Elections

Are We Really on the Brink of Electing a Socialist President?

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Voters could be willing to elect a would-be socialist over a president they have never liked.

Has the socialist moment finally arrived in the United States? Increasingly, the Democratic party seems to think so. Capitalism has had a nice run for the past couple hundred years, but now it is time to let the technocrats take control of . . . pretty much everything — from health care to education to energy to banking.

This kind of view has long had a space in the Democratic party — recall Huey Long’s slogan, “Every man a king” — but it seems to be going mainstream. The wacky ideas of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are not limited to the lefty fringe of the House backbench but instead are being endorsed by major presidential candidates. And why not? Winning the Democratic nomination is going to require somebody to forge a coalition between minority voters and upscale white progressives, and the latter can’t get enough of AOC’s statist utopia.

But does this make for good politics? National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar — one of my favorite political analysts — is dubious. In a typically sober analysis, he argues:

What’s so remarkable about this rapid leftward shift is that it’s working against the party’s best interests — both for the individual candidates and their chances of defeating Trump next year. So many candidates are trying to fill the most progressive lane of the party that they’re splitting that share of the vote evenly. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that many rank-and-file Democrats are looking for a pragmatist who can actually win the presidency.

Far be it from me to doubt somebody with as solid a track record as Kraushaar’s. And I certainly hope he is correct. But as Allahpundit likes to say, “Dude, I’m worried.”

My anxiety is bottomed on the simple fact that Donald Trump’s job-approval rating is in the toilet right now, where it has been since virtually the day he was inaugurated. The RealClearPolitics average has him at just 42 percent and has never once tracked him above 50 percent. And this is despite the fact that we have peace and prosperity today.

I am worried that voters are willing to elect a would-be socialist over a president they have never actually liked. More important: I am worried that they won’t even recognize that this is what they are doing. That is how little confidence I have in the discernment of American voters — they won’t connect the dots and realize that the Democrats are calling for a government takeover of pretty much everything. I am worried that the people have ceded to the ideological fringes of both parties the power to select the two-party nominees, and then choose between them based on their view of the incumbent administration — whether that means electing a celebrity television star like Trump or a socialist like Bernie.

I think back to the 1932 Democratic nomination, when Franklin Roosevelt squared off against Al Smith. FDR represented a notable break from past practice, while Smith would have governed more in the mold of Grover Cleveland. But I do not think either would really have mattered for the outcome in 1932 — either of them could have won. Perhaps the only thing that might have gotten in Smith’s way was his Catholicism. But ideology did not matter.

Ditto 2008. Barack Obama was virtually a blank slate, but what little we knew about him suggested he was going to mark a dramatic shift to the left. He ran against John McCain, who had carved out for himself a more moderate role. Did Obama’s liberalism matter? Not really.

Or how about 1980? Ronald Reagan was a break from recent Republican nominees, while George H. W. Bush was not. In the end, ideology did not make that much of a difference.

There are contrary examples, to be sure. It is quite likely that both Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972 won fewer votes than they otherwise would have because they were so far outside the mainstream.

And to be clear, I’m not explicitly disagreeing with Kraushaar. I’m just worried that Trump’s unpopularity could ultimately bring a socialist into the White House.

This president needs to get his act together and start behaving like a president is supposed to. Of course, he probably will not do that, which means he is going to limp into 2020 with anemic approval ratings. And then we might finally discover whether America is actually on the brink of a socialist moment, one spurred on by an ideological fringe and accepted by a disengaged, ill-informed public.

Conservatives need to brace themselves and begin preparing to work hard to retain the Republican majority in the Senate — for that might be the only thing that ultimately stops the socialist tide.

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Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.

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