This week New York Magazine posed an interesting question: Has the “socialist” moment in the Democratic party arrived? Maybe so. The popularity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among journalists and social-media types suggests that socialism’s appeal is growing. And, of course, we should not underestimate Bernie Sanders’s appeal in the Democratic primary.
But before Democrats embrace socialism, they would do well to ponder just what a break from the party’s history the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez faction is proposing. For roughly 70 years, the Democratic party has successfully kept radical forces at bay and, as a consequence, enjoyed political success.
Post-war liberalism, far from being a radical political program, actually had the effect of isolating and minimizing left-wing radicalism in the United States. One could argue that this was liberals’ intent — on both the domestic and the international fronts.
Domestically speaking, the essence of post-war liberalism was to share the bounty of capitalism in a more egalitarian manner. A lot of this was initiated with the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, for instance, gave labor unions the right to bargain for better wages and, by implication, allowed a fairer distribution of corporate profits. And while the particulars of post-war liberal programs were novel in some respects — with their particular emphasis on health care and education — the Left’s agenda remained philosophically similar to FDR’s New Deal mission: saving capitalism from itself.
Put aside the merits of this agenda — whether it has been successful on its own terms, or whether it has produced bad side effects (I am in the latter camp). The point is that this is how the mainstream Left viewed its own project. And in at least one important regard, the agenda was enormously successful: It mostly pushed the radical fringe outside politics.
We’ve mainly forgotten the 75 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, and when we do remember them, we think of the era as one of corrupt contentment. But there was a radical undercurrent to the politics of the period; at times, it threatened to drag the whole nation down with it. The Populist party called for government seizure of the railroads in 1892, a proposal that William Jennings Bryan endorsed prior to his run for the presidency in 1908. Socialism was a viable political force in the Midwest during this time — Milwaukee elected a socialist mayor in 1910, and Eugene V. Debs put together a coalition of urban and agrarian radicals that accounted for more than 5 percent of the presidential vote in 1912. But after the political success of the New Deal, the economic socialists were not a significant force in electoral politics. FDR and his successors produced a politically satisfactory middle ground between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism.
Something similar happened with the Left on foreign policy during the Cold War. The Democratic party adopted a thoroughly anti-Communist stance that had the effect of boxing out those who did not see the Soviet Union as a threat. The decisive contest over the soul of the Left turned out to be the 1944 vice-presidential contest, when a coalition of southern Democrats, Catholics, and soon-to-be Cold Warriors insisted that Vice President Henry Wallace be denied another term. Instead, Democrats settled on Harry Truman as the heir to FDR. Truman adopted an unapologetically pro-American, interventionist foreign policy, while Wallace was basically exiled from the party. Running as an independent in 1948, he won just 2 percent of the vote.
This was an incredibly successful mix of domestic and foreign policies. Regardless of how Barack Obama saw himself (or how the rest of the country saw him), he can mostly be understood as operating within this Democratic tradition, which links him to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Truman, and Roosevelt.
Bernie Sanders is not part of this tradition and does not see himself as belonging to it, either. Although he caucuses with Democrats in Congress, he sees himself as a democratic socialist. His ideology is not the same as that held by early-20th-century progressives, who wanted to control the means of production. But it’s close enough, in that the confiscatory tax rates Sanders supports would give the state most of the benefits from private enterprise. His domestic agenda is not intended to stabilize our capitalist system and make it fairer; instead, he explicitly seeks to disrupt it.
Take health care. It was one thing for Truman to propose a national health-insurance program in 1949, when health-care expenditures counted for less than 5 percent of GDP. It is quite another for Sanders to call for Medicare for all in an economy where health care is 18 percent of GDP, as it now is. Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal bears little substantive resemblance to the New Deal, which sought to coordinate the existing forces in society to alleviate the Great Depression for the good of all. Ocasio-Cortez’s plan would totally upend society as we have known it.
And as for his foreign policy, Sanders took trips to the USSR, where he publicly criticized the United States. Obviously, the Soviet Union is no more, but a Sanders presidency would fundamentally realign American foreign policy.
The brilliance of the New Deal/post-war liberal project is that it was a progressive agenda for a fundamentally prosperous and reasonably contented people. It was presented to Americans as a way to solve public and social problems without disrupting the pathways of wealth creation and upward mobility that already existed. As Obama said, “you can keep your health insurance if you like it.” That was a lie, but soothing claims such as this have been essential to the post-war liberal program, which goes something like this: If you’re not doing too well, we will help you; if you’re doing really, really well, we’re going to ask you to pitch in a little more; if you’re doing all right, we’ll leave you alone.
This is not what Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are promising. They seem intent on disrupting life for every American, in fundamental ways. This is radicalism, and it has never been politically successful in the United States. There is, of course, a first time for everything. But this would be a first in this nation’s 225-year history.