"Socialism” seems to be the big word of this midterm election season.
After the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries and the embarrassing defeat of centrist liberal Hillary Clinton in the general election, the Democratic Party is lurching left. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old congressional candidate in New York’s 14th Congressional District who dealt a shocking defeat to 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the June primaries, has become a living symbol of this trend. Ocasio-Cortez, who despite some missteps is hailed by many as the new face of the party, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America.
Several other members of the organization are expected to win seats in state legislatures. Meanwhile, a new Gallup Poll shows that 57 percent of Americans who identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning have a favorable view of socialism while only 47 percent have a favorable opinion of capitalism. (In other polls since 2010, the positives were roughly the same for both.)
Does this shift mean Democrats are in thrall to a dangerous radicalism? Many conservatives have evoked the horrors and miseries of 20th century communism, or the more recent fiasco of socialist Venezuela. Progressives accuse them of scaremongering, pointing instead to the success of European social democracies, especially in Scandinavian countries. This has prompted a debate on whether the “Nordic model” is socialist at all or thoroughly capitalist, with a high degree of free enterprise coexisting with a generous welfare state.
To some extent, it’s all a matter of semantics. In the Gallup Poll, for instance, the overall positive rating for “free enterprise” is 23 percentage points higher than the rating for “capitalism,” and entrepreneurs are viewed even more positively.
As both progressive Eric Levitz in New York magazine and conservative Kevin D. Williamson in National Review have pointed out, many conservative/libertarian pundits are all over the place when it comes to the S-word. Sometimes, everything they dislike is socialism — even programs encouraging healthy eating and exercise for schoolchildren — and any move toward European-style social welfare is a step toward the gulag; sometimes, when European socialism seems to be doing just fine, it’s not socialism at all.
The Democratic Socialists of America has a program that goes far beyond Nordic-style social welfare, advocating public ownership of enterprises. But there’s no chance of that agenda being embraced by the Democratic Party anytime soon, and it’s safe to say that most of the socialism-loving Democrats in the Gallup Poll want nothing of kind; they simply favor a stronger safety net and more social benefits. To some extent, Republicans’ tendency to wantonly use the word socialism as an epithet against centrist liberals like Clinton or Barack Obama is responsible for socialism’s newfound popularity.
Whether Nordic-style social welfare can work in the United States, which has a far more heterogeneous and dynamic population, is another question. The Scandinavian social democracies may not be tyrannies, but they impose a high degree of conformity and collective pressure on the individual. In Sweden, 94 percent of children are enrolled in publicly run preschools, which have recently pushed an ambitious program of gender-neutral socialization; Denmark is introducing coercive laws to promote assimilation of immigrants.
A balance of capitalism and social welfare is almost certainly essential to the functioning of a modern society — and public discourse needs both libertarian and democratic socialist ideas. But any political change must be tempered with realism and a sober understanding of its costs — or the costs may prove higher than we can imagine.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.