Socialism has captured the attention of American elites in a big way.
It is clear Donald Trump and his Republican followers are intent on using Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a symbol of all that is evil in the world, commencing a vicious campaign of red-baiting that is sure to intensify in the months leading up to November 2020. Trump has claimed that her Green New Deal will ban cows, and cars, and all manner of modern convenience.
He regularly raises the specter of “Venezuela.” And he has declared that "The Democrat Party has never been more outside of the mainstream . . . They're becoming the party of socialism, late-term abortion, open borders and crime."
But Trump is wrong and doesn’t know his history. The fact is, socialism is not something alien to U.S. politics. At crucial moments, during the Progressive and New Deal eras, socialists and socialist organizations have played an important role in the democratization of American democracy.
John Nichols, for example, has recently argued in The Nation that the estate tax plan proposed by Bernie Sanders echoes ideas put forward by Theodore Roosevelt in his 1910 “New Nationalism” speech, in which Roosevelt laid out a bold program of progressive reform centered on limiting extreme inequalities of wealth and income.
Nichols has written extensively on the history of socialism in his fine book, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism. What he says about how Sanders’ proposal echoes Roosevelt’s speech is true. But Nichols strangely failed to mention that TR’s speech not only sounds “socialist” themes but can only be understood in the context of the powerful Debsian socialist movement and the extensive class conflict of his day.
Roosevelt clearly justifies progressive reform as a way to avert revolution, asserting that “nothing is more true than that excess of every kind is followed by reaction; a fact which should be pondered by reformer and reactionary alike.” While he condemns the low wages and unsafe working conditions of the time, he also insists that “in the interest of the working man himself, we need to set our faces like flint against mob-violence just as against corporate greed; against violence and injustice and lawlessness by wage-workers just as much as against lawless cunning and greed and selfish arrogance of employers.”
Roosevelt makes clear that he is no socialist, but also that he has “the socialists” on his mind, and that he seeks to occupy, and to expand, the ground between unrestrained capitalism and socialism—and thus, we might say, to coopt the socialists.
Roosevelt drew heavily from Herbert Croly’s 1909 The Promise of American Life. Croly too had socialism on his mind, and his own discussion of these same issues indicates that while he too was no socialist, he was actually not particularly worried about being “mistaken” for one.
And so, having outlined a “reconstructive policy” of reform centering on corporate regulation and the recognition of the collective bargaining rights of labor unions, he writes these rather astonishing lines: “The majority of good Americans will doubtless consider [my vision] is flagrantly socialistic both in its methods and its objects; and if any critic likes to fasten the stigma of socialism upon the foregoing conception of democracy, I am not concerned with dodging the odium of the word.”
Croly understood back then that socialism was frightening to many Americans. It was in some ways frightening to him. In The Promise, he is harshly critical of “labor radicalism,” and he makes clear that he is no revolutionary socialist. But he also makes clear that his program of civic nationalism requires broadly social democratic reform if the political equality promised by democracy was to have any real meaning.
It is striking how close the progressive liberals were to the socialists on questions of property, inequality, and labor, and how little this seems to have disturbed them. It is interesting to compare Roosevelt’s speech, for instance, with the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party. While the platform begins with a powerful denunciation of capitalism, its specific policy proposals are ones we would now associate with liberalism: unemployment insurance; an eight-hour day; child labor laws; workplace health and safety regulation; a minimum wage; a general system of social insurance and pensions; the adoption of a graduated income tax and the extension of inheritance taxes; freedom of the press and assembly; universal adult suffrage; direct election of the president; the establishment of a department of Labor and also a department of Education; the immediate curbing of the power of the courts to issue injunctions.
Virtually every one of these proposals, once considered radical and even “un-American,” are now enacted into law, some as a result of Progressive-era reform, and many as a result of New Deal measures such as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which has been described as “the law that changed the American workplace.”
And that is why Cass Sunstein’s recent Bloomberg piece, “Trump is Right to Warn Democrats about ‘Socialism’: Progressives have embraced the term, and that’s a problem,” is so disturbing. Sunstein writes: “In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump was entirely right to reject ‘new calls to adopt socialism in our country.’ He was right to add that ‘America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion,’ and to ‘renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.’ Yet to many Americans, the idea of socialism seems to have growing appeal.”
Sunstein is a well-known legal scholar. And yet he perversely chooses to read Trump’s speech as a benign and well-intended “warning” about threats to “freedom,” rather than to see it for what it is: an evocation of fear and danger by an authoritarian demagogue who is now telling the world that he intends spend the next two years red-baiting his opponents.
Can Sunstein seriously regard Trump—builder of walls and the declarer of national emergencies and the separation of immigrant families-- as a friend of “liberty” and an opponent of “government coercion”? More to the point, the “yet” in his final sentence quoted above betrays a willful ignorance of the historical record. For the “socialism” that he denounces in fact helped to bring about not the forced collectivization of anything, but the eight-hour work day, and Social Security, and occupational safety and health regulation, and Medicare and Medicaid.
And now socialists threaten to support . . . universal health insurance and a Green New Deal? And this is supposed to scare us?
Progressive Democrats should embrace the ideas of their democratic socialist colleagues only if they agree with them. But they have no reason to fear or to shun these colleagues, or their ideas, unless they are cowards or fools.
That does not mean that either the Democratic Party or the country is ready for a full-blown socialist campaign or agenda. The labor movement remains weak, even if recent teacher strikes show some promise. While many young Americans may register criticism of capitalism and interest in socialism, such preferences hardly demonstrate strong or deep ideological commitment. And there can be no doubt that in many parts of red America, socialism is a dreaded idea—as Trump and the Republicans well understand.
But it does mean that the red-baiting tactics of the right ought to be strongly and consistently condemned, and that the good ideas and political energies currently being brought to the party by young people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and not-so-young people like Bernie Sanders ought to be welcomed, taken seriously, and given their fair chance.
Over a century ago Herbert Croly had it right when he scoffed at “the odium of the word.” Croly was a serious thinker who stood for something. Today’s liberals and progressives ought to follow his example. If they fail to do so, they will sacrifice their integrity and play into the hands of one of the most vicious tropes of right-wing politics.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.