Thursday, February 14, 2019

The “S” Word

Let’s start with the notion that there are absolutely no “free market” nations on earth, most certainly not the United States with its mixture of tax-driven incentives and tariff-structured trade policies. When conservatives wish to trash a policy that they do not like, they are the first to warn of creeping “socialism” or the insertion of “communism” to destroy “Western culture” or “American values.” 

We fought horrific wars against the “domino theory” of cascading political systems sequentially succumbing to authoritarian “communist regimes,” fostered by the likes of the Soviet Union, the Peoples’ Republic of China and Cuba. Vietnam is the most classic example, but that war was completely sustained on the myth that if we did not stop communism there, it would take over all of Asia, eventually moving to our shores as well. Today, it’s, “we would become another Venezuela,” as if the failings of an unprepared, corrupt dictator would automatically follow if we adopted healthcare for all here. Let’s look beyond the labels.

Definitions of “communism” often embrace violent class warfare, where the proletariat crushes the oppressive upper class the money-driven Bourgeois upper-middle-class, decimating landlords and landowners. In a more purist theory, communism is a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed, a theory advocating elimination of private property. Those purported “communist” regimes above were viewed as necessary precursors to real communism in the form of dictatorships of the proletariat.  True communism never came; the dictatorships either dissolved or continue into the present day.

Socialism entails advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, often mistaken for advocating social programs. You could argue that public education at any level, Social Security and Medicare are manifestations of creeping socialism, one of the major Republican arguments against any form of national healthcare, particularly the Affordable Care Act. Or just social programs. That GOP President Richard Nixon (pictured above) proposed universal healthcare for all Americans is simply overlooked. Here’s an excerpt from a speech Nixon made on February 6, 1974:

“Three years ago, I proposed a major health insurance program to the Congress, seeking to guarantee adequate financing of health care on a nationwide basis. That proposal generated widespread discussion and useful debate. But no legislation reached my desk.” Still, to this day, Republicans remain convinced that if they can attach the “S” word epithet to any policy, they will continue to be successful in rallying public outrage and rejection against the proposal. 

Try telling that to a college student, saddled with debt, facing a world of disappearing benefits, jobs instability and massive job displacement by the accelerating deployment of sophisticated artificial intelligence (owned, of course, by the one percenters) in commercial production, distribution and analysis. To younger generations, even the word “socialist” seems to have lost its bite, but conservatives keep trying to use that word to defeat what they hate. We have been here before, as Michael Hiltzik tells us, writing for the February 14th Los Angeles Times:

“The term ‘socialism’ has been enjoying something of a vogue lately, typically used to describe policies that were part of American mainstream politics as recently as the 1980s… For example, listen to Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address on Feb. 5: ‘Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country…. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.’

“The opening for Trump’s remark was provided by politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). She describes herself as a ‘democratic socialist,’ even though in historical terms her actual policies are resoundingly moderate… That includes her suggestion that the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes, say 70% of all income over $10 million a year — a tax burden on the rich that’s actually much lower than those of 1981 or the prosperous 1950s, accounting for inflation.

“Conservatives have attempted to tack ‘socialism’ on policies that today enjoy majority support, such as universal health coverage (supported by 70.1% of respondents in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll ) or free college tuition (supported by 60%).

“The truth is that the ‘socialism’ taunt is among the oldest and most discreditable of political chestnuts. It’s been used by conservatives to smear Democratic or progressive policies they don’t like (which is most of them) since the 1930s, more than a decade after the Socialist Party of America last fielded Eugene V. Debs as a presidential candidate… Let’s take a brief journey down memory lane.

“The high-water mark of conservatives’ ‘socialist’ battle cry probably was reached in January 1936, during a remarkable political event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C… This was a gala dinner sponsored by the American Liberty League, a splinter group of wealthy business leaders and old-guard Democrats formed in 1934 in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The glittering star of the Mayflower gala was former New York Gov. Al Smith, who had thrown in his lot with the plutocrats after a distinguished career in which he became an icon of progressive Democratic politics…Smith’s apostasy perplexed and unnerved Democrats — after all, FDR, Smith’s successor as governor, had been the man who placed his name in nomination for president at the Democratic convention in 1928 and had bestowed on Smith his nickname, ‘the happy warrior.’

“Whether Smith harbored personal resentments over the rise of a man who had been his protege, or was merely dazzled by his rich new friends, he now was at full-scale war with FDR. It was a delicate moment for the New Deal. FDR’s popularity had fallen to about 50%, a low point. Business was pushing back against his programs. Roosevelt’s image as a traitor to his class was reinforced by his proposed Revenue Act of 1935, which was openly aimed at the wealthy and was passed largely intact. An attack on Social Security, enacted in 1935, would become the central theme of the presidential campaign of Republican Alf Landon in 1936. (Landon got shellacked.)

“The Liberty League had a solid pedigree from the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, including John J. Raskob, a former party chairman and an executive of DuPont. The league’s board of directors bristled with DuPont family members and executives of big corporations such as General Motors. FDR witheringly described the league to reporters as ‘an organization that only advocates two or three out of the Ten Commandments…. [They] say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.’

“Roosevelt struck back at the league in his State of the Union message in early January 1936, reminding his listeners that his program had sought ‘the adjustment of burdens, the help of the needy, the protection of the weak, the liberation of the exploited and the genuine protection of the people’s property.’ As a result, he said, ‘we have earned the hatred of entrenched greed…. [B]ut now … they seek the restoration of their selfish power.’”

Trump may not be a “socialist” by name, but his notions of government intervention fly in the face of doctrinaire conservatism and free market policies. He’s not that far off in his positions from some very left-of-center politicians.

“[On] trade, many analysts point out, Trump behaves more like a state-interventionist than a laissez-faire guy. And he has more in common with the New York congresswoman [Ocasio-Cortez], who like many progressive Democrats argues for stronger trade rules to protect American jobs, than with the standard-bearers of his own Republican Party.

Nobody’s arguing that Trump or his trade policy meet the dictionary definition of socialism, with its all-encompassing embrace of state planning. But what about a light version, which demands a greater role for the state in managing trade flows and intervening in corporate decisions?

“‘It’s undoubtable that U.S. trade policy in the last two years has moved toward that type of socialism,’ says Scott Lincicome, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute and one of the most voluble critics of Trump’s trade policy on social media.” Shawn Donnan for the February 14th LA Times. Bumper-sticker politics might work for the base, but every year there are fewer and fewer Americans who will get misled by empty slogans, the real fake news of our times. Time simply to reject labels and look at substance.

              I’m Peter Dekom, and if we truly harbor visions of unifying America, perhaps we need to stop the label wars that always drive us apart.