During the Third Democratic Presidential Debate of 2020, presenter Jorge Ramos described the situation in Venezuela and posed the following question to then-presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders: “What are the main differences between your type of socialism? and the one that is taxed in Venezuela? Cuba and Nicaragua? The comparison drawn in the question was clearly unreasonable – Maduro’s ruthless dictatorship is obviously distinct from the types of policies Sanders supports. The senator made this point in response, stating: “To equate what is happening in Venezuela with what I think is extremely unfair … I agree with what is happening in Canada and Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care. to all as a human right. ”
But while comparing Sanders’ beliefs to those of the most extreme socialist dictatorships may not be in good faith, the senator has to some extent invited those comparisons by adopting the nickname Democratic Socialist. Indeed, many Capitol Hill progressives have adopted the term, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the “squad”. At the heart of the platform adopted by contemporary American Democratic Socialists are policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that aim to expand government social services.
Socialist? Not enough
There is only one problem: the policies of contemporary American Democratic Socialists are not really socialist at all. Since the word is constantly manipulated and reinterpreted, there is no real definition of socialism. But one of the central tenets of a purer form of socialism revolves around the seizure by workers of the means of production of enterprises. In socialist states, this process often involves the nationalization and socialization of industries. While many of the democratic socialist policies proposed in the United States would certainly lead to increased government influence in the economy and the regulation of industry, few directly involve workers taking control of the economy. Political ideology operates on a spectrum, so implementing the modern democratic socialist agenda would likely bring the country closer to a socialist society, but labeling these policies as socialist doesn’t seem quite right.
Progressives have argued that democratic socialism is distinct from a more traditional understanding of socialism. However, distrust of socialism has become so ingrained in the American political psyche that the term is politically toxic – even if it is renamed. Indeed, according to Gallup opinion polls, only 39% of Americans have a positive view of socialism while 57% have a negative view. This general disapproval of socialism has remained fairly stable over the past decade, despite the fact that support for greater government intervention in the economy has increased significantly.
In a 2018 interview, Ocasio-Cortez insisted that his view of democratic socialism was different from “that kind of red fear of McCarthyism from a bygone era.” But it is precisely this troubled history of socialism in the United States that makes the use of the term so problematic. Complicating matters is the fact that much of modern conservative rhetoric relies on portraying Democrats as “radical liberals,” who want to fundamentally change America, whether by attacking “culture. Western “or by inaugurating a new socialist world order. Socialism is one of the biggest bogeymen of Republican politicians and of the rotation of political commentators fear-mongering targets. Keeping that word in the news only fuels the war machine of Republican culture and condemns the prospects for progressive politics in Congress.
Even if the definition of socialism is broad enough to encompass modern “democratic socialism,” why use a word with such entangled historical connotations to define your political ideology? The use of the phrase “democratic socialism” evokes backward politics, rather than emphasizing the innovative ideas that make up the modern progressive agenda.
Unfortunately, the branding issues of progressives go beyond how they define their own ideology. Specific policies have also been weakened by questionable rhetoric. “Defund the police” is a particularly good example of a promising policy derailed by its own marketing. The slogan generally refers to the diversion of certain police resources to other social agencies so that they can take on responsibilities that previously belonged to the police. For example, the obligation to respond to drug overdose calls could be transferred from the police department to the public health department. Technically, police budgets would be funded, but the main focus of the policy is more to reorient funds and responsibilities to further specialize public safety interventions. By using the slogan “define the police,” proponents of politics are chipping away at their own argument, emphasizing the less important part of the policy.
Worse yet, that slogan provided content on a silver platter for Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative politicians. With progressives saying they wanted to fund law enforcement, Republicans barely needed to turn the tale.
And the poll results were predictable. Reuters / Ipsos and The Detroit News polls found that a written description of what “funding the police” is supposed to represent exceeded the slogan itself by more than 70 percentage points. In a focus group of undecided voters who ultimately voted Trump in 2020, only one participant supported police funding. Meanwhile, 70% of the group said they would support “reducing police funding and reallocating it to social services and other agencies to reduce police presence in community conflicts” – the very goal of the police. “defund the police” movement. While the policy isn’t actually too controversial, the slogan has seemingly doomed the chances of its legislative success. “Reallocating funds from police to social services” is not entirely trivial, but at least it does not distort the central premise of the policy.
Now, that doesn’t mean progressives shouldn’t be honest and confident in their language for fear of a conservative backlash. Rather, the problem is that progressives actively distort their own views in the slogan process.
Also note that simple marketing changes will not inject progressives into conservative attacks. Fox News pundits will always call on progressives “socialists” to wage their culture war and accuse Democrats of weakening “law and order.” Yet elections are won at the margins, and distorting one’s own position in a way that fuels opposition content is just a wasteful and doomed move on the part of progressives.
Pragmatic rhetoric for pragmatic policies
An advocacy group that backed Bernie Sanders in 2020 was recently rebranded as “pragmatic progressives,” supporting the more moderate Biden agenda instead of demanding policies like Medicare for All. Compromising on policies is probably a necessary step for progressives, especially given the tight margins in the House and Senate. But the ability of many progressives to be politically effective depends on how they present their agenda. While progressives are at the limit – and constantly strive to redefine – what is dominant, they will naturally come under heavy criticism. The only way to overcome this criticism is for their policies to speak for themselves, not get bogged down in rhetoric that is ideological or overshadows the content of policies.
If you want reliable health care, you need Medicare for All. If you want sustainable jobs, you need the Green New Deal. If you want safe streets and less police brutality, you need comprehensive police reform. This is the progressive program.
Image of Joshua Sukoff is dismissed under the Unsplash License.