As Democrats now openly flirt with programs like a $30 minimum wage, Medicare for All, confiscatory tax rates for top earners, and a “Green New Deal” their hard left turn is no longer a matter for esoteric discernment. It’s fairly clear. Yet, using a well-worn playbook, Republicans can only lamely counter that these policies are varieties of “socialism,” and therefore unworkable and inefficient.
Attacks on the Democratic wunderkind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as the party’s standard-bearer for socialism have appeared in memes and on editorial pages, but these attacks frequently boomerang and give her exactly the kind of free media she wants. She welcomes her opponents’ hatred. It feeds her. This is because labeling AOC a socialist does not persuade anyone who isn’t already opposed to her and, besides, it misses the real problem with her socialism: its motive.
Younger Voters Don’t Remember the Socialism of the USSR
For Baby Boomer Republicans, fear of socialism is entirely natural. During the Cold War of their youth, the Soviet Union was the major force of socialism in the world. While the regime captured the imagination of many Western intellectuals, most Americans found its impoverishment, drabness, and political oppression anathema. The gulag camps and mass murders did not fully disappear until the regime fell, and the images of poverty and long bread lines were a testament to the socialist system’s faults. Anti-Soviet rhetoric emphasized our traditions of freedom, private property, and respect for religion, and these positions were shared by both political parties until recently.
Critiques of the Democrats’ turn towards socialism have the melody of mere nostalgia. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Many Generation X and most Millennial voters do not remember the Cold War. Unlike World War II and the Holocaust, its memory has not been kept alive in popular culture and films. For these Americans, it has about as much resonance as the Spanish-American War.
A neutral disposition to socialism also holds true for many immigrants and their children. In countries such as China, India, or even Mexico, socialism is not a dirty word. These countries have their own political traditions, often with Communist and socialist parties serving openly and prominently. Little in the American education system of today teaches these newcomers (or their children) the genius of the American system as residing in its traditions of limited government. And with the end of the Cold War, these themes all but disappeared from political rhetoric. Instead, the challenge of radical Islam has encouraged both parties to emphasize America’s traditions of democracy and tolerance.
Neither democracy nor tolerance are obviously at odds with proposals like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. When younger supporters of socialism imagine examples, they think of Western European countries, where free college education and health care are the norm, and there are fewer visible signs of social disorder and inequality, like the insane homeless people who roam the streets of America’s cities. They dismiss the Soviet example as an aberration.
Voters are More Open to Socialism Because of Economic Struggles
In addition to the positive-seeming European examples, “late-stage capitalism” of the American type has less appeal than it once did.
Continuing high levels of personal debt, the pain of the 2008 recession, widening inequality, and the concentration of wealth and power among a class of American oligarchs have made the prospect of individual economic progress more uncertain. The nation is less entrepreneurial than it used to be, and the pathway of small retail business ownership has been decimated by the rise of discount stores and online shopping.
Previously, intergenerational economic mobility functioned as a safety valve. The prospect of future advances made diminished circumstances in the present bearable. We all know of doctors and professionals whose parents and grandparents worked as janitors, seamstresses, factory workers, and farmers. Today, this appears to be less common. The managerial elite can employ a variety of strategies to preserve their station and make expensive credentialing more out of reach for strivers in the middle and working classes.
The economic gaps have a regional character, too. In many parts of “flyover country,” crumbling facades on Main Street are a testament to a time when things really were better. Donald Trump appealed to this group and its interests through his trade and immigration policies. While Trump has not endorsed socialism, he has dropped the mindless repetition of old Republican formulas, like getting rid of entitlements or Jeb Bush’s tin eared comment that he would “like to see more millionaires.” Things have changed, and we live in a country where many people would be happy making $40,000 a year plus health insurance.
The polling data shows that socialism’s appeal is at an all-time high. A 2018 Gallup poll reported that 57 percent of Democrats “now view socialism positively . . . .” The same study notes that young people in particular have a positive view of socialism, “Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51 percent) as they are about capitalism (45 percent). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68 percent viewed it positively.” One would think the growing economy, which is finally encouraging some wage growth, would dampen the appeal of socialism. But the rising tide is not lifting all boats and, as always, some people would rather obtain giveaways.
The Republican critics have mocked the socialist designs of Ocasio-Cortez, and before her those of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), equating them with the failures of Venezuela and the dreariness of the Soviet Union. But these critics are talking past the new proponents of socialism. They gloss over the relative normalcy of Western European socialist-leaning regimes and are somewhat tongue-tied in addressing the popular New Deal and the tradition of a safety net. This point-and-sputter rhetoric will do little to gain new converts.
Instead of Calling AOC Socialist, Call Her Anti-White
The real problem with Ocasio-Cortez is the racial politics at the heart of her economics. With her, as with Obama, there is a thread of resentment and revenge aimed at legacy America in all of her policies and rhetoric.
The uniformed new Democratic ladies of Congress could muster little charity towards the causes and heroes that used to unite Americans, like our astronauts or the veterans of World War II. For Ocasio-Cortez, whites are privileged—even poor whites from Appalachia or D-Day veterans who had their legs blown off—and economic justice requires reversing these privileges.
As Ocasio-Cortez put it, “And we can all—almost every single person this country can acknowledge some privilege of some type, you know? . . . But it’s really hard for some people to admit. It’s part of this weird American dream mythology that we have, that for a lot of, in a lot of circumstances isn’t as true or isn’t as clearly communicated as we’d like for it to be, or we wish it were.”
Trump won, in part, by acknowledging the pain, frustrations, and lack of privilege among legacy America. They have been under stress from a combination of policies designed to diminish their numbers and their influence. Their decline is made worse by triumphant articles declaring whites will soon be a minority, as if this were simply a naturally occurring phenomenon, and not a result of policies that provide economic benefits to large businesses and political power to the increasingly anti-white Democratic Party.
In response to this, Republicans falter by accepting the moral framework of the Left. The Left calls ordinary policies—immigration control, tax cuts, and arresting criminals—racist and evil. Instead of rejecting this ever-expanding concept of racism as the summum bonum of politics, most Republicans jump to the same tune. When accused of racism they either denying the charge, or, idiotically, bring up long-abandoned aspects of the Democratic Party of yesteryear as proof of its enduring racism. Rarely is the table turned by questioning the morality of the Democrats’ envy-driven hatred for legacy America. By contrast, when a reporter asked Trump what he would say in response to Ocasio-Cortez’s claim he is racist, the president demonstrated his good instincts by responding, “Who cares?”
Although Trump’s State of the Union was imperfect, it was effective in this regard: he appealed to heroic moments and people from the America of yesteryear. In the process, he articulated a big-tent civic nationalism that implicitly recognizes the equal worth of all Americans.
The entirety of the leftist narrative is that America is irredeemably evil under the rubric of various modern “isms” like racism, sexism, and now cisgenderism. Instead of accepting this critique, Trump reminded legacy America that it is a people with much to be proud of, not least in its generosity to minorities and the oppressed. More important, that legacy America has a right to exist and flourish as a people, and the purpose of the government is to secure that people’s existence and flourishing. Far from the leftist Democrats having the moral high ground, their program is both dangerous and deeply immoral, rooted in a blood libel and hostility against an entire people.
America was born as a commercial republic. But the people’s support for limited government and free-market economic policies was fundamentally practical and rooted in the belief that these policies were advantageous not only to the cause of good government but also in the service of their own interests. The Great Depression led to the wholesale abandonment of traditional limits on federal power in the face of a persistent economic emergency that shattered faith in “hands off” government policies. Abstract arguments about socialism had little weight in the face of this, and political rhetoric moved to appeal to the practical interests of a sufficient number of voters. A nation can bear more or less government, but it ceases to be the same nation if its people and their self-respect are destroyed.
The socialism of Ocasio-Cortez is an expression of the broader principle of her campaign. She was a novelty candidate, but her victory over a reliable liberal predecessor came chiefly from the fact that she looked more like the voters themselves. He was a middle-aged white man, and her district was a majority-minority, young, immigrant-dominated borough. Having embraced the ideology of multiculturalism and empowerment, he was rhetorically disarmed before her campaign even began. By attacking Ocasio-Cortez’s socialism, while ignoring its motives, critics disarm themselves rhetorically in the same way.
The freshman congresswoman’s economic policies are not separate from this ideology; they are designed to help these “ascendant” groups by harming legacy groups: rural Americans, whites, men, and those employed in the private sector. Calling her a socialist is not enough, because socialism promises to benefit her core constituencies. Republicans must face the fact that their voters are in the crosshairs of these plans. Boomer-tier memes about how the Democrats are the real racists miss the point.
The Democrats are the real racists. And they are socialists. But their racism today is directed almost solely at white Americans, and their ad hoc socialist policies are fueled by this race-hatred. This is the problem, and this is the moral high ground for critics of today’s Democratic Party.
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