Capitalism seemed untouchable several decades ago, but not today. Many politicians aspiring to high office, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, are making the case for the inevitable and Darwinian triumph of socialism.
It is unclear what socialism means to them. It is a word that means many things to many people and has taken many forms. The modern version is different from the textbook variety of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, leaving to individuals only the free discretion over consumer goods and creating a paradise on earth. Publicly owned property is preferable to private enterprise, with everyone acting virtuously and focusing on the greater good.
Is it the ideal commonwealth in Plato’s Republic, with a ruling class that has no property of its own and shares all things in common? Or a more robust version of New Deal Liberalism, or perhaps Northern European social democracy? What about the path taken in Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba?
Or is it a planned economy with benevolent bureaucrats taking the place of free-market capitalism and playing the omniscient busybody in economic affairs to create more opportunity for the underprivileged; open the horizons of education to all, eliminate discriminatory practices based on sex, religion, race, or social class; regulate and reorganize the economy for the benefit of the whole community; protect the environment; provide adequate Social Security and universal health care for the sick, unemployed and aged in a utopian ideal of total equality of opportunity and outcome?
The term has become a blank canvas as presidential candidates embracing some of these ideas become more outspoken about socialism as the solution to problems of social and economic equality, and embracing a political wish list that includes Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and free public college. All grand ideas if they work.
These proposals have great appeal to millennials, the term generally used to refer to people born after 1980 and before 2000. Millennials outnumber baby boomers as the largest generational cohort in American society.
Recent surveys of Americans 18 to 34 find that 45 percent have a positive view of socialism. It gets even higher marks from Hispanics, Asian- and African-Americans. This attraction may have less to do with their understanding of socialism and more to do with their discontent with the current economic system. In contrast, only 26 percent of baby boomers would prefer to live in a socialist country.
Why the generational disparity? Is it because many of these folks reached adulthood in a dismal job market with crippling student loans caused by the brutal 2007-2009 recession that left them with less disposable income than their predecessors? They end up hating their own culture, even as millions around the world dream of coming to the land of milk and honey. Many agree with Governor Cuomo’s comment that “America was never that great.”
But these proposals also create agita for many politicians. That is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said socialism is “not the view” of the Democratic Party,” and that lawmakers on her side of the aisle “know that we have to hold the center.” The Republicans are trying to paint Democrats with the socialism brush, using accusations of rampant amnesia about the failures of socialism as a 2020 campaign weapon.
Former President Ronald Reagan once mocked Fidel Castro’s brand of socialism with a clever joke. He said Castro was immersed in one of his long speeches when a person in the crowd was heard shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.” Castro continued on with his speech when a second voice was heard shouting the same thing. This time Castro became angry and screamed, “We will kick the tush of the next person I hear say that all the way to Miami Beach.” At which point the whole crowd yelled, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.”
Originally Published: April 27, 2019