Socialism as Conflicted Contrarianism

I agree with Nathan Pinkoski that we should pay attention to the rise of socialism in American politics. Or, rather, I agree with Pinkoski that we should pay attention to the rise of “socialism” in American politics.

As Pinkoski notes, the word “socialism” is in evident vogue, at least in some corners of American political discourse. But whether contemporary uses of the word “socialism” have anything to do with the historic meanings of the same: that is another matter. Like Pinkoski, I do not see a major confluence of the European socialism of yore with the American socialism of today. Yet my read of contemporary American socialists—or contemporary Americans who call themselves socialists—differs from his in its emphasis. In it, I see less bourgeois and less bolshevism. And I see more contrarianism and more commitment to democratic rejuvenation.

The contemporary United States is a place of confused political vocabulary in general. We divide ourselves into “conservative” and “liberal” camps. But our conservatives are classic liberals when it comes to markets, and our liberals are classic conservatives when it comes to protection of the natural world. The classic definitions do not map onto the contemporary practice.

On top of that, basically everybody in today’s United States is what Harvey Mansfield has called a “creeping libertarian,” committed in varying ways to the kind of highly individualistic and relativist ethic captured in the unctuous popular exhortation “you do you.” This year, even the self-described religious students in my freshman seminar came to college dedicated to the proposition that there is no such thing as truth; there are only “personal truths.”

Much, then, of what Pinkoski says about self-proclaimed American socialists—that they are ideologically incoherent and also inclined toward individualism—doesn’t necessarily distinguish them, to me, from the rest of the American mass.

Standing Out in the Crowd

That said, the word “socialism” came back on the American scene relatively recently, as a term of differentiation, and that might be a helpful story to tell, to figure out what might make these socialists not only different from their European predecessors, but different from their American contemporaries.

The story probably begins in 2008, when Senator John McCain—running against Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency—contended that Obama’s proposals to cut middle-class taxes while raising taxes on the wealthy sounded “a lot like socialism.”

“At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,” McCain said. “Barack Obama’s tax plan would convert the IRS into a giant welfare agency.”

Sanders has embraced the term “democratic socialism” in part to claim fidelity to the Democratic Party—at least, to the Democratic Party before it got taken over by third-way Clintonian politics.

After Obama won that election, and then won a second term in office, his critics continued to call him a socialist. This prompted the occasional outcry from historians, political scientists, and even leaders of the Socialist Party USA—all of whose attempts to distinguish between traditional socialism and Obama’s technocratic liberalism fell largely on deaf ears. Throughout Obama’s time in office, despite all evidence to the contrary, a majority of Republican voters remained convinced that their President was a secret socialist—and this view led Ezra Klein to say, memorably, that “if President Obama is truly a socialist, he’s not a very good one.”

Reclaiming Socialism

If “socialist” was up to this point mostly an implausible political epithet, the word found new purchase in 2016, when the self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders began his political ascendance. The fact that by 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans in a Gallup survey said that some form of socialism would be good for the country, has a lot to do with the way Sanders has used the term—a fact that Pinkoski recognizes.

Sanders maintains some links to doctrinnaire socialism—a plaque dedicated to Eugene Debs hangs in his office—but on the campaign trail Sanders made the word “socialism” his own. Largely, he used it to signal breaks with moderate Democrats on various key issues, and more broadly to showcase his contrarian spirit. Doing so has surely appealed to an American electorate, most of whom—77 percent, in one recent survey—think that their political system is badly broken. Sanders has turned the epithet of “socialist” into a badge of honor, a signal of his willingness to split with the current political class.

How much of that signaling is superficial and how much is substance? To be sure, Sanders has been a consistent critic of the big money that feeds the Democratic Party. But he has also caucused reliably with that party, most notably to give the Democrats the 51st Senate seat they needed to control the 110th Congress.

Indeed, Sanders has embraced the term “democratic socialism” in part to claim fidelity to the Democratic Party—at least, to the Democratic Party before it got taken over by third-way Clintonian politics. Repeatedly, Sanders has used “democratic socialism” to link himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, as well as to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement. In this way, Sanders’ “democratic socialism” assures us that the system does not need to be burned down; it just needs to be returned to an earlier, less corrupted version of itself.

Anxiety and Nostalgia

There is real affinity here to the sentiment behind “Make America Great Again,” suggesting why some Americans are Sanders-or-Trump voters. On the campaign trail, both have suggested—resonating with surveys that show most Americans think the nation’s best days are in its past—that the brightest American future we can imagine harks back to an earlier moment. If these are radical movements, they are practicing a radicalism of an unusually reassuring or retrospective kind.

Whatever else it did, the Sanders campaign simultaneously harnessed the deep disenchantment of American voters and the faith of Americans in the essential wisdom of their political system. Looked at that way, Sanders’ “democratic socialism” seems more like an attempt at realignment rather than a move toward revolution.

Indeed, the signature issue of the Sanders campaign—“Medicare for All”—is quite literally just the extension of a 55-year-old government program to a lot more beneficiaries. Even if a single-payer healthcare system would change the lives of a lot of people, Sanders sold it—and has sold socialism—as basically following through more fully on the promise of postwar liberalism.

Conflicted Contrarianism

What I don’t see in that program, or in the Sanders campaign more broadly, is the ideological distinctiveness of contemporary American socialism that Pinkoski sees, at least in the dimensions that he sees it. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the Sanders program that falls anywhere outside of—or even pushes the boundaries of—the distributive recommendations of the sacred text of postwar liberalism, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

I can go even further back to note that many of the qualities that Pinkoski ascribes to American socialism today—its tendencies toward individualism, statism, anxiety, and postures of moral authority—are qualities that long have been ascribed to American democracy in general. Indeed, they are all qualities, or at least potentialities, that Alexis de Tocqueville saw in American politics in the 1830s.

I am, I think, in heated agreement with Pinkoski that thoughtless individualism, naïve statism, and underlying anxiety trouble American politics. But I see those troubles as more endemic to the mass modern democratic state than to the current crop of Americans who call themselves socialists. If those phenomena are manifest in Sanders supporters and their ilk, they are surely not isolated there.

In the end, I have trouble seeing Sanders-style socialism as distinctive a development as Pinkoski sees it. To the extent that I do see this political movement as distinctive, I find it noteworthy for its conflicted contrarianism—its critique of contemporary Democrats via an embrace of an earlier Democratic party—and a heartfelt if sometimes messy commitment to more egalitarian distribution of government services. That is not to say that American socialism couldn’t become more distinctive, more oppositional, or more self-contained than it is at the present. But for the moment, this seems like an unfamiliar word in American politics that is being harnessed—at least by Sanders—to amplify a familiar tune.