Is Socialism Really That Big of a Threat?

March 14, 2019
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Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Is the threat (or promise) of socialism the defining issue of 21st century politics? Many Republicans seem to think so. “They want to take your pickup truck,” the former deputy assistant to the US President, Sebastian Gorka, told the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. “They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

There is a school of thought that suggests the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the rise of support for authoritarian populist parties across Western democracies are not temporary anomalies, nor are they fallout from the financial crisis of 2008. Rather they are side effects of a historical political realignment. As Steve Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London argues it’s a shift that is bringing questions of identity to the foreground, “in particular the tension between globalism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand and nationalism and ethnic or cultural particularism on the other.”

But politics can never be reduced to just one single dimension. And because, according to Davies, “[t]he question of the economic role of government retains its salience, and in fact we are seeing a revival of argument around that topic,” the divide between “openness” versus “closedness” is displacing questions of cultural, or social, conservatism versus liberalism as the salient dividing line in Western politics.

Color me skeptical—both about culture wars receding into history and about the abstract idea of “socialism” being in the foreground of coming political fights.

For one, there is a reason why the largest protests against Trump were organized under the umbrella of women’s rights and not, say, around questions of trade or regulatory policy. Anyone who has followed the events at CPAC, particularly on the issue of abortion, would be hard pressed to say that cultural issues are losing their importance among Republicans. Quite the contrary, as Sohrab Ahmari, observed on Twitter, “now that they’re dealing directly with Trump, as it were, social conservatives wield a great deal more power than they ever did as second-class members of the fusionist coalition.”

Yes, left-wing firebrands such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have embraced the label of  “democratic socialism” and have pushed an economic agenda that would expand the role of government significantly—Medicare for all, Green New Deal, and steep marginal tax rates would be all large departures from the status quo. It also makes perfect political sense for the GOP to try to mobilize rhetorically against the real or imagined prospect of the left’s turning the United States, through such policies, into the next Venezuela.

But upon closer inspection the right’s bashing of socialism rings a little hollow—and not just because of Gorka’s bombast. Yes, AOC’s proposals are misguided but they are unlikely steps toward a planned economy, show trials, or the gulag system. More importantly, the GOP itself is hardly organized behind a clear-cut Reaganite agenda. President Trump, for instance, has embraced economic protectionism and managed to pull both the rest of the Republican Party and its base in the same direction. Remember Tucker Carlson’s manifesto, which accused previous generations of Republicans of seeking “to make the world safe for banking,” while noting that “market capitalism is not a religion” but rather “a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster?”

The issue is not whether Carlson and Trump are right. Instead, it is the fact that there is little agreement on economic policy or the role of government on either side of the “closed” versus “open” divide—and also that that lack of agreement does not seem to matter.

The most interesting domestic policy ideas escape the freedom-versus-socialism categorization altogether. Is Weyl’s and Posner’s idea of a “common ownership self-assessed tax”—which combines a fiscal element with the creation of new markets—a “small-” or a “big-government” idea? Quadratic voting? How about universal basic income as a replacement for existing social assistance programs? Where would Oren Cass’ proposals  fall on the socialism spectrum, marrying deregulation with federal wage subsidies for workers?

In other words, the abstract distinction between “socialism” and small government seems to be of little relevance to substantive policy questions. It also carries little political salience for the ongoing political realignments. Both La République en Marche in France and the Independent Group in the U.K., to take just two examples of emerging political forces on the “open” side of the spectrum, would be hard to pin down in size-of-government terms.

Notwithstanding the recent rhetoric on this side of the Atlantic, it would be extremely odd, to say the least, if the post-Trump political parties in the United States defined themselves using such vocabulary in a durable way. It may be therefore time for everyone involved, left and right, to leave the socialism talk to the 1980s, where it belongs.

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.