Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The sand of American Socialism - why Trump's poisonous politics will fail

Reporting on Trump’s State of the Union address, CNBC tells us to Expect Trump to make more ‘socialism’ jabs as he faces tough 2020 re-election fight. Indeed, Trump’s address added nothing to what he, and the Republicans, have been ranting about for years.

Republicans have tied Democratic lawmakers to socialism for decades. Critics have cast expansions of state power, from the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act, as moves toward government control of just about everything.

For example, back in October, the Business Insider reported that Trump rails against ‘radical socialist’ Democrats in blistering op-ed.

President Donald Trump wrote a blistering op-ed in USA Today on Wednesday [Oct. 10, 2018] attacking Democrats as “radical socialists” and accusing them of being a great danger to “every single citizen” before the midterm elections in November.

Trump’s rare opinion column railed against Democrats’ proposals for healthcare, which he painted as a rip-off for US seniors who have paid into the existing Medicare system their whole lives.

“Government-run health care is just the beginning,” Trump wrote. “Democrats are also pushing massive government control of education, private-sector businesses and other major sectors of the U.S. economy.”

“Every single citizen will be harmed by such a radical shift in American culture and life,” he wrote.

However, the only thing new is Trump’s usual bombastic rhetorical excess.

The majority of the complaints Trump brought against Democrats actually echoed long-standing Republican gripes against the big-government approach of their opposition, …

However #2,

While the Democratic Party has seen a rise in self-identified socialists running for — and winning — seats, the party at large remains largely committed to a free market economy. In the US, the term socialism often becomes conflated with public welfare programs run from tax revenues generated by free market enterprise, as opposed to a system with solely state-owned businesses.

To the best of my knowledge, no one on the current Democratic stage is advocating “a system with solely state-owned businesses.” Rather, the Democrats have tended to moderate the excesses of a totally free market in areas like public health, environmental protection, and equal educational opportunities. And those efforts have proven to be quite popular.

So, given Trump’s distortions and his intentional mis-portrayal of American socialism, I sought to learn more about “socialism” in American and its roots and current status.

A brief history of American Socialism

Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and New Yorker author, chronicles the roots of American socialism in Eugene V. Debs and the Endurance of Socialism. Half man, half myth, Debs turned a radical creed into a deeply American one. Excerpts follow.

Eugene Victor Debs left school at the age of fourteen, to scrape paint and grease off the cars of the Vandalia Railroad, in Indiana, for fifty cents a day. …

Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison. …

Debs, who wrote a lot about manliness, always said that the best kind of man was a sand man. “ ‘Sand’ means grit,” he wrote in 1882, in Firemen’s Magazine. “It means the power to hold on.” When a train stalled from the steepness of the incline or the weight of the freight, railroad men poured sand on the tracks, to improve the grip of the wheels. Men need sand, too, Debs said: “Men who have plenty of ‘sand’ in their boxes never slip on the path of duty.” Debs had plenty of sand in his box. He had, though, something of a morbid fear of ashes. Maybe that’s a fireman’s phobia, a tending-the-engine man’s idea of doom. In prison—having been sentenced, brutally, to ten years of hard time at the age of sixty-three—he had a nightmare. “I was walking by the house where I was born,” he wrote. “The house was gone and nothing left but ashes … only ashes—ashes!” The question today for socialism in the United States, which appears to be stoking its engines, is whether it’s got enough sand. Or whether it’ll soon be ashes, only ashes, all over again.

There is good reason for that worry.

After Debs, socialism endured in the six-time Presidential candidacy of his successor, Norman Thomas. But it endured far more significantly in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In the decades since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, many of those reforms have been undone, monopolies have risen again, and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’s lifetime. …

… Debs spoke out against the war [WW I] as soon as it began. “I am opposed to every war but one,” he said. “I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.” Bernie Sanders recorded this speech for his 1979 documentary. And, as a member of the Senate, Sanders said it again. “There is a war going on in this country,” he declared on the floor of the Senate in 2010, in a speech of protest that lasted more than eight hours. “I am not referring to the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country.”

Debs was arrested in Cleveland in 1918, under the terms of the 1917 Espionage Act, for a speech protesting the war that he had given two weeks earlier, on June 16th, in Canton, Ohio. …

Debs’ conviction was as much about protesting the war on middle class workers as it was about protesting the America’s entry into the first world war. Debs never recovered from his harsh imprisonment and died in a sanatorium in 1926.

The question remains 100 years after Debs was sentenced to prison for protesting the war : Does the socialist movement in 2019 have sand? Now that the socialist movement has a new face and a new voice, the former Sanders campaign worker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we shall see.

The new Trumpist war on socialism

E. J. Dione (Washington Post) takes issue with “socialism” as Trump’s latest dirty word in asserting that Trump’s war on socialism will fail. Here is why.

"We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”

Political scientist Mason B. Williams cited this cheeky but accurate comment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point easily lost in the new war on socialism that President Trump has launched: Socialism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the market system alive.

Going back to the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans, socialists and liberal reformers, worked together to humanize the system’s workings and to find creative ways to solve problems capitalism alone couldn’t. This has been well documented in separate books written by historians Daniel T. Rodgers and James T. Kloppenberg. “The New Deal,” Rodgers wrote, “was a great, explosive release of the pent-up agenda of the progressive past.”

Think about this when pondering the Green New Deal put forward last week by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y). It’s sweeping and adventurous. There is virtually no way it will become law as long as Republicans control the Senate and Trump is president. And if something like it eventually does get enacted, there will be many compromises and rewrites.

But there would be no social reform, ever, if those seeking change were too timid to go big and allowed cries of “socialism” to intimidate them.

In his State of the Union address last week, Trump cast himself as Horatius at the bridge standing against the Red Menace: “We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Yet in referring to “new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he had a point. Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won more than 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.

We should be clear that Trump’s words are entirely about reelection politics. He wants to tar all Democrats as “socialists” and then define socialism as antithetical to American values. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control,” he declared. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Cue Lee Greenwood.

But attacking socialism isn’t the cakewalk it used to be. During the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Americans with the s-word because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered a powerful example of the oppression that state control of all of the means of production could unleash.

The Soviet Union, however, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is communist on paper but a wildly unequal crony capitalist dictatorship in practice. Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate “socialism” with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.

The 2018 PRRI American Values Survey offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as “a system of government that provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support and access to free higher education,” essentially a description of social democracy. The other was the full Soviet dose: “a system where the government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation and communications industries.”

You might say that socialism is winning the branding war: Fifty-four percent said socialism was about those public benefits, while just 43 percent picked the version that stressed government domination. Americans ages 18 to 29, for whom Cold War memories are dim to nonexistent, were even more inclined to define socialism as social democracy: Fifty-eight percent of them picked the soft option, 38 percent the hard one.

Oh, yes, and on those tax increases that conservatives love to hate — and associate with socialism of the creeping kind — a Fox News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans favored raising taxes on families with incomes of over $10 million.

Trump will still probably get some traction with his attacks on socialism. And progressives should remember that social democratic ideas associated with fairness and expanding individual freedoms — to get health care or go to college, for example — are more popular than those restricting choice.

Nonetheless, Jerome Frank was right: Those slurred as socialists really do have a good track record of making capitalism work better and more justly. The s-word is not now, and, in its democratic forms, never should have been, an obscenity.

A 20/20 vision for our social democracy

By the time Debs ran for president in 1912, socialists had accomplished much in the way of socioeconomic reforms.

“This is our year,” Debs said in 1912, and it was, in the sense that nearly a million Americans voted for him for President. But 1912 was also socialism’s year in the sense that both the Democratic and the Republican parties embraced progressive reforms long advocated by socialists (and, for that matter, populists): women’s suffrage, trust-busting, economic reform, maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and the direct election of U.S. senators. As Debs could likely perceive a couple of years later, when the Great War broke out in Europe, 1912 was to be socialism’s high-water mark in the United States. “You may hasten Socialism,” he said, “you may retard it, but you cannot stop it.” Except that socialism had already done most of what it would do in the United States in those decades: it had reformed the two major parties.

And it may do so again.

I began a recent post “with some progressive goals which I think we can agree upon [from Jennifer Rubin.]”

The goals that virtually everyone in the field has set — expanding health care, combating global warming, equalizing educational opportunities, passing comprehensive immigration reform, enacting gun safety laws — are very popular.

On every one of these, the party of Trump has staked out policy positions that are anti-popular - and acted on them to the detriment of the nation. We can win those battles.

We just need to recognize the power of those popular goals and act on the sand by which American Socialism achieves it traction.

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