An American saga continues…
Like all cultures throughout history, America has produced political narratives to solidify essential principles within our society. These values are the reason for our existence and the rationalization of our actions. The idea of the American Dream for instance represents the promise of a capitalist system, while narratives of the Constitution and the ‘Founding Fathers’ serve as the foundation for the promotion of democracy and individual liberty. And Manifest Destiny justifies our foreign-policy from the Monroe Doctrine to “America First” as we continue to dominate the international system. But there has also been one consistent narrative regarding threats to the existence of United States, socialism.
The development of American democracy and capitalism has always been shadowed by the ‘specter of socialism’. Socialism and its focus on the creation of equality through state-managed economic redistribution has been in a tug-of-war with capitalism’s focus on free trade and its associated inequalities since before America’s independence. America has borrowed from socialism to reduce the worst of capitalism’s side effects, while simultaneously using it as the ultimate bogeyman and threat to our way of life. In the 1920s this tension was represented by expansion of civic organizations versus efforts to destroy unions and the labor movement. In the 1950s it was the Civil Rights Movement versus McCarthyism in America’s struggle with a real external threat from communism, and a perceived internal threat from its close cousin socialism. And today it is “Medicare for all” and the New Green Deal versus Trump conservatism that marks the ongoing political contest between socialism and capitalism in America.
The irony of the struggle however is that after each short-lived period of significant anti-socialism in American politics, there has been a much longer period of expansion in America’s economic redistribution and social protection programs. As much as the 1920s represented the birth of anti-socialism in America, the realities of poverty and unemployment symbolized by the Great Depression in the 1930s led to unprecedented growth of social programs in America. The same dynamic of sharp socialist/anti-socialist clashes in American politics followed by a much longer period of expanding social programs can be seen between the Red Scare of the 1950s and LBJ’s Great Society initiatives of the 1960s. America has always had a prominent anti-socialist component to its culture, one that is ascendant during significant periods of economic growth or expansion. But it has an even stronger reaction to the poverty and disadvantage that accompanies economic downturns. It is this reality that has for the last hundred years guaranteed a steady increase in social programs and initiatives punctuated by brief but aggressive efforts to halt or overturn those initiatives.
Contemporary anti-socialism still points to the New Deal era as the origin of many of America’s socialist tendencies today. Ironically, the few remaining New Deal programs like Social Security and the FDIC enjoy near universal support amongst Republicans. Their disdain for policies of economic redistribution is more negative and focused when it comes to Great Society era initiatives such as Welfare and government management of national education standards. But here again we see a selective approach in American anti-socialism as Republicans widely support other programs from the era like Medicare and Medicaid. The disconnect between anti-socialist rhetoric and support for certain redistributive policies and programs is symbolic of America’s long-term love-hate relationship with socialism. And it can be summed up as a back-and-forth between belief in the need of individuals to ‘stand on their own two feet and earn their own way’ versus deep cultural sympathies for the weak, disadvantaged, and poor.
Each case of significant anti-socialism in America has been followed by a longer period of expansion in socialist programs and initiatives. In this latest chapter of the series however, both sides need to recognize a truth that did not exist in the 1920s or the 1950s:
America is as socialist as it’s going to get.
For Democrats this means that not only are broad socialist policies like ‘Medicare for All’ and ‘The Green New Deal’ unlikely to succeed (the initial new bill was defeated in the Senate yesterday), their promotion may backfire in two ways. First, given the significant national resistance towards existing policies and initiatives (e.g. Obamacare and the Paris Climate Accords), the pursuit of even broader social programs will expend valuable material and political capital needed elsewhere. Second, the shift towards ‘neo-socialism’ that the two initiatives represent will allow anti-socialists to label more moderate or even desperately needed initiatives as ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’. Overall, by pushing what they see as alternatives to the ‘anti-social agenda’ of the Trump administration Democrats run the risk of creating a mirror image of his extremism with the same level of limited potential and even more political animosity. This will in turn further galvanize the already stark political differences in America increasing the difficulty of convincing undecideds or moderate Republicans from supporting the initiatives.
Republicans run the risk of falling into the same trap that ultimately undermined the anti-socialist messages of patriotism and national security in the 1920s and 1950s. There are legitimate concerns on the right (e.g. greater government control and regulation of certain markets) regarding the impact of more overtly socialist policies on the US economy and society. However, the historical tendency of the right to overreact and engage in witch-hunts, demonization, and paranoia ultimately undermines that legitimacy. When these responses to socialism are combined with the existing political environment in the United States it is not difficult to predict even more poisonous rhetoric vis-à-vis the perceived threat of socialism in the upcoming 2020 election. While this will satisfy Republicans and conservatives already fully committed to the anti-socialist narrative, it could backfire on the party and its national political goals in much the same way McCarthyism shadowed Republicans for the next 20 years ending only with Nixon’s impeachment.
For Republicans it is time to realize that America is and always will be a social democracy. Regardless of its capitalist or realist foundations, Americans as a society will always feel compelled to react to social injustice and economic inequality through expansion of social programs and economic redistribution initiatives. For Democrats it is time to realize that the fight is in holding onto and improving existing social programs rather than presenting a new round of program expansion. As long as debt and inefficiency are allowed to linger within existing programs anti-socialist will have significant and legitimate arguments against the development of new or expanded initiatives. In the end, both sides must stop trying to increase or decrease America’s socialist components, and work together to improve the ones that we have…
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.