FRANK LLEWELLYN & JOE SCHWARTZ
Over the past 12 months, the Democratic Socialists of America has received more media attention than it has over the past 12 years. The global economic crisis undoubtedly opened some people's eyes to the inequality and insecurity that capitalism generates and rendered them curious about an alternative. But when the DSA holds its convention in Evanston later this month and reports significant membership growth, thanks will be given to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and the GOP.
Some of the DSA's growth is due to its activism on labor rights and national health care. But the attention the DSA garnered in the media is mostly the result of the attacks on the organization in the right-wing blogosphere and by Republican Party operatives. They are so bereft of good ideas that they simply stole the endless right-wing Internet rant that the Obama administration is a viper's den of socialists.
As soon as Barack Obama announced his candidacy, Web sites on the extreme right began to charge that he was a socialist, a radical and not qualified to be president. At first Republican officeholders were more muted in their criticisms, charging merely that ideas like national health care and progressive taxation were -- to use Dick Cheney's favorite denunciation -- European.
When Obama became president, the financial crisis and the bank bailout that followed completely disoriented many Republicans and many in the mainstream media as well. Newsweek's recent cover headline, "We are all socialists now," overlooked one salient fact: Most socialists opposed the bailout. They opposed the Bush administration's trillion-dollar-plus corporate giveaway, not because they objected to the government acting to preserve financial stability, but because they took issue with doling out billions to banks without a serious restructuring of the financial system. Democratic socialists (and other progressives) favor regulatory reform that would compel financial institutions to lend responsibly to consumers and to invest in productive enterprises that create jobs. To this day, mega-banks continue to risk our collective economic well-being by speculating in exotic, non-transparent financial instruments that do not foster productive economic activity.
As the 2008 Republican presidential campaign went south, Sarah Palin desperately called Obama a socialist, while John McCain took the more moderate approach of saying that he did not know if Obama was a socialist. And when the Obama administration filled its Treasury positions with former Goldman Sachs executives, we socialists thought that would bring to an end the baseless charges that the moderate Democratic president was a socialist. But when the Republicans found themselves with nothing to say about how to shore up an economy in free-fall, they deemed the stimulus bill socialist -- even though the architect of such "countercyclical" policies, John Maynard Keynes, viewed his economic theory as shoring up the workings of a capitalist economy.
For the most part, Republicans and their media allies don't understand what socialism represents. To most, socialist policies are synonymous with any expansion in government spending (although many capitalist nations funnel more of their gross domestic product through the public sector than the U.S. does). This past February, Fox TV host Glenn Beck informed us that Canada must be a socialist country because it has a universal health care system. That would be news to Canada's socialist New Democratic Party, which has occasionally held power at the provincial level but has never won a federal election.
As leaders of the largest socialist organization in the U.S. and one that is the official affiliate of Socialist International, to boot, we will gladly tell the world that Obama is not a socialist.
Contemporary democratic socialists want to mitigate the many adverse effects that unregulated capitalist markets have on the lives of ordinary people by supporting intelligent democratic regulation of the economy (particularly the financial sector) and by using progressive taxation to finance high-quality public goods that can satisfy all citizens' basic needs for health care, education, unemployment insurance and job training. We want to empower working people (and restore a real right to form unions) so democracy does not end when citizens enter the workplace. We do not wish to destroy markets for consumer goods or to confiscate personal property. Rather, we want to establish efficient government regulation of financial markets so that ordinary citizens can secure stable financing for the purchase of such important personal property as an affordable home.
We are deeply disturbed that a year after the economic crisis broke there has been no real progress on reforming the banking system. The institutions that were too big to fail then are even bigger now and still threaten the entire banking system. To put it simply, if it is too big to fail, it is too big to be in private hands. If the government were to nationalize just one of the insolvent banks (Citicorp or Bank of America), a publicly owned bank could provide a real check on the behavior of the others.
Republicans and conservative Democrats are trying to sow doubt in the electorate so as to prevent passage of a national health care bill with a strong "public option." They do so in order to protect the for-profit health care and pharmaceutical industries. In other developed democracies, national health care systems are so popular that once they are established, even the most conservative politicians claim to wish to strengthen them. A recent Gallup poll revealed that while only 57 percent of U.S. residents said they were satisfied with their health care, more than 80 percent of Canadians and Western Europeans said they would not trade their health care system for the current U. S. model.
Socialist baiting is more than name-calling; it has a political purpose. The red-baiting is aimed at thwarting any reform that would rein in corporate power.
Reactionary forces have always used anti-socialism to oppose democratic reforms that constrain corporate behavior. Corporate America tried to red-bait Social Security, the GI Bill of Rights and Medicare. But Americans rejected the politics of fear, and the reforms passed, significantly improving the lives of Americans.
The "socialist baiting" that has come to pass for political dialogue makes it less likely that this administration will consider public initiatives -- such as investments in alternative energy, education and health care -- that could engender productive jobs at good wages. Americans will again have to reject mindless anti-socialism in order to create sufficient support for the extensive reforms needed to address this deep and systemic economic crisis.
If the United States fails to democratically restructure its economy, we face a future of increased inequality and poverty.
Frank Llewellyn is the national director of Democratic Socialists of America and Joseph Schwartz is a professor of political science at Temple University and chairman of DSA's steering committee. This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune