The Lie of American Democratic Socialism | Karl Cooper
The 2016 US General Election was really an election like no other. From the candidates to the campaigns, it was a cycle that really flew in the face of what we expect presidential elections to play out. By far, one of the most important and radial differences in the 2016 election was how much the power of grassroots support was able to propel anti-establishment candidates such as Bernie Sanders and of course, Donald Trump. Both of these candidates sent messages which went harshly against the grain of the establishment of their respective parties, and successfully managed to rally armies of zealous supporters. In my opinion, both Sanders and Trump were as outlandish as each other, however, both of them manifested it in different ways. Trumps bombastic, abrasive yet passionate speeches at his rallies could whip his crowds into a furore in no time. It’s difficult to call Trump a ‘great’ orator, his speeches were simple, he occasionally waffled, and would slip up on occasion. He certainly wasn’t a refined orator, but he was blunt, very loud, and people loved it.
On the other hand, Bernie Sanders’ outlandish behaviour was less in his personality, but more in his ideas. Bernie took to the Democrat debate stage with Hillary Clinton, both of them knew that whoever wins the Democrat primary would be up against either the very religious yet establishment Ted Cruz, or the wildly unpredictable yet anti-establishment Trump. In putting forward his economic ideas and policy plans, Bernie preached an ideology so taboo to some Americans that its mere utterance harkens back to the feelings America felt during the Cold War. The dreaded ‘S’ word: Socialism.
But not just any form of Socialism, ‘Democratic’ Socialism.
Bernie’s self-identification as a Democratic Socialist would be both his blessing and his curse. On one hand, he successfully captured the passion and minds of those to the left of the Democratic establishment, especially college-educated millennials, of which constituted the majority of his grassroot movement, the people that were born after the cold war, the people that do not remember the era of McCarthyism, those who feel cheated that they have to pay exorbitant tuition fees compared to what their parents paid. However, it’s no question that most establishment Democrats are capitalists who saw Bernie as a threat, both to their hopes of winning the 2016 election and to the party establishment’s credibility. Bernie would end up losing the 2016 Democratic primarie sto Hillary Clinton in large part to the DNC’s system of ‘superdelegates’, but it was an otherwise close race. Bernie’s relative success in putting pressure on Clinton showed that these democratic socialists were here to stay, and Bernie wasn’t alone. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the fiery young progressive Democrat who successfully ousted incumbent establishment Democrat Joe Crowley. Mentored by Sanders and like him, Ocasio-Cortez self-identifies as a democratic socialist, arguably more ardently than Sanders. Her twitter account is a constant praise of democratic socialism and the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ (I’ll get onto this later). She recently caused a ruckus on twitter after comparing Ben Shapiro’s invitation to debate her to catcalling, and she has certainly been turning heads in the run up to the 2018 midterms.
But take a look at these promises that are being made by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. From my point of view as a Briton, I am no stranger to ‘free’ healthcare, affordable tuition, campaign finance limits, and gun control (among others). However, the UK isn’t a democratic socialist country, far from it. The UK is one of the freest markets in the world, Heritage ranked the UK at number 8 in the worldwide rankings for economic freedom, with an overall index of 78.0.So, what gives?
It all comes down to a big misconstruction of what Democratic Socialism actually is. And what that effect is happening on international politics.
Let’s use the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) definition of democratic socialism when discussing policy points, taken from the ‘What is Democratic Socialism’ page on the DSA’s website:
‘Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.’
This is a pretty acceptable definition of actual democratic socialism. Where capital, and the means of production are controlled publicly and democratically by the labourers and consumers. Note the use of the phrase ‘radically transform’ when discussing the government and economy. This is definitely a leaf out of the book of Karl Marx. With that definition confirmed, let’s compare it to the rhetoric of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.
On Ocasio-Cortez’s website, I struggled to find anything that resembled anything at all related to the DSA’s definition. Ocasio-Cortez’s issues page goes into detail about social issues such as immigration, gun control, LGBT rights, a federal minimum wage et cetera, but lacked anything to do with democratic control of capital. In fact, I couldn’t even find anything to do with raising corporate tax, and I even found promises for her to reduce tax on working and middle-class families. Sanders’ website however, doesn’t waste any time pointing out economic inequality, providing many graphs and statistics. Below this, Sanders lays out a 13-point plan. The first one being a drastic increase on tax for the corporations and the very top earners, a policy which has become synonymous with the Sanders’ campaign. His other points are the usual stuff you’d expect: free healthcare, federal minimum wage, expanding social security et cetera. Sanders’ 13th point is interesting, it says that he wants to ‘break up’ financial institutions (banks) and stop bailing out banks which fail. This is interesting, because this is a point many on the right would agree with, especially the libertarian right. Ron Paul was famously against the Wall Street Bailout of 2008, as it’s seen as economic intervention in the free market. But again, a real lack of any points pertaining to the key democratic socialist tenet of public control of capital. For two proud political proprietors of democratic socialism, there seems to be a distinct lack of democratic socialism.
Now you may be thinking, that whilst they may describe themselves as democratic socialists, they obviously have to be more moderate with their policies in order to make them more palatable and electable. In the current American culture, they would have no chance becoming elected if they campaigned for the radical overhaul that true democratic socialism required. And whilst this point is true, I don’t think that is the reason. Given at how they, and many self-described democratic socialists, praise this so called ‘Nordic model’ as an example of democratic socialism, when in reality, it’s far from it.
Ah, the Nordic Model, Democratic Socialists love to talk about it, and the GOP hate it. But both seem to be misunderstanding it. For those not clued-in, the Nordic Model is the political and economic structure seen in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. This model consists of a large welfare state, where education is free, there is high social mobility, low social inequality, free healthcare, high-ish taxes, great social security and an incredibly capitalist free-market economy. Yep, you heard that right, the Nordic model is capitalist through and through. In fact, it’s so capitalist, that Denmark and Sweden are rated as having an even FREER market than the United States, with Denmark at 6 places above the US and Sweden 3 places above the US in the Heritage index of Economic Freedom. Norway is behind the US, but only by 5 places, and even then, Norway, and the rest of the Scandinavian countries have freer markets than the unarguably capitalist states of South Korea, Japan and Germany. It goes without saying, that the Scandinavian States are pretty damn capitalist.
Also, a small side not for those aware of a certain statistic that claims the Norwegian state owns 78% of non-home wealth. This percentage is a bit misleading. It’s important to know that Norway has successfully secured a sovereign wealth fund by publicly controlling its biggest export: oil.The Norwegian government owns 2/3rd of the Norwegian oil company ‘Equinor’, and it uses profits and dividends from the revenue generated by oil sales, as well as revenue generated from outside investments globally, and stores it in what is known as a ‘sovereign wealth fund’. How big is this sovereign wealth fund? 1 Trillion Dollars, and accounts for 1.3% of global stocks and shares. And the growth of this sovereign wealth fund directly correlates to the growth of the figure of how much wealth the Norwegian government holds. The SWF serves a function of keeping the absolute huge wealth generated from oil revenue outside of the Norwegian economy, since there is no way that it could absorb it. Basically put: the Norwegian state isn’t absorbing the means of production, but rather, it’s investing in the global economy and holding wealth. Doesn’t sound terribly socialist to me. If you disregard the SWF from the numbers, you’ll see that Norway has a thriving free market capitalist economy.
The myth that the Scandinavian countries are democratic socialist states has become such a prevalent and untrue talking point, that the Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen took time out of his visit to the US in 2015 to call this myth out. Saying that he was aware “that some people in the U.S. associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state which provides a high level of security to its citizens, a successful market economy with much freedom to pursue your dreams and live your life as you wish.”
With all this said, what exactly does the ideology and policies put forward by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez actually fall under? Simple: plain-old uncontroversial Social Democracy.
Social Democracy is a very broad umbrella of ideas, but the key tenet of it is emphasis on public spending by the state on social programs such as welfare, education and healthcare, whilst maintaining a pro-capitalist free market. That’s it. Sound familiar?If you sieve through the rhetoric and talking points laid out by the majority of democratic socialists in the US, you’ll find that most of them are just confused social democrats.Most of them just wish for the US government to increase public spending on social programs such as universal healthcare and free college, as well as increasing corporation tax to pay for these. Few of them are actually making arguments for the public control and ownership of capital, which is the main point of democratic socialism in the first place. Even the DSA admit there is no currently existing democratic socialist state, but rather says we should look to places like Scandinavia for examples.
This raises an important question: if they aren’t democratic socialists, and rather social democrats, why on Earth are they running around calling themselves such? Latent McCarthyism is still unarguably prevalent in the US, surely identifying as socialists would hurt their chances? The truth is, I have no idea. I’ve asked a number of people for theories and have looked across the internet for ideas. It really boils down to three possibilities, all three of which are somewhat likely. The first idea comes down to branding and to separate themselves from the Democrat establishment (who are also social democrats, but a different flavour). Whilst I cannot comment on the attitude of actual democratic socialists towards this theory, I imagine they wouldn’t be too pleased to see their ideology ‘hijacked’ to represent a political view not only tolerant of, but intrinsically capitalist. The second theory comes down to the hypothesis that whilst their policies are more moderate, deep down, the likes of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are co-opting the term ‘democratic socialist’ and associating it with policies such as free healthcare and social security, in order to make the term ‘socialist’ more palatable to the American public. Basically, they’re trying to undo McCarthyism. Whether they want to leave it at that or use the normalisation of ‘socialist’ to push for actual socialist policies is beyond me to say. And finally, the third theory is that they are just simply confused. I’d say that this is the most probable hypothesis amongst their supporters, but as for actual politicians? It’s difficult to say, given that they have spent their entire political lives carefully defining their position. However, like I stated before, they have continuously called countries like Norway ‘socialist’ despite this being untrue. So, who knows, maybe they are just confused, or maybe they’re all secretly godless commies, ready to take up arms with the proletariat and overthrow their bourgeoisie maters.
Whatever the case may be, the truth is, Bernie Sanders and all those that think like him, want to make the US more like Europe. Personally, I think that it’s a flawed idea, and ideas such as the Nordic model aren’t easily adaptable to an economy on the size and scale of the United States. But that’s an article for another time. I don’t believe that the US is being taken over by socialism, not yet anyway. 2019 is coming closer and closer, and soon we’re going to be seeing candidates for the 2020 elections announce their campaigns. It’ll certainly be interesting to see who, if anyone, picks up where Bernie Sanders left off in promoting social democracy, and whether they will again promote their ideals under the guise of ‘democratic socialism’ and, at the end of the day, will it be enough to beat Trump?