The Left Lurch of the Democratic Party: Revolution or Reform?

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been in public office for 44 years, 35 of them as the US senator from Kentucky. He sees America entering “a new political era. …. I can pretty safely say this is the first time in my political career that I thought the essence of America was being debated.” Proponents of a new “essence” range from Bernie Sanders, a 77 year-old socialist who has served in congress for almost 30 years, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29 year-old who has served in congress for two months, and styles herself a democratic socialist: “Socialism is part of what I am, not all of what I am.” Oh. Her new best friend is one Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left, anti-Semitic leader of Britain’s Labour Party. But forgive her that; she often knows not what she does.

AOC as she is known, has taken the media and therefore the political world by storm, with a combination of charisma, a telegenic presence, and threats to mount primary campaigns against colleagues who don’t agree with her. She favours ending all use of fossil fuels, replacing air travel with high-speed trains (Democrats from Hawaii are not onboard on this one), eliminating ethane-producing cattle and therefore steaks and burgers, rebuilding all existing homes and buildings to reduce emissions, and more — all to end climate change within about a decade. And, according to a draft quickly pulled down from the internet, “providing economic security for those unable or unwilling to work”. Oh yes, there’s to be free college, child care and health care for all, the package to be paid for by having the Federal Reserve and new public banks “extend credit,” known to most people as printing money.

Unfortunately for the quality of the policy debate, AOC in one sense is rather like the President: a crafty user of social media — she has some three million followers on twitter, more than the 63 Democratic freshman House members combined — with a dangerous combination of soaring self-confidence and abysmal economic ignorance.

Cometh the time, cometh the new left lurch in American politics. Daniel Henninger, a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, appraising the impact of socialist Sanders and democratic socialist Ocasio-Cortez on the Democratic Party, writes, “The Democratic Party belongs to them.” Which has Republicans cheering in the belief that such a left-leaning, expensive platform will turn voters off and make it unnecessary for the Trumps to return to the gilded surroundings of Trump Tower in 2020. Their weapons are ridicule, heaped on Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and their apers. And the $100 million Trump has already raised – more to come – to fund a campaign that will feature the raucous rallies that are the meat on which this (I wish I were a) Caesar feeds.

Those weapons won’t do. “Socialism” might appall the President, but Americans associate the word more with what they believe describes Sweden than the Soviet Union, demonstrating an ignorance of Sweden, which abandoned socialism decades ago, and of the Soviet Union: one-third of millennials believe George W. Bush killed more people than Josef Stalin.

Polls show that when asked for a definition, most proponents of replacing capitalism with socialism speak in terms of reducing inequalities of income and wealth, ending the uneven availability of health care and lack of concern with global warming, and bringing to heel arrogant bankers who almost brought the financial system down but paid no price for their misfeasance. Those are more calls for reform than for replacement of the current system, and absent details are difficult to attack.

Republicans counter by citing their significant achievements: regulatory reform, tax cuts, record rates of job creation, full employment, and rising wages. But voters want to know, “What are you planning to do for me next?” And are not certain to be concerned by attacks on the soaring deficits that would result from the adoption of the Democratic proposals.

For one thing, it ill behoves a President who has taken the national debt to $22 trillion and rising, in part to fund a corporate tax cut, to cry “foul” when Democrats propose to increase the deficit and debt to pay for what they argue is health care and education for all. For another, there is an emerging, respectable body of economic thought, laid out in Foreign Affairs by former treasury Larry Summers and Jason Furman, chief economic advisor to president Barack Obama, that argues that government borrowing at current low interest rates to “invest” in social programmes that have high rates of return – better roads, a healthy, educated work force – is not profligate but the height of prudence. (Whether the returns claimed for these investments will actually be realized on government-directed projects is an argument for another day: California abandoned most of a planned high-speed train, budgeted at $39 billion, but now expected to cost about closer to $100 billion for a much-scaled-down version.)

Equally important, many if not a majority of Americans do not find the word “Socialism” one that would prompt them to rush to the polls to re-elect a President widely despised for his vulgar behaviour and his incontinent twitter finger. Gallup polls show that 51% of millennials (57% of all Democrats) have a positive view of socialism because they associate the word with greater equality of income and wealth distribution, and a stronger and broader safety net that includes Medicare for All and free college for the unrich.

Their call for higher taxes on incomes and wealth to reduce inequality, and for raising taxes on inheritances that entrench inequality into the system should hardly call to mind the rumbling of the trumbrels over the cobblestones of Paris. Indeed, even the “rich” say their taxes are too low. That bit of hypocrisy – there is no law against voluntarily paying more than the taxman demands, perhaps by eschewing the use of loopholes inserted into the revenue code to benefit, among others, real estate developers – undermines claims that raising taxes on high earners would discourage them from working hard.

The left might have some useful diagnoses of the ills of market capitalism, but the blood-letting and leeches they are prescribing to cure those ills might seriously weaken the capitalist system that has ended more poverty than any other system in the history of the world. It would be a shame to see it undermined by an unwillingness to repeat Franklin Roosevelt’s feat of reforming it to save it.