Even recent history seems quaint now. There was that Occupy Wall Street stuff – the protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, down by Wall Street, all about economic inequality. The protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011, but other financial centers all across the country were “occupied” for a time – the Ninety-Nine Percent was white-hot angry with the One Percent. It was the greed and corruption and the absurd influence of corporations on government – and then it was over. The whole thing had been too loosely organized. There was no leader, no charismatic spokesperson. There was just anger, and five years later the still-angry Ninety-Nine Percent elected the ultimate One Percent guy, Donald Trump, president. The man had gold-plated toilets in his gold-plated penthouse in his gold-plated skyscraper on Fifth Avenue, but he was the man who would make things right for the angry Ninety-Nine Percent – because he was really one of them. He said so. They believed him. He didn’t say how. They didn’t care. And then he filled his cabinet with Wall Street guys and corporate executives, all of whom made themselves richer. He said he was looking out for the little guy. Damn, this Trump guy was good!
He was good at that because the “Occupy” movement was terrible at that – they had no Svengali – but that couldn’t last. Just before the last midterm election, Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted this:
Why shouldn’t a 28-year old, who was only a bartender a year ago, defeat a Democratic establishment stalwart? And why shouldn’t that person say, without shame or apology, that she’s a socialist?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary-election victory, coming on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, has thrust “socialism” into the center of the American political conversation. Ideas once dismissed as radical are now gaining a hearing.
The premise was that socialism is doing something for the people, that angry Ninety-Nine Percent, and Hamid argues that this has to happen:
Conflict, or at least the threat of it, can be a powerful motivator. If a government has no fear that the poor might one day revolt, then it will have few incentives to check the excesses of the rich. If elected leaders have no fear that they might lose the minority vote, they will have little reason to take racism as seriously as they should. If established parties have no fear that populist parties might take their place, they will have little reason to rethink their basic approach to politics. Without pressure from populist challengers, centrist parties will avoid addressing sensitive issues, instead postponing them until crisis hits. And crisis almost certainly does.
And now they do have fear and that provides an opening:
The point about radical ideas is that some of them may be good, but there’s no way to know, definitively, whether they are, until they’re debated openly and freely. And, today, that’s precisely what’s happening.
And that’s because of the fear:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night and celebrated his criticism of socialism as evidence that her progressive policies are gaining steam.
“I think he’s scared,” she said, adding: “I thought it was fabulous. It shows that we got under his skin.”
And he should be scared:
She said the president attacked democratic socialism – her brand of progressive politics – because he fears the popularity of her agenda.
“I think that he needs to do it because he feels like – he feels himself losing on the issues,” she told MSNBC. “Every single policy proposal that we have adopted and presented to the American public has been overwhelmingly popular, even some with a majority of Republican voters supporting what we’re talking about.”
She added: “In order for him to try to dissuade or throw people off the scent of the trail, he has to really make and confuse the public, and I think that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.”
Well, he did his best:
After condemning the “brutality” of Venezuela’s authoritarian government, Trump turned to socialism in America, apparently referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of democratic socialism.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said to cheers from many in the audience.
“America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control,” he added. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser sees what is up here:
The morning after President Trump’s rambling State of the Union address, Fox News offered a helpful guide to what we were supposed to take away from a speech that seemed to have a million themes and no clear point. “We will never be ‘socialist,'” the banner headline on the Fox Web site read. “President Trump vows to reject far-left economics in SOTU speech, as key Dems watch stone-faced.”
Underscoring the point, Trump was shown next to photographs of a grimacing Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont who ran for President in 2016 as a Democrat, and may do so again in 2020, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-leaning New York congresswoman who has become such a celebrity since her election that she is now known almost universally by her initials.
When Trump had said, a few hours earlier was a seemingly throwaway Republican applause line, just a short passage coming nearly four thousand words in to a five-thousand-word speech. But the sloganeering summed up, as much as anything could, what Trump’s address to a sharply divided Congress and country was all about: kicking off his 2020 reelection campaign.
This was not what had been promised:
Trump’s State of the Union address was not a message of unity to a troubled nation. There was no meaningful olive branch to the opposition. It was not, as Vice-President Mike Pence reportedly promised in a private briefing to supporters, an extensive foreign-policy manifesto. Nor was it any kind of guide to how Trump will handle the partisan gridlock over his border wall, which threatens once again to shut down the federal government, in a week. Beyond the mindless platitudes and empty rhetoric repeatedly recalling America’s seventy-four-year-old victory in the Second World War, it was a campaign event: part partisan rant, part ersatz Reaganism, and, in the end, one hundred percent Trump.
And everyone knows the guy by now:
Trump is all about having enemies. Without Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to set himself in opposition to, he will try to vilify far-left socialist Democrats and rampaging illegal immigrants in 2020. The immigrant-bashing, of course, was a staple and centerpiece of his 2016 race. The claim that Democrats are going to turn America into a Venezuelan socialist hellscape is something new. The Party, with its embrace of Sanders (and his Medicare-for-all proposal) AOC (with her talk of seventy-per-cent income-tax rates on the über-rich), appears to be tilting left at just the right moment for Trump.
He’s happy, but things are never that simple:
Democrats, of course, will seek to make the race a referendum on the contentious President himself – on his corruption and controversies, erratic persona, hardline policies, and bullying tweets. If they succeed in doing so, they will likely win. Trump starts out, at this point in his term, with the lowest ratings of any President in decades, and already public surveys have found a significant majority of registered voters who say they will definitely vote against him next year.
Then again, a crowded field of more than a dozen Democrats now seems certain, with no clear front-runner. Polls of the primary electorate are skewing increasingly liberal, and there is a decided tilt left in who is choosing to run and who is opting out. “The President is unlikely to ever get his approval ratings much above where they are now. At best, he hits forty-five per cent,” the political analyst Amy Walter, the national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. “The way Trump wins reelection isn’t by getting more people to like him – it’s by insuring that voters don’t see the Democratic nominee as a viable alternative.”
And that’s the plan:
That is exactly where the embedded message of the State of the Union address comes in. Democrats are bad, unpatriotic, against freedom and free enterprise; extremists who favor late-term abortions; churlish obstructionists who hate the President so much that they can’t even acknowledge successes like a booming economy.
By the time Trump got to Venezuela, making the awkward leap between that country’s descent into poverty and chaos and threats to the American way of freedom at home, the 2020 campaign theme started to seem even clearer.
The “socialism” line wasn’t a red herring; it was the point.
That may be a mistake:
Democrats say there’s no point to the attack, noting that bashing the rich is the kind of politics that does well across the American political spectrum. The Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg told me that he watched the reaction to the President’s speech with two hundred and twenty-five voters registering their opinions on dials. “The thing I absolutely worried least about” was this, he said. In 2018, when he polled voters, “People loved any hint of socialism.” But, of course, the intended audience for Trump’s State of the Union was not the country as a whole; it was the Republican Party faithful, who, according to the networks’ coverage, were the ones who disproportionately tuned in to hear the President. In its instant poll, CBS found that three-quarters of viewers surveyed had approved of the speech, but that was because they were almost all Republicans.
Trump is making a mistake. At least E. J. Dionne thinks so:
“We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”
Political scientist Mason B. Williams cited this cheeky but accurate comment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point easily lost in the new war on socialism that President Trump has launched: Socialism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the market system alive.
Going back to the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans, socialists and liberal reformers, worked together to humanize the system’s workings and to find creative ways to solve problems capitalism alone couldn’t.
That may be what is happening here:
Think about this when pondering the Green New Deal put forward last week by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). It’s sweeping and adventurous. There is virtually no way it will become law as long as Republicans control the Senate and Trump is president. And if something like it eventually does get enacted, there will be many compromises and rewrites.
But there would be no social reform, ever, if those seeking change were too timid to go big and allowed cries of “socialism” to intimidate them.
And there really is no need to be intimidated anymore:
Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won more than 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.
So this is a rearguard action:
Trump’s words are entirely about reelection politics. He wants to tar all Democrats as “socialists” and then define socialism as antithetical to American values. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control,” he declared. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Cue Lee Greenwood.
But attacking socialism isn’t the cakewalk it used to be. During the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Americans with the s-word because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered a powerful example of the oppression that state control of all of the means of production could unleash.
The Soviet Union, however, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is communist on paper but a wildly unequal crony capitalist dictatorship in practice. Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate “socialism” with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.
It seems the world has changed:
The 2018 PRRI American Values Survey offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as “a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support and access to free higher education,” essentially a description of social democracy. The other was the full Soviet dose: “a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.”
You might say that socialism is winning the branding war: Fifty-four percent said socialism was about those public benefits, while just 43 percent picked the version that stressed government domination. Americans ages 18 to 29, for whom Cold War memories are dim to nonexistent, were even more inclined to define socialism as social democracy: Fifty-eight percent of them picked the soft option, 38 percent the hard one.
Oh, yes, and on those tax increases that conservatives love to hate – and associate with socialism of the creeping kind – a Fox News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans favored raising taxes on families with incomes of over $10 million.
Trump may be fighting a losing battle here, and Paul Waldman adds this:
Republicans are amping up their warnings that socialism is here and ready to put its heavy boot on our necks. The fact that they’re pushing this line is not surprising, given that the Democratic Party is indeed moving left and embracing policy solutions with stronger government components than what is currently in place on issues such as health care.
The trouble is that as an insult, “Socialism!” doesn’t have the zing it once did. And that’s Republicans’ own fault.
That’s because they got lazy:
One reason “Socialist” isn’t the powerful insult it once was is just time: Since the Soviet Union collapsed almost three decades ago, there are a couple of generations of Americans who have no memory of the Cold War. For them, socialism is not synonymous with communism, which anyway is just something they learned about in history class. They don’t view it as the ideology of our enemies.
But more importantly, in the time since, Republicans have attacked almost anything Democrats wanted to do as socialism. Modest tax increases on the wealthy? Socialism! Regulations to lower carbon emissions and reduce the risk of climate catastrophe? Socialism! Healthcare reform built on maintaining private insurance but with stronger protections for consumers? Socialism!
After hearing that for so long, a lot of young people in particular seem to have concluded that “socialism” means little more than “policies that are more liberal than the Republican Party would prefer.” In other words, they’ve accepted the Republican view of what socialism is.
But then there’s the matter of simple logic:
Republicans have been working hard to convince people of this syllogism: Democrats are a bunch of socialists; Venezuela is socialist; therefore anything Democrats suggest will inevitably turn us into an economic disaster like Venezuela. Besides being completely asinine (ask economists whether we’re in danger of seeing U.S. inflation reach 1 million percent any time soon), the argument relies on the broad public reacting with the same horror Republicans do when they hear suggestions like a wealth tax or universal health care.
But they don’t, in part because when they hear the word “socialist,” Americans are more likely to think of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joseph Stalin or Fidel Castro. In other words, someone who admires the social democratic systems they have in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, and would like to see something similar here: a capitalist economy, but one that isn’t structured so much to benefit the wealthiest elite and includes a stronger system of social supports – which isn’t nearly as terrifying.
So very little of this makes much sense at all:
The policies he’ll be describing as socialist, such as higher taxes for the wealthy and giving more people health coverage, already have wide support, and with his own low approval ratings he’s unlikely to persuade people to change their views on those policies. Instead of destroying the Democratic nominee by pinning on her a label that everyone agrees is horrific he’s much more likely to make socialism more popular than ever.
Waldman argues that it’s the same with the New Green Deal:
The resolution isn’t a detailed piece of legislation. Instead, it’s a statement of intent, explaining the justification and goals of a massive infrastructure program to transition to a sustainable future. This is at once incredibly ambitious and politically practical, in that its advocates seem to have in their minds a long-term plan to get it accomplished.
Don’t be surprised if in short order it becomes one of the defining pieces of the Democratic agenda, both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.
The synopsis from Ocasio-Cortez’s website:
The Green New Deal is a 10-year plan to create a greenhouse gas neutral society that creates unprecedented levels of prosperity and wealth for all while ensuring economic and environmental justice and security.
The Green New Deal achieves this through a World War 2 scale mobilization that focuses the robust and creative economic engine of the United States on reversing climate change by fully rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, restoring our natural ecosystems, dramatically expanding renewable power generation, overhauling our entire transportation system, upgrading all our buildings, jumpstarting US clean manufacturing, transforming US agriculture, and putting our nation’s people to work doing what they do best: making the impossible possible.
Waldman notes what came next:
Whenever Democrats offer a major policy proposal, the immediate response from both Republicans and journalists is “How will you pay for it?” Ocasio-Cortez was asked that question in an interview that aired on NPR and she was happy to say that yes, government is going to spend money on these projects:
“We have tried their approach for 40 years. For 40 years, we tried to let the private sector take care of it. They said ‘We got this. We can do this. The forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.’ Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay for it, and taxpayers have to pay for cleaning up our air, cleaning up our water, and saving the planet. And so we’ve already been paying the costs, except we have not been getting any of the benefit. And so what we’re here to say is that government is not just for cleaning up other people’s mess, but it’s also for building solutions in places where the private sector will not.”
That was clever. She turned the tables on the Republicans:
This is perhaps the most important feature of this proposal: In both its content and the way its advocates are selling it, it’s meant to change the way we think about government projects.
You can see why this would make Republicans nervous, beyond the fact that they don’t particularly care about climate change and don’t like government to do much of anything affirmative. They have managed to shape the debate on government spending in an extraordinary way, in that the things they want to spend money on, like tax breaks for the wealthy or wars or enormous military budgets, are almost never questioned in the same way.
So this is just substituting one form of socialism for another:
When Republicans say “We need to spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars on the military next year,” reporters don’t pepper them with questions about how it’ll be paid for. It’s just accepted that it’s worthwhile, and therefore deficit spending is an appropriate way to finance whatever taxes don’t cover.
Ocasio-Cortez and others are making the same argument about green infrastructure, as well as things such as expanding health coverage: It’s worthwhile, and if deficit spending is what’s required to pay for it, that’s fine.
And perhaps that’s socialism, but all government spending, on anything and everything, is socialism – everyone chips in for what the private sector just cannot do – for the good of everyone – not just the few. And now this is a matter of defining what is worthwhile. Maybe the Occupy Wall Street movement was a success after all – eight years late now – but better late than never. Venezuela? Sweden? No, it’s just us, doing our best.