On Democratic Socialism

The Democratic Socialists of America hate when you focus on the word “socialists” in their name. They will remind you they’re not Bolsheviks, not North Korea, and Not Cuba. They would like you to focus on the word “Democratic.” They fashion themselves to be more like what they believe to be an FDR Democrat. They believe in a big, active government. They want the government to not “seize the means of production” as Karl Marx wanted, but to implement more “soft socialism” measures like Social Security and Medicare. There are harder line elements that are actual Communists, but for the most part Democratic Socialists simply want you to know they are progressive Democrats, and not capitalists.

This may seem harmless, and on policy it mostly is. Every Democrat running for Federal office in the country this year is supporting Social Security and Medicare, calling for a more expansive government role in health care, talking about a fix for student loan debt, calling for some kind of increase in the minimum wage, and decrying the GOP tax cuts for the rich. It’s unanimous, basically. On the policy side, the difference between moderate Democrats and Democratic Socialists is a degree or two of detail. No matter how much Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacks a Tammy Duckworth, find me more than a small hand full of issues where their disagreement is more than “how much further” one will go than the other.

The problem, of course, is that AOC and the DSA want you to believe the differences between them and mainstream Democrats is extreme. They are ready to have an ideological war with Democrats to enforce their rigid ideological view of what is and isn’t acceptable. If a Democrat is for a Medicare buy-in plan (also known as the “public option”) instead of “Medicare-for-All,” they’re a neoliberal. If a Democrat is for an immediate increase in the Federal minimum wage to $10.10 or $12, with gradual increases to $15, they’re a corporatist. They ran around calling Sharice Davids, a Native-American lesbian “the establishment” in the KS-03 Primary, without ever considering how ridiculous they sounded. They also never seemed to comprehend that maybe their positions are simply a little bit too much for a white-collar suburban district in Kansas to swallow. Democrats probably can’t elect a majority to Congress that is as ideologically pure as they are. They’ve bought into the untrue myth that most independent voters are actually leftists like them- when they’re generally less engaged, bland moderates that don’t want their taxes to rise or their services to be cut. Instead of being allies to electable candidates in moderate districts, AOC and the DSA have made it their mission to support expensive, pointless, and damaging primaries across the country.

The bigger issue I have with the DSA crowd though is not rhetoric, particularly since I don’t disagree with their ideals, or entirely hate most of their positions. It’s the larger ideals behind re-branding the American left as “socialists.” I don’t support Marxism becoming our organizing ideology economically, and neither really do they. Whether or not they know this, what they are calling for is a mixed-capitalist economy, which is what Democrats have supported and Republicans have opposed since 1930. By branding themselves as “socialists,” they are casting themselves in the same net as Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Mao’s China, or the old Soviet Union, when in reality what they want is some sort of hybrid of FDR and French Socialists. They are casting themselves in with global leftist leaders at a time when most of them are inept clowns. Maduro is overseeing a failed state, Corbyn is celebrating Palestinian terrorists from the Munich Olympics, the French Socialists didn’t even make the Presidential run-off, the German left is invisible, and the Israeli left has ceased to even matter. I’m not sure any of these folks actually represent the American Left in any way, but they’re not the comparisons any functional person should want.

When we get down to it, the chief beef the DSA crowd has with the Democratic Party is the decision under Presidents Clinton and Obama to highlight “identity politics” over class identity. In choosing what to make “non-negotiable,” Democrats have chosen to put their focus on Civil Rights and “social issues,” while choosing to compromise on taxation, the minimum wage, and Wall Street regulation. The DSA folks don’t seem to agree with this approach, not because their social conservatives, but because they have different priorities. This is a healthy debate to have, provided you don’t have Twitter trolls calling their opponents “neoliberals” and Jane Sanders calling for Hillary to be jailed. Their rhetoric has become toxic.

I’m not a fan of AOC, Bernie Sanders, or the DSA, but it’s not so much of a reflection of policy difference as it is a rejection of their rhetoric, degree of extremity, and priorities. I don’t think labeling the left as “socialists,” or even really anti-capitalist is helpful. I don’t think embracing failed leftists abroad is the look the Democrats need. In short, the policy differences may be slight between mainstream Democrats and more ideological leftists, but the gap is big enough for me to want to note “I’m not them.”

Math and Big Government

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Bernie Sanders is a political quagmire to me. He has ideas, some of them really good, that I agree with. It’s like, what actual Democrat/liberal is against expanding access to health care through the Medicare system? No one that’s honest. What Democrat is actually against making college affordable? If you again answered no one, you’re right again. The problem with all of these ideas is two fold- costs and politics. You simply can’t spend on into forever without any regard for actually ever paying those bills. You have to have a plan to finance these big ideas, and it has to be a plan that can pass Congress. This is where politics are hard, because you see, the public doesn’t want to pay higher taxes, so they are naturally skeptical when you either come out and tell them they need to pay higher taxes, or propose lots of new government spending and claim that taxes won’t go up. A skeptical public votes out Congress, and Congress people don’t want to be voted out of office. As a result, it’s not that easy to get Congress to vote for big government plans, there are real limits to a President’s power of persuasion here. Frankly, you shouldn’t want to see your members voted out of Congress for the purpose of just passing a bill or two, as we see the repercussions of losing elections now in the era of Trump’s Republican Congress.

Anyone who just throws out big proposals, big ideas without all the details and nuance to back them up, shouldn’t be taken seriously. This goes for Paul Ryan and his magic math on the tax cuts. It went for George W. Bush’s magic war theory, that we could pay for his Middle Eastern nation building all on the credit card. It’s true now with some of the ideas that Bernie Sanders is throwing around as his agenda. It is not a sufficient answer to say “tax the rich, cut defense spending,” when talking about how you’re going to finance big plans, because we all know those things are really tough to do- if they were easy to get past Congress, Democrats would have done them long ago. Even modest tax increases on the rich and modest cuts to Defense Department spending would be met with fierce opposition, and would be very difficult to pass- let alone creating $3.2 trillion annually to give everyone Medicare. Obviously higher taxes for the rich and a re-assignment of budget priorities is needed to make these policy goals happen, and it’s worth fighting for, but don’t pretend that this can be done easily, and that it’s a very simple solution. It’s not.

I have trouble taking Senator Sanders seriously though. He called the middle-class tax cuts portion of the GOP’s tax bill good on CNN the other day. In fact, he said Congress should have made them permanent. Is that position without merit? No, not at all. At the same time as he’s saying that, and then trying to claw back his statement, one of his financing ideas for single-payer health care (Medicare for All) is a 4% premium on every household in the country- a middle-class tax increase, even if it is a good idea. These positions don’t square. Sure, households might save money on health insurance premiums that exceeds their tax increase, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean we’re not raising taxes- and that’s assuming the 4% premium on every household would cover the costs- a subject of great debate. Not everyone is going to want to pay higher taxes to finance a national health care system, even if it will make costs cheaper for them or others. That’s just political reality.

My chief beef with Bernie Sanders is not the ideas he espouses, but the lack of reality he attaches to them, while criticizing Democrats for making tough decisions to try and pass things. I think back to his disaster interview with the New York Daily News in April of 2016, during the Presidential Primaries, where he was clearly unprepared to discuss the details of his plans for the nation. What happens to the employees of the “big banks” when you break them up? Who breaks them up, and under what authority? How exactly do we finance single-payer health care and free college education? If defense cuts are part of that plan, what happens to the people who work in manufacturing defense weaponry? Here he is again, after correctly admitting that his health care plan would require a tax increase, saying a middle-class tax cut is a good idea- it’s as though no actual facts or plans matter at all here. Now, Bernie is not the first political leader in this country to propose a bunch of stuff and not have the details down, so I could give it a chance- he’d clearly have to compromise, make deals, and come to a concrete plan once in office. The problem with Bernie is that he’s also built his political brand on not being compromising, of being entirely values driven, and spending literally his entire political career in Congress being a critic of the Democratic Party that he chooses to not join- for compromising, making deals, and getting to concrete plans in the end that are not always perfectly progressive. I either have to believe that he’s not serious, and won’t get things he proposes done (on purpose) to play politics, or that he’ll fail because he has no clue how to actually govern, or in the best case scenario, that he’ll be totally hypocritical in his process arguments, and will make deals and play politics with the best of them.

So no, if you’re proposing any form of expanding access to health care through government action, this tax bill is not helpful. The temporary and small middle-class tax cuts in it are not worth the damage they’ll do, especially because having less tax brackets now will make it harder to change tax law in the future. There, I said it for him, just in case you didn’t think he was playing politics like everyone else.