside.) Sure, we get surprised by product breakthroughs. But having worked in the computer industry, I see the push towards technological advances as more or less inevitable, subject of course to the constraints of physical laws, consumer physiology, etc. All the same, it can’t be denied that the lure of controlling vast revenue streams causes innovations to happen earlier than they otherwise would.

But so what? It might seem tragic, looking down on the Earth, if, in 2021, humans were still living with 18th-century technologies. But that is merely because of our present-day expectations. I can’t imagine living without airplanes, and air conditioning, and penicillin. I love my toys. But if instead I had lived in the 1700s, I suspect I would have felt equally enthusiastic at all of the “modern” wonders that civilization was providing. Similarly, people in the 2300s will probably look at our technology today as extremely primitive. Anyway, you get the point.

D’Souza warns us that, without capitalism, we might not get as many new toys. This argument aims to appeal to our basest consumerist instincts. A different potential argument might be that technical speed and superiority is critical for national defense or, for that matter, global hegemony. Though that is hardly a moral argument, and of course ignores other considerations such as the environment, the kind of society we want, and so on.

Propertarian lunacy. D’Souza does have an entire chapter devoted to “The Moral Basis of Entrepreneurial Capitalism.” The arguments generally are laughable and full of holes. One that I have seen D’Souza use elsewhere is that consumers voting with their money is the only real democracy:

Consumers have the right to vote for the products they want and, in this sense, to elevate the entrepreneurs who produce those products. If they make foolish choices, that is regrettable, but it is their right. Capitalism, like democracy, is rooted in popular will and popular consent. Thus capitalism, like democracy, is a form of social justice.

The other broad argument he makes in various ways is that entrepreneurs have earned their money and it’s immoral to take any of it away. At bottom, I think, is an argument about the sanctity and inviolability of property. I won’t try to dissect these arguments except to say that he repeatedly creates strawmen about socialists’ extreme beliefs and intentions, and employs the fallacy of the excluded middle. For example, is it really out of bounds to ask what percentage of their profits entrepreneurs should pay in taxes?

Cruel though it may be, I just can’t now resist including two hilarious quotations from this chapter. One is his explanation for entrepreneurs’ success:

It is unselfishness, empathy, the ability to identify with the feelings and wants of others. More than any other profession—with the possible exception of the clergy—entrepreneurs, and especially supply-side entrepreneurs, restrain their own selfish impulses and put themselves in the place of their customers.

And then, he closes out his chapter by discussing the wealth that various hypocritical Democratic leaders have, and ends with the thundering

They—not entrepreneurs—are the greedy, selfish bastards. They are the ones playing the system and skirting the law. This is the progressive, socialist parasitic class, feeding off the wealth of society while reviling the free market system that produced that wealth. If anyone deserves to be horsewhipped, it’s these progressive and socialist Democrats.

Ayn Rand couldn’t have said it better.

Identity socialism. Finally, I also mentioned D’Souza’s noteworthy conflation between socialism and identity politics. Broadly speaking, it is true that the Democratic Party is concerned both about identity groups and about low-income workers. Is socialism now about both? D’Souza evidently is not concerned to make a serious philosophical or sociological argument for that here. About all there is in the book is identification of an analogy between the two:

The left routinely practices the politics of division, not only rich versus poor but also white versus black, male versus female, heterosexual versus homosexual, legal versus illegal. This politics of perpetual turmoil, of pitting Americans against each other, is a tactic aimed at assembling a democratic majority of aggrieved so-called victims. While it takes new forms today, the division formula itself goes back to Marx and is intrinsic to socialism.

The charge of “divisiveness” is ironic, since D’Souza apparently would be happy to perpetuate social stratification correlated with race, gender, and class. I think his basic premise may be that if we all avoid talking about differences, we’ll all be united instead of divided. Certainly, many whites and conservatives do not want to talk about it, which causes them to recoil and separate from those who do. And it is even true that average citizens “tense up” a little when such topics are raised (is that the “divisiveness” there?) But avoidance is hardly a principled response, any more than gaslighting is.

Throughout the book, little distinction is made between Democrats and socialists, and it’s usually unclear if he is talking about one versus the other. I think this is simply because helping Republicans win, by any combination of means, is really where D’Souza’s heart is at. As has been obvious to everyone (e.g.), Republicans’ current, central electoral strategy is to talk continually about the excesses of wokeism.

He coins the term “identity socialism” and presents it as a toxic brew so disgusting and evil that even “true” socialists disdain it.

Contemporary socialism is no longer rooted in class, and moreover, its oldest allies—working-class white males—are now its villains and enemies.

American Socialists

In general, the left does not have as strong of a propaganda machine as the right. Part of the reason, explained authoritatively by Grossmann and Hopkins, is that the Democratic Party must appeal to a variety of groups, promising incremental problem-solving rather than the defense of abstract ideals. Republicans, in contrast, appeal to voters via high ideological arguments, and since the 1990’s have developed an explicitly conservative media ecosystem as a conscious alternative to mainstream journalism.

Fox News Channel and conservative talk radio lack equally popular and influential counterparts on the left that openly advance the liberal cause or nurture ideological grievances against mainstream media outlets. Democrats therefore remain relatively unexposed to messages that encourage ideological self-identification or describe political conflict as reflecting the clash of two incompatible value systems. Instead, the information environment in which they reside claims to prize objectivity, empiricism, and policy expertise—thus remaining highly congruent with the character of the Democratic Party as a coalition of voters who demand practical solutions to social problems in the form of targeted government action.

Nevertheless, vocal progressives and democratic socialists are at times able to garner media attention, occasionally to the chagrin of the Democratic Party establishment.

Socialists do also have their own small media and social media ecosystem, notably Jacobin magazine, various podcasters, and progressive organizations that aren’t explicitly socialist. I have also poked around on socialism-related groups on Reddit, which attracts a large number of young, hardliner socialists having various levels of knowledge and sophistication.

The main talking points of today’s democratic socialism can be gleaned from Sanders’ speeches and interviews, as well as from established public intellectuals like Richard Wolff. The more emotional themes have to do with capitalist greed and the pitilessness of Wall Street, corporate executives, and the cloistered rich. The selling of one’s labor is described as degradation or even as a form of slavery.

Meanwhile, among the more pragmatic socialists (and socialist-leaning Democratic politicians), three prominent agenda items have been: (1) expanded entitlements (e.g. Medicare for All, free college); (2) a tax on great wealth; and (3) requiring corporations to put worker representatives on their boards. These are certainly not the only three objectives, but it’s worth considering for a moment how the public may think about each of them.

1. Entitlements. Entitlements are familiar territory for everyone. Conservatives worry about our government spending more than we can afford, but the welfare state has continued to expand under both Democratic and Republican administrations. A transition to a universal health care system seems like an obvious direction to go: health care spending is needlessly costly and inefficient, most health care experts support the idea, and many citizens still live without coverage. The transition, though, would take years and involve many powerful constituencies.

2. Wealth tax. The wealth tax is a fascinating one. Surprisingly, it polls quite well with Americans. On the merits, I don’t see a compelling case against it: it’s unlikely to dampen the efforts of entrepreneurs, billionaires can’t spend all their money in their lifetimes, and society has other unmet needs. I suspect, however, the wealthy would use every trick in the book (e.g. huger amounts of PAC money, legal maneuvers) to thwart it—because if a 2% tax is passed, then the precedent is set, and the next administration might well enact a 20% tax. The constitutionality of a wealth tax has also been disputed.

It would be interesting to hear arguments exchanged among the super-rich behind closed doors. I suspect there could be some level of consensus that the more that is hoarded for investment, the less will be pissed away on consumption and public-sector graft and waste. Or that oligarchy is more stable than democracy. Yet another, which I think actually has merit, and which the left is completely blind to (willfully or not), is that many of the rich have accumulated a great deal of important economic expertise. Incompetent CEOs and investment managers, for example, tend to get weeded out.

3. Corporations. Then, lastly, a formal voice for labor on corporate boards is the nearest of these three to “classic” socialism. I’m not sure how to feel about it myself. Workers are not typically expert in competitive strategy, which indirectly could hurt a company’s success in the marketplace. In practice, I suspect labor’s agenda in board meetings would focus mainly on compensation and benefits; and with labor attending board meetings it would be less easy for the board to ignore, compared to a separate labor union. Such a new requirement does not exactly seem transformative, but it’s possible that the idea could gain interest nationally among workers.

In historical terms, this agenda may be regarded as a “small ball” strategy. I don’t think any of these would be very disruptive to private-sector capitalism in the US, if not implemented in draconian fashion. None have a near-term prospect of happening, except that expansion of certain entitlements—notably, child care support—made it into Biden’s legislative proposal.

While an updated kind of socialism has gained popularity since 2008, thanks in large measure to Bernie Sanders, still, it is a relatively small movement. There is a decided lack of public discussion of socialist ideas outside of the activists’ echo chamber, and a charismatic successor to Sanders is not visible.

Among progressives, there is also a bit of a tug-of-war about an emphasis on race/gender/sexuality versus an emphasis on class, even though partisans on each side do have sympathies for the other’s cause. We saw how D’Souza intentionally tried to link the two on the trivializing basis of “victim mentality,” and tactically as a way of discrediting socialism by linking it to woke excesses. The socialist magazine Jacobin frequently publishes articles and podcasts criticizing woke politics. Though, there are also “friendly” analyses by anti-racists (e.g.), broadly aiming to implicate capitalism as the main cause of structural racism.

It is clear that anti-racism dominates public discussion in a way that socialism and economic inequality does not match. The contrast is interesting: almost no US citizens (or organizations, or politicians) feel unconstrained by the strictures of “political correctness,” while class inequalities seem to be more easily shrugged off. The public is generally unclear, though, what specific policy prescriptions anti-racists are proposing.

I believe the tug-of-war is partly a competition between activists, based on an understanding of the finite amount of national attention available for progressive issues. But there also seems to be a growing consensus, even in mainstream liberal media, that woke politics is hurting Democrats’ electoral prospects. Socialists are making the pitch that emphasizing class instead of race will get better results.

There is no disguising, though, that most serious socialists have much grander society-transforming aims. Much of it strikes me as naïve and futile, though with many caveats: that historical socialistic efforts have had definite achievements; that the desire to take down power is refreshed every generation; that there could be some kind of future tipping point that I’m incapable of seeing; etc. Still, with the highly visible, unrealistic demands of youthful protests, and with the impenetrable constructs, language, and debates among highly-educated socialist intellectuals, I just can’t see the general public ever getting on board. At least, not without a major, highly-coordinated, public reframing.

Calling it “democratic socialism” or “social democracy” is the standard way of softening the edges. The precise definitions of each of these are eagerly discussed among the faithful, but the general public isn’t especially curious about such distinctions. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem certainly, where appreciating the potential benefits of socialism requires some knowledge of economics and sociology, but how can people be enticed into the work and effort to learn?

Harrington’s own 1989 assessment is relevant here. He saw socialism’s challenge as primarily a multi-decade project to change hearts and minds. And he believed gains had to be won “through the system.”

…If one is concerned with the survival and deepening of freedom, justice, and solidarity, there is no alternative to socialist change. …This emergent world is built upon a technology with tendencies towards authoritarian elitism and human emancipation. “All” that socialists have to do in order to forward that emancipatory potential is to make this process transparent and subject to democratic control. And this must be done while simultaneously winning political support from a majority of the people for the short-run governments that are the only possible agency of long-run democratic change.

The Public Discourse, Continued

Recently, Senator Marco Rubio said of Biden’s current legislative initiative, “The $3.5 trillion Biden plan isn’t socialism, it’s marxism.” Though the tweet was ridiculed (will the bill overthrow capitalism if enacted?), it illustrates the primary way that the idea of socialism is used in the public square. I am certain that Rubio is fine with the online flak—he accomplished his goal of throwing the words “socialism” and “marxism” [sic] out there, thereby energizing his electoral supporters and cowing the fence-sitters.

Because, that’s the level of the great bulk of our public dialogue about socialism. The left wants to have an earnest conversation about socialist ideas, and the right wants to demonize the left using the persistent negative associations most citizens have with socialism.

Certainly, different kinds of discussions happen within different segments—among policy wonks, versus journalists, versus the highly-politically-engaged, versus the occasional news consumers, and so on—but sound-bite, electoral politics is what dominates our attention. If someone says something about socialism, and the news picks it up, you can bet it’ll be about the idiocy of Democrats.

Of course, there is much interesting social psychology and history (much more than I can take on here) underlying the sound bites. We can (at least informally) imagine tracing various pathways from partisan writers to influencers to journalists to news consumers, and so on… sound bites are meaningful to hearers because of everything that has previously transpired and the way they learned about it. However, if all there is in the public sphere is sound bites, then meaningful deliberation does not happen, and individual understandings and attitudes do not budge.

For the near term, it is not easy to see a path forward from today’s stalemate, to a world where verbal distortions and other drivel are excluded. As a parting thought experiment, though, let’s at least try to imagine what a more productive public discussion about socialism would be like.

Imagine that the public space was completely rid of socialism-related statements that are false or misleading. I’ve thought of a few axioms that I think all citizens (extremists on both sides excepted) ought to be able to agree with. Suppose that we were able to make it illegal to issue an assertion in public that contradicts or distorts any of the following axioms.

We all agree that:

  • Corporations accomplish a lot of good for our society
  • Market demand is a good guide for production and prices
  • Most people value societal stability
  • Many people are content to just have a steady job
  • Most people without an incentive will not work hard
  • A utopia can never be attained
  • Everyone welcomes product innovation
  • No one is thrilled about having to pay taxes
  • No one thinks government benefits are costless
  • Everyone can accept a limited amount of economic inequality
  • Military conquest of the US is extremely unlikely
  • Oppression is morally wrong
  • No one wants Stalinism

 
Thus, for example, it is prohibited (liberals) to state that corporations are evil and to just leave it at that. Or to suggest or even imply (conservatives) that, if you want Socialism, then you must want Stalinism.

With the usual talking points eliminated, and actual thinking required, we might see public dialogue move towards more productive “what are we actually trying to accomplish here?” discussions.

These kinds of moderated discussions do occur in high school and college classrooms and dorms, but that is where it ends. The public has self-selected into echo chambers; social media is about performance and virality; and the news media is about entertainment.

Further, socialism is not at the center of public debate in the way that electoral politics is. The most recent prominent public debates about socialism occurred during the 2020 Democratic primaries. (Remember the way that most of the candidates tried to out-left each other yet sidestep the “socialist” label?) During this period there of course was much partisan sturm und drang, though many helpful “explainers” (e.g.) about democratic socialism were published as well. In the end, we saw, the Democrats’ concerns about “electability” trumped consideration of socialist-leaning policy ideas. But clearly the Overton Window has been stretched, and publicly discussing socialism is no longer considered beyond the pale.

Conclusion

It may be that the word “socialism” has so much baggage attached to it, and so much ambiguity about its definition, that rational public discussions about it will never be possible. Change is also difficult and slow in a country with a long capitalist tradition. Democratic socialist Fredrik DeBoer preaches patience to his comrades:

My fellow travelers are in the habit of saying that justice can’t wait. But justice has waited for thousands of years, and we all must eventually come to terms with the fact that we don’t get to simply choose when it arrives.

Or else, perhaps rational discussion is the wrong way to look at it in the first place. Socialism has really never been an economic system; it may be more useful to simply regard it as a longstanding tradition of demanding compensation from power, and as “sticking it to the man” (and if capitalists don’t want to hear those demands, well, tough shit.)

Socialism is not and will never be simply right or wrong. However, it is fair to say that Americans for an entire generation were indoctrinated that socialism leads to totalitarian ruin and that economists have proven that markets should rule. Neither of these is a fact, and there is no reason any longer to allow pundits or demagogues to pretend that they are.

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