Evvabuddy’s writin’ to their sons nowadays. There’s Ta-Nehisi from the left and a guy named David Desrosiers from the rightish City Journal.
My son is a Sanders supporter and here’s my note to him.
It is kind of odd that Bernie continues to push socialism since it opens the door to the overdone conflation of socialism and communism, the kind of nasty but traditionally effective rhetoric that Trump just tried. America has never warmed to socialism and so it is leading with one’s chin to make this the centerpiece.
And there some ironies as well. For one, America already has a lot of socialist elements embedded in it, from innocuous things like public libraries to more consequential things like agricultural price supports and hydroelectric generation. It just doesn’t like to think of things that way. And if we are ideologically averse to calling something what it is, that is all the more reason to think that a call to socialism is on its face problematic in terms of voter support.
The other irony is that Sanders is not even talking about socialism properly understood. That calls for even greater state ownership than we have. He asks us to consider the Scandinavian model–but that is not “socialist” either in the sense of state ownership of enterprise and state direction of the economy. Denmark is considered more business friendly than the United States and a fair amount of the classic Scandinavian welfare state has been rolled back. So the “democratic socialism” Sanders calls for under a Scandinavian model is barely that.
OK, so Sanders may have made life more difficult than it had to be by trying to sell America on capital-S Socialism. But he is saying something. What?
As Paul Krugman has pointed out, even with the partial rollback of welfare state entitlements in Denmark, it remains a high-tax nation, and people like it. That’s because most people seem satisfied that their high taxes, collectively paid, are contributing to a satisfactory quality of life, collectively experienced. It can’t be emphasized enough that this kind of trade works well when there exists a high level of social cohesion and trust. Scandinavians are that way in the US but they are even more that way at home in Scandinavia. There, I am comfortable with a high level of social welfare because there are shared values as to the balance between social and individual responsibility. If you are on welfare, it is probably because you are deserving, and our shared values act not only to reassure me but to prod you.
Here’s an article about that problem, from a British left-leaning magazine from 10 years ago. I think this is one of the central problems of “democratic” (i.e., soft, not hard) socialism. There has to be a cultural fit for it to work well.
Yet in the United States it is the left that continues to push for more and more diversity–as though there is no cost from the inevitable friction produced. More immigration and less assimilation–for the majority has no right to turn people away at the border and even less moral standing–heavens!–to insist on others speaking a common language or adopting common norms. And it’s not just the left: the corporate right wants cheap labor and the libertarian right says it’s all about the individual and any collective enterprise is suspect.
Me, I am a communitarian. Like Sanders, probably. I would prefer to live in a society that had higher taxes and more collective benefits, fairly spread around under a scheme of generally shared values, and not of such magnitude as to squelch individual initiative. But is that possible in these united states?
It can be possible with monocultures. It’s nice to live in a place where someone is there, as Steve Sailer writes, to “round down some of the sharp, competitive corners of modern life”. Like Mormonism, which Sailer neatly describes as “a private welfare state, without most of the moral hazard that goes with government welfare states.”
The last time this was tried on a national scale in a mass, diverse place was Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. That resulted in Nixon’s Southern Strategy and, ultimately, in Ronald Reagan and the ascension of conservative politics for a generation. I don’t like that. I’d rather live in a place where those corners are rounded down. But I am also a realist and not a utopian, and do not see how that is possible without a stronger central spine to American life. I don’t know if that’s nationalism, or the unabashed promotion of middle-class values, or a religious revival or even whether I’d like it when I saw it. I just don’t think democratic socialism works well in the present carnival we call the United States.