Editor’s column: Are we ready for … socialism?
When my son was in eighth or ninth grade, he did a social studies paper on why socialism didn’t catch on in the United States.
I’ve been reminded of that as Bernie Sanders, elected to the U.S. Senate as an independent who dares say he is a democratic socialist, runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. You would think someone who declares he is a socialist running for president in America would be run out of town, but he’s drawing big crowds and making big jumps in polling of Iowa and New Hampshire voters.
Like Donald Trump on the Republican side, but with more tact and much more consistency in his record — and an actual record of public service — Sanders answers a hunger in the electorate for a candidate who doesn’t compromise to focus groups and poll numbers.
He tantalizes the left wing of the Democratic Party, which lacks a strong alternative to Hillary Clinton and her high negative favorability ratings, though she remains well ahead in polling.
The probability of his actually winning the nomination aside, Sanders’ candidacy raises the question of whether significant numbers of Americans still wounded by the Great Recession and angry about growing income inequality might be willing to embrace a socialist.
When socialism caught on in various forms in Europe around the dawn of the 20th century, Americans weren’t nearly as desperate as the Europeans. The high tide for socialists in national politics here was in 1912, when Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the presidential vote.
For white people, at least, the United States lacked “feudal remnants, especially fixed social classes,” Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks wrote in “It Didn’t Happen Here; Why Socialism Failed in the United States.”
We also had democracy, at least for white males, from near the birth of the nation, and a rhetoric of equality in our founding documents.
Critically, our ancestors lived in a land of plenty, including open land, which Europe lacked. Though it was extraordinarily difficult, Americans could make their own way from the land, which afforded a level of freedom, and stoked both the American dream of upward mobility and our prized individualism.
Having broken away from a monarchy and able to simply move west to carve out a new life, the idea of government ownership was anathema, at least in theory, even though the federal government owns much of the West.
All of this, plus the horrible examples of socialism and communism set by the Soviet Union and other adopters, inoculated the United States against it.
And yet … a principle of political science is that the American two-party system absorbs and mainstreams ideas on the edges of the political spectrum. They are threats to the two parties and the powers that be, so they must be adopted, softened and wrapped in the flag.
The Great Depression, following a time of great income inequity and growing labor agitation that was allied with American socialist movements, threatened the country.
Franklin Roosevelt, accused by Republicans of being a socialist, denied that but adopted social welfare policies including works programs, wage and hour laws, Social Security and more.
For years after World War II, until the Reagan revolution, we had extremely progressive tax rates, with the richest Americans’ income tax rate at 90 percent in the ’50s, 70 percent from 1965-1982 and still 50 percent during Reagan’s first term — where Israel and Canada’s rates stand today, though Canadians also face a surcharge for that awful national health care plan of theirs.
Jennifer Jacobs, chief political writer at the Des Moines Register and a former colleague, asked Sanders this summer if this is a time in history when Americans might be drawn to support socialist principles.
His response, in part: “You don’t have to worry about the word ‘socialist’ — but just look at what I’m talking about. If you go out and ask the American people: Is it right that the middle class continues to disappear while there has been a massive transfer of wealth from working families to the top one-tenth of 1 percent? Trillions of dollars in the last 30 years have flown from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. And the American people say, ‘No, that’s not right.’
“And if you ask the American people: Do you think it’s right that despite an explosion of technology and an increase in worker productivity, the average worker is working longer hours for low wages? They say no.
“And what the American people are saying pretty loudly and clearly is they want an economy that works for ordinary Americans. For working people. Not an economy where almost all of the income and all of the wealth is going to the top 1 percent.”
This populist anger is felt on both sides of the political spectrum. While the Democratic Party has moved to adopt fiscally conservative principles, it can’t out-conservative the party of the conservatives and has alienated some liberals.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have moved to absorb the ideas at the far right of the spectrum, though it appears that the greater weight is in the extreme ideas and the party finds the gravitational pull of the Palins, Limbaughs and Trumps difficult to break.
Sanders is unlikely to win the nomination. If Clinton falters because of, say, a criminal investigation, Joe Biden lurks in the wings. But the ideas of the people drawn to Sanders aren’t going away — nor are the extremes on the right.
Bush promised to be a uniter. Obama sought post-partisan politics. Both failed.
We must find common ground someday. As much as both sides are digging in their heels, the alternative to coming together is the worst of all possible outcomes. Who is the candidate who can help us do that?
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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