We can see the mudslinging already. Trump’s attacks on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and other members of the “squad” as left extremists is just setting the tone for the 2020 election season. Regardless of who wins the primary, Bernie Sanders (the only avowed Democratic Socialist), Elisabeth Warren, or others — Trump will be casting them as socialists. This is part of his needed strategy. Given his unfavorables as the only recent president to never have achieved even 50% favorability rating, he knows that his path to a second term is through scaremongering. He has to make the other candidate, whoever it is, seem scarier than he is. How will the candidate supported by Vladmir Putin do it? By calling up the specter of totalitarian socialism.
We all know the old Republican trope. Those who oppose laissez faire capitalism are not just proponents of a welfare state or Keynesian economics, but of socialism, maybe communism. But socialism of course is a rather complex word. Trump hopes to capitalize on that complexity, and the darkness associated with some forms of it.
Of course, Bernie Sanders and all the other Democrats reject all forms of authoritarianism. One of their main talking points and grave concerns is precisely that Trump is working in a way that authoritarians often have in early stages, undermining the balance of powers, threatening political opponents, summoning up violence, trying to silence criticism by attacking the independent media. It’s quite easy to make the case that each of the Democratic candidates has less of an authoritarian impulse than Trump.
But what about their economic policies? Are they proposing the abdication of private property? No. The state ownership of all forms of production? No. In what way are they socialist then? Warren says flatly that isn’t. But what does she want? It turns out to look a lot like what Sanders wants — namely policies that are very much like those of Social Democracies that emerged in Europe in the mid-20th century. These are policies can be seen in Germany, Sweden, and France, among other places. In each of those countries, everyone has property rights. Everyone has freedom of speech and the other typical civil liberties. In fact, each of these countries routinely ranks higher than the US on the major quality of life indexes of the UN. Now are these countries socialist? Not in any traditional sense, though socialist and Social Democratic parties in each of these states helped them to develop the policies that they have.
So as Trump continues his scaremongering, this is what needs to be kept in mind. There is not one Democratic candidate on the left, even Bernie Sanders, who is advocating for anything other than what has just been outlined — policies that allow private entrepreneurs, protect property rights yet that see a need to regulate businesses and legislate policies that better ensure higher levels of education, healthcare policies that increase average life expectancy, corporate policies that secure worker safety and lead to a stronger more stable economy that doesn’t primarily aim to benefit millionaires but that focuses on the well-being of working people (while still having room for plenty of people who are millionaires).
The problem with the term “socialism” today is in some ways similar to that of the term “capitalism.” Neither word means what it once did. Just as some speak of various forms of socialism and include these Democratic Socialist countries in that categorization, others speak of various forms of Capitalism and include these very same countries. In this latter context, we hear of Nordic State Capitalism, for Sweden, for example, or more generally “social Capitalism.” Are these countries really socialist or Capitalist? Well, in the traditional senses, they’re neither. Like the United States, they have politically controlled economies. But they’ve seen the need for more controls than the US has.
As we are now faced with 1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt, a healthcare system that fails to cover all Americans while costing about twice as much as that in the other counties mentioned, an administration that denies climate change and is not even attempting to address it and burgeoning debt because of wasteful tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the time is ripe for a change in our politics — namely for a politics done less with a view to corporate interests and more with a view to the public interest. At the moment our greatest threat comes from an administration that is working precisely in the opposing direction. No Democrat in the field is as anywhere near as frightening as that.