Yoav Frommer, a leftist who teaches American history in Israel, argues in the Washington Post that Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism might well become the mainstream view of the Democratic Party before long. I think he’s right. And if he is, it’s likely that the natural course of politics will produce a Bernie Sanders style president and congressional majority in the not too distant future.
And why not? It has happened throughout Western Europe. Great Britain, the nation most akin to ours, descended into socialism pretty rapidly.
Moreover, the attraction of socialism is easy to understand. In effect, it offers the promise of taking wealth from people who, by and large, have earned a lot of it and giving the proceeds to people who have not. Because the latter group vastly outnumbers the former, the mass appeal is obvious.
Socialism means more than wealth redistribution, though. In exchange for the promise of massive redistribution, the government seizes influence and power from wealth producers. To one extent or another, it seizes control of the means of production.
This too has appeal. The wealthy aren’t just resented for their assets, they are resented for their power.
How has the U.S. largely avoided socialism? What is the source of our “exceptionalism?”
Two things, in my opinion. First, our free enterprise system has been mostly a brilliant success. It has endowed generation after generation and immigrant wave after immigrant wave with a decent and ever-improving standard of living.
Second, liberals have redistributed income and influence without adopting socialism, at least in its full blown version. Even the New Deal, with its socialist components, was a less radical response to the Great Depression than what Norman Thomas and his fellow members of the Socialist Party were calling for (and what many European countries adopted). The redistributionist impulse was satisfied without the true toppling of an economic system in which most people retained faith.
Obamacare is a classic example of the liberal alternative to out-and-out socialism. Unlike in Canada, Britain, and France, there is no single (i.e., government) payer system. Instead, there is a half-baked, unsuccessful attempt to approach universal coverage through markets (of a sort).
The main feature, though, is income redistribution through subsidies. For example, some of the economically better-off buy insurance they don’t need in order to subsidize insurance for some of the less-well-off.
Unfortunately, the conditions that have helped us ward off socialism prevail less and less these days. First, there are widespread doubts as to whether our watered-down free enterprise system is delivering or will deliver a good and ever-improving standard of living for most.
One can debate why these doubts may be well-founded. Is it because of global competition? Is it down to the erosion of free enterprise by liberalism? Is social pathology among the lower classes to blame?
Whatever the reason, the view — widely expressed by presidential candidates of both political parties — that the present generation of young Americans faces a substantial risk of being the first not to live as well as their parents provides a potent temptation to embrace socialism. The Sanders campaign shows that many are embracing it (albeit in some cases with no real understanding of what socialism is).
In addition, the liberal elites are no longer much interested in finding creative ways to fend off socialism. They want to increase their power. Having taken almost as much power as they can via liberalism, the time feels ripe for them to reach for the economy’s commanding heights.
What will it take to avoid socialism? The best hope is to elect a new Reagan — a president who will double down on free enterprise and (with luck) issue in a new era of sustained prosperity.
But even in this scenario, socialism will only be warded off for so long. I’m afraid that at some point millennials will have to learn the hard way that socialism doesn’t work. Fortunately, if the socialism of future Bernie Sanders types is truly democratic, it can then be reversed, at least in part.