Episode 8: The “S” Word: Democratic Socialism Winning the Fight for Public Opinion (Audio)

By Derrick Crowe
August 25, 2018

Socialism is more popular among Democrats than capitalism, and some key democratic socialist policies are polling at more than 60 percent support, according to new polls. Slowly but surely, democratic socialism is winning the fight for the future of this country.

That’s coming up on Rise Like Lions.

Suddenly there are a lot of people trying to make sure we know they are not socialists. This week, Ruby Cramer published a piece on BuzzFeed about Elizabeth Warren where Warren describes the difference between her and Bernie Sanders. She says, “He’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”

A couple of weeks ago, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous kicked up some controversy by dropping an F-bomb when a reporter asked him if he’s a socialist. He detailed his history as a venture capitalist and then said, “Are you f-ing kidding me?” when pressed again on whether he was a socialist.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi famously responded in February 2017 to a young person pushing her on whether the party should embrace more democratic socialist solutions. She said bluntly, “We’re capitalists.” And earlier this year at a press conference, she rejected socialism as a “characterization of our party presented by the Republicans.”

Democrats as a party are so used to living and breathing and operating in a political environment that functions like a McCarthy hearing that they react to the word “socialism” like it’s a slur. It’s a swear word. The “S” Word. If you get called a socialist inside the politics they came up in, you have to defend yourself by proving your dedication to capitalism.

But here’s some good news: That red scare reality is fading as a younger generation with a totally different economic experience comes into its own in politics. On Thursday, August 23, Reuters published a great article about the fight for a progressive Democratic Party that had some truly amazing new polling in it.

According to the article, 70 percent of all Americans–not just Democrats, but all Americans–now support Medicare For All. Among Democrats, it’s 84.5 percent. Even 51.9 percent of Republicans support a policy of Medicare For All.

Free College Tuition comes in at 60 percent support among all Americans. Among Democrats, it’s 78.9 percent.

As you might recall, Medicare For All and Free College Tuition are among the main policy proposals from people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You know, the democratic socialists.

This is such a mind-blowing development because the press is full of articles about how progressives aren’t making it through primaries in swing districts. What it shows is that even if a particular candidate doesn’t win, just exposing people to these ideas is winning the larger battle for the direction of the left in the United States. This is a huge shift this is in American politics. The democratic socialist and/or progressive currents within our party are clearly winning not just the internal policy debate, but the fight for public opinion in general.

Reuters isn’t alone in detecting this new shift towards democratic socialism. Gallup also has a new survey out showing that “Democrats are more positive about socialism than capitalism”:

Attitudes toward socialism among Democrats have not changed materially since 2010, with 57% today having a positive view. The major change among Democrats has been a less upbeat attitude toward capitalism, dropping to 47% positive this year — lower than in any of the three previous measures. Republicans remain much more positive about capitalism than about socialism, with little sustained change in their views of either since 2010.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is the collapse of young people’s support for capitalism. According to the poll, more Americans ages 18 to 29 are positive about socialism (51 percent) than capitalism (45 percent), and Gallup says:

This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively. Meanwhile, young people’s views of socialism have fluctuated somewhat from year to year, but the 51% with a positive view today is the same as in 2010.

Now before we get too carried away with what this poll says, we need to look at it in its entirety. Overall among the population, socialism gets a 37-percent positive view, ranking it last among the following terms:

  • Small Business (92 percent)
  • Entrepreneurs (86 percent)
  • Free enterprise (79 percent)
  • Capitalism (56 percent)
  • Big business (50 percent)
  • The federal government (39 percent)
  • Socialism (37 percent)

However, it’s also worth noting that of all of those terms, only socialism has gained somewhat in popularity since since 2016. Every other term has lost popularity.

Equally worth noting: This move towards socialism and away from capitalism is generational, and there is a big correlation between your age and how you feel about socialism. At ages 18-29, people have a 51 percent positive view of socialism. At 30-49, they have a 41-percent positive view of socialism. At 50-64, they have a 30-percent positive view, and at 65+ you get a 28-percent positive view.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, because capitalism today represents a raid by older generations on these young people’s future. Democratic socialism provides a coherent framework for today’s politics from the perspective of the working class. It correctly identifies the problem and the villains in the story, and then names the solutions.

Wages are a perfect example. Popular Information had a great piece on August 13th about “Our dysfunctional economy.” They asked why, after the GOP promised their tax scam would boost wages and while unemployment is down and GDP is growing strong, real wages declined over the past year for American workers. Purchasing power for the average worker has hardly budged in 40 years.

The answer is something that democratic socialists and the average voters know: because we have a capitalist health care system based on employer-provided health insurance, and because health costs are skyrocketing, a business that’s primarily interested in the profits of those at the very top is not going to raise your wages when what they view as the costs to employ you are rising anyway. The article also rightly points out that unions have been devastated since the 1950s, when 1/3 of workers belonged to a union. Now it’s 1/20, and workers therefore have little bargaining power. Businesses are becoming more and more consolidated and monopolies are making a comeback, so they face less competition for sales and for workers. And that consolidation is one of the reasons, by the way, that health costs are skyrocketing: hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies are all gobbling each other up and using their control of the market to drive up prices. That’s a fancy way of saying they’re robbing you.

The short version of all of this is, unaccountable economic and political power is being hoarded in fewer and fewer hands, and the people doing the hoarding don’t want to pay you more because they want it for themselves!

So what has that lead to?

According to New York Magazine,

“The median income for 25-to-34-year-olds in America, $34,000, hasn’t budged since 1977, adjusted for inflation.”

“Consumer credit-card debt at the end of 2017 was over $1 trillion (about 30% higher than in 2008).”

“Millennials have taken on at least 300 percent more student-loan debt than their parents’ generation.”

“In a December 2017 poll by YouGov, 38 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t know when they’d be debt-free. 30 percent of respondents thought they’d never be out of debt.”

Amid that economic rot for the people on the bottom in this country, those at the very top are inhaling everything that’s not nailed down. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute cited by The Washington Post:

Top executives of America’s biggest companies saw their average annual pay surge to $18.9 million in 2017, according to a report released Thursday, fueling concerns about the gulf between the nation’s richest and everyone else.

The dramatic 18 percent jump in chief executive pay came as wages for American workers remained essentially flat, pushing the gap between executive compensation and employee pay to its highest point in about a decade.

From 2009 to 2017, average pay for the nation’s CEOs jumped by $7.8 million, or by 72 percent, according to the report. During that period, the average wages and benefits for a typical American worker rose from $53,400 to $54,600, or by about 2 percent, the report said.

The richest 5 percent of Americans have captured 74 percent of the wealth created in the country from 1983 to 2010, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. Another report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, found that the richest 400 Americans control more wealth than the poorest 80 million U.S. households, and similar research has found the top 1 percent now holding 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

EPI’s report does not reflect the impact of the Republican tax package signed into law by President Trump in fall 2017. Critics say the tax law is likely to exacerbate growing inequality, as it dramatically slashed taxes on corporations and wealthy estates, while Republican proponents say it will usher in robust economic growth that will lift wages for most workers.

Another recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies shows that:

The three wealthiest people in the United States — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett —now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 160 million people or 63 million households. …These figures underestimate our current levels of wealth concentration. The growing use of offshore tax havens and legal trusts has made the concealing of assets more widespread than ever before.

That same IPS report says that, “One in five U.S households, over 19 percent, have zero or negative net worth. ‘Underwater households’ make up an even higher share of households of color. Over 30 percent of black households and 27 percent of Latino households have zero or negative net worth to fall back on.”

So, while life at the top in this economy is fabulous, for the working class, prosperity is grinding to a halt.

And if you get a moment between your three jobs and your two side hustles to raise your eyes to the horizon, what do you see?

According to a report from The Guardian on August 21st:

The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer.

This phenomenon – which has never been recorded before – has occurred twice this year due to warm winds and a climate-change driven heatwave in the northern hemisphere.

One meteorologist described the loss of ice as “scary”. Others said it could force scientists to revise their theories about which part of the Arctic will withstand warming the longest.

The sea off the north coast of Greenland is normally so frozen that it was referred to, until recently, as “the last ice area” because it was assumed that this would be the final northern holdout against the melting effects of a hotter planet.

The greed and obstinacy of the richest people in this society stand in the way of getting off of the fossil fuel economy, robbing young people of a survivable global climate so rapidly that our ability to feed ourselves may collapse in the next few decades. We’re about 60 parts per million in carbon dioxide levels beyond the red line for a sustainable future. That’s driven by our capitalist economy’s dependence on fossil fuels, which is making a few people at the top fabulously rich. It’s also driving intense climatic breakdowns, such that “is calculated that there are only 30 to 70 good harvest years left, depending on your location.” That’s from Jeremy Grantham’s latest whitepaper, “The Race of Our Lives Revisited.” Glacier National Park is on fire. Half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Fracking is destroying our water supply. Heat waves are smashing into the Northern Hemisphere.

The bill for the last 100 years of fabulous prosperity and terrible group decision-making is about to come due–and all that misery and violence and destruction that will come with that can be laid at the feet of the people who were doing so well sitting on the very top of our  system that they were willing to lie and bribe and cheat to keep our politicians from taking the necessary actions to save the future.

All of this is why, all my previous caveats aside, there’s clearly been a sharp change in perceptions about socialism among young people and on the left, and that’s driven by very real, ugly experience under increasingly unrestrained capitalism and deep, realistic anxieties about the future.

The drop in the popularity of capitalism and the national excitement around democratic socialists as candidates is one of the reasons the right is viciously attacking candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, because they know that once Democrats begin running candidates with a coherent rebuttal to the right’s hateful economic vision, they’re in a lot of trouble. That’s why right-wing B-tier personalities like Glenn Beck and Ben Shapiro are dying to “debate” her, which is really an invitation to her to get sealioned or Gish galloped for half an hour. It’s also why writers like Conor Friedersdorf is concern-trolling democratic socialism in the pages of The Atlantic, along with any number of other columnists looking for click-bait.

These folks don’t have any interest in understanding democratic socialism–they just don’t want people understanding their actual economic situation and how the democratic socialist platform would help them. And they can see from the dramatic increase in the membership of Democratic Socialists of America that they have something to worry about: in 2015, about 6,000 people claimed DSA membership. Today, it’s almost 50,000.

Here’s what democratic socialism means. Democratic socialism means that regardless of the profit someone can extract from you, you matter, and you deserve a voice in the decisions that affect your life. And yes, those choices often take place in local, state, and federal elections, but they aren’t limited to those places. To fight that unaccountable power, we use the democratic processes available to us, and we fight to expand the domain of democratic control. Everywhere we find tyranny, authoritarianism, and the reign of bullies, we want to break it up, whether it’s in the halls of government, in the economy, or on the job site, and replace them with democracy and distributed or social ownership. Democratic socialism means fighting corporate bosses and monopolies when they take away our political and economic choices. It means a future of personal autonomy not constrained by the fear of a medical bill, college or consumer debt, or a devastated climate. Democratic socialism means everyone in this country should be able to reach their full potential, no matter where they start in life, and it means that we the people must all be equally protected, equally empowered, and equally accountable, regardless of wealth, background, or identity. That’s democratic socialism.

Democratic socialists don’t want to pass policies like Medicare For All because it will save us money–although it certainly will, such that even when the libertarian Mercatus Center tried to analyze Medicare For All, they had to admit they found it would save $2 trillion. The point of is to free every single person in this country from the pointless suffering and financial ruin baked into the for-profit mess we have today. It’s just such a good idea that it happens to save us $2 trillion as a bonus. As Corey Robin says in this week’s edition of The New York Times, “The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.” Put another way, what we’re after is liberty and justice for all.

Our opponents react with such vitriol against a straightforward socialist uprising because we represent the rejection of their generation long project to remove democracy from both the political and economic sphere. Where we want dignified wages, distributed ownership, and a say in the decisions that affect our lives at work, they work to smash unions and crush attempts by employees to organize for mutual defense of their rights and dignity. Where we want our politics to reflect the will of the people, they want the capital of a very few people at the top to determine the outcomes of elections. Where we say that an education from kindergarten all the way through trade school or public college is your right in this country, they don’t even want to feed your kids at school unless it can be proven to improve the child’s score on a corporate skills assessment. Where we declare that health care is a human right, they want to continue to use the fear and pain of illness and death to extort unbelievable sums of money from you–and if they can’t, they want to be able to discard you like garbage.

You’re not garbage. You matter. You have a right to be treated like a human being in every area of your life. Your life has a value that can’t be reduced to a line on a spreadsheet with a dollar amount next to it. That’s what democratic socialists believe. That’s what I believe. I hope you believe it too.