New York • “We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won’t let us.”
Political scientist Mason Williams cited this cheeky but accurate comment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point easily lost in the new war on socialism President Trump has launched: Socialism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the market system alive.
Going back to the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans, socialists and liberal reformers, worked together to find creative ways to solve problems capitalism alone couldn't, and to humanize the system's workings. This has been well documented in separate books written by historians Daniel Rodgers and James Kloppenberg. "The New Deal," Rodgers wrote, "was a great, explosive release of the pent-up agenda of the progressive past."
Think about this when pondering the Green New Deal put forward last week by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. It's sweeping and adventurous. There is virtually no way it will become law as long as Republicans control the Senate and Trump is president. And if something like it eventually does get enacted, there will be many compromises and rewrites.
But there would be no social reform, ever, if those seeking change were too timid to go big and allowed cries of "socialism" to intimidate them.
In his State of the Union address last week, Trump cast himself as Horatius at the bridge standing against the Red Menace: "We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."
Yet in referring to "new calls to adopt socialism in our country," he had a point. Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., won over 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.
We should be clear that Trump’s words are entirely about re-election politics. He wants to tar all Democrats as “socialists” and then define socialism as antithetical to American values. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control,” he declared. “We are born free, and we will stay free.” Cue Lee Greenwood.
But attacking socialism isn’t the cakewalk it used to be. During the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Americans with the S-word because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered a powerful example of the oppression that state control of all of the means of production could unleash.
The Soviet Union, however, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is communist on paper but a wildly unequal crony capitalist dictatorship in practice. Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate "socialism" with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.
The 2018 PRRI American Values Survey offered respondents two definitions of socialism. One described it as "a system in which government provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support and access to free higher education," essentially a description of social democracy. The other was the full Soviet dose: "a system where the government controls key parts of the economy such as utilities, transportation and communications industries."
You might say that socialism is winning the branding war: 54 percent said socialism was about those public benefits while just 43 percent picked the version that stressed government domination. Americans aged 18 to 29, for whom Cold War memories are dim to nonexistent, were even more inclined to define socialism as social democracy: 58 percent of them picked the soft option, 38 percent the hard one.
Oh, yes, and on those tax increases that conservatives love to hate — and associate with socialism of the creeping kind — a Fox News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans favored raising taxes on those with incomes of over $10 million.
Trump will still probably get some traction with his attacks on socialism. And progressives should remember that social democratic ideas associated with fairness and expanding individual freedoms — to get health care or go to college, for example — are more popular than those restricting choice.
Nonetheless, Jerome Frank was right: those slurred as socialists really do have a good track record of making capitalism work better and more justly. The S-word is not now, and, in its democratic forms, never should have been an obscenity.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.”