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Is Careless Talk About Socialism How We Get President Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren

How we “got Trump” is still a popular subject almost two years after the 2016 election, not least because the left continues to behave in ways that contributed to his upset win. There’s a lesson in their behavior for conservatives interested in avoiding a future discussion about how we “got Elizabeth Warren” (or someone similar).

Oddly, the lesson begins with a tweet from Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, who pointed out conservatives may have inadvertently watered down the term socialism, by using it too broadly, and may now suffer the consequences as some Democrats start pushing full-blown socialist policies.

On its face, the left’s perception is fanciful. In 1989, when its domestic policy shop was headed by Stuart Butler, the Heritage Foundation published a healthcare proposal with an individual mandate. But it differed from the Obamacare mandate and was even then opposed by many conservatives.

Moreover, Obamacare had many other features that caused conservatives to call it socialist. For example, the law’s rules governing medical loss ratios (governing the percentage of an insurer’s operating budget that can be devoted to administrative costs and profit) were set just below the level at which the Congressional Budget Office would have classified the health insurance industry as a government program. But the left’s mythos is secondary to the lesson hidden in the tweet.

Rather, the lesson starts with how ironic it is that Dave Weigel is the author of the tweet. Weigel’s career was originally a caricature of how the mainstream press like to paint the Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party, as filled with birthers and conspiracy theorists. Journalists generally failed to consider that years of such hyperbole desensitized many Republicans to the charge while elevating these fringe elements. Yet Weigel observes a similar psychology when it is Republicans broad brushing Democrats as socialist.

The lesson to be found in Weigel’s tweet, therefore, is to take the mirror attitude found there not literally, but seriously. Literally, left may be dead wrong to think Obamacare was the Heritage healthcare proposal. Yet the non-left has thrown the “socialist” card in cases where it is not warranted. For example, Obama’s healthcare legislation had socialistic elements, but his stimulus program was more in the tradition of crony capitalism than socialism.

Seriously, the right should consider that overplaying the “socialism” card may cause many on the left to stop seeing it as a restraint on their politics, much like the left’s constant accusations of bigotry have desensitized some on the right to the charge. This realization is useful in understanding how our politics have become both more polarized and more confused.

According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Democrats and young adults have a positive view of socialism, while their view of capitalism has declined over the past eight years. Those results grabbed the public’s attention, but they merely confirmed trends shown in polling from the American Culture and Faith Institute, Harvard University, and YouGov (for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation). What those results mean, however, depends on whether people have a good or common understanding of what those terms mean — and it is far from clear they do.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the current darling of “democratic socialism,” seems to think the concept includes things like public parks and voluntarily-organized cooperative businesses. Neither of these things are socialist. Not even employee-owned business are necessarily socialist when they result from choices made in a free market.

Conversely, a Voxplainer like Matthew Yglesias cannot figure out that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recently proposed “Accountable Capitalism Act” would effectively expropriate a sizeable chunk of large corporations’ control of the means of production in favor of representatives of the workers. Yglesias suggests the fact that Warren does not propose nationalizing these businesses completely means the bill is not socialist, even though 40 percent of these corporations’ directors would be elected by the company’s workforce, and political activity would require the authorization of 75 percent of board members.

It might be tempting to believe that Ocasio-Cortez and Yglesias are fudging their definitions of socialism as a crafty political strategy. However, anyone who has watched the former interviewed or read much of the latter’s oeuvre knows that confusion is a more obvious explanation than craftiness. And if the left’s politicians and pundits no longer have a grasp on what socialism is, it is a fair bet the average twenty-something is at least as ignorant about the subject.

Of course, the left’s confusion and further move away from capitalism is caused primarily by the fact that the right too often engages in a similar confusion. The global recession of 2008 caused many people across the ideological spectrum to distrust and reject capitalism as manifested by elite internationalism (rightly, wrongly, or somewhere in between). In America, the populist backlash finds expression on the right in some form of “nationalism” and on the left in some form of “socialism.” Also, younger Americans have no memory of and poor education regarding socialism’s real track record.

Yet the right’s carelessness in playing the “socialism” card matters because it encourages radicalization and helps the left stumble into selling socialism as no different from more routine government action. The right needs to be accurate — and even educational — when it attacks socialism or the social welfare state. Otherwise, the attacks will continue to lose their sting, eventually among the center as well as the left. And that would speed us on the path to “how we got Warren.”