If you’re trying to produce meaningful social or political content and someone hasn’t called you either a communist or an elitist, then you’re probably not trying hard enough. If you’ve managed to be called both, then you’re getting somewhere. That’s what happens. If you’re going to explore the boundaries of things that matter in an objective way, then someone somewhere is going to be offended-or confused. Confused is better than offended. It’s the first step towards understanding something interesting. Like Samuel Goldwyn said, “If I look confused, it’s because I’m thinking.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of that going on in some of our political spaces these days-more specifically around the words socialism, communism and capitalism. If you’ve been paying attention to the the Democratic presidential primary race though, you might be thinking that perhaps we ought to start. Because there’s a bit of a movement afoot.
Senator Bernie Sanders (D) of Vermont calls himself a Democratic Socialist. And he just missed winning in the Iowa Caucuses by a fraction of a percent over one of the great shoe-in nominees in recent history, Hillary Clinton. Because 84% of all caucusers under 30 voted for him. Progressive kids sat through hours of caucusing to vote for a white Vermont Senator who was born three months before America entered World War II. It’s not because he’s cool. He’s a grumpy old man who is audibly indistinguishable from Larry David’s George Steinbrenner caricature on Seinfeld. It’s not because they identify with him either, unless he reminds them of their curmudgeony grandfather. It’s because of his maniacally consistent message that is striking a chord with young progressives. And though the political windsock that is the mind of the young progressive tends to blow towards whatever new message wanders into their Twitter feed, there’s something else to acknowledge here. These kids seem to have no instinctual fear of the word socialism. And that’s different.
When I was younger and more impressionable, socialism and communism and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and Olympic Hockey all wrapped up into one massive package of horrible un-American-ness. America is-was-ever shall be synonymous with unmitigated capitalism. And socialism and communism are basically the same thing, right? At least in as much as they’re not capitalism.
I remember the movie Red Dawn (the original). The second “S” in USSR is Socialist. The Nazi’s were the National Socialist party. That’s the message I grew up with. And depending on who you ask today, it’s still true. So why in the world would anyone support a person who openly admits he’s a socialist? Well, it turns out, it may be someone who has a more firm understanding of the economic reality that has existed over the last 230 years in America than those of us who grew up hating the Russians.
America is a democratically elected socialist republic . Unarguably, shamelessly, a democratic republic that has democratically chosen to socialize many aspects of our life for centuries. I know that is contrary to many of our beliefs. But it’s true. And it’s absolutely fine. Because capitalism, in its purest form is so miserable for most people and so slanted towards those with concentrations of capital, that it becomes impossible to make good on the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” promised by our founding fathers.They never promised capitalism. They promised liberty.
So we socialized things. They did it 80 years before Karl Marx began to write of communism.Public education is socialism. Professional police and fire services are socialism. Federal highway systems are socialism. Social security…the military..the post office…all socialism. Anything that is supported by tax dollars from the public, to support the broader population independent of their contribution is socialism. So unless you are willing to debate the existence of these foundational, centuries old institutions in America, then you are actually not willing to debate that we are a socialist democracy. The more appropriate debate, is how socialist are we and how socialist ought we be?
Contrary to popular belief, becoming a more socialist society does not make you a communist society any more than smoking more makes you an alcoholic. Too much isn’t good. But one doesn’t on-ramp to the other simply by doing it more. Communism is when no one owns anything except the government. Socialism is when government provides services for the greater good of society, based on some collective investment of the society. And when you’re a socialist democracy, the people actually get to vote on what the greater good ought to be and what the acceptable cost of that greater good is. Communism aims to eliminate the working poor at the expense of any notion of personal property. And it doesn’t work. Because it ignores the one thing that our founding father’s knew out about the nature of mankind.
We are beings who crave liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which really means we are beings who crave choice. We crave it so badly that when we run out of it we’ll walk across the desert to lands unknown, build canoes and sail over the horizon, cross thousands of miles in covered wagons with our family to find it. We want choice. And with communism, you have to surrender it. But mankind refuses unless it’s forced by oppressive, self serving autocracies that eventually, like the earth’s frontiers and bounds of gravity, surrender to the will of mankind’s craving for choice. We are defined by our intellect. Our intellect is our ability to think. The outcome of our thoughts is our choice. Mankind is choice.
Never is our craving for choice more powerful then when we are young. And what the Sanders movement is shouting in it’s throaty Brooklyn accent is that they’re losing it. But why?
Because the most dangerous problems of America today, the ones that are going to impact us for the next fifty years are not because government is growing too much or because our economy is failing. It’s not because we’re losing world influence. It’s because we’re starting to lose our choice. Because capitalism is starting to devour our democracy.
Here’s the picture that young America is looking at. The middle class is shrinking. Wage growth is stagnant. The top 10 percent of earners received 46.5 percent of all income in 2011, the largest slice of the pie since 1917. The top one tenth of one percent of earners earned 11.3% of all income in America. In 1972, they earned 3%. The bridge to financial independence for American youth is starting to look too far. Not because of our president-or the last one-or the one before him. But because automation and globalization are eliminating our working class and the capital it is making is moving to the rich. And staying there.
As it stands, corporate profits are higher then they have ever been in our history as a country. Corporate taxes are the lowest they have been since we entered into the modern economy of the 20th century. And no one dare force corporate America to make choices that hurt growth-no matter how much growth is costing us. So they are sitting on unprecedented piles of cash, not investing in the American workforce.
So if you’re a kid these days, you’re starting to feel like your power of choice is not what generations before you had, you may be right. And if you haven’t been brainwashed by your parents or aren’t interested in blaming the destruction of the middle class on the break down of “traditional values” and immigration, then you might be interested in Bernie’s message.
At least some part of that message is this. At the core of our massive American problem today is the fact that our capital markets are controlling our democratic process. And though economic considerations should be a part of the democratic discourse, they should not control it. Right now we have unlimited corporate participation in our political process as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. We have a 285 Billion dollar media market that follows ratings and clicks to provide us with our consciousness. And we have a belief that our country’s economic success is completely dependent on creating as much friction-less capitalism as possible. Anything else is unimaginable. And as much as we feel like “kids these days” are overly entitled, as just about every generation in history has felt about the one after it, the data shows that they’re in for a steeper climb than what you and I grew up with. And that’s a legitimate beef that Bernie Sanders is giving voice to.
Here’s the hard truth though. I’m probably not voting for Bernie Sanders. His tone is likely too divisive to usher in the era of compromise we so desperately need to govern more effectively than we are now. But one of the harmful things we do in politics, and life in general, is dismiss an idea because of what’s wrong with it instead of taking the time to consider and build on what’s right with it. There’s a lot right with Bernie’s message. And the problems we’re going to face in the next 50 years will need to include solutions to the problems his movement points out. Inequality, segregation and the general marginalization of the democratic process by the unchecked forces of capital are all very real problems. Shouting down their existence in the name of American capitalism is uninformed at best, dangerous at worst. Our founding father’s didn’t promise lubricated capitalism. They promised choice and participation in governance. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. Democracy is far more fragile.