Capital Hill 3/13/19 Gun Control Protest - Credit: Bloomberg
By Scottie Westfall
In the 2016 presidential election, about 47 percent of the eligible electorate did not vote. A large portion of these nonvoters certainly were victims of voter suppression efforts, but a larger portion of that non-electorate consisted of the dispossessed, the cynical, and the truly hurting.
A paradigm exists among the pundit class which dictates that Democratic and Republican nominees for president must run to the center in the general election to capture a growing number of independent voters, whose preferences supposedly exist between the two parties. Thus, any attempt to make the Democratic Party respond to the needs of progressives is utter folly. The goal should be to elect a Democratic president who can capture a majority of these independent voters, which means progressives and the working class must accept the odd bone thrown their direction or maybe just accept the lip service as the highest prize.
There is, of course, another way. This way expands the electorate by getting these nonvoters engaged in the process. This is the way that Bernie Sanders could potentially become president. This way is not impossible, despite what you may have heard or have come to believe as part of your own learned helplessness in the American political system. The fact that this way exists at all is essentially known to virtually all corporate pundits, hence the constant haranguing of Sanders and other progressives on mainstream media news talk shows. We are already hearing word of the horrors of socialism, almost all of it an allusion to the victims of Marxism-Leninism or Maoism in the past century.
Never mind that the “socialism” of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not anything like the attempts to bring socialism to the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. That ideal of socialism was to put almost the entire economy under public ownership. The Sanders-style socialism is really better referred to as social democracy. When asked about what Sanders thinks of an ideal society, he will often mention some Scandinavian country. Those countries still have free enterprise and corporations, but they are strictly regulated. Taxation is high and generally progressive, and the government provides quality government services that are funded through those taxes.
In another era, this form of socialism would have been called “sewer socialism.” The old Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs elected many such socialists, most notably in the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s socialist programs initially centered around improving the public sewer system, and in the 1890s, one socialist organizer used that wonderful sewer system to extol the virtues of this sort of reform. This is what Bernie Sanders is arguing for. His political revolution is about social reform and improving the public good. It is not about overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with some form of publicly-owned economy or setting up a series of worker owned enterprises. We can argue about whether these things might be good in the long run, but in the political reality that exists now, we are forced to deal with the simple reality that the left has virtually no power. However, social democracy has the potential to transform the lives of millions of desperately poor people in this country.
WASHINGTON, DC - March 8: Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) rallies with several Democrats prior to voting for the People Act. Credit - Chip Somodevilla
Keep in mind that this nation has experienced over a century of brutal suppression of socialist organizers. This suppression has also come with a century of the crassest propaganda about what socialism is. Since the 2008 housing market crash, socialism has gained a bit of new life among the American people, but much of the country is still hostile to it. For those of us who would like to push for social reforms, this is an obstacle that we must overcome. Maybe the best way is to stop calling it “democratic socialism” and start calling it “social democracy.” Social democracy is a more succinct description, and it also clearly points to the Scandinavian model as an ideal, instead of the Soviet Union.
This simple semantic switch could help us present with clarity a united message, and assist those suffering from learned helplessness. These are people who have seen their lives turned upside down. They have often voted for Democrats in hopes of fixing their precarious economic situation, but the Democrats since the time of Reagan have all been into serving corporate donors. The New Democrats, most exemplified by Bill Clinton, were very good at giving lip service to economic woes, but then he would eviscerate the social safety net and push through yet another job-killing free trade deal. So much of the electorate grew cynical. They withdrew from ever having any hope in the political system, but this new social democratic movement within the Democratic Party has some potential to help these people who are the new precariat.
The challenge of social democracy in this century is to face this learned helplessness head-on and engage these people where they are. It is the only way that their lives can ultimately be improved and it is the only way good sense policies can ever hope to see the light of day. Policies that work are not only about hopes and dreams. They are life and death.
Woman holding sign: Speak truth to power. Credit - Johannes Spahn / EyeEm / Getty