Here's how Democrats should talk about socialism
It doesn’t matter who the Democratic nominee for president is next year, they will be attacked for being “socialist.” It will be relentless and merciless. The problem is that none of the current candidates know how to talk about socialism, so they always seem to be on the defensive. They’re always back on their heels, explaining, evading, apologizing.
Let’s be very clear: if the Democratic candidate for president in 2020—whomever it is—does not know how to discuss socialism effectively, constructively, and offensively, THEY WILL LOSE. It’s that simple. So, they need to start working on their stump speeches, and their debate lines. And they need to do that now, while public consciousness about the issue is still being formed.
Here are some talking points, rendered as a speech, which I humbly offer to all of the candidates.
“First, let’s get over the idea that calling someone a socialist is an argument. It’s just a smear word. It’s like someone on the playground in fifth grade saying to someone they don’t like, “You’re a butt-head!” That’s literally all the substance there is to it. Why?
Well, let’s be clear about what socialism is. Socialism is when people come together in an economy to solve common problems that none of us could solve on our own. Does that sound radical? Let’s test it.
Anybody here ever driven on an Interstate highway? That’s socialism. It was everybody in the economy solving a really important problem—how to move about the country efficiently—that that none of us could have solved on our own. It was the creation of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican president.
Oh, and by the way, it set off the greatest expansion of the economy in the history of the country. It made possible the staggering panoply of culture we know of as “suburbia.” It was the Golden Age of American Capitalism, catalyzed by a capitalist president enacting a socialist policy.
Anybody here ever used the Internet? That was created by a government agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The technology itself was invented during the Nixon administration. Nixon was a Republican president. It was turned on by the same agency in 1983, under Ronald Reagan, another Republican president. That is socialism.
Anybody here ever been made safer by the military, or felt safer knowing that police or fire or first-responder services were there? That’s people coming together to solve problems that none of us could solve on our own. Socialism.
Anybody here ever fly on an airplane? Guess what, your safety was guaranteed by thousands of standards set by the FAA, and by air traffic control, run by the same agency. Socialism. Anybody here ever used prescription drugs, or drunk water or breathed air or eaten food that was made cleaner or safer by government rules and standards? Guess what? That’s socialism.
You get the idea. The truth is that without some elements of socialism, capitalism doesn’t work. It literally collapses of its own predatory greed. Don’t take my word for it.
That’s what happened in the 1930s. Capitalism, left to its own devices, destroyed itself. That’s what we call the Great Depression. It was the greatest economic event of the past century. And you know how it was solved? It was solved by socialism.
It was solved by Franklin Roosevelt running budget deficits to get things going again. Socialism. Roosevelt created Social Security (notice the word “social” in the name), unemployment insurance, regulations so that bank deposits would be safe, public service employment programs, and more. All socialist to the core.
Those programs, especially deficit spending, unemployment insurance, and FDIC protection, are what prevented the next epochal collapse of capitalism—the Great Recession in 2009—from turning into another full-blown Great Depression. Once again, capitalism was literally saved from its own self-induced destruction by socialism.
So, let’s get over the infantile smear words. I won’t be calling my opponent a butt-head. If he wants to call me a socialist, you know what level that’s at.
Here’s the truth: if we’re going to make good policy, we need to ask how we distinguish good socialism from bad socialism. Because that’s the real problem we face today.
We’re not going to stop socialist interventions in the economy because without them, a capitalist economy collapses. But so many of the bad things in our economy come from the rich using the government to make themselves richer, but at the expense of everybody else.
That’s bad socialism, because is doesn’t help the vast majority of the people. It only helps those with money who can afford to buy politicians. Any of you ever bought a politician, had him write legislation just to make you, personally, richer? I didn’t think so, but that’s how bad socialism works.
The Great Recession I just mentioned is a stunning, almost unimaginable example of bad socialism. It was caused by native capitalist greed and by bought politicians loosening the regulations on banks making mortgage loans. The banks went crazy, loaning trillions of dollars to people who they knew would never be able to make the payments. You might reasonably ask, why did they do it?
First, because they made obscene amounts of money doing it, and their time horizons are not especially long. It was the Wild, Wild West. You made money while the making was good.
But more importantly, they knew that when the feces impacted the rotary-driven air propulsion device, bad socialism would bail them out. Which is exactly what happened.
While five million middle and working class families lost their homes to foreclosure, the government transferred trillions of dollars to the banks, owned by the wealthiest people in the world, so that their capital, which they liquidated through their own sociopathic greed, would be restored. There is not a better illustration of bad socialism available today. Or, maybe there is.
There’s an even bigger scandal of capitalism destroying itself and everything around it, and needing to reined in by common sense socialism, that is, by people coming together to solve common problems that none of us could solve on our own. It’s the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is the greatest threat facing the planet today. That’s not me saying so. It’s the scientists. And let’s not be hypocritical about believing the scientists, OK? If you use a cell phone, or a computer, if you watch television or fly on airplanes or take prescription drugs, heck, if you just drive a car, then your life is made better by, and is protected by, scientists.
The scientists say that we are on the brink of boiling the planet to death. Why?
Because oil and fossil fuel companies have created the insane public fiction that the common atmosphere of the earth, the one that all life depends on, is their private sewer. So, they can dump 12 billion tons of carbon into “their” sewer every year, and to hell with everyone else, including all life forms on the planet.
But the atmosphere of the earth is something that is “owned,” if you will, by every person on the planet, indeed, by every living thing on the planet. It is not the private possession, as capitalism would have it, of the oil companies, even though they make trillions of dollars a year peddling that fiction.
There isn’t an issue facing us today where the need for a common solution, which is to say socialism, is of greater urgency.
So, let’s think quickly about two important issues in our future, where policy will be greatly improved by adopting a socialist perspective. That is to say, by all of us coming together to solve problems that none of us could solve on our own.
The first is the Green New Deal. The idea couldn’t be simpler: we re-engineer the American economy so that it uses far less fossil fuels. It will impact everything from automobiles to homes to factories to office buildings, and more.
Will it cost a lot? Of course it will! Will it be worth it? Well, if the alternative is planetary death, then the answer is, “Of course it’s worth it! It’s a no-brainer!” Would you take a loaded gun out of the hands of a three year old? Of course you would, because not doing so could be apocalyptic. Climate catastrophe is a far higher certainty than that.
Oh, in the process the Green New Deal will employ tens of millions of people in high-paying, high-skilled jobs, the ones that will be doing the retrofitting. It will make the entire economy more efficient, therefore more competitive. It will lessen our need to garrison the Middle East, thereby reducing the military budget and the impetus for terrorism. It will vastly dwarf the economic spillovers of the Interstate Highway System.
In other words, its collateral benefits—beyond just saving the planet (as if that wasn’t enough)—are vastly greater than the costs, though, it would dial back the profits the oil companies are making. Is the planet worth it? Is the American economy worth it? Are you worth it? Are your children worth it? You decide.
Or, consider another issue where the policy options inevitably run into socialism: Medicare for All.
The U.S. pays twice as much per person for heath care as any other major industrialized country, and we get worse outcomes. What does that mean? We devote almost 20% of the entire economy to health care, to money going to hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies. That’s almost $4 trillion per year. Let’s do some simple math.
If, by coming together to solve a common problem that none of could solve on our own, we could save half of what we now pay for health care, that would amount to $2 trillion a year. Every year. Every year. Every year.
Would our economy be better off if we had an extra $2 trillion to spend every year, on, say, education, or refitting the economy to use less fossil fuels, or bolstering Social Security, or… Insert your priority project here.
Just to put it into perspective, an extra $2 trillion would make Social Security solvent, forever. In one year. It would pay off the national debt in 11 years. By the way, your share of that is $67,000. Same for each of your children. Would you like to be free from that debt?
This is how we need to think about Medicare for All. What could we do with an extra $2 trillion a year? Every year. Every year. Every year.
Of course, it would mean a $2 trillion reduction in the money going to the owners of the hospitals and drug companies, and insurance companies. But they are already the wealthiest people in the world. They’re not the ones I’m worried about. They’ll eke out something. Maybe they’ll have to let one of the downstairs maids go.
The threat of derailing their gravy train is why you see so many commercials on TV trying to scare you about all of this. Don’t believe them. The math is not hard. A third grader can do it. What could our country do with an extra $2 trillion a year? Every year. Every year. Every year.
One final word on all of this. You’ll notice that the talking heads on television are desperate to try to scare you about the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and all things socialist. Those people—the Chuck Todds, the Jake Tappers, the Rachel Maddows, the Chris Cuomos, the David Muirs, the Lester Holts, the Joe Scarboroughs, the Anderson Coopers—those people are multimillionaires. They are paid by people who are multi-billionaires.
The reason they make that kind of money is that they are the best in the world at selling a mass audience on policies that harm the interests of the same mass audience. How do you think we got to the point where three families own more than all of the bottom 50% of the country combined? And they’re still chirping about how great the economy is. They are not looking out for your interests.
Their slice of the pie is going to be reduced if the country adopts more good socialism solutions, like the Green New Deal or Medicare for all. The question is, are we going to make public policy with the goal of plumping up those who are already the richest people on earth? Or, are we going to work together to devise common sense solutions to common problems that benefit the majority of people but that none of us can solve by ourselves? That is what we call socialism.
Those are our choices, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s grow up and start dealing with them honestly and constructively. Let’s stop the infantile name calling and grab what may be the last chance to save this country, and this planet. Thank you.”
This is how real Democrats need to talk about socialism: with honesty, and courage, and specificity, and optimism. They need to stop dancing around it, and, certainly, stop apologizing for it. Of course, those candidates that are angling for money from the wealthy—the Corporate Democrats—will not be embracing these ideas or this kind of language. All the better. They will calve themselves from the herd of progressives whose policies actually have the best chance of not just winning the election, but of saving the country. We need to put them out of our misery so we can get about the business before us.
Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles. He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.