Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

Socialism for Dummies

When I first heard that Debbie Wasserman Schultz couldn’t explain to Chris Matthews the difference between what Democrats believe and what socialists believe, I chalked it up to her incompetence. Schultz is not exactly Isaiah Berlin when it comes to philosophical sophistication. Heck, she’s not even in Irving Berlin’s league.

True story: During World War II, Isaiah Berlin was based out of the British embassy in Washington, D.C., where he wrote weekly memos on the state of the war. In the spring of 1944, Winston Churchill heard that Berlin was in London. He sent word that he would like to have the great intellectual come to lunch. Berlin eagerly accepted and the two had a pleasant meal. “Mr. Berlin,” Churchill asked, “what is the most important piece of work you have done for us lately, in your opinion?”

Berlin pondered the question for a moment and then replied, “‘White Christmas,’ I guess.”

The invitation had gone to the wrong “I. Berlin.”

The legendary songwriter still offered an intelligent answer or two about what was going on in the States and whether he thought Roosevelt would be reelected. It wasn’t at all clear to me that Ms. Schultz could manage even that much.

But it turns out that the head of the Democratic party punted on Matthews’s question not out of ignorance, but by design. Several days later, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked Schultz the same question. And, again, she refused to answer. Having had days to prepare, she could have answered the question if she had wanted to. The fact is that she didn’t.

And the reason is obvious: For Democrats, “socialist” is not a bad word anymore. Socialist senator Bernie Sanders may still be trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, but by less every day. And even if he never overtakes her, his legions of followers will not truck with any badmouthing of their cause.

Truth be told, “socialism” hasn’t been a bad word for Democrats in quite a while, at least not when Democrats use it. In the early days of the Obama era — by which I mean the rush to coronate him, as well as his first years in office — liberals played an annoying game of doublespeak. They were happy to celebrate the opportunities for “massive socialism” — Matt Yglesias’s words — under Obama’s rule, but they shrieked “McCarthyism!” whenever conservatives agreed that Obama might be a socialist.

In January 2009, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham co-authored a cover story titled “We’re All Socialists Now” pointing to the massive growth of government expected under Obama. By May, he was mocking conservatives for even suggesting that Obama was a “crypto-socialist.”

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson — an avowed socialist — wrote in March 2009: “Take it from a democratic socialist: Laissez-faire American capitalism is about to be supplanted not by socialism but by a more regulated, viable capitalism. And the reason isn’t that the woods are full of secret socialists who are only now outing themselves.” But one month later, after some polls showed that young people were indeed outing themselves as socialists (partly in backlash against conservative demonization of the term), Meyerson celebrated the coming era of social democracy, defined by the very kind of regulation of capitalism that he had claimed — a month earlier — distinguished liberal capitalism from socialism.

The simple fact is that ever since progressives renamed — and misnamed — themselves “liberals,” what we call “liberalism” has been the respectable face of socialist ideology. By refusing to commit to any limiting principle on what the government can accomplish — or try to accomplish — while simultaneously advancing the socialist cause piecemeal, liberals get to pretend that they subscribe to a different dogma. They’re like the erudite host at a fancy restaurant who explains the dishes that the unkempt socialist chefs are cooking up in the kitchen. You can’t dump socialism on people all at once, like some gaudy Las Vegas buffet: You need to serve it delicately, in digestible bites.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., supposedly one of the great intellectual architects of 20th-century liberalism, once admitted that “there seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.” The tactic has never lost its efficacy. Former congressman Barney Frank, another reputed intellectual titan of American liberalism, admitted that he saw Obamacare as little more than a down payment on the real goal: the “public option” — a sanitized label for the Holy Grail of all socialists, socialized medicine.

This is the carrot tactic of liberal elites: lie to the public — and perhaps even to yourself — about what your endgame really is. But there’s also a stick. Salon writer Conor Lynch recently wrote that the “1 percent” should back Sanders “if they hope to avoid a truly radical movement in the future.” Lynch then retold a familiar story (one that I recount at length in my book Liberal Fascism) about how the “pragmatic” Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the welfare state to stave off calls for even greater radicalism. FDR (like Woodrow Wilson before him) adapted this Bismarckian tactic to the American scene. In the 1960s, it was replayed again, with Great Society intellectuals minting new programs as fast as they could to head off the rioting mobs.

But these incremental advances are never enough. Why should socialism be considered more necessary after nearly seven years of Obama’s “pragmatic” statism?

The answer is that such pragmatism should more properly be called “appeasement.” Liberals point to the mob and say, Give them something or it will be the fire next time. Winston Churchill might have been confused by the Berlins, but he saw this tactic for what it is: the art of feeding the alligator one limb at a time.

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