Why America Needs A Movement–But Not A Socialist One

Over on The Week, Ryan Cooper has an excellent, readable, and compelling piece that argues that, in the wake of the Trump election and the more recent authoritarian, bloodless coup in North Carolina, America needs, in his words, a revolution. He writes that:

What Democrats need is a fighting spirit to put some energy behind their own popularity advantage. Socialism — the democratic variety, not Marxism-Leninism, of course — is just what the doctor ordered.

He goes on to say that liberal capitalism (what I’d just call capitalism!) has failed large portions of America (which is undeniably true), and that what we really need is confidence and vision (emphasis his). “Build, organize, and fight,” he writes, “on democratic freedoms, universal social programs and massive wealth redistribution, not fiddly little tax credits.” He concludes by tying to the historical pattern of a strong Left emerging to fight a strong Right, saying that “Traditionally, to beat Nazis you need communists.”

There’s a lot to agree with in Mr. Cooper’s piece, especially the line that “milquetoast liberalism has been comprehensively devastated.” Anyone who watched President Obama’s final press conference and watched the weariness on his face will know that this is true. It wasn’t the Left that spent the last eight years united in obstruction and intransigence; it wasn’t the Left that abdicated its responsibility to the Supreme Court; it wasn’t the Left that launched a systematic assault on voting rights across the country; it wasn’t the Left that refused to adopt insurance reforms simply out of spite. The Left played by the rules of polite, good-faith political discourse. The Right played to win.

An injection of caffeine into the Left sounds like just what the doctor ordered. And, to hear Mr. Cooper tell it, that’s what’s happening:

New members have been flooding into the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States. They have added some 3,000 dues-paying members since the election — increasing their membership by over 40 percent nearly overnight. Just in the last week they have added chapters in three states, and have over 20 chapter requests still waiting to be processed.

People are casting about for something new to believe in, that’s absolutely true. And in the face of looming fascism, it isn’t surprising that many would choose what they see as the opposite. But I contend that moving to the Left is not a valid long-term strategy; instead of rejecting Liberalism, we need to recommit to it. We need to dig our heels in on that hill, and refuse to give an inch. Mr. Cooper, and other Democratic Socialists, recognize the need, in theory, for these Liberal freedoms. But the power must swell up from the people, not down from the State.

Liberalism–the notion that all men are created equal, that there are certain freedoms that are essential to a well-lived and fulfilled life (speech, for example, or the exercise of religion), that civil rights should be unassailable, and markets should be free–is under attack. That does not mean we should abandon it for Socialism, which, no matter how democratic it is, cannot achieve the same levels of freedom and equality of true Liberalism.

Don’t misunderstand me–I’m no Ayn Rand acolyte. I don’t think there’s any incompatibility between free markets and robust social programs. A strong and powerful State is required if we expect society to flourish. Hobbes was right, after all. But total participatory democracy, in the way advocated by Democratic Socialists, is impractical for even the most basic bureaucratic government functions; I contend that it is a contradiction of terms to have large scale wealth redistribution without massive State involvement, the kind that must, by its very nature, limit the activity of human spirit that makes a society achieve greatness.

I’m not fully in the tank for Hayek, as far as the idea that Socialism must necessarily lead to Totalitarianism. The Scandinavian Model of democratic socialism would offer a strong counterexample. But we should look at the Liberal values enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as an example and inspiration, not a regretful casualty, already dead and buried, of a authoritarian assault.

Categories: Dispatch

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