With the win of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (full disclosure: I donated to her campaign), there has been a lot of talk about socialism, which led to this hilarious self-own by Sean Hannitty, where he displayed the horror that is her platform:


I dunno. Maybe the bit about Puerto Ricans set him off?

But on a more serious note, I’m geniunely puzzled as to how this is any different from what used to be called liberal Democrats (before and during the 1990s–and who were mostly purged from power by the Clinton era New Democrats) would propose. Looking at her site, as well as the DSA site, I’m not seeing anything about the nationalization of companies. No establishment of an activist wealth fund, in which the government has voting shares and uses them–Norway does this, for example. Other than for skyrocketing drug prices (and perhaps rent increases), there are no widespread calls for price controls. So it’s really hard to see how what is currently referred to as socialism would differ from Hubert Humphrey’s economic proposals.

I mention Humphrey, not because he was TEH AWESOME (got Vietnam War?), but because he did craft detailed legislation for a jobs guarantee, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act (it was very complex, which is one reason why I’m not gung ho about a jobs guarantee*). I don’t think he would have considered himself to be a socialist. If supporting government provisioning of some services makes you a socialist, then Nebraska has just become a hotbed of socialism. As Max Sawicky put it (boldface mine):

The ‘socialism’ part is harder to justify, in light of the political baggage of “nationalizing the means of production.” Sanders left that ambition behind, I imagine, some time ago. In truth, there is today no meaningful advocacy of large-scale nationalizations of U.S. industry, either in the realm of economic research or political mobilization. We do see well-founded advocacy for public utilities in limited, specific areas such as postal savings banks and public broadband, what some radicals have described disparagingly as “gas and water socialism.” (It used to seem like there would never be any danger of anybody not having access to water.) We also see discussions of sovereign wealth funds and decentralized movements in pursuit of cooperative enterprise and labor-managed firms.

The upshot is that ‘socialism’ in the U.S., or the less familiar term ‘social-democracy,’ looks a lot like the agenda pursued by Franklin Roosevelt’s administrations in the 1930s and 1940s. Even so, Democratic Party elites are pointed in a different direction.

That last sentence is critical. Once the New Democrats took over the Democratic Party, lock, stock, and barrel, the phrase liberal Democrat as a political descriptor changed its meaning radically to encompass neo-liberal. Back to Sawicky, who has the best operational definition of neo-liberal I’ve seen:

While no Democratic politician would reject the slogan of universal coverage, the Clinton campaign offered no path to such an outcome. The Obama Administration went wobbly on one device to that end – the idea of a public option. Both leaders and their supporters can’t seem to grasp the inadequacy of market provision of health insurance, even as its deficiencies under ‘ObamaCare’ become ever more painfully evident.

More generally, ‘neoliberalism’ labors under the bias of seeking market solutions, up to and including creating them from scratch, as we saw with the Obama’s health insurance exchanges. The tendency is to discount the viability of public provision.

I’m not suggesting that markets are never of use. I would say social-democracy is about pushing the balance in the direction of a myriad of needs unmet by “the market.” Neoliberalism is about searches for market-based approaches.

The flap about “free college” offers another case in point. Critics of Sanders’ platform, including the most liberal, would wax philosophic in the vein of “nothing is free.” Of course, nobody thinks college instruction comes without costs. What is really at issue is whether the rising cost of college should be financed by taxes or by the ‘market’ route of students resorting to personal, eternal indebtedness

There is nothing much radical about free college. We have ‘free’ K-12 education and no plutocrats have been strung up. The practical difference between social-democratic and neoliberal is directional. Neoliberalism resists the enlargement of tax-financed public services

The accepted academic definition of neoliberalism traces back to the Nineteenth Century version of liberalism, which upheld free trade against mercantilism and supported no more than a very limited public sector. It’s said that this ideology enjoyed a revival in the Twentieth Century. From where I sit, among Republicans no revival was necessary. The ideology never went away. The bigger change was the movement away from the New Deal and the Great Society among Democrats, towards the view typified by Bill Clinton’s remark that “the era of big government is over.” This is why my definition could be seen as idiosyncratic, compared to most other treatments.

The struggle in the Democratic Party is between neo-liberalism and social-democracy (or “democratic socialism”).

I bring this up, not to engage in the usual internet argument over word definitions, but for two specific reasons. First, there are some people who could be persuaded (obviously Sean Hannitty is not one of them) to support these policies, but will do foolish things with their brains when they hear the word socialist. Second, there is an organic Democratic tradition of support for these policies, stretching back to the New Deal and running through the Great Society. On the corporate power front, there was also a long-standing populist Democratic tradition too, which pre-dated the New Deal. And yes, the New Deal was flawed and imperfect when it came to race, but that doesn’t invalidate its goals anymore than the authors of the First Amendment, many of whom owned slaves (who obviously lacked First Amendment freedoms), invalidate the First Amendment. That tradition and language can still resonate–perhaps more successfully than references to socialism.

Finally, Ocasio-Cortez’s definition of socialism seems, well, like something many liberal Democrats would have said and have said (boldface mine):

It was a lot more about action than about words or descriptions or -isms, because for me, it wasn’t just like I read a book one day and said, “Oh, okay, I’m a Democratic Socialist now.” I’m an organizer, I’m an educator, I’m an activist, and what I found was that every time I saw myself showing up for something that was important to my community, when I was one of the many people who showed up in Union Square for the 100-day vigil after Hurricane Maria, DSA was there. Every time I was joining my brothers and sisters in the Movement for Black Lives, DSA was there. When I saw these actions, it was like, Okay, this is clearly an extension of our own community. And the thing about DSA is that it’s a very large tent organization. When we talk about the word socialism, I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our economic dignity, and our economic, social, and racial dignity. It is about direct representation and people actually having power and stake over their economic and social wellness, at the end of the day. To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity. It’s asserting the value of saying that the America we want and the America that we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education. It’s one in which no person is too poor to have the medicines they need to live. It’s to say that no individual’s civil rights are to be violated. And it’s also to say that we need to really examine the historical inequities that have created much of the inequalities—both in terms of economics and social and racial justice—because they are intertwined. This idea of, like, race or class is a false choice. Even if you wanted to separate those two things, you can’t separate the two, they are intrinsically and inextricably tied. There is no other force, there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.

The last sentence is critical: after decades of New Democrats, there is an ideological void in the Democratic Party. For those who are still angry at Senator Sanders for running against Clinton: you’re right, he shouldn’t have run. More accurately, he shouldn’t have had to run, because there should have been Democratic politicians who called for the positions he supported. But the only liberal Democratic option was a self-described 74 year-old socialist who really isn’t a Democratic Party member. After 25 years, give or take, of purging (even if it’s the polite purge of not hiring) liberal Democrats from positions of power, including entities like mainline think tanks, the only option left is the self-described socialists (who really don’t seem that socialist).

There’s a home for socialism circa 2018 in the Democratic Party, because it used to live there.

*I’ve written about my concerns with a jobs guarantee, but one thing I didn’t hit in that post was that the history of Humphrey-Hawkins shows that a federal jobs guarantee is hard and very complicated. If farmed out to the states and local governments, the potential for corruption and embezzlement is, well, bigly. Keep it simple stupid is a good guideline to follow when it comes to policy.

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4 Responses to TEH SOCIALISMZ!!! AAAIIIEEE!!!!

  1. sglover says:

    Not exactly apropos, but here’s what looks like a useful tool for people interested in helping people register to vote, and ensuring that their registration doesn’t get dumped from the rolls:


    Found it in David Brin’s twitter feed.

  2. Peter K. says:

    One practical policy change that socialists want is Medicare for All. What is its history with the Democrats? FDR had his 2nd bill of rights which is a lot like what socialist desire as an end state. But what were liberal Dems fighting for after FDR? Truman tried to get it and failed. Then JFK? LBJ got Medicare and Medicaid, great reforms, but then that’s it. Seemed like liberal Dems went into “protecting our gains” mode after LBJ. Jimmy Carter did nothing. Then downhill in the 80s and with Clinton. Ted Kennedy primaried Carter, but was unsuccessful. Obama couldn’t get (didn’t fight for) the public option.

    The liberal Dems have never been associated in my mind with a positive, ambitious end state in my lifetime, unlike socialists who have a critique of capitalism (and neoliberalism). They’ve been associated with incremental reform and trying to maintain the status quo by fighting to keep Social Security and Medicare, etc., meanwhile wages stagnate and the labor movement withers. Yes it’s been b/c they have been on the defensive, but after WWII they didn’t seem to be very much on the offensive except to a modest degree with the Great Society and civil rights. Matt Bruenig:

  3. starskeptic says:

    Things have moved so far to the right politically that New Deal Democrats are now ‘Socialists’…

  4. paintedjaguar says:

    One quibble. There’s been a void in the Dems longer than just since the 90s. As David Brin loves to brag, the Dems purged their Red faction way back in 1948.

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