The unfinished business of the Democratic party is socialism. Don’t take my word for it — consult Bernie Sanders.
Senator Sanders gave a madcap speech in which he ridiculed past conservative critics, beginning with Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan, for characterizing the expansive welfare-state ambitions of the New Deal and the Great Society as movements toward socialism. And then he . . . characterized the expansive welfare-state ambitions of the New Deal and the Great Society as movements toward socialism.
“This is the unfinished business of the Democratic party and the vision we must accomplish,” he said. “These are my values, and that is why I call myself a democratic socialist.”
President Hoover, the prescient man, is owed an apology.
As my colleagues and I recently documented over the course of two special issues of National Review, socialism — not exactly progressivism, certainly not liberalism — is ascendant among Democrats, including Democratic elected officials, and on the American left more generally. Senator Sanders is a declared and avowed socialist, one who is attempting to posthumously recruit the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to his cause. (King took a hard economic turn toward the left in his later years and spoke of socialism on a few occasions, but to deputize him on behalf of the gentleman from the whitest state in the Union is a bit much, and more than a bit unseemly.)
Senator Sanders is not alone in this. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the callow young Democrat from New York, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as is Representative Rashida Tlaib, the Jew-baiting strange-o from Michigan, along with about 40 other candidates who were elected as Democrats in 2018. “We are building a pipeline from local positions all the way to national politics,” the Socialists said in a statement after the 2018 elections. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was hooted and jeered at when he affirmed on the stage of the California Democratic convention that “socialism is not the answer.”
And yet . . .
Ronald Reagan, an FDR man, spent his entire career insisting that he was a New Deal Democrat estranged from his party: “I didn’t leave the Democratic party — the party left me!” Many conservatives see in the tax-cutting, Cold War–fighting John Kennedy a kindred spirit. Much of the Republican criticism directed at the hilariously misnamed Affordable Care Act asserted that it would undermine Medicare, the jewel of Lyndon Johnson’s so-called Great Society program — and some of those Republicans even meant it.
Richard Nixon insisted that by the 1970s we were all Keynesians. Are we all socialists now?
There are two important factors at play here: The first is ignorance of the past, and the second is ignorance of the present.
Socialism is an idea with a history. (And a body count of some 100 million human beings in the 20th century, but leave that aside for the moment.) The most ordinary and traditional kind of government spending is on public goods, which are defined in economics as non-rivalrous and non-excludable in consumption. Think of a missile-defense system: Missile defense is a non-excludable good in that a system that protects the civic-minded taxpaying citizens at No. 7 Main Street also protects the freeloading deadbeats at No. 9 Main Street, whereas a guy selling apples can exclude those who do not pay; it is non-rivalrous in that Smith’s enjoyment of protection from Nork nukes does not diminish Jones’s possible enjoyment of the same, whereas every apple Smith eats leaves one less apple available for Jones.
In theory, spending on such public goods as defense and law enforcement is most of what liberal governments are supposed to do, with some political disagreement over what counts as a public good. (Roads? There are both public and toll models.) In reality, most of what modern liberal governments spend their money on is social welfare, the public provision of non-public goods such as food and education, both of which can be (and historically have been) provided on an ordinary market basis. These are not public goods rigorously defined, but they are publicly provided in practically all modern democracies on the theory that a society as a whole is better off if there is guaranteed universal access to a minimum of them.
The public provision of non-public goods is sometimes described as socialism, but it is distinct in that socialism requires an additional factor: central planning, often but not necessarily in concert with state ownership of the means of production. Food stamps are social welfare, but government-run farms and groceries are socialism; housing-support vouchers are welfare, but government-owned housing projects are socialism. American conservatives spend a fair amount of effort trying to convert or partially convert such genuinely socialistic projects as the monopoly K–12 education system (in which the means of production are state-owned and the workers are state employees) into more conventional social-welfare programs by replacing or augmenting direct-provision models with vouchers or other market-enabling alternatives. There is a significant difference between government funding of services and government provision of services, which is why, for examples, most Republicans have made their peace with Medicare but resist a British-style socialist-monopoly model of health care.
But, then, most European countries resist that model, too, which is why there is no NHS-style national single-payer system in France, Germany, Sweden, etc., and no state-provided health care at all in happy, well-governed Switzerland. And this is where the ignorance of socialism as an idea with a history meets the ignorance of actual political and economic practice in the European states, particularly the Scandinavian ones, that America’s self-proclaimed democratic socialists claim to admire. Senator Sanders et al. point to countries such as Sweden and Denmark and conclude that the lesson to be learned from them is that the United States should do . . . exactly what Senator Sanders et al. always have desired and always will desire to do: enact punitive redistributive taxes notionally targeting the wealthy and corporations (as though middle-class workers, particularly in the public sector, were not major corporate shareholders through their retirement funds) while building new entrenched and centralized bureaucracies to be staffed by comfortable, highly compensated Democratic constituents.
This response to the example of Sweden — which is in many ways a well-governed and prosperous nation — makes sense only if you do not know very much about Sweden. Senator Sanders, for example, desires to radically increase the tax on inheritances for moralistic reasons. Sweden’s inheritance tax is 0.00 percent. Senator Sanders wants to centralize the provision of health care in a federally funded and federally administered cluster of bureaucracies; health care in Sweden is radically decentralized, funded and administered mostly at the local level. Left-leaning Democrats such as Senator Kamala Harris of California have criticized Republicans for not doing enough to cut middle-class taxes (Senator Harris, who does not seem to know how tax refunds work, blasted the 2017 bill as “a middle-class-tax hike”), but what in fact distinguishes the Scandinavian model (and most Western European countries) from the United States is not how they tax the rich but how they tax the middle class — which is to say: They do it. While about half of U.S. households pay no federal income tax, and middle-class households pay relatively little, middle-class earners in Denmark pay about 50 percent in taxes. Taxes in the United States are disproportionately paid by those with high incomes — disproportionately even when you take the income difference into consideration: The top 1 percent takes home less than 20 percent of total income and pays almost 40 percent of federal income taxes. Taxes in the Scandinavian countries fall heavily on the middle classes, which also are the main beneficiaries of the programs those taxes fund.
Senator Sanders is an ideologically blinkered man, and he is not an intellectually curious one. His views have been set since he was honeymooning in the Soviet Union as a young man, and his speeches and writing testify that he simply lacks the intellectual capacity for growth and change. Sweden has changed radically since the 1970s, but Bernie Sanders has stood still in time, an irritable red ant suspended in amber.
But the so-called intellectuals of the Democrats’ new socialist vanguard have no such excuse. Some of them are simply dim and poorly educated (poorly but expensively, in the case of Representative Ocasio-Cortez), but many of them are intellectually dishonest. A particularly dishonest young socialist writer with something of a following recently published an income-disparity ranking of countries that was supposed to show how the Scandinavians had cracked the inequality problem. And Northern Europe was well represented on the list, which also included France, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Estonia, among other nations, in the top ten. Which is to say, the top ten countries represented radically different modes of government, radically different health-care systems, different labor markets, and different tax systems (Switzerland, for example, does not tax capital gains, something our progressive Europhiles rarely mention), to say nothing of radically different cultures. (And many scholars of governance agree that culture is a key ingredient in the Scandinavian secret sauce.) But even among the Nordic countries, there are very large differences: Iceland, for example, has one of the world’s highest work-force-participation rates; Finland’s is down about where ours is, and ours is higher than the overall EU rate. There isn’t a single, unified policy story to be derived from all that diversity.
But that is beside the point, for the Democrats. What Senator Sanders stands for is the continuation of a very old and very dumb kind of politics: adolescent anti-Americanism. It does not matter that Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland have fundamentally different political and economic models: These countries are only rhetorical cat’s-paws deployed in the fundamental progressive project: establishing that the United States and its institutions are hopelessly corrupt, and that they may therefore be cleared away to make room for something new. In this regard, the energetically nationalistic Franklin D. Roosevelt is a poor model for them — their actual lineage traces to Woodrow Wilson, whose racism and warmongering make him an unattractive totem but whose frank rejection of the Constitution and the founding principles of the nation presages their own. In this way, the socialist renaissance may be understood as distinct from the broader progressive project but also subsumed within it. The overall economic model is essentially the Democrats’ health-care model writ large: Destroy and discredit what’s there, and then . . . improvise.
Senator Sanders, in his speech, gives some thought to the Constitution — and finds it wanting. What good is the Bill of Rights, he asks, when one must struggle so hard for mere material existence? “Are you truly free if you are forced to work 60 or 80 hours a week?” The median American work week is, as of this writing, less than 35 hours a week, significantly lower than it was in 1980. What in fact distinguishes low-income households is not on average that they have too many hours of work to do but that they have too few: Only 40 percent of the working-age poor (those below the federal poverty line) in 2014 worked at all. Among those who do work, many are involuntarily relegated to part-time or seasonal work. High-income households average more work hours, not fewer, than low-income households. The unemployment rate for those without a bachelor’s degree is twice that of those with one. The problem the poor face is not long hours at the salt mine but unemployment.
But what are a few inconvenient facts when there’s a utopia to be built?
And that is the proper context in which to understand what it is that Senator Sanders et al. stand for. They may, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, roll out 55 five-point policy proposals per hour, offering them with varying degrees of seriousness, but theirs is fundamentally a negative platform. What they hate and wish to liquidate is the system of markets, trade, law, regulation, and taxes that we call, for lack of a better term, “capitalism,” and their reasons are as much tribal (they resent the social status conferred by wealth as least as much as the political power attending it), moral, and aesthetic as they are economic. But their policy proposals are almost always the same: “Pillage the rich and create a lot of new public-sector jobs for me and my friends.” And that much has remained constant whether they call themselves liberals, progressives, or socialists.
Socialists used to care a great deal about history — “historical materialism,” they called their big metaphysical idea. Something for Senator Sanders to contemplate in his waterfront dacha.
This article appears as “The Socialist Party Reborn” in the July 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.