A rose by any other name? Democrats grapple with the socialist question

For the first time in a lifetime, a wave of Democratic candidates are proudly calling themselves socialists....

Posted: Aug 14, 2018 7:23 AM
Updated: Aug 14, 2018 7:23 AM

For the first time in a lifetime, a wave of Democratic candidates are proudly calling themselves socialists. Some are winning, while others are creating -- even in defeat -- new space on the left for those who run in the next cycle, and the one after that.

If this is a "political revolution," though, it will happen incrementally. The Democratic establishment, even in its more progressive quarters, still fears blowback from more moderate voters. Hopefuls like Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland and a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, rejected the association -- first at length, twice noting his "venture capitalist" work, and then more bluntly -- during a news conference last week.

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"Are you f---ing kidding me?," he asked, rhetorically, in response to a second inquiry into whether he identifies as a socialist.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, like Sanders rumored to be lining up a 2020 presidential primary bid and a supporter of "Medicare for all," recently declared, "I am a capitalist to my bones."

But what's in a name, really?

Especially one like "democratic socialist," which, as it's grown in visibility, seems to be taking on different meanings to different people. Sanders has called himself one for decades. His politics are rooted in its core, transformative desires, even as his policy platform owes more to Scandinavian social democrats. (And yes, there is a meaningful difference.)

How much this should matter right now is another question. In 2018, after so many years shoved to the fringes of mainstream American politics, socialists seem less inclined to quibble. While there is robust debate within groups like the Democratic Socialists of America over which candidates to back and what kind of resources to expend in backing them, the momentum is with action.

When the group's New York City chapter voted to endorse Democratic gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon in her primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, its co-chair Abdullah Younus reasoned that Nixon and running mate Jumaane Williams, a New York City councilman, offered "the best chance we have to win universal rent control, Medicare for all and many other priorities for working people in New York."

The decision reflected a growing view bolstered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's primary win in late June that socialists are wise to engage in electoral politics and, crucially, that the Democratic Party apparatus offers the most viable path to power. The language of the left has evolved, too, into something more accessible.

Consider the answer Ocasio-Cortez gave Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" when he asked what being a socialist meant for her.

"I believe," she said, "that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live," before ticking off a list of values (e.g. "health care as a human right") that guide her politics.

While it is tempting to chalk up the socialist resurgence to dynamic messengers like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, the reality is a bit more complicated. Time and money probably have more to do with it. Time, in the sense that Cold War taboos are fading nearly three decades after its end, and money as it applies to a stagnant economy for wage-earning workers, in particular younger ones, whose first gut-level political memories were shaped by the 2008 financial crisis and its lingering fallout.

The rise of socialist politics is inextricable from the decline in support for capitalism. A new Gallup survey found that only 45% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive view of the current system, down from 68% in 2010. Only among those 65 and over -- the cohort now benefiting most directly from Medicare, it's worth noting -- has capitalism become more popular over the past eight years.

"At this point, (young people) associate capitalism with crushing student debt, with a barbaric private health insurance system that also crushes people under debt, the destruction of the planet," said Micah Uetricht, managing editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. With capitalism tied to "brutal policies that have made their lives miserable," he argues, the hunger for an alternative is growing and "the only people who are speaking to that misery are socialists."

But even for Democrats who accept that analysis, or something like it, there is a lot of muscle memory to work off.

For decades, the party ran scared of the label, which was weaponized by some conservatives as means of both challenging policy and, implicitly, a candidate's patriotism. Former President Barack Obama is a good example. Republicans routinely labeled him a socialist despite his mostly comfortable relationship with powerful capitalist forces, and the fact Obamacare -- for all it achieved in covering millions of Americans -- effectively funneled public money to private insurers.

A few weeks ago, Nixon publicly addressed part of the conundrum with a recommendation familiar to party's insurgent progressive left.

"Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do," she said at the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans. "So we might as well give them the real thing."

Nixon's point was a strategic one, not a call to seize the means of production. But it's still worth asking: Are politicians like her or Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez offering Americans "the real thing"?

The simple answer is -- no, not really. Policies like "Medicare for all," public broadband, tuition-free college and jobs and housing guarantees are bold and, if implemented, would fundamentally transform American life. But even after the incredible political effort it would take to implement any one of those policy ambitions, they would represent modest advances by most socialists' eyes.

That blurring of the lines was apparent in Nixon's own statement about her take on democratic socialism, given to Politico in July.

"Some more establishment, corporate Democrats get very scared by this term but if being a democratic socialist means that you believe health care, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right not a privilege then count me in," she said, describing what would historically be viewed as the cornerstones of a social democracy.

Though it might seem trifling to some, this is a distinction worth making, and understanding, as the rise of more ideologically socialist candidates invites new and pointed scrutiny.

In simplest terms, a democratic socialist is not the same thing as a social democrat. Sanders and co. tend to have more in common, for now at least, with the latter. That is, they are not advocating for an outright end to capitalism. Rather they're pushing for more robust limits on its practice. The push for universal guarantees -- to health care, jobs, labor rights, housing, access to broadband, and more -- are viewed as useful by almost all democratic socialists, but they do not represent the root and branch reform ultimately desired by groups like DSA.

In an interview last month, DSA National Director Maria Svart explained the nut of democratic socialism this way (some bolding for emphasis):

"Our vision is to build a mass, multi-racial, working-class movement that brings people together across our differences and demands that our society and our economy be run democratically. Most of us believe that this will not work under capitalism. Our north star is totally transforming the system, even though our immediate vision and our immediate political program is similar to Bernie Sanders'. What's different is we want to democratize everything, ultimately. That's the goal."

There is a rich tradition of argument here. Jacobin recently played host to something of a running debate over how, where and whether the two forms discussed above overlap. The US is capitalist, sure, but what is a country like Norway? Does it even qualify as socialist? These aren't settled questions. Some on the left view social democracy as a stop-off on the way to democratic socialism. Others see it as an end in itself. It's not an academic issue.

Well, not strictly. And certainly not in the current political moment.

So when, in the heat of their 2018 campaign, Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan calls Ben Jealous a "far-left socialist" in the New York Times, it matters, for one part, because the charge comes in so clearly wide of a pretty big mark. Is Hogan misleading voters or just uninformed himself? Take your pick.

For now, though, while you can certainly hold Jealous's choice of words in defending himself against him, his sentiment -- "Are you f---ing kidding me?" — should be pretty easy to understand.

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