Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Republican Fixation on Sanders’ Socialism Misses the Point

Governments were intervening for the common good before
the first socialist theories were invented.
I know many of you Republicans right now are fixated on the awful prospect of Donald Trump becoming the party nominee for President. It may be of some comfort that the Democrats are also displaying cracks in their unity along much the same lines: they too are going through a revolt of the Populists against the Optimates. The only difference is, their Optimate candidate, Hillary Clinton, is in a much better position to steal — er, win the nomination than is the Republicans’ Optimate, Jeb! Bush. (However, if Clinton gets the nod, Republicans have a better chance of winning in November.)

Sanders Still Viable

Right now, though, explaining how we got to this point is of less interest than considering how we get out of this mess … or, at least, how we avoid repeating it four years down the line. Bernie Sanders is still a viable candidate, despite the poor turnout in Nevada; if he pulls off the nomination, the GOP will likely lose the White House no matter who they nominate.

This fact doesn’t seem to register with Republicans: Optimate Democrats are much less concerned about Sanders than Optimate Republicans are scared (yes, scared) of Trump and Cruz. There are fewer Democrats who would never vote for him than there are Republicans who would never vote for Trump or Cruz.

I hate writing about Sanders’ candidacy again so soon after my last post on the topic. However, in thinking about it, my last post was too indirect, too reflective. What needs to be said, has to be said bluntly:

Republicans, wake the [deleted] up. You’re missing the point.  You’re not paying attention, and that’s going to cost you every other November until you get the hint. Here’s why:

1) The millennials aren’t scared by the word socialist.

Hard as it may be for us veterans of the Cold War to realize it, we have to remember that people born after 1980 weren’t raised with the baggage of the decades-long struggle with the Soviet Union. Glasnost and perestroika are words devoid of any emotional content, to say nothing of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was all a quarter-century and more ago.

The Eastern Bloc is no more; China is Communist in name only; Vietnam is the millennials’ grandfathers’ war; relations with Cuba are normalizing; Khadafy is only a vague memory; North Korea is merely a question mark with an odd-duck dictator. Socialist simply doesn’t have the scare value that transphobic or misogynist have nowadays. Calling Sanders a pinko commie just dates you, my friend; go back to smoking your pipe and listening to your Lawrence Welk 45s.

2) Socialism is not the same thing as communism.

I may be fooling myself; but I seem to remember a time when conservatives were somewhat more economically sophisticated, and could discuss different flavors of socialism without sludging them together. Many could even concede that the variety found in many northern European countries worked, though under some conditions which we wouldn’t tolerate in our country. Some might argue that European socialism isn’t “pure” or “classic”, but they didn’t pretend it was all of a piece with the socialism of the Eastern Bloc. Some could even admit that the American system contained some socialist elements.

Twenty-five years of simplistic economic and historical analysis by reactionary blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter have softened the Republican mind. Point out that ten out of eleven countries the conservative Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom listed as having more economic freedom than the US also have universal health care, and you’re likely to get a blank look and a “But that’s socialist!” … as if that were a sufficient rebuttal. Or you might get a picture of a ravaged city in Venezuela, as if you couldn’t substitute for it a picture of Detroit.

I’m not about to go off on a tangent here. Suffice it to say: read up on socialism. If nowhere else, start with the Wikipedia article; if Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate or reliable, at least you’ll be less misinformed than you are now. Communism is simply the most extreme form; equating all socialism with either Soviet Russia or present-day Venezuela is like equating all forms of Christianity with Westboro Baptist or the Alamo Christian Foundation.

3) Bernie addresses the “wealth gap”; you don’t.

The Great Recession of 2008 didn’t just devastate large portions of the Rust Belt and throw millions of workers out of work; it also shook the faith of many people in the tenets of economics in general and of free-market economics in specific. Artur Rosman states that 2008 “was when so many of us became aware that ... the correlation with reality, the scientific and predictive value of economics, is almost nil.” This is a sentiment I’ve seen echoed in various places and to varying degrees by economists and businessmen, such as Tyler Cowen, Liam Halligan, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

More and more attention is being paid to income inequality. As I’ve noted elsewhere, more billionaires are worrying about the US wealth gap, such as Warren Buffett, Lloyd Blankfein, and (more recently) Kenneth Langone. Just two years ago, French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which argued that rising inequality inhibits economic growth, took the nation by storm. Even Paul Krugman has come to the realization that the bottom and middle classes need to be paid more. In a recent post on economic stagnation, Lawrence H. Summers argued that monetary policy is no longer effective at stimulating the economy, and that inequality would have to be addressed to stimulate demand.

The Republican solutions to the problems of the economy — cut taxes; cut social spending; deregulate the financial industry (again) — pretend that the financial sector meltdown never happened. In this blog, I’ve documented a couple of cases where conservative writers claimed that income inequality is a good thing, that liberals focus on it to wage class war, and that the best way to create jobs is to lower the minimum wage. None of the Republican candidates have shown any appreciable concern for income inequality, or crony capitalism, or regulatory capture, or the disappearance of the middle class (except Marco Rubio, to a limited degree).

So take issue with Sanders’ ideas for free college and universal health care, by all means. Scream about taxing corporate offshore income or Wall Street speculation, if you think it’ll get you any sympathy. The point is, Sanders is addressing the working poor’s concerns; whether his plans will work or not is almost irrelevant. By contrast, Republicans are hiding behind outdated, shopworn buzzwords and flat-earth economic dogmas.

The End of the Reagan Revolution

We who were children in the Sixties and Seventies are cursed with the baggage of the Cold War and the Vietnam era, with a worldview framed by the clash between capitalism and communism, the Establishment of the World War II veterans and the Counterculture of the flower children. But we’re also victims of our own mythmaking, our re-writing of the ten years between Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a validation of Capitalism and the final argument against Socialism. We endlessly repeat Santayana’s dictum about not remembering the past; however, what we remember is not the reality of the time but a two-dimensional, somewhat romanticized picture of it.

Universal health care, free college, and other Sanders proposals don’t require a police state, a Gulag system, or a KGB. Indeed, we’ve already been driven close to instituting these totalitarian aberrations by our own fears of terrorism, illegal immigrants, and the criminal element. Nor do they require armed revolution and the dispossession of the rich; they merely require the appropriate legislation and some higher taxation of the 1%. Indeed, some of the taxes may drive real capital investment and job creation, rather than mere speculation on price fluctuations. At any rate, other First World countries have managed to introduce universal health care and even subsidized college education without collapsing into economic wastelands.

But the reason socialism in any and all of its varieties holds any attraction for young people is that they purpose to offer solutions to economic injustice. Setting aside the question of whether any of them do solve economic injustice, or even ameliorate it, they would hardly be considered if everyone thought the present system yielded a just and reasonable society. Au contraire, mes frères: many people, both old and young, feel the present system allows the gradual robbery of the lower and middle classes by the 1%, with the active connivance of a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Telling people that they deserve to be robbed because they’re lazy, ignorant, and make poor decisions is the worst politics imaginable; it’s the sort of obtuse insensitivity that leads one to say, “Let them eat cake.” If you remember history at all, you should remember what happened to the last rich person who said that.